CELL PHONE SERVICE GETS CHEAP

project fiWe love our cell phone service from Google’s new “Project Fi.” It only works with Google Nexus phones, but if you get one, your bill might be as low as $25 a month with tax.  Now they’re expanding it.

Google Fi currently works with three phone carriers. If the signal is strongest from T-Mobile, for example, that’s who they’ll connect to. If Sprint is better, you’ll be using Sprint. They’ve recently added U.S. Cellular.

A Google Fi account gives you unlimited text and phone calls for $20 a month. Each gigabyte of data (which is what you use up when you’re on the Web and all those words and pictures come in), is $10. But you get money back if you don’t use it.

Our comment on this is that it was inevitable that phone service would get cheaper. It was just too darn expensive, with users averaging $73 a month in charges.

Can Your Mac Be Hacked?

The main reason hackers target Windows computers over Macs is because there are so many more of them. Even now, global Macs account for only 7.5 percent of all personal computer sales. Thirty-five years ago it was around six percent; not much change, eh? (The top PC vendors are Lenovo, HP, Dell, Asus and Apple, in that order.)

hackingIt’s a very slight increase in the user base, but 7.5 percent is just enough of a bump to attract the bad guys. According to a study by “Carbon Black,” a security firm, the number of malware attacks on Macs was five times greater in 2015 than the previous five years combined. We can expect it to be even greater this year.

The Mac “OS X” operating system comes with its own malware detection program, but hackers still get through. According to Malwarebytes.org, a piece of “ransomware” called “KeRanger” has been downloaded by 6,500 Mac owners, some of whom saw their photos, files, music and what-have-you locked away. Ransomware is a term given to attacks that make your files unavailable unless you pay a ransom to have them unlocked.

Malwarebytes.org offers a free Windows and Mac program for removing what they call “potentially unwanted programs” — “pups.”

Reach Out and Text Someone

We get emails saying, “Hey, check your text messages.” Maybe you do too. Texting is used more often than email by the younger set, and it seems like it will soon be used more often by everyone. Why’s that? It’s simpler. Its users point out: “There’s less overhead.” Meaning, there are fewer steps to send a message.

textingRecently we wrote about one solution to check for incoming text messages. It’s a free program called “MySMS” (SMS stands for Short Message Service), which pops up on your computer screen when a new text message comes in. But you have to remember to start up the program. Now we have an even simpler fix: tweak the settings on your smartphone.

Smartphones make sort of happy noises when new email comes in, when there’s breaking news, and for all kinds of other reasons. It’s a personality thing. So you can silence all of those except the ringtone for phone calls and the sound your phone makes when announcing a new text. That way, when you hear a sound, it means somebody is trying to get in touch with you. (Search on the phrase “how to shut off sound notifications on Android,” or “how to turn off sound notifications on iPhone,” for detailed instructions.)

We get thousands of emails, so we used to turn the volume off on our phone so we wouldn’t get bombarded with ding-a-lings every few seconds. We missed a lot of stuff that way, and yet the world seemed to go on pretty much as before.

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1 sandwich named kevin— “Passive Aggressive Office Notes” has some funny examples. A note on the office printer said: “My name is now Bob Marley, because I’m always jamming.” Seen on a vending machine: “Fix me! I take money but I don’t give treats.” A note inside a refrigerator read: “I don’t know your name but you have been seen stealing my butter. Put it back in the fridge or I will lick everything.”

— “The making of a marlin” is a four-minute YouTube video about making sculpture from plastics washed up on the beach.

Free Alternative to Start 10

We recently wrote about the $5 program, “Start 10,” which brings back the look and feel of Windows 7, and buries the annoying distractions of Windows 10. A reader reminded us that a free alternative to Start 10 is “ClassicShell,” from ClassicShell.net, which we wrote about before Windows 10 came out. Now ClassicShell is out in a new version, and is still free. Like Start 10, it returns normalcy to your Windows experience.

The reader says her brother is a computer network administrator who puts ClassicShell on the computers of all the medical office computers he services. She writes: “I don’t know what Microsoft has been thinking, but the Windows 8 and 10 setups cater to the teeny-boppers who are on touchscreen devices for personal reasons, not professionals who are earning a living and paying bills.  I

Going back to the Windows 7 start menu

Going back to the Windows 7 start menu

am rather dumbfounded why the target market actually is the unemployed, the nonprofessionals, and the non-tax-paying sector.” We got the impression she was a wee bit ticked off.

App Happy

  • “MyScript Smart Note” is a free app for Android and iPhone. It lets you make handwritten notes on your phone or tablet, using a stylus. What’s fun is you can edit those notes with easy gestures. Put a line through a word to erase it. Draw a line between letters or words to insert a new word, an apostrophe, or some other mark. Your notes can be turned into digital text and are searchable. Or copy your signature by holding your finger on it, tap “copy” and paste it into an email.
  • “MyScript Calculator” for Android or  iPhone lets you make calculations using handwriting instead of typing. It’s also free for Android and iPhone. It even does algebra. We had trouble getting it to recognize a decimal point. But it’s a quick way to calculate tips. We scribbled 15/100 x 16.8 to figure a 15 percent tip on a $16.80 bill: it’s $2.52.

 

 

TEXTING FROM YOUR COMPUTER

text messagingJoy’s sister recently sent her an email saying: “Look at your text messages.” (She implied, but did not add, “Dummy!”)  We’re much more likely to see email on our computer than texts on our phone and Sis knows it. We’re that rare couple who doesn’t live on their phones.

So what we needed was a free Windows app called “MySMS,” which is for Android phones only. The acronym stands for “Short Message Service.” You can get it from MySMS.com. Once installed on your computer, it can copy all the text messages that were sent to your smartphone — as long as you have another app installed on your phone. That’s also called MySMS and you get it from the Google Play Store, which is on every Android phone. Both these apps are free.

So … should you lose your phone or leave it somewhere, your text messages will still be there online and can be read on your computer. Pop-ups alert you as new messages come in. After installing MySMS, Joy got a pop-up immediately right there in the corner of her computer screen. How exciting. Clicking on it took her to the latest text from Sis — even more excitement.

