WHAT’S THE CACHE?

There’s an old Hollywood joke about the devil going to visit a talent agent and telling him he can put together any movie he wants, with any actors he wants, and no budget limit and the only thing he has to provide in return is his immortal soul. The agent thinks about this for a minute and says: “What’s the catch?”

So our Gmail slowed to a crawl, and for a few seconds we couldn’t figure out why. But a Google search came back with the answer: It’s the cache, stupid. Well all right they didn’t say stupid; we filled that in ourselves.

All the images that come up when you browse the web are “cached,” sort of the internet’s garage, so that the website will load quicker the next time you go there. Of course you may never go there again, but nonetheless it’s all still sitting there. If you go to as many sites as we do — hundreds, the sheer weight of the cache starts slowing down your email. It’s time for early Spring cleaning.

If you’re using the Chrome web browser in Windows 10,  click the three stacked vertical dots in the upper right of the screen. Then choose “More tools.” Then click “clear browsing data.” For Chrome users in Windows 7, click “More,” then “Options,” then “Under the Hood,” then “Clear browsing data.” In the Microsoft Edge browser, click the icon called the “hub.” It looks like half a star next to stacked lines. Then choose “settings” and “choose what to clear.” In Firefox, tap the menu button, then “settings,” then “privacy.” In Safari, tap the Bookmarks button, then the Bookmarks icon; tap “History” and “clear.”

Right Neighborly

We remember when CraigsList let you post an ad for free. Now they charge $10-75 for job listings, and services. It was getting bad for an acquaintance of Joy’s, a woman who repeatedly posts job listings at $45 each. We suggested she use NextDoor.com instead. You sign up for your city or area only and posting is free.

Once you’re in, you’ll get a daily list of links to the latest posts. We saw someone looking for a photographer, others reporting news of roaming dogs, and more offering to do babysitting, plumbing or tax preparation.

More on Hair Care

A few readers wrote to tell us they got an error message when they tried Ashampoo’s free Meltdown/Spectre checker to find out if their systems had been hacked. Unlike Windows 10 users, Windows 7 users were first asked to download a free Microsoft utility called Windows Management Framework. Doing so gave them an error message. We wrote Ashampoo in Germany and they were apologetic and said they’ll fix it. Which brings up something we have mentioned before but not for a long time, and it is that almost every program we have ever run has one or more bugs.

We learned from another reader that we were wrong to mention only Intel chips as being vulnerable.  According to Google, which uncovered the problem, AMD and ARM are also potentially vulnerable, as well as the devices and operating systems running on them. In other words, it’s everybody’s fault. As we said: bugs.

Watch Out

A reader showed us the transcript of a chat she had with a Dell representative concerning which computer to buy. It was enlightening and shows how they can intentionally mislead the ill-informed just to unload the junk in the warehouse.

The rep steered her to a thousand-dollar desktop computer, which in our view is a real dud. It had an i3 (super slow) processor and 8 gigabytes of RAM. For less than half the price, we found a Dell PC on Amazon for $425, with a super-fast  i7 processor and a magnificent 16 gigabytes of RAM, along with a two-terabyte drive. It’s refurbished, but that often means some company bought a fleet of them and returned a few unopened. We had a problem with that only once, years ago, and they replaced it immediately.

We had a similar conversation one time with a tech rep for Hewlett Packard printers. After a minute of chit chat about our problem, he dismissed it and said we should buy a new HP printer for a slightly higher piece.

App Happy

  • Burner” gives you a disposable phone number to post on a dating site or when you’re selling something on eBay and elsewhere. It’s free to download to your iPhone or Android phone, and free to use for the first week. After that, prices start at $2 for two weeks.
  • Sumo Paint” is a free online program getting good comments from users and it has a feature that is what many people like best about the expensive Adobe Photoshop. That feature is called “layers.” You can work on parts of any picture, including text, by isolating them in a separate layer. You can, for example, change a stormy to a sunny sky without changing anything else.

Numbers Report

LendEDU.com, a marketplace for student loan refinancing, decided to look at savings made by those who drop their cable TV subscription, often called “cord cutters.” It found:

  • The average cord-cutter saves $115 a month after axing their cable subscription.
  • Forty-four percent of cable subscribers are considering dropping it.
  • In one year, 31 percent of current cable users think they will no longer have cable. Looking ahead three years, 50 percent expect to have dropped it. In five years, 56 percent of current cable users expect to cut it out.

 

ALEXA IN THE CAR

In its never ending struggle to conquer the world, Amazon is moving Alexa into your car. Well, maybe not your car, but a lot of cars. We have a couple things to say about that. Okay, maybe three things.

For those who came into the movie late, Alexa is this know-it-all device you can ask about anything and it will often come up with the right answer and play music too. But it chops up classical pieces. (It’s best to imagine that somewhere in the middle of the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven dies, and that’s all he wrote.)

Coming out in early February, the car version will plug into your cigarette lighter and all will be well with the world. The last time we mentioned a car’s cigarette lighter, we heard from a reader who believed we were daft (close). He said it was a power outlet, not a cigarette lighter, because nobody smokes anymore. Another informed us it was not a cigarette lighter, it was a cigar lighter.

They call the new Alexa device Roav Viva and it will cost $50.  We asked Alexa what Roav Viva means but she didn’t know. Well, anyway … it talks through Bluetooth to a speaker, in your cupholder or elsewhere. (Bluetooth is a wireless radio transmission protocol named for a long, long dead king of Denmark.) Or it plugs in to your car radio. Look for a tiny socket labeled “aux” on the right side of the car radio. Aux means auxiliary. Our car is 18 years old and has no tiny socket, so another way to go is to listen to Alexa’s calm sweet voice through our smartphone. (The voice is a composite; by the way, there is no Alexa.) To hear her through the car’s own radio we could get an FM transmitter but that also goes into the cigarette lighter, so we’d need a car with two cigarette lighters.

