POP-UPS ON YOUR PHONE

Android Emulator from Andyroid.net

An interesting thing happened: Joy was looking up recipes at VegetarianTimes.com. But as she was viewing these in the Chrome browser on her Android phone, she was inundated, distracted and annoyed by a constant barrage of pop-up ads.

They were stupidly annoying: “You’ve won a new iPhone 9!” was the first one. (That’s not even the name of the new iPhone. It’s iPhone XR or XS. They skipped number nine).  The second pop-up: “You’ve won a prize on Amazon!” Really! The ads were so bad she closed the browser and started over.

Pop-ups are supposed to be blocked automatically, if you want. To find out, she went to the Chrome browser, tapped the three dots in the upper right, then “settings,” then “site settings.” Yes, our pop-ups were set to be blocked, but after a further search, we discovered Chrome’s “Data Saver.”  Its main purpose is to save you money on your data feed costs by compressing web images, but it also blocks malicious pages and phishing attempts. The default position is off, so we switched it to “on.”

To block pop-ups on an iPhone or iPad, open the Chrome app. Tap “More Settings.” Tap “Content Settings” and “Block Pop-ups.”

Mac Update

We looked into the latest free software update for the Macbook: “MacOS Mojave.” It has one feature we would use, if we actually still had our Macbook. It failed to survive a glass of orange juice.

The update is called “Dark Mode.” It gives you white text on a dark background, which is a lot easier on the eyes. Bob’s favorite is the old-fashioned green text on a dark background, which used to be the way we got text in the old days. He gets this with a program called “Writer;” it can also provide white letters on a blue background, like the old WordPerfect program.

Black letters on a white background, which is the way almost all computer screens show text, was a Steve Jobs’ idea. It makes the screen look just like printing on white paper, he said. Of course, white paper doesn’t constantly shine light into your eyes and he didn’t write anything anyway, but everybody sort of obediently said “Yeah,” or words to that effect.

To get the new Macbook dark screen, go to System Preferences, which you can find at the top left of your screen by clicking on the three rows of 12 dots. Choose “General.” Then turn it on. You’ll see dark mode in most of the built-in apps, such as messages, calendar and mail.

Coding Cards for Kids

Programmers normally use slugs of code someone has already written. These are modules which perform routine tasks. For example: recognizing where the cursor is as you move it around the screen, or connecting to the Internet. After all, why reinvent the wheel or reprogram something that has already been programmed a million times.

Scratch Jr Coding Cards” is a box of 75 colorful cards that lets children use the same approach. They’re for ages five and up, and cost $25 from NoStarch Press. The cards tell you what to do to create a moving cartoon on your phone or tablet screen. You start with a character and a painted background. You plug in a pre-built movement module and tell it how far you want your character to move. Joy found this almost too much fun to stop and had to be pried loose by the promise of a cup of herbal tea.

The first lesson involves making a cat get out of bed and say “Hi.” The card directs you to choose a background, such as a bedroom. Next it has you move colored blocks (code modules) into place in a chain. Each of these blocks holds different commands. You click a green flag to start the animation. Our only problem came with the “disappearing” command. Our cat disappeared and we couldn’t get it back. (We thought the cat always came back.)

Scratch Jr is designed for a tablet, and you’ll find it in the app store on your device. However, we used it on a Windows computer. We got around the restriction by first downloading the free Android simulator from Andyroid.com. Once installed, we searched for “Scratch Jr” and installed it. Then we were ready to follow the coding cards. The last card shows you how to open one of 20 sample projects, ready to be customized.

SSD Prices Tumble

A reader who recently sped up his computer by putting in a solid state drive (SSD) was astounded at how cheap they’re becoming, and how quickly.

He writes to point out that “The Samsung 500 gigabyte SSD I bought from Amazon for $100 for my desktop; and bought again a week later for $98 for my HP Pro Book; is now $88!  How low can they go?  Remember what happened with thumb drives?  Whee!  We’re in for a ride, I think.” Thumb drives went from about a thousand dollars a gigabyte to $5 for 16 gigabytes.

Internuts

  • World’s Largest Donors of Foreign Aid

    WalletHub Cell Phone Savings Calculator.” To swallow that mouthful, go to Wallethub.com, click “Tools” and then “Calculators.” Under “other,” you’ll find one that lets you compare cell phone contracts from all the major carriers.

  • 25 maps that will change the way you see the world.” Search on that phrase and find a YouTube video. The first map divides the world into one-billion person chunks. More people live inside a circle containing part of China, India and Indonesia than live in the rest of the world combined. Another map shows the tiny amount of land in 22 countries that Britain never conquered.

 

INTERNET BLUES

A reader wrote to say she can’t get fast Internet service from her Internet provider. They say it’s because she’s in a rural area, at the very edge of their coverage. “An update available on my iPhone 6s took a day and a half to download,” she says.  “The update on my watch took even longer.  My son got both done at his school in two hours!  It’s ironic that in order to pay the bill I have to mail it in.”

If you’re in the same rocky boat, go to speedtest.net to verify how fast your Internet connection is. (Just click “go” and they do the rest.)  Our connection is pretty fast, with a download speed of 20 and an upload speed of 4.57. Our reader’s download speed was only “point 34” and she got only “point 17” for upload, both way less than one. Her Internet Service Provider still called her service “high speed,” she says. This is one angry customer.

CNET.com says that a new router can help enormously. Search on the phrase “CNET Best Wireless Routers for 2018.” They cost around $100 to $400. Another option is satellite service, which costs around $50 to $100 a month or more for 10 to 50 gigabyte of data. Fifty gigabytes of data would allow you to watch Netflix or other streaming movies for 10 hours a day every day of the month, or chat on Skype for over nine hours a day. If you’re doing that, you may need help from more than a router.

If you run a speed test on your computer and find that your connection is fast, but your web experience is slow, consider upgrading your computer or reformatting it. Our Windows computers used to be so pokey, we could make tea and get back before a page loaded. But we suspected that our Windows computers were to blame. To get a faster experience, we got new computers, with Intel i7 processors and 12 gigabytes of RAM. Now they’re speedy, just like the Macbooks and Chromebooks we’ve tested, using the same Internet connection.

