BUYING GLASSES ONLINE, AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE

Smart people wear glasses.

Smart people wear glasses.

Joy just ordered her first pair of glasses online. She couldn’t resist after reading “Seven Reasons to Order Glasses Online,” an article we found — where else? — online. We’re not going to go into all the reasons, but here are the ones that impressed us.

Number one is price. Number two is free return. The third is parking. These also turn out to be the reasons for almost any online purchase.

It is no secret and no longer a surprise that buying online is the winner in the retail Olympics. Amazon.com is the leader but not the only name in online shopping. Its sales are increasing 20 percent a year, while traditional large retailers’ sales have been moribund for several years; even Walmart is under pressure.

Glasses ordered online are typically around 70 percent cheaper than those bought at opticians. Joy paid over $800 for her last pair. Her online pair from GlassesUSA on the other hand, cost $86. Many were $40 or less, and that includes the lenses. You don’t have to be a budget master to figure out the savings.

As with Zappos, the popular online shoe retailer, you can return any pair you don’t like, and it’s free shipping. We were talking with a clerk in a UPS store a few months ago and noticed a stack of boxes for return to Zappos. We asked and he said his own guess was maybe 30 percent of the shipper’s business was returning online purchases.

That’s a huge amount and it shows you that the only way it works for the merchant is the savings from not having to maintain retail space are still large enough to leave a profit on low prices. Zappos was just recently sold, by the way. The purchaser? Amazon.

App Happy

  • Thomas trainYouTube Red, for Android and iPhone/iPad, gives you commercial-free music and videos from YouTube for $10 a month. Unlike the regular YouTube, you can watch it offline, in a train, or a park, where you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection. There’s a 14-day free trial with a pleasant surprise: They won’t charge you automatically when the time is up the way most free trials do; you decide if you want to continue.

  • YouTube Kids
    , a free app for Android and iPhone, takes the best of kid-friendly videos and makes them clickable from the home screen. Tell the app whether you want videos for school age kids, younger kids, or all kids. If you’re also a subscriber to YouTube Red, you won’t get ads and can view the videos offline.

Internuts

  • Edx.org has free college courses from Harvard, M.I.T., the University of California at Berkeley, and other leading institutions. Auditing (which means not for college credit) is free. If you want your work verified, perhaps to show to an employer or another college, you pay around $50 to $70 per course. Courses range from the practical, such as data analysis for business, to art, literature and music.
  • How to Safely Get Rid of an Old Computer.” Search on those words to find an article on Techlicious.com, which reminds you to delete your browsing history, uninstall programs, and other steps to remove your tracks.
  • Avvo.com charges $39 to talk to a top-reviewed lawyer on the phone. Get your questions answered in a 15-minute call. (Joy uses a similar online service for medical opinions.)

App Happy

  • sfNetflix Party” is an extension for your Google Chrome web browser. It lets you share a movie with other Netflix subscribers who don’t happen to be living with you. You can chat while you’re watching. If you search on the words “Netflix Party,” it comes right up.
  • “Detour,” a free app from Detour.com, is getting tremendous buzz as the best audio guide for travelers because you receive information from top-notch journalists as you walk. Right now it only does San Francisco, but other cities are coming soon. We listened to a preview of Austin, Texas, which had some down-home charm.

 Reader Pain

photos on tvA reader said she’s going to France but has a photo problem. She’s run out of storage space on her iPhone. She realized that the solution is to upload the old photos to an online storage site, but which one?

First she tried Microsoft’s OneDrive app. “Free storage forever,” they boasted. Uploading her photos to OneDrive began two months ago, with 2000 photos. She’s uploading ten a day and still has 530 to go, and the phone needs constant recharging. The final insult? A message from OneDrive said her storage space is full and she must buy more to continue adding photos. “Forever” turns out to have a Microsoft limit; that limit is ten gigabytes, which is five more than Apple’s iCloud, but not as good as Google Drive which gives you 15 gigabytes of free storage. On Android devices, photos automatically upload to Google Drive.

Our reader can do even better if she subscribes to Amazon Prime, which gives you unlimited online storage for photos. Find it at Amazon.com/clouddrive/primestorage, or just Google the phrase “Amazon Prime photos.”

Tiny LEGO Wonders

tiny lego wondersTiny LEGO Wonders: Build 40 Surprisingly Realistic Mini-Models,” by Mattia Zamboni, is a beautifully-illustrated book, $25 from No Starch Press.

If you’ve ever wanted to build trains, planes and automobiles out of LEGOs but don’t want to buy a ton of them, this is your guide. With large pictures showing how each piece fits together every step of the way, almost anyone could do it, no matter how intricate the finished product looks.  We especially like the excavator, dump truck, and cement mixer.

Bill Pollock, the founder of No Starch Press, said: “I’ve been fascinated by mini-scale building since I went to a LEGO store with a friend and he walked out with a cup of bricks and told me he was going to build an airport. You don’t need a huge collection to bring your ideas to life.”