We don’t really “need” Alexa, though we’ve heard of people who miss her terribly when they take trips. Our Pixel 2 phone has “Google Assistant” built in, and phones that don’t have it can download it from the Google Play store. We love Google Assistant, it’s also the voice inside the “Google Home” we have in the kitchen. IPhone users have Siri for the same purpose and they would both seem to be good alternatives to the new Roav Viva.

For other ways to get Alexa in your car, there’s Garmin’s “The Speak Plus,” also coming out in February, for $230. Besides channeling Alexa, it records accidents and delivers alerts. Panasonic is coming out with the Alexa Onboard. Logitech has Zero Touch for $50.

Free Logo Designs

 

DesignEvo.com lets you create a free logo in three clicks. The only catch is, they ask you to give them credit if you use it on your website, Facebook page or elsewhere. (Failure to do so could result in a visit from the logo police, who are madmen editors.)

To make a logo, start by clicking to choose a template. Frankly, their free templates looked just as good as the professional ones. Type in the name of your company or organization and make up a slogan. Click “Download.” They’ll ask you to share their name on Facebook or some other social media site, but you can ignore that, and then it’s all yours, ready to use in three versions. One comes with a transparent background so you can use it on colored pages.

DesignEvo has over one million icons to choose from in various categories. They also have hundreds of fonts and shapes. Download as many as you want. If you need more fonts, you can download them from other sites, but beware: downloading fonts is an easy way to pick up malware. We were okay downloading fonts from BlueFaqs. Search on the phrase “20 Free Fonts Ideal for Logos and Headings.”  Once you find one you like, click it, then click the download button. Then double-click the “ttf” file and click “install.”

We made a sample logo you can see above.

App Happy

  • Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen” for Android or iPhone tells you which foods have the most nutrition and lets you check off categories to make sure your day has been health-promoting. Each category has a list of examples, with quick video explanations of that food’s powers from Dr. Greger’s site, NutritionFacts.org. For instance, kale and collard greens lower the risk of glaucoma and prevent wrinkles, and have powerful anti-cancer and anti-heart disease properties. To earn a gold star from the app, Joy makes a smoothie with greens, banana, soy milk, cherry pomegranate juice, and frozen cherries.
  • “Toca Life: Vacation.” (For iPhone or Android.) See what it’s like going to the airport, jumping on a hotel bed and digging for treasure. The Toca Life Hospital,” welcomes newborn babies and treats the sick.
  • Syntronik,” a free app for iPhone and iPad, offers 25 instrument sounds from 17 synthesizers. It works with Apple’s GarageBand and other programs. They say it captures the “DNA” of the original hardware and accurately reproduces the sound of classic synthesizers.

Nazi Programs

Programs you just can’t get off the computer are called “Nazi Programs” in the techie trade. The latest version of “Uninstaller,” from Ashampoo, takes care of those. It also gives you a snapshot of what you have installed. We found out we had 85 programs installed, along with 50 Windows apps we never use.

Uninstaller includes “Startup Tuner,” which prevents certain programs from starting up automatically. Using the “Internet Cleanup tab,” we got rid of 14,268 web browsing traces put there by companies who were sure we would never want to be without them.

Uninstaller 7 is better than Windows own uninstaller. Ordinary programs tend to leave bits behind, sort of digital driftwood. These can slow down your computer or make it unstable. Besides those bits, Uninstaller gets rid of unwanted toolbars and browser plugins. Those can be sneaky; they add themselves without asking you first. The program is $40 from ashampoo.com.

 

 

OUR NEW PHONE

There are 4.66 billion cell phones in the world. Ours cracked. Water got in and they just don’t work as well when they’re submerged. ‘Hooda’ thought it? It was the third gone gadget in a year.

So bye-bye Google Nexus 6P and hello Google Pixel 2. All 158 apps from our old phone transferred over automatically as soon as we signed into our Google account. (Who needs 158 apps? We don’t even remember what they all do; they went in just to test ’em for the column.) The data in some of those apps was gone.

Unfortunately, Joy had a couple hours of Bob’s deep voice recorded on the old phone, telling her about his adventures in Morocco as a young man, when he helped excavate a Carthaginian seaport. All gone. Have to bore her all over again.

If you have an Android phone with a Marshmallow or newer operating system, some of the data in your apps, such as saved locations in your Google Maps or Waze app, will be in your Google account in the cloud. In all Android versions, your calendar, contacts, and email will be saved and automatically restored to a new phone. Look up and look grateful.

The Pixel 2 has “augmented reality,” which is one of those fads of the moment. You can add creatures and features to your photos and your screen. There’s now a Star Wars storm trooper on our phone; if you want, he can multiply into many and follow you around at the hardware store. Kids like it.

Other new features: We can say “Hey Google” to ask a question, get some music, or play a game, without touching the phone. Squeeze to get its attention. (That works with people too.) We said, “Hey Google, what’s new?” And she told us she was celebrating Trivia Day with a fact and notified us that a sea urchin was the first animal to be cloned. Who knew?

The Pixel 2 costs $649 with 64 gigabytes of storage in the 5-inch version we got, or $849 for the six-inch “XL.” That seems a mite high, but our monthly service bill is only $30 using Google’s “Project Fi” service.

Annoying Windows Log On

One of the most annoying features Microsoft has given us is the short life span of an open computer. If you step away or pause to read instructions for a couple minutes, everything goes black and a password is required to get back in. This is to protect you from the numerous spies that are constantly traipsing through your house and office building, hoping to steal the telephone numbers of your relatives and favorite pizza restaurant. You can fix that.

In the search box in the lower left of your screen, type “settings.” In the settings search box, type “login.” Click “sign in options.” Change “require sign-in” to “Never.” Watch out for spies.

Is It a Spectre or a Meltdown?

The specter of a global business meltdown loomed large a few weeks ago, when the press reported a vulnerability in Intel’s chips. Actually, Intel had already known about this problem for several months; they just didn’t tell us. Windows users can check to see if they’ve been attacked, using a free program from one of our favorite companies, Ashampoo.

