WI-FI BLUES

A reader wrote us to say he’s barely able to connect to the Internet wirelessly, even though his phone is just 20 feet away from his AT&T router. Two bars is the best he gets. We told him to call AT&T, since they’ll replace his router or add a booster for free; it’s part of the monthly contract. However, that may not work.

What he’s opened up is a much larger problem that many people experience, and it’s definitely worth going into. It is a trickier subject than it first appears. The subject of radio broadcasts (which is what your wireless modem is doing) and receiving them is a special field of its own in electrical engineering. Antenna design can require some heavy mathematics. Even when the calculations are right, the results are often dicey. Broadcasts can be affected by changes in air temperature, moisture and most of all by what is in between — particularly walls, the thicker the worse.

For instance, we couldn’t get a wireless Internet connection to our bedroom, even though it’s just 25 feet from the office router. Naturally we called AT&T. A technician came out and installed a Netgear booster but that didn’t help. We gave it back to AT&T and bought a “Google Wi-Fi,which is a signal booster slightly thicker than a hockey puck. At first, it worked perfectly. But after a few minutes the signal dropped out.

At that point, Bob brought up the three magic words of wireless reception: “line of sight.” Manufacturers of modems and other signal generators will typically claim a “range of up to 200 feet,” Yeah, if everything’s perfect. They’re talking about the line of sight between broadcast and receiver being clear of all obstacles. Walls are obstacles.

Joy had put the Google Wi-Fi booster next to the office modem. It seemed reasonable, but from there the wireless signal had to go through a closet stuffed with extra equipment and cables, through two tiled bathroom walls, a hall bookcase, then a bedroom wall and all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Books can block an astonishing amount of radiation.

By simply moving the Google signal booster (it has a long cord) so that the signal only had to go through one wall, it was Bingo time. The signal to the Amazon Echo Dot (you know: Alexa) in the bedroom was strong and constant. This will work for anyone with reception problems: remember “line of sight.” Keep that transmission lane as open as possible.

An observant reader could point out we might have improved signal clarity just by moving the AT&T router instead of buying a booster unit. The AT&T technician should have thought of that too, but didn’t. In any event, it was worth a few bucks to get a booster that can be moved around to get the best line of sight.

A New Browser

It’s hard to leave your browser. We remember the first one we ever tried, Netscape Navigator, back in the 1990s. Then there was Internet Explorer (in all its many incarnations), Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Google Chrome, which we’re sort of stuck on. However, the new Vivaldi browser is really interesting.

Vivaldi is available free from Vivaldi.com and places a lot of extra tools at your disposal. Click the “Notes” icon to make a to-do list or notes page that lives next to the main window, but can be toggled on or off. Click the downloads icon to see your recent downloads. If you tap the F2 key on your keyboard, you can get a list of things to do, such as clear your browsing data, get a list of keyboard shortcuts, open a privacy page, and so on. If you close a tab by mistake, just click the trash can. It has a list of everywhere you’ve been.

Vivaldi comes with a lot of built-in recommendations for where to go on the web. Click on the bookmark symbol to see folders full of possibilities. Under technology, there are over 20 leading sites. There are lots of options under entertainment, news, travel, business and games too.

Vivaldi was created by one of the founders of the Opera browser. Like Opera, it is at its root based on the Chrome browser. It’s like a highly customizable version of Chrome. For more info, search on the ph

rase “9 Reasons to Switch to Vivaldi.” A reason not to switch? Adding an extra layer to Chrome, as Vivaldi does, could slow things slightly.

Internuts 

99bitcoins.com has a list of who accepts Bitcoins, the virtual currency. We were surprised to see Subway, Microsoft, Dell, Bloomberg, Expedia, and T-Mobile Poland on the list. A single Bitcoin now trades around $2,600 in US currency.

Fifteen Crazy Things People Have Found in Their Homes.” Google that phrase to find an amazing list. A husband and wife found a Marvel comic book from 1938 worth $1.5 million. Another family found a fully-stocked servants kitchen, complete with pots and pans hanging on the wall, hiding behind junk in the basement. A couple others found cash –$45,000 in one case, $50,000 in another. 

High Jump: Cosmos, the Infographic Book of Space.” Search on that phrase to find out how high you could jump on Pluto, a comet, the moon, and many other places. When you click “jump,” you see a stick figure jump. On Pluto, you could jump around 25 feet. If you made it to comet “67P,” you could jump thousands offeet; landing would be tough though.

Most Interesting Libraries in the World.” Google that for quite a show of beautiful places to read a book. Google “28 Most Spectacular Libraries” for even more. Worth traveling.

 

WHO’S THAT?

There are an estimated 220 million fake people on Facebook. So how can you tell who’s who?

Fake identities are the third most common complaint, according to the Federal Trade Commission, so we tried a free app, “Legitifi” that tries to find out if the person you’re about to hire or date is who they say they are.  It’s touted for checking out babysitters, dates, handymen, caregivers, and could be used even for ride services and airline passengers.

Legitifi’s identity-checking algorithm does some obvious things, like checking  whether the same person posts under more than one name on Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites. The only dating site they check is Tinder.com. If a social media profile is too new, that also raises a flag.

There’s a big catch to all this: The person you want to check has to agree to install Legitifi first. We suppose it’s a red flag if the person refuses to install the app, but it could also be embarrassing to ask new friends and neighbors to be Legitified. Once they’ve installed the app, they can have others vouch for them. You’ll see a list of “vouchers” off to one side. We immediately wondered if criminals would vouch for each other. Seems likely, but you can check their ratings too. If someone is a registered sex offender, you’ll get a message as “possibly dangerous, may include criminal convictions,” even if they’ve never installed the app. NOTE: You can also do this by simply by asking Google for a list of sex offenders in your neighborhood, county or zip code.