 

 

 

COUNTING THE WAZE

waze appWe were in a Lyft taxi the other day when the driver voiced a familiar complaint: Mapping apps rarely give you a straight shot to your destination.

Both Google Maps and “Waze,” which is free for iPad/iPhone and Android phones, make too many turns and too many diversions. We prefer Waze but it’s far from perfect. Both make us follow a crazily twisted route half the time. It’s as if we were secret agents on the trail of a master spy. Bob always says to Joy: “Turn that off.” He prefers looking at a map.

For those who want voice directions, start by installing Waze from Google Play or the iPhone/iPad app store. To make the directions less twisted, tap the turquoise icon in the lower left corner. Next tap the picture of a gear in the upper left corner. That’s “Settings.”  If you scroll down to “Navigation,” you can change the default setting from “fastest” to “shortest” route. Of course, the shortest route might take you nine miles on local roads instead of 10 miles on the highway. But Bob prefers the local roads and streets because there are fewer big trucks. You can always change the settings again, depending on where you’re going.

You can also set it to provide traffic warnings. Bob thinks this is as close as you can get to useless. Traffic problems, particularly those caused by accidents, tend to be short-lived. So there’s a time lag. By the time news gets to the sender and is then rebroadcast to you, the problem is usually gone. Construction problems are of course longer term.

By default, Waze shows you speed cameras, traffic jams, police cars (possible speed traps), and several other variables. You can add more items to the map. You might want to hear an alarm when you’ve gone beyond the speed limit. If you change your mind about your destination, which we do frequently, tap the bottom of the screen where you see the time displayed and tap “stop.” Now you’re ready for your next adventure.

Internuts

  • website -adorable pictures of dogs -before and afterISideWith.com has a presidential quiz. Find out which candidate you’re most like. The Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson said in a New Yorker magazine interview that he took the quiz and found out he was most like himself, but after that, Bernie Sanders.
  • Dogs Before and After Their Haircuts.” Google those words to find some amazing doggie makeovers by experts of cute grooming.

Better Searching

chromeIf you use Google Chrome instead of Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer or some other browser, here are a few tricks.

  • Start where you left off last time. Click the hamburger icon in Chrome (looks like three stacked lines in the upper right corner) and then “settings.” Under “on start up,” check off the box for “start where you left last time” or choose another option, such as starting with a specific set of website pages.
  • Zoom in and out to change type size on a website by holding down the “Ctrl” key (or “Cmd” on the Mac) while you move the scroll wheel on your mouse. If you don’t have a scroll wheel, hold “Ctrl” and tap the plus or minus signs to enlarge or shrink the page. This is a quick way to eliminate the column of ads that are often put along the right side of a web site; as you enlarge the site’s size, they get pushed off the screen.)
  • Scroll down a web page by tapping the space bar. Scroll back up by holding the “Shift” key and tapping the space bar.
  • Quickly clear your browsing history and other items such as stored passwords: Hold “Ctrl” or “Cmd” and the “Shift” key and tap the delete key.
  • If you find a website you want to visit again and again, click on the tiny lock to the left of its address and drag it to your desktop. It will make a shortcut there.
  • If you accidentally close a website tab, hold down the “Shift” key and the “Ctrl”or “Cmd” key and tap the letter “T.” It brings back the page you accidentally closed.

For more tips, look for PC Magazine’s article: “30 Hidden Features of Google Chrome.”

Reader Complaint

CortanaiPhone users like Apple’s Siri, for communicating with their phone by voice instead of text. Android users like Google Voice. But a Windows phone user wrote to tell us he hates Microsoft’s Cortana. It’s always listening.

To turn it off on a Windows phone, go to settings, then “privacy,” “speech,” “inking” and “typing.” Select “stop getting to know me.” This will disable dictation and stop Cortana from collecting info on your contacts, calendar events, speech patterns, handwriting and typing history.

If you don’t like Cortana on your Windows 10 computer, disable it there too. Use the search bar on the lower left of your screen and type “Cortana settings.” When it comes up, click the button to turn it off.

We had been ignoring Cortana in Windows 10 until this question came up. Now we’ve discovered it can be fun. Click on its “ask me anything” bar to bring up the news. We then clicked the microphone to issue a voice command. We said “Play the Beatles,” and to our surprise 13 Beatles tunes started playing one after another in the Groove Music app. We said “Show Times for Mr. Holmes” and it gave us the trailer for this 2015 movie, along with its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and other sites, and a link to websites where we could watch it, such as Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. Naming a current movie, “Bad Moms” gave us show times in local theaters.

Cortana also does reminders. We said “Remind me to turn off the stove in 20 minutes,” and 20 minutes later it popped up to remind us. There’s also a free Cortana app for Android or iPhone to get these reminders and other Cortana features on your phone.