Clean Air?

One of our relatives was born with a withered leg and it may have been because her mother used a paint stripper while pregnant, in a closet. A device called the “Atmotube” can warn about such dangers.

This kind of problem was first mentioned in ancient Rome, when Pliny the Elder, a Roman Senator, wrote that pregnant women were at risk of flawed births from the fumes generated by oil lamps, particularly at night when the lamps were nearly done and were sputtering.

These “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) are up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors. Examples are acetone, methanol, benzene, ethanol, toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde. Many VOCs are found in cleaning supplies, paint, varnish and solvents.

In our tests of the new Atmotube Plus, our living space air quality ranged between 91 and 99 percent pure. That info was reported in a free app on our phone, which also gave us the VOC level, atmospheric pressure and temperature. The Atmotube can also sense smoke and other hazards.

The new Atmotube Plus, $99, is about the size of a tube of lipstick and can be worn on a string around your neck. It’s for indoor use only. There’s also the Atmotube Pro, $189, which handles indoor and outdoor air quality. It can detect pollutants, as well as dust, pollen, soot, and mold spores.  Both work for a week on a single battery charge. Plug it into your computer to recharge.

A similar device, called the “Eve Room 2,” displays air quality readings and temperatures. The catch is, you need an iPhone to use it. It costs $100 and is about half the size of a cell phone. To find out the air quality of your room, you can ask Siri, look at the device’s results on your phone, or stare at the gadget itself. It uses Apple’s HomeKit software. So if you have other Homekit gadgets, such as Philips “Hue” adjustable light bulbs, you can make the bulbs flash when the air quality is poor. It detects volatile organic compounds.

Moving up in price, you can get a “GLAS” thermostat from Johnson Controls for around $300. It reports indoor and outdoor air quality, including pollen counts and ozone levels. You can also usually get this kind of information for larger local areas from the newspapers and TV weather summaries.

 Retro Fun

The current Playstation Pro 4 is $670, but if you prefer the retro games of the 1990s, you’ll be able to get a miniature version of the original for $100 in December.

The mini version, called the Sony Playstation Classic, comes with 20 pre-loaded games. It’s 45 percent smaller than the original, which came out in 1994. Games include Final Fantasy VII, Jumping Flash, Ridge Racer Type 4, and 17 others.

If you’re a Nintendo fan, there are classic versions of that too. The NES Classic Edition console is around $60 and includes 30 classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Donkey Kong, PacMan, and The Legend of Zelda. An HDMI cable lets you plug it into your TV for the big picture.

(subhed) A New Way to Browse the Web

Most people use Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Safari, or Opera. Consider Vivaldi, free from Vivaldi.com. It’s for computers only, not phones. We loaded it on our machine and definitely like it.

One of the things we like is the side bar, which has quick access to nice extras, like bookmarks, downloads, notes and a history of where you went on the web. It also lets you add any website to the side panel, so you can hold on to that page while you check out what’s new on Facebook or other sites. We watched a video clip in the sidebar while continuing to work on other things. If you like to jot down ideas while you browse, you can highlight a paragraph on a website, then use your right mouse button to save it to a notes section on the side. Could be useful for journalists.

The Numbers Report

More than 200 current British divorce proceedings cited the war game “Fortnite” in their complaints, according to Divorce-Online.co.uk. We would guess the number in America would be several times higher. There are 125 million registered players worldwide.

 

BUILD YOUR OWN

We remember when personal computers first came out. You could build them yourself if you were savvy. That’s what Michael Dell did way back when. He sold them to other college students and the business went on from there.

Now there’s a computer that kids can put together. The “Computer Kit Touch” is $280 from Kano.me. Designed for young children, it has a ten-inch screen. Follow a printed storybook to build a portable, touchscreen computer, and attach a keyboard. From there, kids can make apps, art, and games with simple steps. Included apps are Chromium (a web browser similar to Chrome), YouTube, Libre Office (similar to Microsoft Office) and Google Drive; more are available in the app store, such as “Hack Minecraft.”

Beginning programmers start with colorful blocks of pre-written code that can be dragged into place on the screen with a finger movement – after all, it’s a touch screen computer.  At the advanced level, Javascript and Python, two programming languages, come into play.

There’s also a non-touch screen version of the Computer Kit for $200. A Harry Potter wand  will let you program spells inspired by the Harry Potter movies and books.

 Cheapest Security Camera

The “Wyze Cam Pan” is a $30 security camera with more features than the more expensive “Nest Cam Indoor” or the Amazon “Cloud Cam,” according to testers at CNET.com. The cheap Wyze has some of the same features found on $200 security cameras like the iSmartAlarm.

Like most security cameras, the Wyze has free cloud storage. Or you can store your video clips on the device itself if you add a microSD card.  With a free app on your phone, you can check on live feed – meaning whatever is happening at that moment, view saved clips and adjust settings. Wyze stores video clips for free for 14 days (other services require a paid subscription after 24 hours). Most importantly, it alerts you when the motion and sound detectors are triggered. You can have a separate alert set for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Its field of view is greater than Amazon’s Cloud Cam or the Nest Cam Indoor. The camera has a normally fixed angle of 120-degrees but can pan 360 degrees and tilt 93 degrees.

Podcasts

Our young relatives love podcasts, and we’ve become fans as well. These can come in on an Alexa or Google Home, a smartphone or a computer. These are hot right now and figure to last well into the future. They offer brief broadcasts that are on your call, and not on a network’s schedule.

Our favorites are “Planet Money,” and “Freakonomics Radio,” but there are hundreds more. To start, say: “Alexa, play the ‘TED Radio Hour,’ or “Hey Google, play ‘Hidden Brain.’” Or go to the website.  We also tried “This Week in Tech,” and “This American Life,” from National Public Radio.

Selling Your Phone

What’s the best way to sell an old phone? According to Flipsy.com, carriers like Verizon and AT&T pay 30 percent less than online buyback companies. What’s worse is they just give you a credit line for that amount, to be used for buying some of their services.