So Just Remember This

Joy is always forgetting where she put her phone, her keys, and other items. Bob only forgets when she doesn’t forget, so as to complete the circle and create harmony in the universe. Now she can tell “Google Home,” the little device with the digital assistant inside, to remember it for her.

She starts by saying “Hey, Google: Remember that …” and then fills in the three dots with whatever she wants: “Hey Google,” she says: “Remember that my phone is usually on the kitchen table,” and Google answers that she’ll remember that.  Should you forget what your Google Home remembers, you can just ask: “Hey Google, what did I ask you to remember?” It could be a long list, with old birthdays and things to do. To clear it out, just say “Hey Google, forget what I asked you to remember.”

Amazon’s competing device, “Alexa,” can do the same. If you enable the “Remind Me” skill, you simply say “Alexa, remind me about Veronica’s birthday.” (Of course you may not know anybody named Veronica, and she may not play the harmonica, on the beach at Santa Monica, but should it ever come up that’s how you would do it.)

Internuts

  • If You Spend Most of Your Day Sitting Down, Be Aware of this Weird Health Risk . This link has information about the consequences of sitting too much. Americans sit more than the Swedish, Germans, Japanese and the people of every other industrialized country. What happens from prolonged sitting? Your butt muscles refuse to fire, resulting in what they call “dead butt syndrome.” (Don’t let this happen to you.)
  • Eight Coolest Ted Talks on Psychology.” Ted talks are found at Ted.com. But there are so many, it’s hard to separate the good stuff from the kinda pointless. By Googling this phrase, you can find some of the all-time winners, such as Rebecca Saxe, talking about mind reading. This has been viewed over 2.8 million times. (You’d think they would just get the message telepathically.)
  • Ten Podcasts That Will Make You Smarter.” This link has Inc Magazine’s list of the most-cited online radio shows. Number one is by a guy named Tim Feriss, who writes books like “The Four-Hour Work Week” and “The Four-Hour Body,” both of which have a number of ridiculous self-help suggestions. Number two is James Altucher, who we heard in person several years ago at an investor’s conference. He said “You can’t go wrong buying Apple.” (Well, he was both right and wrong, as it bounced around.)

App Happy

  • Doorman” lets you schedule your packages for delivery between 6 p.m. and midnight, using their own staff to do so. If you’re traveling, you can put them on hold for up to 30 days. The service costs $19 a month. Works for US Mail, FedEx and UPS.
  • Audible Channels” are free for Amazon Prime members. You can listen to programs and lectures on your way to work, exercising or trying to nap. Joy is currently hooked on interviews with recipients of the MacArthur “Genius” award. Google the phrase “Audible Channels” for more info.

Adding a Password to Windows XP

A reader wondered how to add a “lock screen” to her Windows XP computer. “Lock screen” is a function that prevents anyone from using your computer unless they know the password.

Windows XP is a little behind in this area; Windows 10, Windows 8 and the Mac all make you sign on with a password before you can get to work. Here’s how to set that up in Windows XP: Click “Start” then “Control Panel.” Click “User Accounts.” (If you’re in “list view,” look to the end of the list, since it’s alphabetical.) Now look for “Pick the Account You Want to Change,” and click your user name. Then click “Create Password.”

Too Many Text Messages

If text messages are filling up your phone, here’s how to manage them without having to delete them one by one:

On an iPhone, go to “Settings” and click “Messages.” Under “Keep Messages,” change the “Forever” setting to either one year or 30 days. On an Android phone, click “Settings,” then click “All Apps.” From there, click the message app you use. In either “Messages,” or “Messenger,” click “Storage” then “Clear Data.”

Courtesy of the Washington Post

The Numbers Report

Here are some Facebook facts, according to Zephoria, a market research firm:

  • Facebook has 1.94 billion active monthly users.
  • The most common age bracket is 25 to 34 — about 30 percent of all users.
  • Five new profiles are created every second.
  • Seventy six percent of women use Facebook; 66 percent of men do.
  • Three hundred million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day.
  • Every 60 seconds, 510,000 comments are posted.

 

 

 

HELP!

Ask My Buddy” is a free app for sending an alert to everyone you know, without reaching for your phone or computer. It works just by voice on a Windows 10 computer, a Google Home device or the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot. Plenty more like these are coming out soon.

With Windows 10’s built-in voice recognition program, Cortana, you can say “Ask My Buddy to Alert Everyone” and everyone on your contact list will get an immediate phone call, text message and email. Or you can confine it to a single person. Cortana isn’t great unless you’ve trained it by using it a lot, but the Google and Amazon devices are quite good at recognition. For Windows, we found we had to type the command in the Windows search box.

If you use Google Home, there’s now a shortcut available. Instead of saying “Ask My Buddy to Alert Everyone,” you can say “Ok Google, call everyone,” or whatever words you choose.  (We tried “Help,” but that confused Google Home, since it also responds to “help” as an ordinary word.) With Google Home, your voice command sends an emergency text, email and phone call  to any group of people. To set it up, read the instructions at AskMyBuddy.net. It involves using Google Home’s “shortcut” setting.

Using the Echo Dot with Alexa, we said “Ask My Buddy to alert Louise.” Our friend Louise got both a text message, an email and a phone call. A voice on her phone said “Joy Schwabach sent you an alert. Please check now.”