Go to Ashampoo.com and type “meltdown” into the search box. Click on the “Spectre Meltdown Checker.” When Joy did it, it said her computer was vulnerable to Spectre but not about to have a Meltdown. She clicked “What should I do?” One of the suggestions was to update the graphics driver. To do that yourself, type “device manager” in the Windows search box, click on it when it comes up, and then click on “Display Adapters.” Right-click the graphics driver and choose “automatically update.” You’d think Windows would do this for you but they were out to lunch. Joy’s graphics driver did need updating, even though it was a new computer. Bob’s computer, of course, was fine.

Another thing the Meltdown Checker suggests is to use “site isolation” in the Google Chrome browser. Search on the phrase “Manage site isolation in Chrome” and follow the instructions. They seem tech-y but are easy enough. If anything, our web experience seemed faster after carrying this out.  But even after doing all this, we still got a “vulnerable” rating from the Meltdown checker. But every computer is vulnerable if the user is prone to click on suspicious links. A friend of ours got panicky when she received a screen message telling her to call Microsoft immediately to fix an emergency problem. Joy grabbed her hand before she could call. Remember this: Microsoft will never ask you to call!

iPad Alternatives

A reader wrote to say he balked at paying $329 for a new iPad or $399 for an iPad Mini 4. Joy feels the same way. She lost her iPad when she left it in the gym. She has no desire to buy a new iPad, because her $50 Amazon Fire 7 tablet, bought two years ago, works fine. The new Fire 7s also cost $50 and are even better.

The only thing that bugs us about the old Fire 7 is that it’s always running out of storage space. However, it has a slot for adding a memory card. You can add up to 256 gigabytes, which is 248 more than it started with. However, we must have dropped the Fire on its head, because our memory card keeps popping back out.

The new version of the lowest-cost Fire tablet, still called the Fire 7, is thinner, lighter and has a better display. Like the older version, it’s seven inches, about the size of the iPad Mini, which makes it easy to hold in the hands, like a book. The battery goes for eight hours, not bad compared to 10 hours for the more expensive iPad.

Other versions of the Fire Tablet have more features and are larger, on up to the $204 version. One thing they have in common: If you also have a $40 Amazon Fire Stick plugged into your TV, which brings in Amazon Prime Videos, Netflix and other channels, you can browse Amazon on your tablet and tap to instantly watch it on TV. For Fire Tablet and iPad alternatives, check out TechRadar’s article, “The Best Cheap Tablets.”

 

 

 

DOUBLING UP

Over the holidays we visited with an Italian who sells automated chicken coops. It’s an odd business but somebody has to do it.

But what we thought was really odd was in the basement of his home in suburban Chicago, he had six terabyte disk drives linked together in what the techies call a daisy chain. That means they can all act as one continuous drive as the contents are fed along the pipeline. He uses them to store information for his business, and, oh yeah, movies.

Terabyte drives have become common now; most new computers come with disk drives of one or two of these monster storage capacities. How monster are they? Well, a terabyte is a thousand gigabytes. If you’re using it to store books – let’s say an average novel length of 400 pages – it can hold a little over 700,000 of them. If you could read one every two days you could finish them all in just 4,000 years. This is all a rough calculation, but it suffices to say that you should lay in a large store of cheese and crackers.

But our Italian host likes movies, so he downloads and stores them. This is not an unusual thing, many people store movies on a disk drive. You can fit about 500 hours of movies on a terabyte drive. If they average one and a half hours running time, that’s 330 movies with plenty left over for the kid’s cartoons.

So we got a two terabyte drive. Why take half measures, it was sent in for review anyway. It contains two separate one terabyte drives, both in the same case. It weighs 2.7 pounds. With this, we have enough storage for 660 movies and some commentary from Ben Mankiewicz.

That seems a bit silly, and it is. But such a drive has uses well beyond entertainment; you can store all the data from a pretty good-sized business. But what if the drive goes down? Uh-oh.

For several years this column ran in the Bangkok Post – Bangkok, Thailand. We didn’t put it there, they asked for it. So one day, Bob got a call from a guy at the Post, and he said: “Do you know how to get the data back from a drive that stopped working?” The back story there was that they used Macs and Apple drives and everything went so smoothly they never backed anything up. Oops.

Now there are services that will try to collect data from a dead drive, but there’s no guarantee and they don’t deliver in time for next morning’s newspaper. So this OWC two-terabyte drive – and other brands as well – can be used in any of several modes. But the crucial one of those is called mirroring.

This is what any business should have. A mirror drive simply stores a copy of whatever you sent to the main drive. It does this in real time and there you have it. It’s not guaranteed perfect protection but the chances of two disk drives failing at the same time are very, very small. The price for having this protection also runs low: the OWC Mercury Elite Pro we have costs $129, other makes are similarly priced. Remember: you’re allowed to lose your head, but not your data.

Who Owns It?

We get interesting questions from readers, and maybe the most interesting one we ever got was “Who owns the software?”

The reader pointed out that he pays $100 a year for Microsoft Office on five computers, five phones and five tablets. This entitles him to upgrades whenever they come out and to call technical support. He said he doesn’t care about the upgrades and he doesn’t need technical support. Bob feels the same way, but can you get out of it?

Software used to be sold in boxes, as a package. You bought it and you owned it. This was fine with our reader, us and practically everybody else in the known universe. But it wasn’t fine with Microsoft and other software houses. Because once they sold it, you owned it. End of story. This was not conducive to ongoing revenue. Several years ago many of these companies adopted a new business model, which they called “software as a service.” Now you didn’t own it, you just leased it. This meant a continual revenue stream coming in, and once you have that you can borrow against it; you can sell bonds, take out mortgages. It’s called financial engineering.

So to get to the big question: If you stop paying that annual lease fee, can they, the makers, turn off your program? When Joy tried to cancel auto-renew, she got a Microsoft warning that she would lose access to her Office apps, her Skype minutes and one terabyte of storage space. If you’re a business user, it’s worse: You can still view and print documents, but can no longer edit them after 90 days.