If you want some tricks for talking to Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, check out Hey-Siri.io. The site explains 489 Siri actions for both iPhone/iPad and the Mac. For instance, you can say “Take a photo,” “Enable airplane mode,” “Read my messages,” “Convert dollars to Euros,” and many other commands.

 

 

CHAT WITH A WORLD WAR I SOLDIER

 

Archie Barwick -virtual chat with WWI soldierChatting with your friends and family members through text messages is fun. How about hopping on a time machine to chat with a World War I soldier?

The soldier is “Archie Barwick,” an Australian who died in 1966 but is still virtually alive in text messages through the magic of a “chatbot” created by News Corps Australia. In real life, Barwick kept a 400,000-word diary, which is the base for his conversation with you.

Here’s a sample: “We had a fine tea just before we left the firing line. The cooks brought up as much steak & bacon as you could eat & to spare, plus tea, boiled potatoes & onions mashed together.

“We marched about three miles and bivouacked out on an open piece of ground for the night. We just simply threw ourselves down and slept as we were. To many of us it was the first time we had closed our eyes for six nights so you can imagine how we looked.”

Sometimes the question you asked can’t be answered, but a similar one can be. We typed:  “Can you see the enemy?” Up popped an alternative suggestion: “Thoughts on Germans?” Archie said: “They’re a miserable, ragged-looking lot, with a few fine men here and there. I reckon a man is quite justified in shooting the dogs on sight.”

To chat with Archie, go to Messenger.com on your computer or install the Facebook Messenger app on your smart phone. You can use Messenger for video chats, but not with Archie. If you don’t have a Facebook account it will ask you to create one. They’re free. Type “Archie Barwick.” Then click “Get Started.” Archie will write you a couple times a day.

This brings up the problem of whether a conversation with a computer is real or not. The “Turing test” was proposed 66 years ago by British mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing. Basically, it came down to the question of whether or not a human could tell they were talking with a computer.

In the early days of Apple and Atari computers (1980-82), programmers played around with developing such artificial response routines in an attempt to simulate an actual person in the machine. One of the earliest programs was an artificial psychiatrist with canned questions and answers that were very close to a real therapy session. It was meant to be amusing but quite a few people took it seriously and began to talk about their personal problems, some found it easier to talk to a machine. Around the same time, programs were developed to automatically write prose and a kind of free-form poetry. Bob remembers one that started out with the striking line: “The policeman’s beard is half constructed.” Hard to top that.

The upshot of all this is that the advance of artificial intelligence moves apace and will someday be fully upon us. People like Elon Musk, developer of the Tesla electric car, have recently warned that when that day comes, we may not be pleased.

Games We Used to Play

Ticks Tales -game“Monkey Island” is a video adventure game from 1990 and still Joy’s favorite. (Too difficult for Bob). Now “Tick’s Tales: Up All Knight” is a retro game in the manner of that earlier LucasFilm classic.

When neighborhood troublemaker Tick tries to impress the girl of his dreams by drawing a sword from a stone, he draws the ire of the evil goblin “Bloodclot.” The game has lots of puzzles and the kind of graphics you’ll remember from the old days. We mean if you were around in the old days. (We were recently talking to a twenty-something girl who referred to those days as “pre-me.”) It’s available for PC, Mac and Linux for $8 from Store.Postudios.com, Steam and the Humble Bundle Store.

The July issue of Scientific American magazine, by the way, had a headline article on the value of playing computer games for brain development. We made that same argument in this column more than 30 years ago. It was obvious then and should be obvious now, that when you observe children playing video games you notice that they become better at it by developing a sense of pattern recognition. They are often able to predict what will happen next. People who worry about too much attention being paid to video games are missing an important point: it requires an active brain.

trendsThe Numbers Report

About half of all U.S. households get video from “video on demand” services, such as Netflix or Hulu, according to a recent Nielsen report. The average person watches videos 99 minutes per day on their phone, up from 62 minutes last year. They also walk into lamp posts more often.

Turn Down the Volume

A reader wrote to say that his listening to online radio is nearly spoiled by loud commercials. He asked if we knew a way to force Windows to play everything at the same volume. Aha! We do.

There’s a little icon of a speaker in the lower right of your Windows computer screen.  Click it with your right mouse button. Then click “playback devices” with the left mouse button. From here, click on your speaker and click “properties.” Move over to the “Enhancements” tab and click. In the long list of enhancements, you’ll find one that says “Volume equalization.” That’s the one. Check it.

Family Safety

Many children browsing the web have stumbled onto pornography sites. To protect the youngsters in your household, you can tweak the settings in Google or Bing.com.

Go to Google.com/familysafety or Bing.com/account to select the level of safety you wish. “Strict” on Bing.com means that a search on a term such as “bare bunnies” produces nothing worse than an old article about Playboy bunnies, without any incriminating pictures.