The free version lets you send 30 messages a month to five contacts. For $5 a month, you can send 400 messages a month to ten contacts. (If you have to send 400 emergency messages a month you probably should be in intensive care.)

Microsoft Knows You

Microsoft is very touchy about who owns what. If you don’t have a legal copy of Windows, they don’t want to know you. So what do you do when you have to replace your computer’s hard drive and put in a new one? Do you have to go out and buy another copy of Windows? No way.

A reader told us his computer’s hard drive died, so he replaced it. He pointed out that it was a very easy thing to do, and we quite agree. A couple of Phillips screwdrivers is all you need.

But what now? What he had installed was a blank hard drive. So he Googled the words: “Windows 10 boot disk.” Following the directions, he saved the free boot disk program to a thumb drive. Any external storage drive will do. He inserted the thumb drive into a USB port and the computer booted right up. It not only booted up, it recognized that he was a valid Windows 10 license holder and installed the operating system. They knew! Their spies are everywhere.

Hail Norton!

Our test computer, a five year-old HP Pavilion desktop, recently died. In attempting to resuscitate it, we reversed our opinion of Norton Internet Security, which for many years had been at the bottom of our list of acceptable programs. Times change and we guess we have to too.

It all started when we got a screen message saying: “No boot disk has been detected or the disk has failed.” Bad news. So we bought a new hard drive for $40 on Amazon and struggled to get the case open on our all-in-one, a machine whose hard drive is inside the monitor. This turned out to be surprisingly difficult. We never had a problem with this before, but the case in this one seems to be bomb proof.

But Bob had a thought: What if it’s just like one of those creature feature movies and the thing from the swamp isn’t really dead? So we tried it one more time, and … It was alive!  But it was alive in an earlier time, back in Windows 7. We got out the CDs that came with the computer and reinstalled them. They took our computer back to the day we bought it and in doing so we learned a lot. (For instance, the volcanoes have cooled and the dinosaurs are gone.) In the process, we got Norton anti-virus. And both the program (Norton) and the computer we used to hate are now lightning fast.

A word about Norton which has been bashed by reviewers for many years. We may even have started it, since there was no question it had more problems than a teenager starting high school. Norton stopped talking to us. (Why is it that when something isn’t working right and you point out that it isn’t working right, the people who made the thing that isn’t working right, hate you?) But times change and so has Norton.

In summation, we have calmed down, and the computer worked well even after it updated to Windows 8. We are happy using a five year-old, lightning fast Windows 8 computer for Joy’s creative work, a Windows 10 laptop for Bob’s, and an Acer Chromebook to go online and cast movies to our TV. (We also use a $70 refurbished XP machine for programs that don’t run in Windows 8 or 10.) If using old equipment and old operating systems scares you, remember that Microsoft says it will support Windows 8.1 until 2023 and Windows 7 until 2020.

Internuts

  • Google “eclipse simulator” or go to EclipseMega.movie/simulator to see how the upcoming August 21st solar eclipse will look in your area. (This turns out to be amazingly boring.)
  • People Sharing Pics of their Cats Acting Weird.” Google that to find some startling cat photos. One of them likes to hang upside down from a shower-curtain bar. Another hops around on its hind legs. Weird.
  • 11 Brilliant Resume Tricks that Worked.” Google that to turn up an article from Mental Floss. Tip one: Keep it clean. You have 15 seconds to get their attention; whaddya gonna do? Keep it clean.

 

 

GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED

It seems like a lot of the people we meet want to be writers. And they have a great subject for a novel: it’s about them. A good start might be finding an agent. Nowadays, you can find them online.

QueryTracker.net lists over 1500 literary agents, with brief information about each. It’s free to sign up, and the site can keep track of how many pitch letters you’ve sent, where they went and when. This could prevent some embarrassing moments, like sending the same letter to the same agent several times.

Click on any agent’s name to find out the kinds of authors they represent. Some prefer pitch letters by email, others ask you to fill out a form online.  Click on “success stories” to see some sample pitch letters and other strategies. We read about a novelist who sent 120 pitch letters before nabbing an agent.

Bob noticed that all of the success stories were about women. Is this an oddity or a trend? Certainly, women use more words than men to describe people and situations and this could be an advantage in stretching a story to novel length. The road to publication is still long and hard however; J.K. Rowling’s book about a young boy learning to be a magician was rejected by 12 publishers. We wonder if it ever had any success.

Internuts

  • 12 Life-changing Challenges You Can Try as 30 Day Projects” has an article from MakeUseOf.com.  One challenge is to doodle every day. Another is to drop a bad habit for 30 days. Or watch 30 documentaries. Or go outside.
  • The most disproportionately well-paying jobs in each state” has an interesting map showing which jobs make the most money compared to the national average for that job. Waiters make more in Vermont. Tile and marble setters make more in Massachusetts. Teachers make more in Rhode Island. Judges make more in California. Prison wardens make more in New Jersey. (Understandable.) Dentists make more in Ohio. There are four states where coaches and talent scouts do well.
  • Groupon.com/Coupons claims to have 79,811 coupons at 11,950 stores. Some are better than others. We clicked on “TJ Maxx” but it took us to the home page of the website. Same thing happened with Vera Bradley. At SwimSpot, the coupon was dead on arrival and they wanted $40 to ship a tiny one-piece bathing suit. We finally hit pay dirt at Kohls with 20 percent off. This coupon stuff is hard work. We hope the readers share their favorite coupon sites.