Numbers Report

How fast can a Bitcoin transaction go? Seven transactions per second. Ethereum can handle 15 transactions per second. But Amazon has handled 600 transactions a second during big sale days. Rumor has it that Amazon has purchased several websites for dealing in crypto-currencies, such as AmazonCryptocurrencies.com.

Internut

Things People Said, Courtroom Quotations.” Search on that phrase to find some hilarious remarks by lawyers and witnesses. For example: Lawyer: “Was that the same nose you broke as a child?” Witness: “I only have one, you know.” Or how about an accused thief defending his own case and cross-examining a witness: “Did you get a good look at my face when I stole your purse?” He got ten years to think about that.

 

 

 

TRUTH FINDER

We now know people who are married, or about to be, to mates they met online; it’s becoming normal. But if any of these meets make you nervous, you can make preliminary checks. A friend of ours turned down a match from an online dating service because the guy had “too many relationships.” Truthfinder.com told her.

The scope of the information was amazing. TruthFinder not only knew how many online relationships the guy had, but how many business filings he’d made with the government (they were for McDonald’s franchises), what his house was worth, how much he paid for his mortgage, and so on. The service, which charges $28 for a one-time search, or $23 if you go monthly, also offers a simple summary of past addresses for free.

The paid version, which is not expensive, can find criminal offenses — from felonies down to traffic tickets, financial hardship info, job information, weapons permits, online profiles, and on and on. Some people say they used it to find old friends and lost relatives. We looked Bob up in the free version (sometimes we astonish ourselves with how cheap we can be) and the information they had was correct. They give you a preview, noting places lived and relatives.

Before you pay the $28, however, you can try Facebook, LinkedIn and Google searches. (Hey, they’re free.) Bob found Joy’s long-lost brother in two minutes on LinkedIn; he’s a business school professor. Joy added one more to her 27 nephews and nieces.

Should We Worry About Cell Phone Radiation?

California has issued warnings about keeping a cell phone in your pocket all day, or keeping it up to your ear for hours at a time. So naturally we turned to one of our sharpest readers, a physicist, to ask about radiation dangers.

“Cell phone wave lengths are about ten million times greater than ultraviolet light,” he said, “so the radiation coming from radio waves, also called ‘photons,’ is too weak by a factor of ten million. An ice cube has a greater chance of surviving in Hell than a photon has of harming a human being.”

For comparison purposes, he added: “A frog that can barely jump one foot high would not be able, even if it tried very hard, to jump 2000 miles high. It’s that kind of energy difference between what is needed and what the photon has. The numbers matter. A lot.”

We did some further research on the matter (well, the particle matter) and found an article from the M.I.T.’s “Technology Review” that seemed to back this up. And yet, California’s Department of Public Health has issued warnings about carrying cell phones next to your body, holding them next to your head or even at your bedside while sleeping.

The main point, our reader notes, is that cell phone radiation does not break any chemical bonds. As far as we know, he added, if chemical bonds aren’t broken, cancer and other deleterious effects can’t happen. “It’s worth noting,” he added, “that cell phones have been around almost 30 years and we have not seen a rise in brain cancers that one would expect if there was more than an extremely small effect.”

Internuts

Magnets Revisited

A reader asked us about our write-up of rare earth magnets on a rod, from MagnetPal. He wondered: Wouldn’t it destroy a cell phone if it got too close? What about a computer?

According to an article in Forbes Magazine, a magnet could wipe clean the hard drive inside a PC, but it would need one with a 450-pound pull force. That’s huge and way, way beyond the little magnets we wrote about. But … destroying the remote-control locking button on your car keys might be within its range. Our reader’s daughter magnetized her Audi key fob, and it took him an “extraordinary amount of money to get a replacement.”

Range, of course is the key issue. As we all learned in high school, the strength of any electromagnetic field diminishes with the square of the distance from the source. So, for example, a magnet that was only one hundredth of an inch from the car key fob (essentially touching), would have only one-ten-thousandth of the effect if it were held just one inch away. (High school was so interesting.)

Microsoft Annoyances

Bob wanted to use System Restore in Windows 10 to bring his computer back to a day when everything was working properly. In Windows 7 and 8, this was no problem, with many dates to choose from. In Windows 10, he had only one choice for a restore point and that one didn’t work.

Joy tried it on her new computer and found that she also had no restore points. So she created one. To do this yourself, type “recovery” in the Windows search box and click on it when it comes up in Control Panel. Click “open System Restore.” If you see no restore points, cancel, and click “Configure System Restore.” Then click “Create” to create a restore point. In the future, when you need to restore your PC, pick a date a few days earlier, or at least two days. Files will not be lost in this process; whatever you’ve written in between is like the handwriting on the wall. (Bob recalls that the famous “handwriting on the wall” refers to a wall in the royal feast room of the king’s palace in ancient Babylon. What the writing said was “Mene, Mene, tekel upharsin.” Which means, loosely translated, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Not good news.

SOLVABLE SOLITAIRE

What is the most popular Windows program ever made? It’s not Microsoft Office or Word, it’s Solitaire. Practically everyone we’ve ever known plays it. It’s one of those “win some, lose some” kind of games. Or is it?

If you try Solitaire in Windows 10 they have an option: They have “solvable solitaire” options starting at “easy” and going up to tournament levels. Bob’s an ace at Solitaire, But Joy usually loses. So she tried the solvable “medium” level and won her first three games! Ha, ha, victory!

To find the solvable games option, you can either type “solitaire” in the search box in the lower left of your screen, or click the start button and scroll down until you get to Microsoft Solitaire Collection. We chose “Klondike,” the classic version.

Where to Get Off

When Joy was 15, she and a friend thought it would be fun to explore the whole length of a train. Somehow, they got separated from their group and missed their stop. Miraculously, they spotted the group on the freeway from a cab and moved from cab to van. This need never happen again with a new feature on Google Maps for Android phones.

Google Maps will tell you when to get off (no, not in that sense), whether you’re on a bus or train. It also tells you departure times and estimated time of arrival. You can also track your progress when driving, walking or biking.