You can send text messages from your computer with or without the SMS program or a smartphone, but it’s not as convenient. Just convert your friend’s phone number into an email address. As you know, an email address has two parts, what goes before the “@” sign and what comes after.  Replace the name with your friend’s phone number in front of the “@” sign. What come after the @ sign depends on the carrier.

For example: Say the phone number is 123-456-7890. For AT&T customers, the email address would be 1234567890@txt.att.net. For Verizon the second part would be @vtext.com. For Sprint, it’s @messaging.sprintpcs.com. For T-Mobile, use @tmomail.net.  If you don’t know what to put for your friend’s carrier, find out what phone company they use at CarrierLookup.com. If it’s not AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile, you can find it by a Google search on “send text messages from your computer.”

Going back in Time

time machineA reader wrote to say that one day everything was fine on her computer but the next day she could barely read her screen, the font was so tiny. She didn’t know what she did wrong. We told her to hold down the “Ctrl” key and tap the “plus” sign to enlarge the type you see on the web.

Often, changes to your computer can be much more serious. Maybe everything was working yesterday and today it’s all wrong. Here’s our favorite fix: Go back to a day when all was well.

For that you need what are called “restore points” so you can do a “system restore.” To our surprise, in Windows 10, we only had two restore points. The others went into the great Microsoft never-never land during the upgrade from Windows 8.

To create a restore point in Windows 10, type “Control Panel” in the “ask me anything box” and click it when it comes up. Type “restore point” in the Control Panel’s search box and then “create a restore point.” When the next menu comes up, click “create” and name your restore point, which will include a date. (Because we’re creative types, we named ours “Restore point.”) Now if something goes wrong, and you need to take your computer back to a day when all was working, repeat these steps again but this time choose “System Restore” instead of “create.” (Isn’t technology wonderful?”)

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  • elon muskBestofYoutube.com has select videos. We listened to Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, talk about whether we’re really alive or just characters in some advanced civilization’s video game. He thinks we’re in somebody else’s video game. But are we winning, or losing?
  • Echoism.io lets you try out some of the voice commands available to owners of Amazon’s popular speaker, the “Echo.” On the test site, you can ask about the weather, find a restaurant, and get answers to other questions.
  • RomanceScam.com: Is he or she the right one for you? On this site you can share your story or read about others who have been scammed by online dating sites. The site recaps a number of stories on the subject. Both sexes have been victims. Losses can be heavy.
  • Search on the term “Think you drink a lot?” According to an article in the Washington Post, 30 percent of Americans don’t drink at all. (We don’t drink, but we seldom meet anyone else who doesn’t. So we’re skeptical abut the 30 percent figure.) Another 30 percent drink less than one drink a week. But the top ten percent have an astonishing 74 drinks a week. Which would kind of indicate that ten percent of the population are alcoholics.

Graphic Design

2nd example of art created with Xara- by Bill DaleWe’ll never forget the first time we saw a picture created with a graphic design program called Xara. When we zoomed in on an illustration of a microscope, and kept zooming in, we came to a dot on the microscope’s slide. That dot was only one pixel but when we zoomed it, it turned out to be an elaborate drawing of a woman taking a bath. The full magnification was more than 2500 percent.

Xara’s new $70 program, “Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 365,” is for people who want to go beyond free photo editing and design tools, such as Instagram. There’s a  free-trial period, and you can learn a lot in that time, by using their tutorial website, XaraXone.com. It starts from the beginning: how to draw a line on a page and instantly color in an object you just drew. This could be better than paying for art lessons.

Go to Xara.com, click on “Photo and Graphic Designer,” and then click on “gallery,” to see some amazing works created with the program. We especially liked the comic book cover for a magazine called “Heart-Searing Confessions,” and other cartoonish and photo realistic creations. If these were at a local art show, they would beat almost anything we’ve seen.

example of art created with Xara program by Mark LockettA new kind of Xara tool lets you plop a “smart photo grid” onto your design space. These instantly re-size themselves as you drop photos into them, making it easier to swap the positions of photos. The “smart shapes” tool has new tricks for creating charts, making them easier to edit. The program comes with a ton of free templates for charts, logos, and other designs, as well as photos you can use. Unlike some of the other graphic programs we’ve tried, this one won’t strain your computer resources. It works with Windows Vista on up.

 

 

MEDICAL APPS

blood pressureA reader asked us to find her a blood pressure app for the iPhone. There are several of these for both iPhone and Android. Unlike the kind you see at the doctor’s office, the apps do not use a compression band that temporarily cuts off your circulation. They measure the slight pulsing from placing your finger on the phone.

We tried “Finger Blood Pressure! Free” on our Android phone, and compared it with the reading we got on the $35 Omron 3 Series Blood Pressure monitor with a pressure cuff. The Omron is battery operated, so you’re not tethered to the wall plug.

Omron said Joy’s systolic pressure was 118, her diastolic reading was 74 and her pulse was 46. (She exercises way too much.) The Finger Blood Pressure Free readings were similar but were way off on the pulse, which Joy has tested elsewhere. Still, it was better than nothing.  If you have an iPhone, there’s the “Blood Pressure Monitor Family Lite,” also free, which just keeps track of your readings. The “Finger Blood Pressure Calculator” for iPhone/iPad gave us systolic readings 14 points higher than our Omron monitor did.

Be prepared to be bombarded with ads and freebie offers. When we installed Finger Blood Pressure Free, it prompted us to download an app from our local grocery store. Joy went ahead, because she likes digital coupons anyway.

Getting Help From Apple

Apple storeWe have three friends who always go to the Apple store when they have a problem with their Apple equipment. But we said why not call up Apple and get an answer from them? (We can be so “know-it-all” sometimes.)

We recently suggested that to our friend Frieda when she couldn’t text or call her son or us, though she could text and call others. Somehow her iPhone settings had changed. We suggested she call Apple at 800-275-2273. (NOTE: THIS IS THE NUMBER FOR GETTING A REAL PERSON!) They told her how to fix it and all was working again.