The Numbers Report

  • Podcasts are listened to by 67 million people each month, according to Zephoria Inc, a marketing firm. Smartphones are the new radio for millennials18 to 34. There are over 300,000 podcasts, on subjects as diverse as woodworking and politics. The top podcasts – which can draw hundreds of thousands of downloads – attract advertisers.
  • One quarter of all U.S. households have “cut the cord,” as they say, and no longer pay for cable TV. The numbers are growing; our guess is the industry is not.

Facebook Porn

A reader says she’s been plagued by offensive ads on Facebook, even after deleting her account three times. Sounds like a virus. We, for example, have never seen an offensive ad on Facebook.

To get rid of a virus, you can run your anti-virus software or download a free program such as Avast or Avira. Also run the free MalwareBytes, from MalwareBytes.com.

If you’re still getting annoying Facebook ads, here’s what to do. Click the upper right corner of the ad and choose “hide ad.” If you never want to see those ads for stewed prunes again, you won’t.

Our reader was also bothered by robo-calls on her cell phone. Who isn’t? We got rid of ours with “TrueCaller,” a free app. It stores those junky phone numbers on its database of caller IDs. It has such a long list of spam callers, we only had to add another one once; the other spam calls were blocked automatically.

Free Games

Bob is fond of the simple computer game “Little Brick Out,” or sometimes “Breakout.” (Actually this is an historically important game, since Steve Wozniak, designer of the Apple computer, also liked it, and made the Apple have a color display so he could play it.)

You can go to Images.Google.com and type “Atari Breakout” to play a standard version or click here. The game comes right up, ready to play.

Type “PacMan” or “Solitaire” in the Google search box to play two more of the most addictive games ever. Other things to try searching for:  “Do a barrel roll”, “askew”, “<blink>“, “roll a die,” “timer,” and “flip a coin.” (With the barrel roll, it’s your screen that does it, not you.)

Pop-Ups versus Notifications

We’re not bothered by pop-ups when we use Google Chrome, the leading web browser, ahead of Firefox, Safari and others. But we have been  bedeviled by “notifications.” A website called “LiveScience,” for example, popped up with alerts every few seconds. (They also provided misinformation, like telling us gasoline was heavier than water, which it is not.) Here’s how to get rid of those and others.

On your computer, click the three vertical dots in the upper right of your Chrome browser window. Click “Settings.” Click “Advanced Settings.” Scroll down till you get to the “Privacy” area. Click “Content Settings.” Now look at “Pop-ups” and make sure they’re disabled. Then scroll to “Notifications.” Click “Manage Exceptions” and click to disable any that you don’t want popping up.

On your phone, tap the three vertical dots in the Chrome browser and look at the “Privacy” settings. Disable anything you don’t want popping up.

 

 

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

Our attention was captured recently by a Wall Street Journal article about executives playing video adventure games. One was 34, another 49. Their ages were apparently meant to surprise us, but in fact it’s normal.

There has always been an assumption that only kids play video games. It depends on the game. In fact, in the decades we have been writing this column — and it is the oldest and longest running technology column in the known universe (and parts of New Jersey) — the great majority of video game players have ranged from their mid 20s on up. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average male player is 35, the average woman 44.

We’re talking about complex games like Call of Duty, Clash of Clans, League of Legends, WarCraft, etc. These games outsell hit movies, and they’re a good deal for the entertainment dollar since they can be played for years, not just a couple of hours.

Games like these require teamwork, strategy, and initiative, which also requires lots  of thinking. A dozen people can play together. You can make treaties with opponents, contracts, agree on terms — and there is often not one opponent but several. Breaking treaties and other agreements can be costly, since you become known as unreliable and others won’t deal with you. This is way beyond kid’s stuff and it’s great fun.

Finding Someone’s Phone Number Online

A reader asked whether we could recommend a way to find someone’s phone number, without paying for one of those fancy search services. We have three ways: Google, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Go to Google.com and type something like “Joe Doe phone number.” The number comes up surprisingly often. Of course you don’t happen to be looking for Joe Doe, though we did come across an actual Joe Doe once.

If the phone number doesn’t Google up, go to Facebook and type the person’s name in the search box. There are two billion active users on Facebook, half a billion more just lounging around. That is enough people to have a decent shot at finding someone. Should that fortunate chance happen to you, click on it. There will be a box for you to send a message. Send one. Ask the person to call you or provide their phone number. The message is private, the equivalent of an email.

Things are moving right along here. Way three is LinkedIn. Bob found Joy’s long-lost brother that way. Took almost a minute. LinkedIn charges you to message someone who isn’t part of your LinkedIn contact list, but there’s a way around that: Click the “connect” button appearing next to your friend’s name. If they agree to talk to you or at least hear what you have to say, you can then write them for free — and ask for their phone number while you’re at it.

The Readers Unroll

We heard from several readers after we wrote about Unroll.me, a site that lets you get all your newsletters in a single email each day. Recently, Unroll.Me made the news over privacy issues and some readers were alarmed.

We, by the way, are never alarmed, and this is why: The same Unroll.Me “bot” that scrambles around and gathers your emails into a single message also collects data which is sold. However, your name is not attached, making it zombie data. Your activities could be used for marketing purposes, with your age, sex, marital status, location, etc (if they have any of that), but so what. Bob thinks this whole privacy fear is way overdone.

Meanwhile, back at the database … many other companies, like Facebook and Google gather information about their users so they can target ads. In a post, an Unroll.Me executive said that Gmail collects far more data than Unroll.me could ever roll up. Well put. In short, they will send you ads for stuff you seem to be interested in. Presumably, if you are interested in said stuff you might even find the ads interesting.