To try it, tap Google Maps on your Android phone. Type in a destination, tap “Directions,” then select the picture of a bus or whatever and choose one of the selected routes. Tap the “Start” button to get on your way.

Learning a Language Through Apps

Two of our best friends are moving to Germany. He’ll be a chef and partner in a new barbecue restaurant, she’ll be an English tutor. They’re studying German like mad. Joy decided to learn German for moral support. Learning a new language is reported to be very good brain exercise, and Joy finds it more fun than the typical game on her phone. Here are some fun language apps:

— “Mondly” has 20 million users and is $10 a month and fun. It’s more conversational than some of the other apps we tried. Start a conversation in a restaurant, for example, and they’ll give you choices of what you can say when your virtual waitress asks you a question. Tap the microphone on your phone so she can hear you. If she can’t understand you, you’ll be asked to repeat. The voices include a man’s, a woman’s, and a child’s. After a while, they seem like family. The vocabulary drills are easy, because they show you a picture of what your new word means, so you can hardly fail to guess that the picture of a book, for instance, is “Buch” in German. All this builds confidence as you get to harder lessons.

— “DuoLingo” is  free and fun. It guides you up the language slopes ever so gently. Before you know it, “Auf Wiedersehen” is as familiar as “goodbye.”  This site just added Swahili and Romanian. A curious footnote here: Bob notes while many people think Swahili is what they speak in Africa, this isn’t true. There is no country in Africa whose native tongue is Swahili. It is a “Lingua Franca,” so to speak, used for trade, originally  with traders who spoke Arabic.

— “TinyCards,” also free, gives you free flash cards in the language of your choice. It reinforces what you’ve learned elsewhere.

— “Berlitz Talk & Travel Phrasebooks,” give you a free preview of lessons, then charges 99 cents. We found it helpful. All of the common idiomatic expressions are here.

Internuts

  • Google.com/flights helps find the cheapest flights.
  • TheFunTheory.com has a lot of real-life approaches to get people to have fun doing things they should do. For instance, 66% more people take the stairs instead of an escalator when they’re painted like piano keys. One hundred people recycled their glass bottles, compared to just two, when the receptacle showed a video game that required you to insert bottles to play.
  • FeastingOnFruit.com has desert recipes that use dates instead of sugar. Some have unhealthy ingredients like coconut butter, but there are many gems here.
  • TipsBulletin.com is a website for happy, handy, household hints. How to clean a countertop, remove nail fungus, “the ultimate guide to cleaning your hairbrush and comb,” and more.
  • Medium.com offers three free articles a day, with great variety. We read a piece on Einstein’s comment “spooky at a distance.” If you go beyond the daily limit, Medium costs $5 a month. Joy likes the Bitcoin articles.

The Nine Pyramids of Giza

In 2016, there was enough electronic equipment thrown away to occupy the space taken by all nine of the Great Pyramids of Giza.  If Egypt is too hot for you, you could pile up the equivalent of 4,500 Eiffel Towers or load 1.3 million 18-wheel 40-ton trucks –enough to form a line bumper to bumper from New York to Bangkok and back.

These numbers to ponder come from the United Nations University, a place we never heard of, which turns out to be the academic branch of the United Nations. The electronic trash includes stoves, washing machines, cameras, phones, TVs, computers, lamps and other electrical stuff. America produces the most per person. Alright … who’s number one?

AUGMENTED REALITY

What’s hot? Fake reality, that’s what’s hot.

What’s really great about the technology business is the number of things you can do and make even if nobody wants them. Who knows? Somebody might buy it.

We thought the Netflix series show, “Stranger Things,” was pretty strange. Strange enough, for us to drop out and not return. But stranger still, some of the show’s characters, like “Eleven,” can drop into whatever you’re shooting with your smartphone. Characters from Star Wars can also drop in — your shopping trip can be guarded by Imperial storm troopers — and no one but you will know that you’re nuts.

They drop into the scene in 3D, like from the moon, from thin air, and they interact with each other. So that’s “augmented reality,” or AR as they call it. (If you don’t have an acronym, you don’t have a product.) You can get it now on Google’s Pixel 2 phone, and other phones are about to get it.

You can watch a demo of all this on YouTube.  Search for “Augmented Reality Demo on Pixel 2.” We always thought real reality was enough to handle.

Get Smarter

Computer games make you smarter. Bob has been preaching this in our column since the earliest days of computer games, going back nearly forty years. There is evidence to back him up.

The latest study is from the University of Montreal. They divided seniors aged 55 to 75 into three groups: One took piano lessons, one played “Super Mario 64,” and the third did nothing. What’s particularly unusual about this was that that past studies have focused on men and women in their 20s.

Only the game playing group saw an increase in their little gray cells, as Hercule Poirot used to say. Specifically, it was gray matter in the hippocampus, which London taxi drivers are famous for having more of, since it has to do with visual mapping. The hippocampus contributes to transforming short-term memories into long term memories. How much grey matter you have can help identify Alzheimer’s.

The Digital Assistants Get Into the Holiday Spirit

Amazon Echo and Google Home are ready for the holidays.

You can say “Alexa, play Christmas music,” and off she goes. Or try “Alexa: Read me ‘The Night Before Christmas.’” To go further, turn to the Alexa app on your phone, tap “Skills” and search on “iHeart Santa.” This gets you “North Pole Radio.” We found Santa’s voice annoying though, and he interrupts too often.

The Google Home smart speaker also has some holiday tricks. You can say “Hey Google, tell me a Santa joke,” or “talk to Santa’s hotline.” Here are some other fun things to say. The first two are from Star Trek:

“Hey, Google: set phasers to kill.” And, “Hey, Google: Beam me up Scotty.” Try “Where’s Waldo?” And the ultimate: “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?” Just to relieve the suspense, we’ll tell you: it’s “42.”

Bitcoin Scams

A woman lost $20,000 in a Bitcoin scam, according to a report by Malwarebytes.org. She Googled what she thought was the support number for Coinbase.com, the number one Bitcoin trading site, and got a scammer instead.