Be Your Own Movie Director

Amazon has a new video service, “Amazon Video Direct,” for people who want to make their own.

gulch chroniclesBefore you can upload your first video, Amazon first asks for your bank’s routing number, Social Security number and other info. Are you a corporation or partnership, an individual? It certainly slows down the spontaneity of the service. But you only have to do that once and you’re in.

Amazon Video Direct movies are not found in a special section, so you probably won’t know which ones they are unless you know the creator. One already up is “Red Versus Blue Volume 1: The Blood Gulch Chronicles.”

Creators get 50 percent of any revenue collected. For movies included in the “Prime” video area, you get 15 cents an hour for every hour a U.S. viewer watches it, or six cents an hour in other countries, including Japan, the U.K., Germany and Austria. Amazon will distribute a share of one million dollars per month to the top100 titles included with Amazon’s “Prime” service.

Getting Game

The “Zepp 2” is a $150 motion sensor you attach to a baseball bat, tennis racket or golf glove. It analyzes your swing while a free app makes suggestions.

zepp golfThe app uses swing data analyzed by PGA and Major League Baseball p
ros such as John Malle, Mike Trout and Michelle Wie. It gives you a training plan, drills and 80 videos. The Zepp weighs a fifth of an ounce and is one inch around, with an eight-hour battery life.

If basketball is your thing, there’s the Wilson X Connected Basketball for $199. It analyzes all shots except lay-ups, and is good for 100,000 of them. There’s a tiny sensor inside the ball.

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  • Search on “Xkcd Lakes and Oceans” to find a page on xkcd.com showing how deep lakes and oceans are relative to each other, and various depths for sunken ships, well drillings, mines and other things that go deep. The whole thing is shown in an easy to follow chart. Whales can go down about two miles; some turtles as low as a mile. The Titanic sank two and a half miles.

 

  • 10 New Trends of Logo Design for 2015.” Search on that phrase to find some elegant logos. (This year’s aren’t as good.) We especially like the use of lots of white space, shadows, polygons and metallic effects.

mary doodles

 

  • C7Recycle.com has cheap, gently-used phones that were only driven on Sundays. In the “unlocked” category, where you can choose your own phone plan, we saw several phones for about 25 percent off.

 

Gadget of the Week

kingii inflatable wearableWhen Joy was 10, an ocean wave knocked her off her raft near shore and the rope got tangled around her neck. She thought it was hilarious as she tried to walk ashore, wearing the raft and her hair obscuring her face. A new $90 gadget called the “Kingii” could prevent much scarier outcomes.

The Kingii is an air bag tucked into a wristband that pushes you to the water’s surface when inflated. You tug a lever to make the inflatable bag appear. It weighs five ounces. Around 372,000 around the world drown each year. The inventor says he created it because a good friend died from drowning.

The Numbers Report

People ages 18 to 29 are seven times more likely to use Uber, Lyft or another ride-sharing service compared to those 65 are older, according to a Pew Research Center study. The same study found that only 15 percent of Americans have tried one of these taxi alternatives, but 86 percent of those who have say it reduces stress and saves time.

 

DROPPING CABLE

Roku channelsWe’re going into this again because it seems that all the world wants to get rid of their cable service. Another reader writes to say that he wants to drop Comcast, and short of taking to the streets with flaming torches, he can’t seem to shake them. All he cares about is local channels and HBO.

Okay, let’s wrap it up: To get local channels, you need an antenna. They’re cheap. We’ve used one from “Antennas Direct” for $20 and it worked fine. Another good company is RCA Antenna. A best seller on Amazon, “1byOne,” goes for $13.

Our reader’s son gave him a $35 Google Chromecast, which is a device not much bigger than a thumb drive that plugs into your TV to bring anything you see on your phone onto your TV screen. But we found it more difficult to use than similarly-priced devices, like the Roku stick.

Since your phone shows no local TV channels until you search for them, and these usually require a subscription to use, beaming stuff from your phone to your TV gets frustrating. So we tried “Sling TV,” once a piece of hardware, now a streaming TV service with lots of sports and movie channels, starting at $20 a month after the free trial. But using its “HBO Now” channel with our Chromecast was a disaster. The videos stuttered and stopped. Sometimes they broke up into individual pixels. We could only watch what was on now, couldn’t scan for other offerings. And, you couldn’t pause live TV; what was on, was on.

It gets worse. When we tried to switch back to regular TV, our top-of-the-line set crackled, popped and gave us a picture of a gear and a big orange “X.” After a half hour with AT&T tech support, AT&T decided to send us a brand new receiver. We lost all the shows we’d recorded. No wonder that the Sling company suggests using it with the Roku player. You can get a free Roku 2 player if you sign up for Sling TV at sling.com/trynow4. The Roku always worked well in our experience. But you really don’t need Sling TV. We added HBO Now to our Roku channels without going through Sling. While in the free trial period, we’re enjoying their documentaries.

The best thing about the Roku player is there are no monthly fees. Though many of the channels, such as Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu and Amazon Video do have fees or rental charges, Roku also has free channels, such as YouTube, Bloomberg TV, FoxNow, and numerous cooking, exercise and news shows. The Roku has its own remote control. So unlike Chromecast, a lot of channels are already on the TV; you don’t have to beam anything from your phone.

YouTube Tip

Bob is often annoyed when online music services give us just a segment of a classical piece, and not the best segment. He asks: would they give you just the opening chapter if you wanted to read a book? The solution is to look up the same piece on YouTube.

We were listening to Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 for Violin in G Major, for example. Every version on Spotify’s music service was seven minutes long. When we turned to YouTube, we found the full 25-minute version, as well as the key seven-minute third movement, which is the best part, played by Izhtak Perlman.

Almost anything you’re interested in watching or hearing is on YouTube. Missed a segment of your favorite TV show? It’s probably on YouTube. And now, when we’re considering attending a lecture, Joy first looks up the speaker on YouTube to see if he or she is worth paying to hear. Not surprisingly, most are real duds.