If any of this bothers you, go to “optout.aboutads.info.”  It’s run by the Digital Advertising Alliance and allows you to opt out of all targeted ads. You’ll still see ads, but they won’t be related to your interests. (Is this an advantage?) To tailor ads to your own preferences, search on the phrase “Google Ads Settings.”

App Happy

  • Seriously radio show: The Americanization of British English

    Pocket Casts” is a $4 app that makes it easy to find the best “podcasts,” another word for online radio. We listened to “Seriously,” an assortment of BBC documentaries for the relentlessly curious, and “Horizon Line,” which offers a new adventure story each week. Listen online or off. If you download an episode, you can easily delete it later. We normally don’t pay for apps, but this is exceptional.

  • Venmo” lets you pay a friend back or even a store with a few taps of your phone. Our visiting niece Amy used it to buy bubble tea at a nearby café.

The Numbers Report

  • BakerHostetler, a national law firm, looked at 450 hack attacks they’d been called in to solve and 43 percent were due to so-called “phishing” or malware. That’s an increase of 12 percent over last year. (These things usually happen when you click on a link that then automatically installs software that takes over your computer.) Thirty-two percent of all such problems were caused by employees error. Eighteen percent were caused by lost or stolen devices. Four percent were due to criminal attacks, and three percent to internal theft. The law firm says these numbers are typical for businesses.
  • One third of all smartwatches (mostly Apple) are abandoned by users, who found them boring or not as useful as expected, according to a report by Gartner Research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE RETURN OF THE PANIC BUTTON

Stand-alone push buttons are getting hot. Out of printer ink? Just push a button to order more. The buttons are only $5, ink quite a bit more. Is there any inconvenience in this convenience? We can see some.

So here’s how it starts: Amazon sells $5 “Dash” buttons that you stick around the house. Press one labeled “Charmin” to automatically re-order toilet paper. Press “Tide” to get detergent. (Amazon then kicks in and sends you whatever quantity you normally order.) The office giant Staples has a trial version of an office supply button. And there are others. Remember the old “Panic” push-buttons that were sold as a novelty item? We’re getting there.

We tested a “goButton” from a company just getting started on Kickstarter.com, the site where you raise money from strangers. The pitch is this: What if employees could push a button whenever they needed printer ink, had a plumbing problem or a paper jam? They’d push the goButton (terrible name) and a service professional would arrive. The buttons are configured in advance through an app on your phone, and can be changed as the need changes.

The company sent us a couple of prototypes. One was labeled “support.” Another was labeled “Refill.” Pushing either one brought a text message and an email saying our order had been accepted or support was on the way. The messages included the name of the person who pushed the button and the company that responded.

Any potential problems with this? We can see a couple hundred. At a business, for example: What if every time a printer jams, someone pushes the “help” button? A tech would arrive but the person sitting next to you has already fixed the problem. Sorry, you have to pay for the tech guy’s time anyway.

How about home use. How many people do you know who would push a “help” button every time they had some problem with their computer or the internet? Got any kids around who would think it’s fun to push buttons? How about cats doing their “kitten on the keys” walks?

Remember: There’s always time to panic.

Flipping That Phone

Flipsy.com bills itself the “bluebook of phones.” It tells you what you can get for your old phone at trade-in sites, as well as from private parties. We got $55 for a Samsung Galaxy S3 we sold on eBay last year but could have gotten $104 through Flipsy.

Type in your phone and click “private party value” to see what you might be able to get. For an iPhone 6s, you might get $436 selling it yourself, $335 at a trade-in site, or $235 from your cell phone service provider. Big spread! Trade-in sites linked on Flipsy include Amazon, Exchange It, Buy Back World, and some others.

A reader told us he was scammed on eBay, so he now avoids it. We didn’t have any problems selling two devices there. However, on other sites you can get faster payment. We almost got scammed on CraigsList, one of the first trading and reselling sites.

Apple iPhones hold their value better than Android phones. The current iPhone 7 would fetch $395 at a trade-in site.  A Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, the latest model, would fetch around $240. If you go back three generations, a popular phone of either type will go for around $100.  Go back further and you get much less. Amazon will give you $20 for an iPhone 4s. If you were to buy one from Amazon, however, it would cost $92 to $170. That’s quite a markup.

App Happy  

  • DriverMode aims to prevent distracted driving. Using your voice or simple taps on a nearly blank screen, you can make calls, get directions, and play music. (Or, you could just pull over to the side of the road.)
  • EasilyDo Email: This recently came out for Android, after first coming out on the iPad. It organizes your email into handy categories, like travel info and package alerts. We liked it.
  • “Word Chums.” This is Scrabble on steroids. Joy’s addicted to it. Play with friends; the scoring system lets you rack up gonzo points. Tap any starnge word to get its definition. If a word doesn’t light up green as you lay down your tiles, it isn’t a word. Saves time.
  • Google Photos, a free app for your smart phone, now offers photo books. A 20-page, seven-inch soft-cover book starts at $10 while a 20-page, nine-inch hardcover book starts at $20. (We knew a guy who liked taking photos of donuts.)

Talking Boxes: Google vs Alexa

We’re still undecided on which nosy box is better: Google Home or Amazon Echo. So we got both. (We figure everyone in the known universe is already hip to this trend, but just to recapitulate, both are small gizmos that answer questions and play music and games.)

Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot have 71 percent of this market. Could 71 percent of the buyers possibly be wrong? We like our Echo, which has some poor woman named Alexa inside, but Google Home seems smarter. We asked her to play the opening number from the movie “La La Land” and she did it. Asking Alexa, we heard, “I don’t have a song called ‘Opening Number.’”