Bitcoin, in case you’ve just tuned in, is a form of digital money that doesn’t rely on banks. However, as with banks, there’s a database that keeps a record of every transaction. Instead of a central authority, it’s verified by almost two million computers. To hack into it, you have to hack all the computers simultaneously.

But you do have to be careful where you do your trading. We use Malwarebytes software, the paid version for $60, to add a layer of protection for three devices. Malwarebytes offers some tips for Bitcoin purchasers. One is don’t trade Bitcoin using PayPal. Get more at blog.malwarebytes.com.

Trade In Your Old Computer for a New Mac

It’s undeniable: Apple computers, though expensive, offer high performance. To get you on board, they offer good prices on trade-ins of other computers. Here are some sample quotes from Phobio.com/tradein/Apple: A Macbook Pro in good working order can earn you $2500 towards the purchase of a new Apple computer. A Windows PC or Chromebook can earn you up to $500 in a trade.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Most of the computers they accept for trade-in are Chromebooks. There are only a few Windows machines, the HP Spectre, LG Display and Lenova Yoga. We have an Acer Chromebook 14, but it’s smaller and older than those on their list and didn’t make the cut. That’s OK. It’s fast, reliable and light weight. Chromebooks now let you use Android apps as well as the Android version of Microsoft’s Office 365. We’ll just keep it.

Not That Kind Of Dojo

The anti-virus company Bullguard, which we’ve found to be reliable, has a new product called “Dojo.” It may not give you back your mojo, but it aims to prevent hackers from disrupting your smart baby monitors, thermostats, alarms and other appliances that talk to each other in the “Internet of Things.”

The Dojo looks like a rock. Once connected to a network, it will automatically detect any gadget connected to the Internet and stop anything that seems suspicious. A free Dojo app works with Android and iPhones. It costs $199 and includes 12 months free service. After that, it’s $10 a month.

And All That Jazz

We hadn’t listened to Pandora radio since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but we like their new “thumbprint” feature. It plays selections from all the stations you’ve created, so you don’t have to choose between them.

When you click “create station” at Pandora.com, and type in the name of an artist or composer you like, they’ll automatically create a station around it, and save it to your list. Ours includes the Tijuana Brass, Benny Goodman, Scott Joplin, Bach, Beethoven and Boccherini. Now we can listen to a playlist that includes all of those.

 

 

GET CLICKING BEFORE THE DEAL IS GONE

Okay, just writing about getting a new computer was enough for us. Joy went online and bought a new HP with an Intel i7 processor and 12 gigabytes of RAM. The old all-in-one has been cleared — we mean completely cleared — for drop-off at Goodwill. Perhaps someone will want to try putting in a Linux operating system.

The PC came from Amazon, in an “HP Envy Bundle,” a $650 deal which included a refurbished “HP 750-137cb” computer, a gorgeous 27-inch monitor, two Bang & Olufsen speakers with great sound quality, a wireless keyboard and mouse. The speed is incredible, the monitor is huge and as sharp as an expensive TV. And it has a two-terabyte hard drive. Joy copied more than 12,000 files from the old to the new computer in about ten seconds.

On the downside, this all came with no documentation whatsoever, just a card saying the user manual was probably pre-installed. It wasn’t. But Bob first taught Joy how to put computer components together back in 1993. She’s had a lot of experience since then and it was no problem.

As soon as Joy set it up, Bob wanted one. They don’t call it “Envy” for nothing. Joy went out into the Amazon world to get another one, which this time was listed for just $500, and … it turned out to be a fake listing.

That’s a new twist, something we never encountered before. Amazon did have one more Envy bundle, but for $1300, twice the price we paid. It had fewer features and no monitor. Is there a moral to this story? You bet: sometimes the Internet lies to us. Bob decided to see what kind of deals would be available after Christmas.

How to Transfer Stuff

A reader writes that he has yet to transfer his stuff from an old computer to the new one and did we have any suggestions. There are several ways to go.

You could use a service from Office Depot or Staples, or go online to HelpHelpNow.com. Or you could use the $15 program, “PC Mover Express.” It transfers your files and favorites from your old computer to your new one, and offers free support over the phone. In the past, we’ve tried the more expensive “PC Professional,” which is supposed to transfer programs too, but that didn’t work well.

Transferring programs is the problem, of course. Transferring files is easy. But if you want your old favorite programs on the new computer, you better hope you still have the original disks or registration codes somewhere. If you don’t, quite a few companies will let you load in a new copy of their product if you registered the old one. Call or go online and ask.

Getting back to your files, it’s best to keep them backed up to a private account, using Google Backup & Sync or some other backup program. Then when the time comes, go to Drive.Google.com to find them all again. (Last year, Google’s computers used as much energy as the entire city of San Francisco, and it was all renewable.) If you use Office 365, your files are automatically backed up at Microsoft’s OneDrive.com.

When you’re ready to give away your old computer, there’s Laplink’s “Safe Erase,” for $15. It lets you wipe everything including the Windows operating system, or just your files and personal data. The inheritor of your old computer can put on the free Linux operating system, which many techies like, or turn it into a Chromebook. Learn more with a query to the web. The Web knows all.

So What’s New With You?

Odd stuff comes in for review around this time of year. Things we never asked to see, from companies we never heard of.

— We got an electronic “Blackboard” from MyBoogieBoard.com. The $45 board has its own pen for writing on what they call liquid crystal paper. It’s reminiscent of those wax tablets we used to get as kids. It takes handwriting and holds onto it. It’s now Joy’s magic to-do list.

The board is 8.5 by 11-inches, ultra thin and ultra light. To clear it, push a button to erase everything at once. For erasing just part of what’s there, push another button and the tip of the pen becomes an eraser. She likes it.

— We also got a telescoping rod with a rare earth magnet attached to the end. It came from MagnetPal.com. The purpose is to let you easily pick up anything magnetic you dropped and can’t reach or can’t find, like a ring of keys. The magnet can be removed from the rod and used to hold anything you want on a magnetic surface. It’s about the size of a thick pencil eraser and powerful enough to hold a monkey wrench. It’s only $25.