 Internuts

  • sketching tip10 Sketching Tips for Beginners.” Google that phrase to find some useful information on how to draw hair, add textures, mirror an image or make a silhouette. (People will sometimes say “I just can’t draw,” but in fact it can be learned.)
  • 10 More Enigmas That Defy Explanation.” Search on that phrase to find some amazing stories. A 19-year-old woman in Minnesota was found frozen stiff outside her home. Doctors thought they would have to amputate both legs if they could even possibly revive her; they also expected severe brain damage. Instead, she woke up on her own and was fine, the ice melting away. She didn’t lose a single finger. (She’s thinking of moving to Florida, however.)

 

LOSING SKYPE

skype usersOur 96-year-old friend Ida uses the free Skype service to have video-chats with her friends in Australia. One day, her account was wiped out. Could this happen to you? (Think of that question as having been asked in scary monster movie title type.)

You might think this had something to do with her age, and she must have hit the wrong button or spilled something on the keyboard. But no, we found dozens of similar complaints on the web. One guy wrote: “Where has my account gone? I do business all over Europe and today you just trashed my account with the credit I had as well?  You idiots.  If somebody within Microsoft made the decision to do this – I’ll stick their head in a metal bucket and thrash it with a hammer for a month!” He and others had lost the cash account they used to call landline phones. (Calling other Skype users is free.)

We helped our friend Ida start over by clicking “create new account” in the Skype window. We then searched for her friends, adding them to a new contacts list. This was pretty easy since she just had three. But if you use Skype for business, you should back up your contacts in case of disaster. Click “contacts” and then “advanced.” Next click “backup contacts,” and save them where you can easily find them again. Also under “advanced,” you can click “restore contacts.”

App Happy

bsafebSafe” is free for Android and iPhones and intended to be used for emergencies. It sounds an alarm and creates a video with your precise location that you can if necessary share with police. If you want, you can tap a timer to automatically send an SOS within a few minutes unless you shut it off.  If you fear you’re about to be attacked, make sure the attackers are in the video.

Tweaking Firefox

A reader asked us how to tweak the Firefox web browser. When he opens a new tab, he wants a blank page, not tiny pictures representing his most-frequented sites. Others are bothered by this as well.

Why care?  You might be at work, and your boss may walk by. You don’t want him to know that your visit Facebook more often than the company website. Or you’re shopping for a birthday present for your wife, and she’ll see you’ve just been to Victoria’s Secret.

There’s an easy fix. Click the plus sign next to any open tab in Firefox. Then look to the upper right of the screen and click the picture of a gear. From there, click “open blank page.” If you change your mind, click “Show your Top Sites.”

What Consumers Want

consumers mind“What consumers want” may be just as elusive as Freud’s famous question: “What do women want?” Influence Central, a market research firm, found that:

  • 81% of consumers say they frequently buy items they’ve seen shared on Facebook and other social media.
  • 81% also say product reviews influence the way they shop. 72% say the ability to check social media recommendations takes the guesswork out of buying a new product.
  • 9% of consumers say seeing a TV ad impacts their decision to buy the product.

 

This fits with what sociologist David Riesman defined as people who are “other directed.”

The Joy of Amazon Prime

Years ago, Joy signed up for Amazon Prime so she could get free two-day shipping. Now they have a new deal: instead of having to sign up for a whole year at $99, you can join for one month.

One month is $9. That way, if you’re organized enough to buy a whole bunch of stuff in a short time, you can get free shipping for less than ten bucks.  If you want longer than that, it’s $11 a month.  Besides free package delivery, online photo storage and a 50 percent discount on some Android phones, you get free movies and TV shows.  Most are stuff we’ve already seen or don’t want, but we’ve gotten some winners, mainly by Googling the phrase “Amazon Prime Video.” That’s how we discovered the “Brain Dead” TV series on CBS.

  A Spark of Genius

adobe sparkAdobe’s website, Spark.Adobe.com, is a free site for turning photos into great looking Facebook posts, web pages and videos.

We were impressed by all the artwork they give you to spruce up your post or page. We took a photo of sisters in a field, added the words, “A Sister is a Friend Without End” (well, sometimes anyway) and voila, something to post on Facebook. We took photos of our late favorite aunt and created a memorial website. It looked much better and was far easier than websites we’ve created with other tools.

When you’re finished, you get a link you can share. If you’d prefer to try this out on a phone or tablet, there’s a free Adobe Spark app for Android and iPhone or iPad.

Can You Hear Her Now?

On Audible.com, we found a recording of Agatha Christie talking about her novels and stories. But it was so old and crackly that it was hard to hear. This was a perfect opportunity to test the new “SoundSoap Solo.”