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  • Spotify.com has an album of Robert Frost reading 23 of his own poems. (Very gravely voice.) They also have Carl Sandberg, and he sings too. (This reminds Bob of an old proverb that goes: “A young man with money in his pocket is not only wise and good-looking, but he sings well too.”)

 

  • Devil's Pool, Zimbabwe

    Devil’s Pool, Zimbabwe

    31 Breathtaking Natural Swimming Pools Around the World.” Google those words to find some stunners. Note that the photo captions here are above each photo, instead of the nearly universal standard of putting captions at the bottom. Very confusing. We never knew there was a “Devil’s Bathtub” in Ohio as well as a “Devil’s Pool” at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. (If you go over the edge at Victoria, it is a very long way down.)

Fun with Math

WolframAlpha.com isn’t just about making complex calculations. They have simple stuff too.

  • Go to WolrframAlpha.com. Type “Scrabble” before any word, such as “quizzically,” and it will give you the point count. In this case, 43.

 

 

  • See your age or any other number in Babylonian, Roman, ancient Greek and Mayan. The answer, unfortunately will appear in that language. How’s your Babylonian?

 

  • Type in any month, day and year and see what important events happened on that date. We typed in the year we were married and found out that’s the year the Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers in the Superbowl and President Bill Clinton went on TV to deny being more than a friend to Monica Lewinsky.

 

  • Get specific sports data, such as the last major league baseball game with more than 30 points. It was the Cubs versus the Kentucky Colonels in 1897: Cubs 36, Colonels 7. (By the way: the last time the Chicago Cubs were in the World Series, the Ottoman Empire was still in power.)

 

HOW’S THAT AGAIN? GETTING A TRANSLATION OFFLINE

 

translating prohibited“Google Translate” is a free app for Android and iPhones, that can now translate 52 languages, whether you are online or off.

For example: We tapped the microphone icon, then tapped “Spanish,” and said “Where is the bus station?” A voice from the phone then immediately said “Donde esta la estacio del bus?” If the person you directed this to, spoke the answer into the phone’s microphone, the phone would translate their answer into English. Joy tried Indonesian because she’s reading “Tales of a Female Nomad,” and the nomad spent most of her time there.

The app solves the worst problem with the old method of using foreign language phrase books: There’s usually little trouble in speaking the phrase so it can be understood by a native, the real problem is understanding their answer.

Using foreign phrase books produces some surprising turns. When Bob was a young man traveling in Spain, he bought a two-way English/Spanish phrase book. After about a dozen typical phrases came “I love you; will you marry me?” He thought that was moving pretty fast for a guy just off the boat. Many years later, his son, traveling through the countries of the former Yugoslavia, bought a small English/Albanian phrase book. One of the first phrases was “What are your country’s laws concerning blood feuds?” He was very careful not to offend anyone.

Up In the Air Junior Birdman

PowerUp 3First off, we have no intention of becoming one of the country’s first “drone” columnists. But we got a paper airplane in the mail recently.

This PowerUp 3 paper airplane, ready to fold, came with an electric motor about the size of a peanut and a thin six-inch drive shaft with a propeller and a rudder on the end. It was designed to be remote controlled from any smartphone. Retail cost: $50. Airplane replaceable at any paper folding station.

Now we have experience with destroying drones, having lost a $300 “Xtreem Gravity Pursuit 1080p” within a minute of take-off. Gravity, it turned out, was no problem; it was lost to sight several hundred feet up and never found again. The paper airplane, on the other hand, flew a dozen yards or so, banked into a turn, and landed in the grass. Unfortunately, the grass was wet. Wet paper airplanes don’t fly well and it needed to go into the shop for an airframe rebuild.

But what really amazed us was the size of the motor, battery and radio control mechanism. This could be used to build a drone smaller than a hummingbird or grasshopper, and we understand this has already been done somewhere in some experimental lab we are not allowed to enter. The ultimate range is considerable. So don’t go around indiscriminately swatting bugs.

UberPooling

uberpoolRecently we wrote that Uber carpooling was available only in California. Not so, said a reader. He used it in Miami. It turns out that Uber is now in nine places, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago and the whole state of New Jersey.

So how was our reader’s carpooling experience? He and his wife waited at the Miami airport for 25 minutes, while the driver was picking up two others. He wanted to tell his wife not to use Uberpool at the airport again, but kept his mouth shut and was glad he did. “It was fun riding with others to see what they were there for,” he said.

An Uberpool ride is about half the price of a regular Uber cab, which is cheaper than a regular taxi. But the trip might take twice as long, and you might stop a lot.

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lemonade— “23 Food Hacks that Will Change Your Life.” Google those words for some great suggestions. For instance, make lemonade in a blender by washing and cutting an organic lemon in fourths. Throw the pieces in with sugar and water. To ripen an avocado, wrap it in foil and place it in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes. For perfectly-clear ice cubes, boil water, let it cool, then boil it again and cool. After pouring into ice trays, cover it with plastic wrap to prevent particles from getting in. The result is ice cubes as clear as crystal.

UpCraftClub.com has free and inexpensive sewing patterns for children and adult clothing. The dress pattern Joy looked at was $7.50 and nice enough to wear to her nephew’s wedding.

Free Music

We use the free version of the “Spotify” music service, as do 45 million other users. We used to pay $10 a month for the ad-free version, because the ads were obnoxious. Now, they’re not so bad and it’s easy to turn down the sound. Also, you can skip songs. Previously you had to upgrade for that.

musicSpotify lets you listen to almost any song or piece ever recorded, over 300 million of them. You can listen from your computer, phone, or tablet. To explore it from the web, go to Play.Spotify.com. Or you can download the free program from Spotify.com.

Bob has two complaints: One is that in many recordings, particularly classical pieces, they seem use the cheapest, probably royalty-free versions, which sound like they are performed by a chain gang in Lower Slobovia.  The second complaint is if you want to listen to something like Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, what they give you is one movement of it and then it’s over and out.

One way around this cheap-shot stuff is to copy someone else’s playlist, then prune the pieces you don’t want. Such lists are available at Playlist.net. That’s how we got a great list of classical hits, and Joy discovered she loves cello concertos.