We asked Alexa how many genes a wheat plant has. She said “2,017” and then started telling us about fashions in blue jeans, such as plastic pants (they must literally be hot stuff). Google Home said there were around 164,000 wheat genes (which is a lot more than we have), depending on the variety. We then asked Google Home for an “intense ab workout” on our TV, and it started playing immediately. (You have to turn on the TV first, select the right input, and make sure a $30 Chromecast is plugged in.)

This year, an estimated 36 million Americans will use one of these devices at least once a month. Ninety-five percent will likely use one from Google or Amazon, other makers are entering the lists, among them Lenovo, LG, Harmon Kardon and Mattel. What matters most is not the brand of the gizmo, but the extent of its knowledge

 

BACK TO THE FUTURE

We downloaded Microsoft’s “Creator’s Update,” for the latest and greatest in Windows 10. It’s Microsoft’s way of giving you a look at the wonderful things that are coming up for Windows. Why do we do these things? It’s our duty.

So the latest update of Creator Updates took an hour to install and trashed our Windows 10 computer. Programs like PowerPoint and Word wouldn’t start. Nor could they be reinstalled. Dead icons appeared everywhere. It wasn’t a virus, it was a look at future Windows updates. Thanks.

In the Windows “Recovery” center, there’s a helpful hint saying we should revert to a previous version of Windows 10. We clicked that and reverted. It was like reverse digital evolution. We got a black screen with the message: “Disk failure or boot failure.”

So that Windows 10 machine is now buried in the basement next to other dead relatives. It is and was an HP Pavilion All-In-One that Joy bought five years ago. (Never buy an all-in-one computer, says Bob, who uses an HP laptop connected to a larger monitor and keyboard.) Before it was murdered by Microsoft’s “Creator Update” it had been giving signs of oncoming dementia anyway. Though it uses the same Internet connection as our Google Chromebook, everything it did was deadly slow while everything on the Chromebook was real fast.

Sic Transit Gloria, as they used to say back in the Roman Empire. (Gloria always used public transit.) We turned to old reliable, a refurbished Windows XP machine. Works fine. Cost us $70. The downside, of course, is that it is vulnerable to all kinds of cyber attacks. So, the answer is don’t connect it to the Internet.

Though Microsoft officially abandoned support for Windows XP in April, 2014, the reality is there are millions of them still in use. Aside from personal users, most automatic teller machines still use Windows XP, and there are probably business and military users as well. Why not, they work fine. Many readers have told us they held onto their Windows XP computers as long as they could, because of their ease of use. We couldn’t agree more; all those features added to Windows 10 to supposedly make life easier just made it more complicated.

Because of the recent ransomware panic, Microsoft issued a security patch. They had to. So if we wanted to go online, as long as we get the latest patch and use a lightweight anti-virus program like Avira for older machines, we should be okay.

Our $70 XP machine was purchased from Amazon. It came with the free “OpenOffice,” which is similar to Microsoft Office, pre-installed and handles the latest Word documents in the “docx” format, as well as PowerPoint, Excel spreadsheets and other Office programs.

Dumping Java

We recently wrote about the free Belarc Advisor, which tells you the state of your computer. It tells you which updates are critical so your computer doesn‘t become vulnerable to the bad guys. We suggested just deleting stuff you don’t need, like Java.

But as a reader noted, Belarc lists “Java” as one of the programs needing a critical update, and looking at a list of programs to uninstall in Windows Control Panel shows ‘no Java. Java was listed on Joy’s computer but not Bob’s, so on Bob’s we tried a Java removal tool. The tool didn’t work because it said there was no Java. But there was! We found it by doing a search in “File Explorer.” You can access File Explorer by right-clicking the Windows start button. We decided to leave it alone.

Of course, the reader’s main reason for finding out about these problems from Belarc Advisor was to speed up her computer. It’s so slow, she says, “I could take a nap.” There are at least 13 reasons for a slow computer. Search on the phrase “13 reasons for a slow computer.” What else?

No More Tears

One thing “WannaCry” “ransomware” victims had in common is they didn’t update Windows. The other thing is they failed to back up their files.

One solution is “Aomei BackUpper Free,” from backup-utility.com. It’s like other backup systems but with a twist: If your computer is already infected, it prompts you to make a “boot disk,” which will let you boot up the computer safely. That didn’t work, but it did such a nice job of backup and restoration, we can still recommend it. (You can make a boot disk with other free online tools. Just Google it.)

The backup is made to whatever you named as your backup destination. This can be a flash drive (also called a thumb drive) or a hard drive. (Flash drives with enormous storage — something like 50 or 100 gigabytes, can be bought very cheaply now.) You can schedule a backup with Backupper to take place every hour, every day, etc. We liked Backupper better than Google’s automatic backup from Google Drive, because it didn’t slow our computer. Google gives you 15 gigabytes of free online storage; Backupper is only limited by the size of your storage location.

You can get a two-terabyte drive, called “EasyStore,” from Western Digital for around $80 at Best Buy and Amazon. That’s two thousand gigabytes; more than anyone except General Electric would need. Most of us could make do with 100 gigabytes, which you can get for around $25. (Every column and article we’ve ever written would take less than one-hundredth of a gigabyte.)

If you’re doing a backup for your business, the latest version of Acronis True Image has a lot of fancy features for business users, such as blockchain technology for file verification, electronic signatures, and ransomware protection. However, at $100 a year with a terabyte of online storage, it’s more expensive than most, including BackBlaze or “Carbonite,” a reader favorite, which offer unlimited storage online.