SoundSoap Solo claims it can clean pretty much any audio clip. We tested it with the Agatha Christie recording by copying it with Windows “Sound Recorder.” Opening SoundSoap, we dragged the file in and looked at the control panel. There are various knobs and dials, depending whether it’s a hiss, a hum or a crackle that’s marring the sound. The free trial lets you play back but not save the results. In the case of our file, the improvement wasn’t much, but if you have a modern recording with poor sound quality, it’s worth a try. SoundSoap has won awards for both PC and Mac use. It could be helpful if you have wind noise in your action-camera footage, or want to be sure the audio you put on YouTube is clear.  The full version costs $79 from soundness-llc.com. Try the free trial version first.

 

FINDING YOUR ANCESTORS ONLINE

 

Indian Family Cherokee Indian Reservation

Indian Family Cherokee Indian Reservation

Joy has often bragged about being one-eighth Cherokee. Now she wonders if it’s as phony as a politician in a Pocahontas costume.

Genealogy is a subject that interests lots of people. That interest was piqued for Joy when her sister had her DNA tested by Ancestry.com, and the results came back “no Native American blood.” We immediately wondered if Joy lacked Cherokee DNA too, despite family lore. This took us on a journey of genetic discovery online.

First we went to Quora.com. This is the web’s premier site for asking questions about anything. And it’s free. Joy asked “Is it possible to have zero Native American blood if your great grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee?”  We were amazed at the lengthy and thoughtful answers. Seven genealogy buffs weighed in, some with specialized knowledge and helpful links. Most said it was highly unlikely that her sister’s test was in error, though others suggested getting tested by a rival site, 23andme.com, co-founded by the wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Others pointed out that it’s possible to get nearly all your DNA from one parent, so Joy could be part Indian and her sister, not.  Another said that if you do have Indian blood, there would be supporting documents, since Native Americans were at one time registered. We looked at some records. Ah ha! Her Cherokee ancestors the family insisted she had were in fact listed on an official count.

Which prompted Joy to order her own $99 AncestryDNA.com test. And there she is, dripping saliva into a tube to send off. (Didn’t mean to gross anybody out there.) The results will take about six weeks to come back. In the meantime, we found a whole slew of free tutorials at Ancestry.com/academy/courses/topic. One of them shows how siblings can differ from each other.

DNA analysis is more complicated than we thought. According to LiveScience.com, DNA tests analyze less than one percent of a person’s genome, so they’ll miss most of your relatives. In fact, they say the test does little more than show your “genetic cousins,” people who share genes with you.

We went to a live talk on genealogy now that our interests were engaged. The presenter said he uncovered a slew of cousins he likes better than the cousins he already knew about. He suggests starting your research the old-fashioned way, with phone calls to relatives, even if they are younger than you. Some may have old photos and other info. Also, he said, check out FamilyTreeDNA.com.

Some closing words about Quora.com: This is a question and answer site that promises to fulfill the promise that Bob initially saw as the true value of the Internet: It was that somebody, somewhere, knows that answer to almost any question. It’s still a work in progress but it continues to offer the hope of the whole human race joining in the search for knowledge and sharing what they find. And besides, it cost nothing to join. (Just as it should.)

Internuts

  • cities then and nowBefore and After Pics Showing How Famous Cities Changed Over Time.” Search on that phrase to discover the immense changes that have taken place, sometimes in as little as 16 years. Singapore, Dubai, and many other cities are utterly transformed.
  • People are struggling to Solve this Brainteaser.” Search on those words to find a fun puzzle challenging you to turn four squares into three with three moves.
  • GatesNotes.com is the personal site of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. He writes a lot of book reviews, posts photos and tells anecdotes about his friendship with investor William Buffett. He recommends “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion, one of the funniest books we’ve read in years.

Reader Problem

A reader writes to say his Gmail account was hacked and he can’t get back in. The hacker changed the password.

He’d hoped there was someone at Google he could call, but all recovery info is online. The first thing to try is clicking on “forgot my password.” If you can reset it to something unlike the original, you’re in and the hacker is out. Problem solved. For other approaches, search on the phrase “Recover a compromised email account.” If you use Yahoo, you can write them directly at account-security-help@cc.yahoo-inc.com.

Book: “Smithsonian Maker Lab”

Maker Lab“Smithsonian Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects,” is a new book by Jack Challoner; $20 from dk.com.

Kids can create a map using invisible ink, play music through paper cup speakers, hoist a weight with a waterwheel and watch a plant grow inside a bottle. The author’s favorite project was making sugar crystal popsicles, “because the result looked beautiful and tasted great, too!” Joy is going to try making her own bath fizzies. The photography is excellent and the step-by-step directions are easy to follow.

Birthday and Other Greetings

Our birthdays are both in July and our best friends have July birthdays too. Want to wish someone happy birthday by email, but dress up the message a little?

Go to images.google.com. Search on the phrase “happy birthday.” Click your favorite with your right mouse button to save it. Now attach it to your message. Or, in Gmail, put it right in the message itself. To do that, click the “insert photo” icon that’s five over to the right of the “send” button. Click “upload,” and browse to where you’ve saved the image you want to use. Voila! It goes in.