Another way is to click “Discover Weekly” from within Spotify. They automatically create playlists based on what you’ve already listened to. We have a rock list, a show tunes list, a Christmas list and a patriotic song list.  You can share songs with others by email, Facebook or text.

 

 

 

THE FUTURE IS PLUGGED IN

boy with phoneHere are some facts on children’s use of their phones.

Most kids get their first phone at age 10. The most common activity is texting. Almost a third have sent text messages to their parents even though everyone involved was in the house.

Seventy-six percent of kids access the Internet from the family room, down from 85 percent four years ago. A quarter of kids now have private access from their bedrooms.

Fifty percent of kids begin using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat at age 12 or younger. The study was done by Influence Central, a marketing firm.

Making Windows 10 Look Like Windows 7
For $5 we can finally stop moaning about the clunky look of Windows10.

Start10” is a $5 program that makes 10 look like 7. We, like most of the users we have spoken with, don’t like the colored squares on the Windows 10 startup screen. They were designed for touch screens, under the delusion that these were the wave of the future. The wave of the present turned out to be a big shrug, as most people said “who cares,” or words to that effect. It’s much faster to find what you want by simply typing or clicking.

start 10With Start10 installed, you get the familiar start menu most of have known for years. There on the left is a list of your most frequently used programs and a link to “all programs.” There again are the familiar choices of “Documents,” “Pictures,” “Music,” “Settings,” “Control Panel,” “Shut down,” and “Devices and Printers.”

Perhaps best of all, Start10 returns the old search box. Click the “start” orb to see it.  We find it faster than using Windows 10’s “ask me anything” search, which often defaults to a web search when we’re looking for something on our own machine. Who designs this stuff?

Click start and “universal applications” to see a list of all the Windows 10 apps on your machine. If you miss the Windows 10 start menu, click on “Windows 10 menu” and you’ll see those color squares again, showing things like weather and news. You can try this return to good ol’ days for free with a 30-day trial at Start10.com. If you like it, the price is a straight $5 and there are no add-ons — an unusual marketing style these days.

Internuts

  • glowpinkGlowPink.com is a place for women to ask health and beauty questions from doctors and other experts. Free. Joy got a good answer to a question about eye health from a doctor in India.
  • NPmaps.com has maps of all 59 National Parks. Go to npmaps.com/latest-updates/bit-fun-popular-pages for a list of the most popular maps. Bryce Canyon wins. Big Bend National Park in Texas is number two. They also have detailed maps, showing just camping areas, or just walking trails, etc.
  • One third of Prescribed Antibiotics Unnecessary” is the subject of an article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. Many conditions go away on their own, the study notes, including the common cold, bronchitis, sore throats, and ear infections. Overuse of antibiotics leads to “superbugs,” since some of them always survive, and those are really dangerous.

 

Internet Speed

A reader wrote about his aggravation over how slow the web can be. We feel his pain. Recently we read that the web is now so laden with images and videos, you need a computer with at least eight gigabytes of RAM. However, in our tests, four gigabytes of RAM was enough on a Mac, Chrome book, Kindle Fire, Android phone or a Windows computer with either a wired connection or very few programs running in the background. (We don’t have an iPhone to test, but looking over the shoulders of our friends, we know it’s fast too.)

The fastest Internet Service Provider, according to Speedtest.net, is Comcast, with a download speed of 104 megabits per second. T-Mobile has the fastest speed for phones. Click “awards” at Speedtest.net for more comparisons, or test your own speed.

The Best Wallpaper

bing wallpaperBob finally moved to Joy’s way of thinking, when it comes to the background picture on his computer screen. For years, Bob has had a static picture, while Joy insists that “Bing Desktop,” with a new photo every day, is the way to go. (Can this marriage be saved?)

At Bing.com/explore/desktop you’ll find a free Microsoft program that puts a small search box, with links to weather, news and “trending images.” (“Trending images” always lead off with female celebrities, for reasons we fail to understand.) If you scroll through those you get other stuff. Hover over the small “i” for information, and you’ll get a caption.

If you don’t like today’s photo, click the recycling symbol for another one. A photo of a baby baboon in Botswana was cute, but we cycled through dozens more, from Texan clouds to Chinese rice paddies and Venezuelan hot springs.

For Mac users, we like the free background images at HDWallpapers.net and ThePaperWall.com. Once you’ve saved a picture, go to “System Preferences,” “Desktop and Screensaver” and then Desktop. Click “add” to add the one you just downloaded.

App Happy

Disney Magic Timer dental appAfter reading that 19 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have untreated tooth decay, we thought we’d look at dental aps for children.

  • “Disney Magic Timer by Oral-B” is a free Android/iPhone app that lets kids collect a badge when they brush their teeth for two minutes. They can view milestones on the brushing calendar and watch their favorite Disney, Marvel and Star Wars characters cheer them on. (The Brush is with you!)

 

  • “DentiClean” is a $2 app for iPhone and iPad that helps children ages 5 to 11 brush their teeth properly with princess, ninja and other characters. If the tablet or Smartphone is nearby, It takes a photo of the child in action and emails it to a parent.

 

CHEAP PHONES STILL WORK

cheap phonesA reader wrote to tell us his young daughter got separated from him and his wife during Mardi Gras. Instead of it being a desperate situation, she called and told him where she was. “I found her in short order,” He says. His daughter uses an old LG flip phone with $10 a month service from Kajeet.com.

This made us think of other ways out of tough situations. Since she had an old-fashioned flip phone, it lacked apps, including the Uber app for calling a cab. With services like Uber and Lyft, no cash is required because a credit card is linked to your account and charged automatically. So if you have no money — say you’ve been robbed or lost it — you can still call a car to drive you home. Our Mardi Gras reader thought it would be nice if his daughter could order an Uber with her flip phone, and asked about “Texber.” As we wrote recently, Texber was supposed to let you call an Uber through text messaging but it never got off the ground. uberDespite much fanfare, the website isn’t there and the only “Texber” app in the app store does something else.