This captured Bob immediately. He used to make prints of magnetic fields back in junior high school. Rare earth magnets are more powerful than plain iron ones and magnetism itself is a force one trillion, trillion times stronger than gravity. For instance, the next time you are out in space having a good time exploring the galaxy, watch out for Magnetars, which are small dense stars held together by an intense magnetic field. The field is so powerful that it could pull the iron out of you blood cells from twenty thousand miles away. Be careful out there,

A Bit More On Bitcoin

We were in an elevator the other day when a young guy said to his girlfriend, “I wish I could take a time machine, I’m so obsessed with it.” “Are you talking about Bitcoin?” Joy asked. “Yes,” he said. She said she was obsessed with it too, and his girlfriend laughed.

There are now Bitcoin clubs all over the country, probably the world. We looked up one and it had 1200 members. They hold meetings, though we hope not everybody shows up.

According to the website Decentralize.Today, Bitcoin is now the 6th most valuable currency in the world, after the South Korean won, U.S. Dollar, British Pound, Euro, and Japanese Yen.

 

SELECTING YOUR NEXT COMPUTER

This is the time of year when we get our most frequent reader question: What computer should I buy? It’s also the easiest question we ever get: Whatever you buy, you’ll almost certainly love it.

The questioner usually wants a laptop; in fact it’s almost always a laptop. It’s a good choice for most people. Bob dislikes them intensely because of the crowded keyboard and small screen. Joy likes them because they’re portable. So, okay, one of the factors to consider in making your choice is weight; not your weight, its weight. As we used to say in the newsroom: keep it light and tight, and sometimes also trite.

So this gets us down to choices right away. Are you going to carry it around a lot? Are you going to carry it around at all? If you’re not, so-called desktop or tower computers are nearly always cheaper and you can choose you own monitor and keyboard. You’ll need to add those and they’re both cheap these days. Desktops also have room for adding extra disk drives and memory.

What do you want to do with it? If it’s going to be mostly for writing, browsing the web, social networking and a few games once in awhile, you might like a Chromebook, which runs on Google’s Chrome operating system. The advantages are low cost — as low as $149, but can go up to a thousand for heavy users — and everything’s online. In short, no software to buy or load, it’s all out there online all the time.  Another advantage is no viruses or so-called malware, because every time you start it up, Google scans for problems and fixes them. Last year for the first time, Chromebooks outsold Macbooks.

But what if you’re a gamer? We mean, a really serious game player. You know, the big screen action and adventure games. The action is fast, the scene changes need to be as quick as those in a movie and the sound quality should be top notch. This type of computer is usually a desktop, and companies that specialize in them have exotic names, like Corsair, AlienWare and CyberPowerPC.

Gaming computers often come with color lights on the cases and some of them are even liquid-cooled to handle the chip heat thrown off by hot chips. These cost big bucks, several thousand dollars usually, and you may want to add extra monitors so the players can see what’s coming at them from the periphery.

If you like to do a lot of photo and/or video editing, you want a fast central processor and lots of memory. Make that tons of memory. It would also be nice to have solid state drives instead of spinning disks. Solid state means that inside nothing is moving except electrons. Response time is essentially instantaneous. If you’re editing video or creating special effects, you want that.

This same situation, but not as drastic, applies to music editing. Those are specialized computers, however, and if you’re into musical performances it’s another ball game and you already know about it.

So back to the real world and ordinary users: A few hundred dollars will be sufficient for something nice and fast enough for normal people. If it’s a PC over $600 it should have an Intel i5 or i7 central processor  or their equivalent from other chip makers, like AMD. The more RAM, the better — four to eight gigabytes are the usual choices. More RAM (Random Access Memory) lets everything run faster. New computers often come with huge hard drives. These have reached almost silly proportions, like going into the terabyte (trillion bytes) range, which no one born on this planet has any need for but is pumped up there as a sales tool. Okay, movie buffs can dump their collections into these drives, but there’s really no need.

Finally, does the brand matter? Not much. In fact, it matters so little, that we normally would pay no attention to the brand. If you’ve heard of it, they’ve been around for a while.

Kindle Unlimited

If you read a lot, and listen to audio books, here’s a way to save money. It’s called Kindle Unlimited, and you get it from Amazon.

Kindle Unlimited is like a lending library. For $10 a month, you can take out ten books at once. If you don’t like a book, return it and choose another. Return them all as often as you like and get ten more. There are more than 20,000 titles that are also available as audio books. You don’t need a Kindle to read a Kindle book, you can download the app to your phone, tablet, or computer.

Amazon Prime Lending has a similar program and it’s free for Prime members who pay $99 a year for lots of other perks, such as free shipping and many free movies. But Prime Lending has only a thousand titles.  Kindle Unlimited includes 1.4 million books to choose from. However, many best sellers and hot new releases are not included, nor are some major publishing houses. There are no books from Hachette, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins or Penguin for example.

Internuts

NewYorker.com/cartoons/random gives you a random assortment of New Yorker cartoons. (We all know the cartoons are the best part.)

— “Bitcoin meetups.”  Search on that phrase,and add your town. We found Bitcoin clubs ranging from 300 to 1200 members after a reader asked us about them.

— “Scientists Design $100 Muon Detector.” Search on that phrase to find how to make your own elementary particle detector.  Muons are formed when cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, but since they only last 2.2 microseconds, they are hard to detect. You can count 50 times as many muons in an airplane as you can at sea level. Of course that means you’re being hit by 50 times as many but you won’t feel a thing.

— “Abuzz Mosquito.” Search on that phrase to join a group of mosquito mappers. There are 3,500 species of mosquito, but only around 25 spread disease. “Abuzz” is building a sound library and has already captured close to 1,000 hours of buzzing using phones. With that, they can map mosquito risks.