This is also great for sending a “thinking of you” card.

Tips and Tricks

david pogueDavid Pogue, who has written a number of technical books on programming, had some good tips we’re passing on.

  • Put your cell phone in a mug when you play music. The sound will be louder and richer. This is especially good for hard-to-hear audio books you might be playing in your car. We used a raisin can because our phone is too big.
  • Shut off a ringing phone in a meeting or another embarrassing situation by pushing any button on the outside.
  • If you put your phone in airplane mode or turn it off, it will charge much faster. Always use an outlet for the fastest charging, not a USB port on your computer.

 

 

HERE’S LOOKING AT EVERYBODY

 

facebookIf you use Facebook, but worry about it sharing your personal information with strangers, we have a fix. It’s Facebook’s “Privacy Checkup.” From your computer, go to Facebook.com and click the tiny picture of a padlock next to the tiny picture of a globe in the upper right. Follow the steps to increase your privacy.

— You might not want anyone to see how often you play “Candy Crush,” or any other application, for example. In that case, change the “public” setting to “only me.”

— Remove any apps you’re not using.

— Change the information on your profile page and remove the year of your birth if it’s listed. (It’s easier to do identity theft if the bad guys know the year you were born.)

— You can use Facebook as a personal diary and share your posts with no one else. This is a perfect solution for the anti-Facebook folks who would otherwise miss out on its ability to find long lost relatives and friends. Remember: They’re out there somewhere. An estimated one-third of the world’s population past the toddler age is on Facebook. Toddlers next.

Free Calls

skype video messageA reader wrote to say he used Vonage to make cheap calls over Wi-Fi.  Their cheapest service is $15 a month. What are the alternatives?

One is phoning from Google’s Gmail. If you don’t have an account, get one free from Mail.Google.com. In the computer version of Gmail, on the left side of your Gmail window there is a chat area. Click the tiny picture of a phone. When you click it, type in a phone number, which can be a landline or cell phone number. Or, if there is a list of your favorite contacts already there, just click on the name of the person you want to call. Google will dial the number and you can talk using the computer’s microphone and speakers. Most calls in the U.S. and Canada are free. International rates are dirt cheap, starting at one cent a minute to India.

Or, you can switch to Skype, which is free for calling other Skype users. To hook up, go to Skype.com.  If the person you’re calling is not a Skype user, their global calling rate is two cents a minute. Skype makes it real easy to leave messages if someone doesn’t answer. You can also make free calls using Apple’s “Facetime;” once again, only if the other person is connected to Facetime.

joy cardApp Happy

“PhotoDirector,” free for Android and iPhone, has been downloaded more than 10 million times by Android users alone. It lets you change the color tone of your photos, fix flaws, add special effects, and use frames.

You can do a lot of these things in other apps, such as Instagram, which has been downloaded over 100 million times. But you can only send your creation to other Instagram users unless you copy the web address for the image and paste it into an email. PhotoDirector lets you email it directly and share it on other websites, such as Twitter or Facebook. Joy used a “Happy Birthday” frame to frame a picture of herself for Bob.

Who You Gonna Call?

A new study at Stanford University found that the results of most studies are false and in those where the findings were true, they were usually of little significance. Our question for today: Does that include the study by Stanford University?

Too Slow

slow computer
Computer running hot and slow? Dust your chips. A fuzzy jungle collects inside and it’s a job for Tarzan of the Vacuum Cleaner.

For the keyboard, you can try the vacuum cleaner, but if it’s a pretty good one it might suck the caps right off the keys and you’ll never figure out what’s what. For keyboard cleaning, use a can of compressed air, which can be purchased from any office supply store. They’re also useful for other dust jobs.

Restarting your computer also speeds things up. So does clicking the bottom of your screen with your right mouse button and clicking to end any of the tasks you don’t need down there. But some programs linger even after you close them, and it’s hard to find their traces. One of the worst is Microsoft Outlook, which like some kind of maniac cow pie machine always leaves droppings behind.

For more tips, click here: “13 reasons your computer is too slow.”

Numbers Report: Parents

About 68 percent of parents say they worry that their kids are turning into tech zombies,  according to Influence Central, a market research firm. Here are some other findings.

  • 26 percent say their children seem to not hear them when they’re engaged in electronic pursuits. (Our observation has been this was true long before computers came around.)
  • 43 percent of 2016 respondents charge four to six powered devices at night, while 11 percent charge between seven and nine. (NOTE: This is one of the most boring findings we’ve ever received.)
  • 19 percent of homes in 2012 didn’t have a desktop computer. This year it’s up to 31 percent as people increasingly shift to laptops, phones and tablets.

Exercise Videos From YouTube

With the right search terms, you can find great exercises on YouTube.com. Here are some that impressed Joy.