Internuts

  • Video.NationalGeographic.com has free videos. We watched one on the Gobi Desert, one on Albert Einstein and another on how U.S. currency is made. Many are just a minute long. Who knew the Gobi Desert is the size of France?
  • Where you were born can influence when you die.” Google those words to see a map with new findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It says the average person born in Breckenridge, Colorado, will live until their late 80s, but the average person born in Booneville, Kentucky will die 20 years earlier.

 

THE WEB AND ITS DISCONTENTS

This comes up pretty regularly. A reader writes to ask if it’s worth paying $70 a year for anti-virus protection, or should he use Windows’ own built-in support? A large surge in so-called “Ransom Ware” infections has exacerbated the problem. RansomeWare locks up your files, and the sender, naturally, demands a ransom to unlock them. Typical demand is $300. This can be blocked.

Microsoft says their own free program, Windows Defender, offers enough protection for Windows 8 and Windows 10 users. Perhaps so. Research on the web found that Microsoft Defender caught 94.5 percent of threats. But the sample size was 1517 threats, which meant that 83 went through. It’s that extra 5.5 percent that gets ya.

The answer, says our favorite guru, Kenny S, from HelpHelpNow.com, is to use the Windows Defender anti-virus program along with the free version of an anti-malware program from MalwareBytes. This works well if you have an older computer. Otherwise, adding a second anti-virus program can slow an already slow computer another 20 percent.

If you have a faster computer, we recommend the free Avast from Avast.com, in addition to MalwareBytes. “Faster” is defined as an Intel i5 processor or better and eight gigabytes or more of RAM. You can find out what processor you have by typing “system info” into the Windows search box.

Our main computer falls into the slow category, having an outmoded AMD e2-1800 processor, instead of a faster i5 or i7 from Intel. We tried Avast anyway. (We’re used to slow.) It updated our out-of-date programs, removed an add-on with a bad reputation, and noted that an extension had tampered with our default search engine, Google, and fixed that. It said we had a weak password for our Internet connection, so we changed it. (Even though our previous password had been in Sanskrit.) It offered to install the free Avast “Safe Price” which lets you know if a lower price is available whenever you’re shopping online. We went shopping online and immediately found 22 coupons giving us discounts on stuff we didn’t want.

What if you have a Mac? Since it’s based, ultimately, on the Unix operating system that has been used to control huge main-frame computers, a virus can’t get in deep. You might get some spyware if you add suspicious extensions to your web browser, but you can remove those by running the free MalwareBytes program. Your biggest danger is passing on an infected email to someone else, though it failed to harm your Mac. Avast for the Mac can prevent that.

If you happen to have a Google Chromebook — an inexpensive laptop used mainly for the Internet you don’t need anti-virus software. It comes with built-in malware and virus protection, with multiple layers of security. Every time you boot the system, the software goes out there to the great beyond and fixes any problems.

Beware the Pop-Up

We’ve been warning others about pop-up ads for decades. We should have warned ourselves.

On American Airlines’ website, we were asked if we wanted travel insurance for $24. Sure! We thought we could get our money back if we had to cancel our flight for any reason. A friend of ours fell for the same thing. But she was savvier.

She called American Airlines and was told they don’t offer travel insurance. The insurance, it turned out, came from Allianz, a 100-year-old company. It’s legit all right, but it will take a medical emergency, an act of terrorism, or the failure of the airline, to get them to pay up. It says so right on their website.

Our friend had just gotten out of the hospital and needed to cancel her trip. Allianz told her to fill out a form online. But since she needed her doctor’s signature– and he wasn’t sitting beside her at the computer– she sent it all in by mail, getting the P.O. box address (unlisted, by the way) from an agent on the phone.

Even Fishier

A reader wrote us he couldn’t get on the Internet, so he Googled the phone numbers for Avast, the anti-virus company. None of those phone numbers worked, so he went to Avast.com. From there, he got a company called “Nanoheal, but it’s unclear whether he clicked on a suspicious link or Avast has now outsourced its tech support. Nanoheal didn’t give him a virus, but it charged him $119 for installing a free program.

The Nanoheal tech installed the free MalwareBytes program,AdwCleaner,” which stands for “adware cleaner.You can get this at MalwareBytes.com/AdwCleaner.

 (MalwareBytes has a great reputation and we’ve used their other free products.) It fixed everything, including the Internet problem. Learning this — we‘re always learning we installed it on our test computer. (That’s our regular computer, but we think it sounds more professional if we call it our test computer.) It found 54 threats after we clicked “scan.” When we clicked “clean” all was well and we rebooted. Rebooting, by the way, will fix many problems all by itself. In general, it’s worth doing that before panicking. Remember: there’s always time to panic.

Cutting the Cord

We’re constantly asked (okay, once in a while) about the best way to “cut the cord,” or dump your cable TV service. The new “Hulu” service for $40 a month is getting the buzz lately. Instead of the usual channel listing, it shows you what you probably want to watch. But there are cheaper solutions out there.

One way to go is to use Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube, plus an antenna. Amazon gives you free movies for $99 a year as well as other perks like free two-day shipping. Netflix costs $8 a month and is better than we initially thought: We’re currently hooked on a defunct series called “White Collar.” Use an antenna for local TV channels and get classic shows like Perry Mason as well as old movies from YouTube or your local library. It all works out to about $16 a month.

The big complaint with cord-cutting however, is the cost of getting on the Internet. Companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T bundle everything. It can cost so much to get Internet service that you find you might as well add TV. However, after noticing that new subscribers were being offered Internet-only service for about $40 a month, we went on AT&T’s web site for a bit of a chat. We asked what our bill would be without TV service. The chat guy on the other end immediately offered to slice $55 a month off our bill. So we now pay $115 per month for TV and Internet instead of $170. Hey, that’s $660 a year back in our pocket. And he was friendly too.