For example, Flipsy.com will give $270 cash for an iPhone 7. At AT&T you can only get a $130 credit.  Verizon is the best of the major brands; it will give you a $173 credit. We could get $338 for our Pixel 2.

We could probably earn a bit more on eBay, but Flipsy has an advantage. It doesn’t require a detailed listing, nor do you have to do customer service, such as dealing with returns.

One problem: You don’t want to sell your old iPhone until your new one arrives. Some of Flipsy’s partners offers a 45 day price lock. Here’s how it works. Type in the model of your phone. When the next page comes up, notice the four columns. Next to the type of payment they accept, such as credit card, you’ll find the number of days they guarantee the price. Most have around 20 days, but a few, like BuyBackWorld.com, WeBuyMobile.com and BuymyPod.com offer 45 days of locked in pricing.

Duck Duck Go

Several readers have recently reminded us that DuckDuckGo.com is a good alternative to Google.com if it bothers you to have your browsing tracked. But DuckDuckGo has some other features as well. Like:

DuckDuckGo has a built-in loan calculator. Type “Loan 50,000 at 3.5% with 25% down for 15 years” and the answer comes back: $268.08 for 15 years. Total interest paid is $10,754.57.” You can get these results on Google too, with more clicks.

If you come across a shortened web address, like Bit.ly/scicabinet, and you aren’t sure you want to go there, you can type “expand Bit.ly/scicabinet” and DuckDuckGo will give you the full address.

DuckDuckGo results are different from Google’s. It shows the same results to all users, but Google tailors yours to what you usually search for. However in our tests, the two results lists weren’t much different, and Google’s results are a lot better looking and often include photos. For instance, if you want to know the major rivers in Africa, or any country, Google’s results will include scenes with those rivers.

To set up the “Duck” on your phone, go to the app store and download the DuckDuckGo app. On your computer, open your favorite browser, find “Settings” and change the default search engine to DuckDuckGo. For example, in Google Chrome, click on the three stacked dots, choose “Settings” and click “Manage Search Engines.” Then scroll down to “Other Search Engines” and choose “DuckDuckGo.” Or don’t change your default and just go to DuckDuckGo.com whenever you want the privacy.

App Happy

  • Gyft.com sells gift cards through a free app for iPhone and Android, or you can use it to manage any gift cards you’ve received.
  • GraphoGame is for children 4 to 9 and has been shown to increase reading scores around 16 percent after 15 minutes a day of play. The game was developed by Finland and Cambridge University, England, and helps children learn their first letters, syllables and words, using rhymes and sounds. Cost is $6.

 

A TRAVELING MAN

A reader wrote to tell us about “Mobile Passport,” a free app which lets him breeze past the long lines at the airport after an overseas journey. Here’s how it goes:

“So I was blindsided on a recent overseas trip when my daughter told me about this app.  By filling out some basic info and submitting it electronically when you arrive stateside, you skip right past the long line at immigration, to go to a line of one person (in our case) who was enlightened like we were.  It took us about one minute. This will certainly change when others learn about Mobile Passport so don’t tell anyone.  But for now, wow!”

Okay, so we’re telling someone; what can we say? Actually, things being what they are and this being a newspaper and all, we’re telling a lot of people.

Mobile Passport is less well known than a similar app, called “Global Entry.” But Global Entry costs $100 every five years unless you have one of several credit cards that offer this perk. The Mobile Passport app is free and was developed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It speeds you through customs at two cruise ports and 25 airports. Download it at MobilePassport.us and read more about the various credit cards at ThePointsGuy.com.

Here’s another good travel app: Airhelp.  If your flight is delayed, canceled or overbooked, you can get up to $700 in compensation. AirHelp is free for Android and iPhone.

Better Wi-Fi

Another reader writes to say: “Our daughter and family are living with us until her new home is completed. She didn’t think my Wi-Fi system was up to her standards, so her husband installed their Apple router and extender and unplugged mine. But he left my two Netgear range extenders in place.  Later experiments showed this was a mistake.”

Apple uses range extenders to, well, extend the range. Google WiFi and some others use what’s called “mesh” network. The techy part: A range extender or repeater takes in a signal and kicks it out again with more power. Both repeaters and extenders can slow down your web browsing by cutting your bandwidth in half. They also require software updates, which can be a hassle. A “mesh” network is a group of routers that communicate wirelessly to each other to create a single Wi-Fi network. Updates happen automatically as needed.

We use “Google WiFi,” which is the number one seller on Amazon in the “mesh” category. We only needed two units, but you can buy a three-pack for $256. Otherwise, they’re $129 each and you need one for each dead zone. Each unit is about the size of a thick hockey puck. We had trouble getting it to work, but found that tech support was great. (Their phone number is on the bottom of the device.) If you want more info about the differences, see an article from PCMagazine.com called “Wi-Fi Range Extenders versus Mesh Kits.” Let the games begin.

Internuts

  • TheWeek.com/audio has audio versions of “The Week” magazine, which a reader wrote to tell us is his favorite. We get it too. One article told us that crows make up after fights by sitting close and preening each other. Wild idea.
  • Online.seterra.com has fun geography games for adults. Focus on whatever area of the world you’re interested in. Somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of Americans, depending on age groups, can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Forty percent can’t find England and eighty percent can’t find Afghanistan. (This reminded Bob that in an Interview, Paris Hilton thought London was a country.)
  • SpotTheStation.nasa.gov tells you when the International Space Station is overhead. The space station is the third brightest object in the sky and easy to spot if you use the coordinates on the website. It looks like a fast-moving plane.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Whether you use Chrome, Firefox or some other web browser, there are shortcuts to make it all faster on your computer.

We searched on the phrase “30 Useful Keyboard Shortcuts on Chrome” and got these gems, though you could substitute Firefox, Edge and Safari. In our tests, the same shortcuts work for all four browsers.

For example, Joy likes to have a dozen tabs open, so the command “Ctrl W,” (Cmd W on the Mac), which closes the current one, is useful, as is “Ctrl T” or “Cmd T” to open a new tab. “Ctrl D,” (“Cmd D” on the Mac) automatically bookmarks a page. “Ctrl F” or “Cmd F” opens a search bar to let you find a word or phrase in the page you’re on. These commands also work in Firefox and Microsoft Edge.