  • two doctorsBest exercises for osteoporosis on YouTube.” Search on that term to find some great exercise recommendations. We liked the one where two ordinary doctors demonstrate three ways to do push-ups, as well as lunges and other exercises.
  • jillian michaelsJillian Michaels YouTube.” Michaels is best known for her appearances on the TV show “Biggest Loser.” Her exercise sessions are like Marine boot camp, but if you’re up for a challenge, this is it.
  • briohny smyth yoga on YouTube-Briohny Smyth yoga on YouTube.” Joy took her yoga practice to the next level with a subscription to DailyBurn.com, which features Smyth as one of the trainers. But you can watch her for free on YouTube.

 

OFFICE POLITICS

 

office politicsAlmost 50 percent of workers surveyed by the staffing agency Robert Half said that office politics were necessary to get ahead.

Of the 80 percent of workers who experienced office politics on the job, 46 percent said the most common form was gossiping or spreading rumors. Another 28 percent said “gaining favor by flattering the boss.” Joy remembers an intern she knew at a California newspaper years ago. He was always flattering the boss, and though he couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map and wasn’t sure it was a country, he became editor. Bob recalls being interviewed by a managing editor at the New York Times whose career was public relations.

Robert Half puts out a free guide for steering clear of the most common mistakes, like sharing personal details with the office gossiper. Find it by searching on the phrase “How to Navigate Office Politics Robert Half,” or click here.

Losing the Internet

“It’s my turn to cry HELP!!!” wrote a reader. She downloaded Windows 10 and all of a sudden, she couldn’t connect to the Internet. We read up on this problem and it seemed the most likely solution was to update your  network adapter driver.

If you Google those words, you get instructions on how to do it. Well that sounded promising, but in fact it didn’t work. It turned out there was a little switch on the side of her Dell laptop that toggles the Internet connection on and off. On our HP laptop, it’s a little button on the keyboard that shares space with the F12 key. Strange are the ways of computer designers.

ted talks bookTED Talks, the Official Guide

“TED” began as an annual conference, featuring people in technology, entertainment and design. Now it covers many topics of interest and draws audiences of more than a thousand people directly, and close to two million at their web site TED.com.

You can browse the talks by categories at their web site; many have also been posted to YouTube. Not all the speakers are well known; in fact, many of them were totally unknown before speaking at a TED conference. Some are a
ctually interesting. Sample subjects: “Do schools kill creativity?” “Why We Do What We Do.” “The Power of Introverts.”

“TED Talks, the Official TED Guide to Public Speaking,” is a new book by Chris Anderson, head of TED. It’s $28 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book has some great advice for becoming a speaker on TED, plus a list of TED speakers. You can also search on the term “Best TED talks.”

One of the key strategies is surprise. Start with an unusual premise that seems to go opposite to common sense. Anderson writes about a speaker who outlined two scenarios: In one, you win the lottery. In the other, you become a paraplegic. He tries to prove that both outcomes produce the same degree of happiness in the end, because of human adaptability.

App Happy

greger appThough always thin and a healthy eater, Joy’s cholesterol dropped 100 points, right into the normal level, when she started following a “nutrient-dense, plant-rich” diet. Now there’s an app for that.

“Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen,” free for iPhone and Android, gives you a checklist for healthy living, following his best-selling book, “How Not to Die.” Each item on the checklist has an information button. For instance, he suggests a daily serving of a cruciferous veggie, and gives examples such as broccoli, arugula, bok choy, radishes, cabbage and seven others. As you check off an item, the app keeps track and has daily reminders to consult the list. A gold star lights up when you complete the checklist, which includes exercise.

Giving Away a Kindle Fire

Somehow we ended up owning three tablets. So we tried to give away our original Kindle Fire to a friend whose sight is failing. We thought she would enjoy listening to books aloud from the Audible app. Then we got a surprise.

amazon click and youre doneDespite de-registering our tablet and re-registering it in her name, using the Amazon password she shared with us, all the Audible books we’d previously downloaded to the tablet were still there. So she started with a huge library.

But de-and-re registering our Kindle Fire totally confused the device. After the first successful log on, we couldn’t get our friend logged on. So we re-registered it back to our name, but that didn’t help. We still couldn’t log on. Amazon tech support finally got it going again. It’s a constant surprise to us but calling tech support sometimes works. The Amazon number is 888-280-4331.

Mac News

The next version of the Mac operating system, dubbed “macOS Sierra” is coming out this fall and will be free. Here are a few new features:

  • mac osA “Universal Clipboard.” If you copy something from one Apple device, you can paste it into any other.
  • “Siri,” the voice assistant for iPhone and iPad, is coming to the Mac. To reach her, you hold down a function key and tap the space bar.
  • An option to let your files automatically upload to your private iCloud account on the web, so you always have a backup. The first five gigabytes of storage are free. (This is often the only way many people have a backup of anything. And that includes us.)
  • “Memories” automatically combines related photos into a movie with pan and zoom effects and a soundtrack.
  • An option to automatically empty the trash every 30 days. (This brings up Bob’s favorite excuse for turning away intrusive people: “Sorry, I have to empty my wastebaskets.”)