But that sent us on a quest to look for another way to use Uber or similar services.  If you want to call Uber from your computer, you can, but the first time out you have to go to m.uber.com to request permission and sign up for an account. After getting it, you can call an Uber cab at m.uber.com from then on. This would be handy for those without phones. They could call from their computer, but unless they have a cellular connection built into their laptop and are willing to lug it along, they’d have to borrow a phone or a computer for the ride back, and log on to m.uber.com again. But often you can get access to a computer at a library or a hotel.

Another alternative is to get a cheap smart phone. We saw the “LG Tribute Duo” at Sprint.com for $30, with service at $35 a month.

The Persistence of Flip Phone Users

Hard to believe, but not everyone wants a smart phone. Last year, 24.2 million flip phones were sold, two million more than the previous year. Flip phone users praise their long battery life –two weeks to a month without a recharge, and the peace and quiet of not knowing what your friends and acquaintances are doing every minute.

The happiest flip phone users seemed to be TracFone users, who can pick them up in  many drugstores stores for around $15. We have one flip phone and one smart phone. Joy uses the smart phone for navigation, photos, text messaging and apps. Bob likes the flip phone. He uses a printed map or asks for directions if driving out of state.

roomiappApp Happy

  • Roomi, a free app for Android, iPhone or from roomiapp.com, helps you find an apartment to share, or a roommate for the apartment you’re in. Right now, they’re just in a dozen or so major cities, the latest of which is Boston.
  • “Robinhood” is a free app for Android or iPhone from Robinhood.com. It lets you buy stocks without paying commission. Given that a typical brokerage fee is $10 a trade, the Robinhood people say they’ve saved investors over $22 million so far. You can trade any of 5,000 stocks and ETFs (exchange traded funds) on the U.S. exchanges, but no options or mutual funds. You have to give them your Social Security number to get started because it’s required by law.
  • Via” is a new app that competes with Uber and Lyft, but is only in Chicago and New York so far. If you find yourself in either place, you can really save money. If it’s not rush hour, rides in Chicago are a flat $4 (no tax) and $5 plus tax in New York. The reason they’re so cheap is that you have to share the ride with others. “UberPool” is similar. “Lyft Line” is in six cities.

Numbers Report: Robocalls

robocallMost of the calls to our landline phone are “robocalls” — calls made by a robot. It may not surprise you to know that they want to sell us something. Every second, 963 robocalls are made in America according to YouMail. That’s 2.5 billion robocalls in March alone. For four months, Atlanta has been the most robo-called city.

Getting on the “Do Not Call” list is not enough. Call-blocking apps are better. We use the free “TrueCaller” app on our Android phone. On the iPhone, blocking is built in.

Ransomware on the Rise

Just the other day we got a call claiming to be from a “Microsoft Windows expert” who could improve our computers. We hung up; Microsoft doesn’t call you, you call them.

Most likely, this was the beginning of a “ransomware” attack. “Ransomware” is a kind of computer attack that either steals your data or locks it up in a file that needs a ransomwarecomplex code to open. It’s called “ransonmware” because the crooks say your files can be recovered if you pay a fee. One time, Joy thought a call was legitimate and after handing control of her computer to the bad guys over the internet, the destruction began. She hung up when Bob urged her to and had to totally reformat her computer. (Joy is really too trusting. Bob, on the other hand, is a cynical reporter.)

Ransomware infections more than doubled last month. Every month this year had more attacks than the month before, according to Enigma Software. They looked at more than 65 million ransom attacks going back to 2013 and found these attacks hit hospitals, school districts and government offices, not just personal users. Here’s the report.

 

CAPTURING VIDEO AND PICTURES

videoBoth Windows and Mac come with free tools for capturing whatever you see on your screen and attaching it to an email or using it elsewhere. But if you need high resolution screenshots, or want to capture video, add voice over or turn it into a brief animation, the new Ashampoo Snap 9 is a handy Windows program for doing that.

Basically anything you see on your computer screen can be captured in up to 4K resolution, which is quite sharp. Add special effects, or time the video capture for a precise start and stop, or even pause it. The program can also do “OCR” (optical character recognition). So if you want to capture a news article off the screen, for example, Snap 9 can turn the image you get into text that can be edited. (Would people ever use this to change the text to their liking? Unthinkable.) There’s a free trial of Snap 9 at Ashampoo.com.

Word Wizardry

snoopyBob astonished Joy the other day when she was working on a website for a nonprofit. The website pages all had a lavender background, yet their new logo had a block of white around it. How do you give a logo a transparent background, or one that matches the page you’ll put it on? “You can do it in Word,” Bob said, and he was right.

In Word 2007 and 2010, start by calling up a picture either one of your own or from clipart.  This brings the picture on to your page. On the “Format” tab at the top, choose “recolor.” Then click “set transparent color.” Now click anywhere in the background.  Voila! This works best if the background is a solid color.

In Word 2016, you have Bing.com’s almost infinite library of photos and clipart. Click “insert” and “online pictures.” After choosing one, click the “Format” tab and “remove background.” Expand the cropped area if necessary, then click “keep changes.”

Bing has a lot of images of Snoopy. You could create personal stationery or notepaper by simply adding Snoopy and removing any backgound box that came with by making that background transparent as we did before. There is no problem using the Snoopy image if you are not doing it for commercial purposes, meaning not selling it or using it for advertising.  Give the notepaper to your youngest relatives with self-addressed envelopes and they may actually send thank you notes, a practice that seems to have fallen out of favor.

A Microsoft Anomoly

Office 365, which includes Word 2016 among other programs, is the only reliable way we’ve seen to have your Office files automatically loaded up to Microsoft’s OneDrive at live.com. You’d think that since Windows 8 and Windows 10 computers have a built-in online folder called “OneDrive,” anything saved there would be saved online. Fooled again! We usually have to manually upload our files. Now that we’re using Office 365, however, we watch Office documents automatically upload as soon as we close them.  (We’ve heard that most people use other services, like Dropbox, Google Drive and Box.)

flipsyContra eBay

A reader said he was glad our eBay experience went well. He no longer uses them because the customers frequently don’t pay. “Too many grifters claim they don’t get the product,” he said. “Even with proof of delivery, eBay sides with them.” People buying toys often say they’ll pay top dollar if the auction is closed for their sake. Then they don’t pay.