Facebook Privacy

A company called “Cliqz” tells us that Facebook’s tracking scripts monitor nearly one third of your browsing history, even if you’re not a member of Facebook. Ironically, you must sign up for Facebook just to delete the data Facebook has already collected about you.

Just for fun, we tried the Cliqz web browser, which claims to keep you from being tracked. First, we noticed that it brought in our Google Chrome favorites, so it feels like we’re still in Chrome. We were about to add an extension, but that is not allowed in Cliqz, because it aims to create a perfectly safe environment. Extensions or add-ons can add security risks, though most are safe. Anyway, having too many of them slows your browsing.

 

 

GO GRANDMA GO

A few years ago, our friend Ida got a smart phone so she could use Uber and Lyft. We wish there’d been a connection to “Go Go Grandparent” back then.

Any cell phone will do.  And imagine this: you can even call from what’s called a landline, whatever that is. Go Go Grandparent connects you to Uber and Lyft with nothing extra to do on your part. Register at GoGoGrandparent.com. Then call Go Go Grandparent from any phone. Press “1” to be picked up at home. Press “2” to be picked from wherever you were last dropped off. Press 3, 4 or 5 to be picked off at one of your usual locations. Press “O” for an operator you can talk to if you’re confused.

The pickup is from Uber or Lyft. The call is transferred to them automatically. A friend of ours says the first time she did this, the driver thought her name was “Go Go Grandparent Betty.” Other than that, it works fine. The operator tells you the driver’s name and license plate, which is information you’d normally see in your smartphone app. During registration you can sign up to have text messages automatically sent to a friend or spouse, so they know when you were picked up, when you arrived and when you got back home. There is no escape.

Go Go Grandparent charges a 13 percent commission on each ride, which averages about $2.50. Otherwise, it’s the same cost as Uber and Lyft, which are generally  cheaper than ordinary taxis. Register online or by calling 855-464-6872.

Speeding Up A Slow Computer

A reader writes, “I want to change over my desktop’s hard drive to an SSD. Prices have really tumbled!” He wondered if he needed to clone the drive. For those who came in after the movie started, “SSD” stands for “solid state drive,” and it means there are no moving parts, everything is on memory chips. Result: faster than you can blink.

We answered him the next day but he’d already found his way. This is one savvy guy: he wrote a program for the old Commodore 64 computer back in 1984 and was written up in a magazine. Some of our readers are techier than we are.

For the rest of us, there are great tutorials on the web about swapping a laptop’s hard drive for an SSD. It’s remarkably simple. We watched a YouTube video called “How to Upgrade Laptop Hard Drive to SSD without Reinstalling Windows.” There’s also an article at HowToGeek.com called “How To Upgrade and Install a New Hard Drive or SSD in Your PC.” Or you can get a cloning kit from Amazon for around $24. Search on the phrase “SSD hard drive cloning kit.”

But the big question is, does it really speed up your computer?  Our knowledgeable reader says: “As far as performance goes, this is the best $100 I ever spent on a computer.  Startup now takes only a few seconds.  Heck, the Windows logo screen at the beginning doesn’t even get a chance to get going.  Sign in and the desktop is right there, no waiting.” These drives cost anywhere from $29 to $600, the cost depending on the capacity of the drive. But it doesn’t speed up web browsing. For that you need a fast processor, like the Intel i7, and eight to 16 gigabytes of RAM.

App Happy

Paris Hilton, 2009

Paris Hilton had 80,000 views of her photos but gained 1.4 million more after using a free app called “Plotaverse.” (That many people remember Paris Hilton?) Plotaverse creates photos that move and sway. Paris was always good with that. Facebook named it one of the top five photo apps for creating ads. And it currently has over four million users.

Plotaverse comes in three apps: “Plotagraph,” “Plotamorph” and “PlotaFX.” On their website, we saw a woman with Mickey Mouse ears morph into a man, and a field of flowers come alive with birds. Reminds us of Pixar or Disney. In an “Elle” ad, the model’s hair begins to flow as you look at the photo.

The pro versions of the app are $99 a year. But in the Google Play and Apple app stores you can find free versions.

The Numbers Report

Decluttr.com surveyed 1007 parents in the U.S. to determine how they deal with their children’s smartphones.

  • In the U.S., 20 percent of children between the ages of one and six own a smartphone. (What does a one-year-old say?)
  • Half of parents agree the most appropriate age for a child to own a phone is between 10 to 13 years old
  • Eighty-three percent say their children spend up to 21 hours per week on their phones. (Good grief!)
  • Sixty-eight percent of parents have not placed limitations on their children’s smartphones

One survey respondent said: “My 2-year-old has her own cell phone because she likes to play games and watch YouTube at daycare.” Parents should consider getting a refurbished phone, which can always be upgraded after the peanut butter and jelly attack.

Bitcoin Magazine

Joy’s been on a roller-coaster investing in Bitcoin, a form of e-cash currently crashing. Inevitably, there is now an online magazine about these new crypto currencies.

We found out about it from a friend, the former movie editor at the New York Times. Some of her media pals have started a publication called “BreakerMag,” at breakermag.com.

The stories are breezy and light, covering cryptocurrencies and “blockchain.” Besides the latest developments, we learned about a new novel called “Bitcoin Bimbo.” The excitement was hard to deal with.

Blockchain is an encrypted online ledger, normally shared by millions of computers, though some companies have developed private versions. Its goal is to increase efficiency, in everything from everyday legal contracts to international supply chains. For example, Walmart is using it as a tracking system to halt outbreaks of food borne illnesses, like E. coli and salmonella. Tracking a slice of mango used to take Walmart over six days. They’re slippery and tricky. Using the blockchain, it takes 2.2 seconds.

It reminds some people of the early days of the Internet, when everything was booming. “It’s like 1998 all over again,” said an attendee at “Blockchain Week,” which drew 8,500 people to New York City. Then again, maybe it’s not. Naysayers, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, call the whole crypto currency world “evil.” But his track record isn’t great. In the 1990s he predicted that the Internet would be no more important than the fax machine.