 

 

 

 

FINDING A PEN PAL ONLINE

pen palA reader described himself as “an over-the-hill guy” who remembers having a pen pal in his youth and he liked it. It was great fun, he said, but how would he find pen pals these days? Well …

PenPalParty.com has international pen friends. You can specify adults who speak English, are over a certain age, or use any criteria you like, by going to penpalparty.com/lookforpals.html.

You could also go to favorite websites, such as your favorite newspaper or magazine. If there’s a topic you’re interested in, comment on it and include your email address so people can write you back.

When Joy was in her 20s, she loved the pen pals she met through “Single Booklovers,” which still exists at SingleBookLovers.com. Their motto: “Show me the books he loves and I will know the man far better than through mortal friends.” (Quote is from Silas Mitchell, a 19th century Philadelphia doctor.)

facebookFacebook is another great way to find people. Everyone who joins gets a Facebook email address. To write someone on Facebook, type their name in the big search box at the top of the screen. When you get to their page, click “Message” and type in the chat window that comes up at the bottom of the page. There are well over a billion people connected on Facebook.

Also consider the seniors site: Stitch.net. As with all online activities, one must be careful. People could be writing from prisons or anywhere. (Remember the old joke: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”) However, one of Joy’s friends found a wonderful friend on Stitch.

Here’s an odd approach: One of our friends found a business card in a library book. It had a comment on the book and the person’s phone number. The book was about the history of Persia (Iran) and the card noted he wanted to meet other people interested in Persia. She called the number because it was a new book and she grew up in Persia. It didn’t work out but she had a fun phone conversation. To get better results, he should have put down his email address instead of a phone number.

Hidden Features on Your Phone

If you have an Android phone, search on the phrase “Google camera help” to find some great hidden features. At least they were hidden from us. These are tips for Android 3.0 and up, but they have tips for older phones too. You’ll learn some clever stuff.

The Austrian Alps

The Austrian Alps

  • The timer: After you tap the camera icon, notice the tiny picture of a clock in the upper right. Tapping it gives you three seconds to get in the picture. Tap it again and you have ten seconds. The phone actually does a count-down while you get into place. Don’t forget to wave.
  • Panorama: After tapping your camera icon, notice the so-called “hamburger” icon (three stacked lines like a bun with something in the middle). Tap that and then tap “Panorama.” You can take a vertical, horizontal, wide-angle or “fish eye” panorama.
  • Slow Motion. First, change your phone’s camera from photo to video. On our phone, there are two dots above the button for snapping pictures. Tapping the second dot changes it to video. For other phones, swipe your finger from left to right. Tapping the menu icon (three stacked lines) gives us the slow motion options, as well as photo sphere, lens blur and other settings.
  • Take a photo during a video. If you tap the screen while you’re taking a video, you’ll get a snap shot too.
  • You can get similar tips by searching on “iPhone camera help.”

Internuts

  • juicy umbrellasJuicyJuice.com is a commercial site with a lot of kids crafts. We made the paper umbrellas that stick on straws to liven up your drink. Sort of a kid’s Mai Tai.
  • Hostelz.com lists information on hostels worldwide and provides contact info. It aims to have every hostel in the world. We noticed 137 in London alone. They also list other kinds of accommodations.
  • ReadWriteThink.org has links to travel-oriented lesson plans for kids from kindergarten through high school. Example: A “back in time” travel brochure for some ancient culture. (Remember: When in the Roman Empire, do as the ancient Romans do.)

Carpal Tunnel

Penclic keyboardJoy’s elbow got so sore she had to give up “downward dog” and some other yoga moves for five months. But a walk-in clinic physician (sometimes called “a doc in a box”), said it was probably due to too much time on the computer. She cured it by using the mouse with her left hand. Now she’s also using an ergonomic keyboard from Penclic.

We get some strange stuff to try out, and this one was a Swedish keyboard, a $70 item from TheHumanSolution.com. The manual required a magnifying glass to read the type and explained almost nothing. At first, every time we typed a “j,” we got a “1,” and we got a zero for the letter “m.” Very weird. We had to call the company to find out the keyboard comes with the numbers lock turned on. Who knew?

To toggle it off, we had to hold down an Fn key and type F11. So the painful wrist or elbow function that the keyboard is supposed to fix is supposed to be because it’s only three-quarters the length of a regular keyboard, decreasing strain on the wrist. The company also sells a mouse in the shape of a pen, but we couldn’t get that to work.

Another suggestion: Try “Mouse Tool,” free software from infopedia.com. When you hover the mouse pointer over something you want to click, it clicks the mouse for you. This helps too.

 

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.

Internuts

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?”)

Internuts

  • 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.