Here’s an alternative: Flipsy.com. It lists dozens of alternative sites where you could sell electronics and books, putting the best offer on top. Had we checked them first, we would have seen an offer for our Samsung Galaxy S3 phone for $104 from Amazon, nearly twice as much as we got from eBay. When we cruised Amazon, we didn’t see this offer; Flipsy put it up front.

Revisiting Silica Gel Packets

After writing about the many uses for those little silica gel packets that often come with boxes of electronic stuff. We heard from a reader who majored in physics and chemistry.

“These things will saturate with time and have to be re-activated,” he says. “The most authoritative-sounding articles seemed to agree that you have to heat them in an oven between 200F and 250F for at least 12 hours.”

He goes on: “I believe that many of the alleged uses of these packets are overstated.  There is a limit to how much water one of these can absorb and it’s not much, 40% of the weight of the gel itself I think.”


Internuts

  • Creditrepair.com/blog/finance/american-currency-morph/ has animations showing the evolution of American currency. 
     $1 Bill History

    Watch George Washington’s face morph into Martha Washington’s as you see the $1 bill change from 1862 to the present. Running Antelope, an advisor to Sitting Bull, used to be on the $5 bill. “Lady Liberty” was on the twenty.

  • “How Much Income You Need to Live Comfortably in the 50 Biggest Cities.” Google that phrase or click on the link to compare high-cost cities, like San Francisco, where they say you need $110,000 a year with low cost ones like Tucson, Arizona and El Paso, Texas, where they say you only need $40,000.
  • Lung.org has a “state of the air” report showing the most polluted cities in America. Los Angeles is still number one, as it has been for the 16 years since this report began. If you Google “More than Half of All Americans Live in Polluted Air,” you’ll find The Smithsonian’s report. The cleanest cities are in Vermont, upstate New York and Hawaii.

The Numbers Report

How much time do children spend online? Lots.

Over half of kids ages 3 to 16 go online every day, according to Futuresource Consulting.  Among ages 3 to 4, only 25 percent never go online, and only 10 percent of 7 year-olds. Watching funny videos are the most popular online activity in the U.S.. In China, it’s cartoons. In Germany, it’s music videos.  Seventy percent of parents with children ages 3 to 12 have parental controls to restrict Internet access and provide a time limit on Internet use.

 

 

WET MACS

spillJoy converted to using a Mac a couple months ago, after her Windows 10 machine became so slow she almost tossed it out the window. Then Bob spilled tea on the Mac (It was an accident! Really!) and the rest is history.

The genius at the Apple store’s “Genius Bar” told us it would cost $750 plus tax to fix it. A new Macbook Air is $899. Not much difference. Windows 10 looked good again.

We’d already done a lot to speed up our HP Pavilion computer — an all-in-one, heavy-to-move, they-discontinued-it — by getting rid of so-called “browser extensions” and other programs running in the background. For a while things seemed better. But then they got worse. The central processing unit (the “CPU”) would huff and puff at 99 percent of capacity. (You can check that kind of performance by right-clicking the strip along the bottom of the screen and choosing “task manager.”) One culprit was our computer’s power setting. If a PC hibernates right after you leave it, an anti-virus scan can get interrupted and take forever to finish, hogging computer resources all the while.

Another way to speed things up is dump your wireless connection, if you have one. A wired connection to the Internet is much faster and more secure. It uses Ethernet cables to connect computers to the network router. The bad side is your computers are now tethered to that router box. But the speed-up is tremendous. After we connected both of our Windows 10 computers, we were amazed. The HP’s central processor, instead of running at 99 percent of capacity as before, now typically runs at around 10 percent. The only exception is when we have a dozen websites, including video, all open at the same time. But whose fault is that?

So just remember this: to look at the Task Manager, right click the bottom of the Windows screen to see what’s hogging your computer, and either click “end task” or uninstall the offending program. If it’s still slow, switch to a wired connection.

The Flip Side of Instant Updates

marshmallow for androidA reader wrote recently to say that an Android phone upgrade is not always a good thing. After he upgraded to the new Android “Marshmallow” operating system, one of his email accounts stopped working. The only way he could get it going again was to change his server’s security settings to less-than-secure.

He spent three hours on the phone with Samsung tech support, but didn’t get a satisfactory answer. Next, he asked the tech support team at Best Buy about downgrading his phone to the previous “Lollipop” Android system. They said the process might break the phone and he’d be out $600 for a new one. So for now, he says, he’s going to have to continue to run his business using server settings that “make my email address a great candidate for purchase for $10 by a Nigerian prince.” (Our offers of Nigerian riches always come from widows of Nigerian Generals.)

According to a team of researchers from Indiana University and Microsoft Research, vulnerabilities in the Android system can allow a seemingly harmless app to automatically acquire extra permissions without a user’s consent. That’s if they upgrade.

But according to Digital Trends, most Android phones need updating. Most of them lack bug fixes and critical security patches. Some phones never get the latest operating system, which was true of our Samsung Galaxy S3. For others, the process takes a year. By contrast, iPhones and Nexus phones get updates within hours or days, direct from Apple or Google.

The Story of Upgrades

fixThis is an old story we have written about many times for many years. The title of the story is: “Just because there’s a newer version doesn’t mean it’s better.”

So-called upgrades to fix bugs often result in the installation of new bugs. Some software upgrades make the software incompatible with previous versions. Microsoft once did this with Word, which then could not edit documents written in earlier versions. (They fixed that.) Programmers even joke about it: they say “It’s not a bug it’s a new feature.” Yuk, yuk.

We have talked with sales people in office stores, computer stores and even dealers at flea markets and they all say the same thing about this: the customer always asks if it’s the latest version. If it’s not, they’re not interested.

There’s an old farmer expression which goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We use some programs that are 15 and 20 years old. They not only haven’t been upgraded, the companies don’t exist anymore. But the programs still work, and they’re nice. The latest thing isn’t always the greatest thing.