 

SOMETHING NEW IN GMAIL

Joy’s favorite part of Gmail is the “Undo” button, which allows you to call back an email that on second thought, you shouldn’t have sent. You can set it to hesitate for as long as 30 seconds, which allows for short naps.

Now this second-thought-er is available in the free Gmail app for Android and iPhone. To try out the “undo” feature of the Gmail app on your phone, compose a message as you normally would. After you send it, look at the bottom of your screen. Tap “undo.”

There’s also a new Gmail look available for your computer. If you’re a Gmail user this new version should pop up as a choice, meaning it will show you what’s new and you can keep that or go back to the old email version. The new one adds icons for your calendar, shopping list, and task list on the right side of your screen. Click the calendar app, and it opens in a side bar, not interfering with your email view. The same goes for the shopping and to do list.

Another new feature is “Confidential Mode,” available for phones and computers. Confidential Mode lets you put an expiration date on an email, making it vanish after a set time. It also keeps the recipient from downloading or forwarding it, though they could do it anyway by taking a screen shot of the photo or message and sending that.

To try “Confidential Mode” on your phone, write a message. Then tap the three stacked dots in the upper right corner and choose “Confidential Mode.” If you’re on the computer instead of the phone, look for the picture of a locked clock in the bottom right of the email window. Decide when your message should expire, anything from one day to five years. (This could save many politicians and any number of shaky romances.) If you change your mind about a message, tap “revoke access.” That’s kind of a harsh phrase, but the programmer was probably having one of those days.

Other new features on the computer: You can hover over an email and snooze it for later viewing, delete it, or archive it. And when you reply, you’ll see canned messages, ready to click on. Joy has been using these in text messages for a while, but they often have unnecessary exclamation points. A different kind of canned message, created in settings, can be used as a signature, like “Yr Hmbl Srvt, Bob,” if you just happened to have dropped in from the Elizabethan Age.

Listening to Magazines

We were surprised to learn that one of our favorite magazines, The Economist, includes an audio version. Download the app, tap the icon for the headset, and listen to all of the articles or create a playlist of the most interesting ones. The voices are professional readers and have that British classic BBC announcer sound. Unfortunately, you must be a subscriber, which costs $147 per year for the digital/audio edition.

We checked to see if other magazines have free audio versions and found the website AudioReadingServicePodcast.com, a service of a public library in Indiana. They have Time Magazine, AARP, Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest and others. The Atlantic magazine has articles available to listen to for free at theatlantic.com/podcasts/audio-articles/.

The Fortnite Craze

Now we get it. We know why our youngest relatives are mad about Fortnite, and a heck of a lot of adults. We read about it in David Pogue’s column at Yahoo.com.

The Fortnite shooter game is free and kinda funny. The first vehicle allowed in the game was a shopping cart. You arrive in the game on a flying bus. And there are no blood and guts spread across the screen; when you shoot someone, they just go down. But the circle you play in gets ever smaller, making it more intense, as the odds of being killed get ever shorter.

Fortnite has 125 million players; about 40 million are there every month. In May, last reported month, the game’s maker, Epic Games, took in more than $10 million a day, as players paid for extra challenges and rewards. Keep those shopping carts rolling.

Who’s Calling?

A reader wrote: “Had a very strange incident with my cellphone recently. I had an incoming call and it was from my own phone number!” Her husband told her not to answer, but she did anyway. And … there was no one there!

This reminds us of sci-fi stories where one meets oneself somewhere and the usual problems ensue. In this case, the call is coming from someone else. You can make any call look like it was coming from another number by using an app that changes the caller I.D. Asterisk.org and FreeSWITCH.com can do this. We haven’t tried these out, so this is just for your own information.

Internuts

  • FreedomInThe50States.org shows you which states have the fewest regulations and lowest taxes. It’s put together by the libertarian Cato Institute. Florida is their number one, New Hampshire number two, and then Indiana, Colorado and Nevada.
  • FakeSpot.com. Surprise! Some Amazon and Yelp reviews are fake. If you’re suspicious, paste in the website listing at FakeSpot.com and click “analyze.” All the ones we looked at got “A” grades, but we’re sure there are fakes out there.
  • DigitalSculpture-uffizi.org. Visit a famous art gallery in Florence, Italy without leaving your sofa. The “Uffizi Digitization Project” has 3D scans of more than 300 items from the gallery’s Greek and Roman collection. Turn around an ancient statue, just by moving your mouse. Most impressive. Uffizzi, by the way, is simply Italian for “offices;” the building formerly housed the offices of the Medici family.

 

ONE REAL FAST PHOTO SCANNER

Our new Epson “FastFoto” scanner sucked in photos so fast it made us laugh. Put a stack in, and the photos jump through the scanner like they’ve been shot out of a cannon. Typical speed is one a second.

Then we asked ourselves the big question: Why get a photo scanner when ScanMyPhotos.com will do it for you?  For instance, they’ll currently scan a thousand 4- by-6-inch photos for $50. No muss, no fuss. So here’s why your own scanner might be more useful:

A scanned photo, sent by email or shared on Facebook, is often a spur of the moment thing. Reach your hand into an old collection, pull out a stack and put them in the FastFoto scanner. Within a few seconds, they pop out, enhanced if you wish, red-eye removed, and uploaded to your private account on Dropbox or Google Drive. And oh yeah, saved to your computer. The scanner scans both sides at once, which is kind of crucial. Because many times we, and we’re sure many others, have looked at an old photo and said “who’s that?” So it’s worthwhile to jot a note or two on the back of your prints.

You can scan documents too; the scanner doesn’t know whether you put in a photo or your mortgage contract. You’re prompted to give a scan or group of scans a really descriptive filename. That’s the key to searching for them later. You can’t search the whole text you just scanned, because it’s really just a picture of the words, not the words themselves. But you can easily search for a file name, if you give it one, like the “Murgatroyd reception photos,” or “home repair bills for 1958.”