— “Google Family Link” lets parents limit phone time and lock the phone at bedtime. They can also lock the phone if it gets lost and reset the password.

Shopping Tip

Have you ever noticed that when you return to an online shopping site, the price you saw before is now higher? Some shoppers use “incognito mode” so the site isn’t aware they’ve viewed that page before. To enter incognito mode in Google Chrome (the most common web browser), hold down the “Shift” and “Ctrl” keys and tap the letter “N.” In Firefox, click on the three horizontal lines in the corner and choose “New Private Window.” On the Mac, hold down the “Cmd” key, then “Shift,” then tap the “N” key.

 

 

NO CAT CALLS PLEASE

Half a century ago Andy Warhol predicted that someday everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. He forgot to mention pets.

Now there are websites devoted to making your pet stand out from the crowd. Bowser or Fluffy can even star in their own story book. And of course you can post videos — with background music and sound effects. Don’t worry that people will think you’re some kind of nut, a recent report says 65 percent of pet owners post news of their pets twice a week. Where do they post? On pet social networks, of course.

If you search on the phrase “How to Make Your Pet a Star in Social Media,” you’ll get lots of advice. ABC News has “Expert Advice on How to Make Your Pet a Social Influencer.” The L.A. Times published a piece on making your pet an Instagram star. Some of these tips involve making money. “Jill the Pomeranian” has more than 6.1 million followers on Instagram and does publicity for movies.  A New York City talent agency, “Pets on Q,”  manages animals who star in commercials, have huge followings on Instagram and can arrange book deals. We offer a sample title of our own:
“Getting Beyond Woof.”

Petlandia.com creates story books for kids with their pets in starring roles. Each is $30. There’s one about two dogs “em-bark-ing” on a trip from “Mew York” to “Hollywoof” via “San Franbiscuits.” (Do not get sick on this page.) You choose the dog illustration that most looks like your dog, cat, bunny or other, then choose the adventure you want it to star in and tell the site the pet’s name. Ready-made story: “Curley Meets Grumpy Cat in Petlandia.” Later to be a series.

Places to start your cutie-pie’s adventure: Catster.com; Dogster.com; Dogalize.com; Petbrags.com; LoveMyPets.com; Cuteness.com — which has a cute butt contest; MyDogSpace.com; Unitedcats.com — and on into the night.

UpdateA global hunt has been launched to find a specialist to help make more pets online stars. See the job description: Petlandia.com/usa/work-with-us/

Which Apple Product?

We went with a friend to the Apple store because she wanted to play a Windows program. Yes, it’s looney, but stick with it. Her question was whether she should buy a Macbook and put special software on it so that she could run an old Windows program. This was important, she said, because her favorite bridge game, from JackBridge.com, is for Windows only. Why not buy a Windows computer then? Not part of the answer; she wanted a Mac.

This is a doable thing, but just barely. The problem with putting Windows on a Mac is that you have to buy a program like the $80 “Parallels” software plus a copy of Windows, which starts at around $70, for a total investment of $150. In our experience, using Windows on a Mac is clunky. It’s cheaper and more sensible to buy an old Windows XP machine for playing those old games. We bought one for $70 a couple years ago and it’s very fast and trouble-free. If you don’t go on the Internet with it, there should be no problem.

So our friend ended up buying a new iPad, because her old iPad Mini 2 ran out of storage space and a memory stick she bought stopped working. (Not to mention there are rumors that Apple will stop offering updates for the iPad Mini 2 and the iPad Mini.) The cheapest iPad at the Apple store is $329 and has 32 gigabytes of storage. The most expensive one, the iPad Pro, is $799. Its processor is the same as the new Macbook’s, so it can handle what’s called “augmented reality” and other super tricks of the digital future. She’s loaded so she got the expensive one — in a rose-tinted case.

We bought an iPad too, the cheapest one. Our iPad Mini 2 became an ultra thin doorstop when Joy cleaned it with alcohol. The Apple Store employee said they recommend “Whoosh” screen cleaner, which is also good for your glasses. So we bought some Whoosh for $10 on Amazon. Works great.

Getting back to bridge games, our favorite is an old Windows program too. It’s part of “Bicycle Card Games,” which has a dozen card games and works with all versions of Windows. Amazon sells a used version for $20, or new for $45. It’s a great way to learn bridge, since the program won’t let you make illegal moves and the hands go by quickly.

App Happy

“InvisibleHand” from GetInvisibleHand.com (a tip of the tam-o’shanter to Adam Smith). It notifies you of price drops on shopping, flights, hotels and rental cars. The name comes from the famous statement by 18th century economist Adam Smith, who said  the invisible hand of the marketplace does a better job than government in allocating goods and services. Has anyone in the government ever read his book: “The Wealth of Nations?”

Defense

We got a new self-defense gizmo sent in for review. It’s that time of year. We used to get a lot of these things but over the years we have offended so many companies with bad reviews, that we don’t get many review thingies anymore.

This one is a pepper spray with a light and a phone call. Bob is a small fan of pepper spray. One time he demonstrated it to a visiting friend and his kids, by spraying a short squirt on the door.  That was enough to make us all leave the apartment for a while.

This one is called TigerLight “D.A.D 2” and lets you do a practice “spray” where nothing comes out. That’s fortunate, since the real stuff is awful, though not deadly. According to a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department study, the D.A.D. 2 stops 96 percent of attackers. (But officer, what about the other four percent?)

Well, we don’t do much attack stopping in L.A. so we just looked at the company claims. They say the spray is six times stronger than the one used by U.S. Marines and can hit an attacker up to eight feet away. The extra gimmick they have is a button to alert any similarly armed friends within a mile of you. The connection works through your cell phone. Said friends also have to have downloaded the app that lets them get the alert.

There were a few glitches in setup. After creating an account, the only way to exit the setup screen was to hit cancel. After logging in, it said “Wellcome,” instead of “Welcome.” We also saw “truns” instead of “turns.” There were no instructions on how to insert a battery in the device and in fact we were never able to do it. We’re suspicious of companies that can’t spell.