More Reader Insights

We couldn’t get a wireless signal in the whole apartment, so AT&T sent out a tech guy. He installed a “repeater,” also called a “range extender.” Took him two hours. The Internet connection was still bad. A savvy reader told us why.

“You need another router to be placed some distance from your main router/modem and connected to the main router with a cat 5 cable.” That’s the tech name for an Ethernet cable. In our case, this would mean running a cable down the hallway, around doorways and along the edges of rooms. Time to suck your thumb on that one. The reader had good results with the Asus RT-N12 D1 router from Amazon for $34, he said. But that’s after he ran an Ethernet cable to the basement.

Games Writers Play

Mystery of Mortlake Mansion gameWatching strange rooms fall to pieces and come back together again, solving puzzles, talking to ghosts: We’re having more fun with “Mystery of Mortlake Mansion” than any game we’ve played in a long time.

It’s part of a three-game set from Playrix Games, $7 at Amazon. Two of the games are turkeys, but Mortlake Mansion is fun. It’s a so-called “hidden object” game, a kind of “Where’s Waldo” for adults and kids. Unlike others we’ve played, this one has great puzzles and challenges. (We found a couple too hard, but most are fun.) In the meantime, we’re trying to escape a mansion full of surprises and mysterious events. If we don’t get out soon, send the Sherpas.

 

BLUETOOTH MYSTERIES

Bluetooth_Logo_RuneWe heard from a reader who wasn’t sure what Bluetooth was and why she needed it on her new iPad Mini. The answer is (the envelope, please): It’s a short-range radio transmitter and receiver, and she doesn’t need it.

No doubt you’re wondering why it’s called Bluetooth, and who wouldn’t. Harald Bluetooth was a 10th century king of Denmark — which back in those days included more than just Denmark. He had a dental problem. One of his front teeth was discolored, sort of bluish, you might say. So people used to call him — you guessed it — but not to his face, of course.

Bluetooth (radio version) has become common for communication between your watch and your smartphone and your tablet and your computer and any other device, gadget and gizmo that has the tiny hardware for receiving and sending the signal. Range is 30 feet, sometimes up to 300 feet, depending on conditions. We once used it to control an air filter with our phone, but it was actually easier just to press the button.

If you think your phone or tablet needs to communicate with another gadget, go to “settings” and tap “Bluetooth” to set it up. It has to look around (feel around?) to see if there are any brethren in the area and it will then get in touch, so to speak. For example, you might want to listen to music on a wireless headset, or transmit statistics from your Fitbit to your phone. But using Bluetooth drains batteries, so if you don’t need it, don’t use it.

Our eBay Experience

ebay logoWe thought it would be easy to sell our old phone on eBay and it was.

As you know, eBay is an auction site. You can click a “buy now” button if you’re willing to pay the asking price, but most people wait until the final hours of a sale to get a lower price. Sellers don’t pay a listing fee on the first 1,000 items, but most people wait until the final hours of a sale to get a lower price. Sellers don’t pay a listing fee on the first 1,000 items, or the first $25,000. That may seem like a huge number of transactions but some people make a business of it and buy and sell hundreds of items regularly.

EBay suggested we start the bidding on our four year-old Samsung Galaxy S3 phone at $48. As the ten-day deadline approached, it was bid up to $56. We had four bids and the winner paid within the four-day deadline. (if they don’t pay by then, you can file a complaint. The deal can be canceled and a new one begun.)

The money went right into our PayPal account. If you don’t have a PayPal account, you’ll be prompted to create one, an easy process. If you link your PayPal account to your bank account, your PayPal funds can be transferred automatically. We didn’t bother with this step. Not only do many websites accept funds from PayPal, it’s an easy way to pay freelance contractors, relatives, and even some stores. Office Depot, for example, accepts payment from PayPal right there at the cash register.

EBay made it easy to ship our item out, providing the shipping label. You can pay for the shipping cost or let the buyer pay. We let the buyer pay. That’s because they were getting a great deal anyway.

We could have sold our phone to Amazon, but they would have only given us $36 ($20 less than eBay). Still, it’s worth checking out “Amazon Trade-In” for ideas on stuff you might want to sell. Joy’s yoga book would bring us $10. Amazon will also buy stuff you didn’t get on Amazon, but prices are dismal. Forty cents for our CD of Bach partitas? Ridiculous; that’s Glenn Gould playing.

App Happy

crime app showing new york“Redzone,” from redzonemap.com, is a free app for iPhones that identifies “red zones,” by which they mean areas with high crime rates. Pins on the map show you the exact location of shootings, assaults, thefts or other crimes occurring within the past 90 days. Areas mapped include the U.S. and Israel. An Android app is due “soon,” they say.

Internuts

  • PhysicasdatabaSe.com/book-list-by-title offers hundreds of free scientific books in subjects such as quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, math and astronomy.
  • Universalenroll.dehs.gov is from the U.S. government’s transportation administration, with the idea of speeding up the security lines at airports. Enroll online, then show your passport in person at one of their security centers, and every time you fly, you can get in a faster line
  • Educents.com is an online marketplace for books and educational supplies from pre-kindergarten through college. Their best-sellers were mostly one/third off the regular price.
  • NextAdvisor.com has an article about protecting yourself from malicious advertising — ads that have been hijacked. These ads have even been found on sites like the New York Times. One remedy is a free program from Malwarebytes.org, but there are others. For more info, go to NextAdvisor.com, click “technology” and scroll down to the article on “Malvertising,” or click here.

 Tips and Tricks

silica gelIf you’ve ever bought anything electronic, you’ve probably seen those little bags of silica gel in the box. Don’t throw them out.

We watched a YouTube video called “Why You Should Never Throw Away Silica Gel Bags,” from IFlScience.com. These little bags, full of silicon dioxide, are non-toxic and will absorb moisture from anything around them. Throw them in a gym bag, and they may hinder bacteria or mold from growing. If your phone gets wet, put it in a jar with these bags and you’ll have a better chance of saving it. Put a few bags in a box of old photos to prevent them from sticking together. Your razor blades may last longer if you put them in a container with some silica bags.