We did our scans with the Epson “FF-640,” which is similar to the latest version, the “FF-680W,” but cheaper. We saw the FF-640 at Epson.com in a refurbished version for $414. What’s the difference? The older model can scan 300 dots per inch (dpi) or 600 dpi; the higher number may require two seconds per photo. The more expensive model has a list price of $600 and can scan up to 1200 dpi. High resolution scans like that might be useful for museum archives, detective work, or printing posters, but wouldn’t matter for normal use. The 300 dpi setting is great for sharing photos online, because the file size is smaller. Also, at 300 dpi each one is scanned in a second.

An Epson rep told us a big advantage of the more expensive model is that scanned text is searchable. This would be particularly useful for law firms, libraries and many businesses. One last comment on so-called “refurbished” items: We only had trouble with such buys once, and that was because the hard drive on the computer still had someone’s files on it; there was nothing wrong with the computer itself.

Ads in Your Texts

If you’re not afraid of offending your friends, you can earn up to $50 a month by allowing ads inside your text messages.

It’s a free app called “Slam Ad,” available in the Android or iPhone app store starting in November. Once installed, it will pay you a tiny amount for every text message you send. Sounds intrusive, but the ads are short. A few lines of text include a coupon, discount code or announcement that ties in with the conversation. If you’re texting about a movie, for instance, you might see an ad for popcorn and soda. If you’re meeting someone for coffee, you might see a Starbucks coupon. As the text sender, you can redeem your earnings for cash, gift cards or a savings account for college tuition.

It’s a new business idea that doesn’t appeal to Bob, but Joy thinks it sounds fun. Given that young people typically send 120-130 texts a day, this could mean a little something to them. Americans in general send more than 500 billion texts per month. Yes, that’s “billion.”

Instagram Woes

A reader tells us that her Instagram account was hijacked, and all 1700 of her posts, including private photos, made public. Her profile picture and user name had been changed so that the photos appear to be coming from someone else. Yikes! Even changing her passwords had no effect, nor did writing to Instagram, or its owner, Facebook.

We were a bit shocked, and apparently out of touch, because this turns out to be fairly common. Instagram lets you secure your account with so-called “two-factor authentication,” which uses a text message to verify that you are you. However, word has it that they’re soon coming out with a separate “authenticator” app, like Google or Microsoft Authenticator. In just one week, the tech blog “Mashable” reported that 275 people wrote to say their Instagram account had been hacked. However, most of those didn’t use two-factor authentication, which can be enabled by tapping the icon for a person in the lower right of your screen. Next, tap the three dots in the upper right corner and choose “Two Factor Authentication.”

Now … the real puzzling part of this problem is why anyone would want to post someone else’s photos as their own. These aren’t photos from professional photographers mind you, but somebody’s kid in the playground pictures, or Uncle Max at the picnic table. If you think you’ve been hacked, open Instagram on your phone. Tap the icon for a person, then the three dots or stacked lines representing “settings.”  Scroll down until you see the word “Support” and “Report a Problem.”

If you want to backup all your photos and videos on Instagram to be on the safe side, here’s how. Go to Instaport.me, iDrive.com or Digi.me and try their Instagram backup feature. In a blog post, Instagram suggests revoking access to any suspicious apps that may have access to your account. What’s suspicious? Even paranoids can have enemies.

 

HEY GOOGLE, START THE CAR

If you’re out of favor with the Mafia, you need this. It’s the Google Home smart speaker, or the free “Google Assistant” app on your phone. You can sit on your couch and say “Hey Google, start my car.” If it doesn’t blow up in three minutes, you might as well get in and go.

This currently works with new Hyundais, Mercedes  and BMWs. More are likely to join in soon. The Hyundai program is called “Blue Link,” and requires either a 2017 or later Hyundai, or one of a dozen models from 2016 or a few from 2015. Besides starting your engine from the couch, you can set the interior temperature, send points of interest to the car’s navigation system, lock or unlock the doors, blow the horn, turn on the lights, and in general make a real nuisance of yourself.

Mercedes offers something similar. From your couch, you can ask Google to remotely lock the doors, start your engine or send an address to your navigation system. It works with select 2016 and newer models.

BMW’s version of this finds your car, gives you details about it, tells you when your next trip is, checks the battery status, locks the doors, activates climate control, and checks to see that the doors are actually locked, the windows are up, the trunk is closed, and your fuel level is adequate. Getting from the house to the car, you’re on your own.

Your Inner Botanist

We recently read that people no longer know their plants. Even botanists.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a PhD candidate touring a garden with other botany grad students wondered if a fern was part of an orchid; he didn’t realize they were two separate plants. Another grad student was about to explain it to him, but she waited to see if anyone would answer first. No one did. Botanists these days are more focused on the molecular level. Molecular plants are hard to see.

Tsk, tsk. Ferns are nothing like orchids. They don’t even have seeds. They reproduce through spores; everyone knows that. It is tough to keep up, however. There are approximately 391,000 species of plants, 23,000 are trees. It’s a hard world. Bob says the only way he would recognize an ash tree is when it’s been made into a baseball bat.

There’s a solution for all this, in fact there are several. These are apps for your phone that can examine a picture of leaves, flowers or bark and tell you what it is. “PlantSnap,” from PlantSnap.com, is free for Android and iPhones, if you don’t mind ads. We took a picture of one of our house plants, and it immediately identified it as “Weeping Fig,” or “Ficus Benjamina.” There’s a terrific story involving the discovery of this plant, and someday we’ll get to it. Right now, we have to move on to another plant, because Joy’s on a roll. So it turned out one of our other house plants was “Spathiphyllum,” also called “Peace Lily.”

The app recognizes 316,000 species of flowers, trees, succulents, mushrooms, cacti and other flora of the planet. If you want to remove ads, it’s $20 a year.

A nice thing about PlantSnap is it saves your plant photos in a gallery, so if you forget their names you can refer back. There are half a million trees, flowers and other plants in their database, and their machine-learning algorithm recognizes about 2000 new ones a month. Now we know that this huge number does not match our other huge number when we listed species, but that’s because many species have more than one variety. Black panthers, for example, are just ordinary leopards, but with dark skin.

Another option is “iNaturalist,” which includes animals as well as plants. With iNaturalist, free for Android and iPhone, you can share your identifications with others and get their comments. That grizzly attacking you might be a Kodiak grizzly and you’ll want to be able to tell someone that on your way out. “Research grade” observations are shared with scientists.

In some tests, Plantsnap did best, other times iNaturalist was the winner. Plantsnap got a Japanese maple totally wrong, but iNaturalist nailed it. But one of the decorative plants in front of our high rise was identified as “Pampus Grass,” found all over the place in Argentina. Could be that one, but we have our doubts. Tapping on photos that others have taken in iNaturalist gives you the address and a map.

Brushing Up Your Photos

We compared the free editing tools from Google Photos (Photos.Google.com) with Ashampoo’s Photo Optimizer 7, which costs $20. Not surprisingly, Photo Optimizer did a better job.

Besides the usual photo editing tools, the Ashampoo program removes red eye, whitens teeth, and allows you to process a whole batch at once.  As with Google Photos, you can click once to enhance the photos. However, teeth whitening takes a bit of practice or your subject will look like they have white dots instead of teeth.

Beware of Pop-Up Ads

A reader says she gets pop-up notices from an “Advanced Mac Cleaner,” saying her computer has viruses. She wondered if she should download the program. Absolutely not.

These kinds of pop-ups are a classic tool of hackers. Now sometimes, a program you have installed on your computer will give you a pop-up request to take some action. If you recognize the program, it’s usually a good idea to follow its suggestions. If in doubt, Google the words in the pop-up with the word “scam.” We searched on “Advanced Mac Cleaner scam” and found a user forum on the Apple website where many said it’s a fraud.

 

DEFEND YOUR PHONE

Users and Apple say the iPhone is the safest smartphone out there, but you can make it safer still.

Start with the log-on. Do you use a fingerprint? You should. Joy initially had difficulties getting her Android phone to recognize her index finger. The solution was to use more fingers. Now she uses her middle finger to get into the phone, and this one rarely misses. (No comments, please.) If you have an iPhone X, you can use your face instead of a fingerprint. It’s rumored that all iPhones coming out this fall will have “Face ID.” It’s inevitable.

What about a hacker breaking into your iCloud account on the web? It’s a good idea to set up “two-factor identification.” If you Google that phrase, along with “iPhone,” (or Android if that’s what you use), you can find simple instructions for setting it up. With two-factor ID, you’ll need a code that was just emailed, phoned, or texted to you as well as your password, whenever you’re logging on from a new machine. This stops the bad guy or girl in their tracks.

There is a device called “GrayKey,” which its maker claims can crack any iPhone password or code. It comes in two versions, one for $15,000 and one for $30,000, used by some police departments and presumably some government agencies. An Israeli firm, “Cellebrite,” will crack a cellphone code for you for $5,000 a pop. That’s plus airfare, because you have to bring the phone to Israel.

If it’s installing phone apps you’re worried about, try the free Malwarebytes mobile app for iPhone or Android, which blocks anything suspicious. In our test, it tagged an app called “Lost Android,” so we removed it. If we ever lose our phone and it isn’t in range of Alexa or our Google Home speaker, either of which can make our phone ring to announce its location or its address, we can go to MyAccount.Google.com and click “find my phone.”

A $12-a-year version of Malwarebytes’ mobile app can screen and block scam calls and texts. It can also unlock your phone if you’re a victim of “ransomware.” In a ransomware attack, you’re asked to pay a sum of money to get your phone unlocked, but Malwarebyes can do that for you for no extra charge. You get a 30-day free trial of this premium version when you download the free version.

Book Shout

Joy has a bookstore habit and buys more books than she reads. A free app called “BookShout” fixes that.

BookShout sets a daily goal for you, with a progress bar that moves along as you’re reading a book. After reading just 1000 words, Joy got a congratulatory email. After 5,000 words, she received 50 cents in BookShout bucks.  The first day, she ranked 1535 among her friends, but quickly moved up to 534 a few days later. It’s all so gratifying, she might just finish a book called “Only Humans Need Apply,” which chronicles the rise of robots. (These robots can also read books, though their reviews are somewhat mechanical.)

To start, either download the app from the app store onto your phone, or go to bookshout.com to read books on your computer. We compared Bookshout’s e-book prices with Amazon’s and found them to be identical. BookShout also has a category called “free books.”

Though some reviewers have balked at reading books inside anything other than the Amazon Kindle app, Joy likes seeing the progress bar move along towards the daily goal. You can switch from one book to another and still get credit for reading. If you don’t like getting congratulatory emails, you can turn those off.

Internuts

  • AffordableCollegesOnline.org ranks online programs at a huge variety of colleges, from state schools to the Ivy League.
  • MrOwl.com lets you save your favorite websites to a page that others can see. If they like your collections or you like theirs, you can “heart” them. We clicked “history” and learned that a Union commander in the Civil War issued orders freeing the slaves in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, though this was well beyond his authority. The orders were rescinded by President Lincoln ten days later.

Recovering Photos on Your iPhone

We don’t own an iPhone, but the site Comparitech.com gave us some good tips for recovering photos from one.

First, open the Photos app on your iPhone. Look at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen and tap “Albums.” Scroll down and look at “Recently Deleted,” which has all the photos you deleted in the last 30 days. Your lost photo might be there. Now tap “Select” in the upper right and choose the photos you want back. Then tap “Recover.”

Next, try logging on to iCloud.com. Your photos may have been automatically backed up there. Tap “Photos” to see everything saved. If your storage is full, use the iTunes app to back up your photos to your computer. If you’ve done this regularly, you can recover any lost photo. Even easier: Download the free “Google Photos” app. It will automatically back up any photos you’ve taken with your phone. Google Photos gives you unlimited storage space if you are willing to limit photo resolution to 16 megapixels and video resolution to 1080p. If you store at higher resolutions, it counts against your Google Drive quota of 15 gigabytes.

The Numbers Report

Google has 31 percent of the world’s digital ad market, according to research firm eMarketer, generating $85 billion in revenue. Facebook is second, with 18 percent. Google also owns YouTube and gets another $9.13 billion in ad revenue from there.

Hey Google!

If you have the “Google Home” speaker, you no longer have to say “Hey Google,” every time you want its attention. If eight seconds or less have passed since your last question, you can just ask a follow-up, which doesn’t have to be related to the first one.

But first you have to set this up. Go to the Google Home app on your phone. Look for the three stacked lines called the “hamburger icon” or the word “menu.” Tap it, then tap “more settings.” Tap “preferences” and turn on “continued conversation.” While you’re there, tap “Getting Around” and tell Google how you usually get around — car, public transportation, walking, biking, jet pack, etc. The next time you ask for directions, the Google assistant will tailor her response to your preferred mode of movement.

 

FINDING FREE ONLINE GAMES

We got a guide from Play-Free-Online-Games.com. The exact page is impossible to find in a search, so we’re giving you the gist of it here. Actually, these things are fun, and you can’t beat the price.

  • Shooter Games. If you like to fly through space, try “Battleship Galactica” or “Ace Online.” If you prefer to fight on the ground and like monsters and werewolves, try “Wolf Team.” If you prefer mummies, try “Mission Against Terror.” If you would rather fight the military, and like World War II vintage tanks, try “World of Tanks.” If you prefer a deadly cartoon soldier, try “Lost Saga.”
  • Role-Playing Games. If you like fantasy, join ten million others in “World of Warcraft.” If you’ve been there, done that, try “Runes of Magic,” “Adventure Quest Worlds” or “Dragon Fable.” If your age is a single digit, try “Wizard 101.” If you want an easy sci-fi game, try “Dark Orbit.” To perfect the art of crushing your enemies, try “Age of Conan.” If you like “Dungeons and Dragons,” try “Crystal Saga,” “Forsaken World,” “Drakensang,” “Dark Swords,” “Dungeons and Dragons Online,” or “Lord of the Rings.” If you’re old enough to remember when “The Incredibles” came out, try “DC Universe Online.” If not, try “Superhero Squad Online.” If being a vampire hunting a werewolf is strange enough for you, try “Bitefight.” If not, try “Glitch.”
  • If you like a fantasy setting, try “Call of the Gods,” or “Grepolis.” If you like a historical setting, try “Castle Empire,” “Travian,” “1100 A.D.,” or “Tribal Wars.” If you like games with blocks or Legos, try “Minecraft” or “Roblox.” To make new friends, try “IMVU.” If you mainly want to create things, try “Second Life.”

Portable Speakers and All That Jazz

It has become clear to us over many years that there is a secret meeting place, perhaps in a remote mountain location, most likely in Bhutan, where the makers of electronic devices gather to decide what to promote for the coming holiday season. There is no other explanation for what are clearly waves of gadgets and stuff that wash over us every year.

For some time now, we have received pitches for earphones and speakers. Apparently, no one can fully appreciate rock or rap without special equipment, which is quite understandable. Nor are they able to distinguish what actors are saying on their television sets without a yard-long bar that delivers clear enunciation even when it is not intended; after all, a grunt is a grunt and that is the essence of an action movie.

There was a recent wave for smart TVs, one for protective smartphone cases, another for home antennas, and a constant effort to make a cell phone the movie camera of our time.

So we received a wireless speaker for review. We went to a nearby store and found that there were several of these on the market and they seem quite similar. So there is little point in trying to figure out which is the best, because that will depend on the individual’s ear and taste, meaning pop, rock or classical.

But we can look at what they’re good for. These new portable Bluetooth speakers are all about the size of a soup can and range in price from $20 to $350. Sound quality is pretty good and – if they’re waterproof – you can wash them with soap and water. On a more practical level you can download an app to let you wake up to music or news delivered at a clear understandable level.

A good way to start is the free Pandora app from your phone’s app store. Tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) in the upper left corner of the screen and choose “settings,” then “Alarm Clock.” Tap it to set the time and the station you want to listen to. A station can be the name of a band, such as “The Beatles” or “Benny Goodman.”

Coming this month to the free Clock app from Google is the music service Spotify. The nice thing about Spotify is that you can name a specific song rather than a radio station. For instance, if we ask for the Tijuana Brass on Pandora, we get a lot of Bert Kaempfert. We like Bert a lot; he gave the Beatles their first big gig in Germany, and launched their career. But sometimes we want the original: Herb Alpert.

We tried the new “Sbode 6 Bluetooth Portable Waterproof Speaker,” a six-inch wireless speaker. Besides playing music, audio books, and other sounds from our phone, it takes phone calls. The sound quality was good and the price $36 reasonable.

It’s hard to choose one of these speakers over another, unless you go by price. For $36 on Amazon, the Sbode seems a good deal. The manual leaves much to be desired, however. While the sound blared out at us, we struggled to read the tiny print on how to turn down the volume. The manual says to “short press” the minus button on the side of the speaker to decrease the volume. Pressing short or long turns out to be subjective; Bob’s short press had no effect either way and the long press was enough to blast you out of the room. They’re quite rugged. Though we wouldn’t try this, they say you can clean them with running water, and wipe off any amount of sand or snow. The speakers also have an FM radio, and a slot for a micro sd storage card.

The Cutting Edge

We usually ignore crowd-funding campaigns but this one broke a record; it took in almost 28 million dollars in 30 days. They call it the “GlowForge,” and it’s for engraving on wood and similar materials. The basic model; is $2,500.

There are cheaper 3D laser cutters available, but users say the cheapies have more of a learning curve and some use software infected with malware. There are more expensive ones too: A $35,000 laser used in commercial applications is, as you might expect, much faster than the $2500 or $6000 model GlowForge.

We saw a GlowForge for $4000 on Amazon, but users say the cheaper one from GlowForge.com is all that most beginners will need.  Bob said he would cut Western scenes or a Tarzan adventure on veneer for custom furniture. That’s if he ever wanted to go into the custom furniture business.

Take a look at the user forum to find out what others are making. Popular right now: cheap ceramic tiles from Home Depot turned into coasters. Users color in the engraved areas with Sharpie marking pens. The excess ink wipes off the unengraved areas.