YOUR COMPUTER’S HEART BEEPS

Is your computer hyper tense? Does it suffer from anxiety, mood shifts, lethargy or even narcolepsy? You can get a free checkup at Belarc.com. Belarc Advisor tells you about your dear machine’s hardware, software, security settings, and whether or not you need updates. Our diagnosis: updates of six programs were deemed “critical.”

But updating programs in intensive care is a hassle. Have you been to the Adobe site lately? It’s hard to find the update section. We had two copies of Adobe Flash, which is built into Chrome; we got rid of both. We also got rid of something called “Adobe Air.” Then there’s “Java.” Do we really need Java? We looked it up and the answer came back “No!” We looked up Apple QuickTime. The answer came back as “crapware.” This is a technical term among programmers and refers to programs that come installed as trial versions or worse when you but a new computer. We uninstalled all.

And the result? Our computer runs just the same as before, still playing YouTube videos and doing all our other activities. All is fine, and we’re safer than we were. In fact, we feel downright chipper. If we need to reinstall something it will be the latest version.

Talking to Dr. Who

As long as we’re on the subject of professional care, we might listen to Dr. Who. The “Doctor” is a science fiction radio and television series produced by the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and if you’ve never heard of it, ask a kid.

Dr. Who is one of the longest running and most popular shows in the world. It has 830 episodes, and still going, and draws about 60 million viewers worldwide. All his adventures begin with the materialization, somewhere, of a British police call box, which looks like a blue phone booth. Inside is “The Doctor,” not a medical man, but sort of a general fix-it for the galaxy.

Bob is a huge fan of the series, and now, courtesy of Microsoft, you can get clued in to the ways and means of a man who can move through time and space. You get it through Skype, a free program that lets you make free phone calls and video chats form your computer or cell phone. If you Google the phrase “Dr. Who bot,” you’ll get a link to a page about it from Microsoft, which owns Skype. From there you can click to add Dr. Who to your contact list and begin the adventure. You’re supposed to be able to add the Dr. Who Bot by just clicking the “add bot” icon within Skype. But that didn’t work, so we just “Googled” it.

Joy felt like she was really talking to Dr. Who. He called her by name and responded to her choices in the Skype chat window. Occasional short video clips show you what Dr. Who is seeing as he roams the galaxy. The dialogue is clever and funny, and we learned some astronomy. Even Bob, who is a nut on astronomy programs, didn’t know that the reason you can’t place something on Neptune is because it would sink like an icy rock into the methane ocean that covers the planet.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find the six segments of a key that keeps the universe stable -“ish.”

Internuts

  • “Top Ten Unexpected Dance Scenes in Dance Movies.” Search on that phrase (or click on it) to find some of the best dance numbers of all time. That search also turns up the best unexpected dances in non-dance movies. Our favorite is Frankenstein doing “Putting on the Ritz” in “Young Frankenstein.”
  • 10 Genius Ways to Use Legos.” Search on that phrase or click on it to find Lego aquariums, lamp shades, chess sets, etc.
  • 25 Spectacular Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen.” Search on that phrase or click on it to find some interesting recommendations. We’ve seen “Midnight in Paris”and “The Big Lebowski, which were both excellent but had no spectacles. So why were they spectacular? (The use of language continues to degenerate.)

Station 307, Where Are You?

Ever want to share a big file, one that’s too big to email? If you’re a Gmail user, you’re prompted to upload it to Google Drive and send a link. But here’s another way:

Go to Station307.com. Click “Add a file.” After you add one, you get a link to it. Click “copy url” so you can paste it into an email or text message. To paste that into a text message, press your finger down for a few seconds until the word “paste” pops up. Then tap “paste.”

Liquid Cooled Computers

Just like a car engine, computer chips run hot. This does not matter unless you are a maniacal game player. Then running hot can be bad for your system and slows things down.

For those who care about firing off as many shots as possible before the monster or the bad guys get to you, Corsair makes an $800 liquid-cooled graphics card for your desktop computer.

Didn’t know you could get liquid cooled computers. Sure, you can. The price is stiff, but the results are grand prix. Corsair’s $110 liquid cooler for CPUs: the “Corsair Hydro Series H100i,” is the number one best seller on Amazon in the liquid cooling category, and users have answered over a thousand questions about it.

How do you liquid cool a computer? Very carefully. It’s done with a pump, tubes and a liquid that is not going to short-circuit anything if something goes wrong. In other word random-access memory.&quot; But you probably alreadys, not water. Another factor is the amount of memory. Where the typical graphics card like yours or ours might have 1.7 gigabytes of integrated memory, which is not as good as so-called “discrete” memory, Corsair’s new “Hydro GFX GTX” has 11 gigabytes of “GDDR5x”memory, which stands for”graphics double data rate type five synchronous random access memory.” But you probably already knew that.

UNROLL ME

If your inbox is cluttered with junk mail, you can fix that.  Unroll.Me lets you unsubscribe from all those mailing lists you never knew you were on and have no idea how you got there. It rolls them up into one message, which still has links to all that stuff if you want it.

Go to Unroll.me to start and sign up using your Google, Yahoo, Outlook, AOL or other account. When Joy did it, Unroll.Me found she had 242 subscriptions in her Gmail account and 76 in her AOL account! What? Who were these people and how did they get here? A mystery wrapped in an enigma, as Winston Churchill used to say.

They all appeared on a list, with the words “unsubscribe” next to them. The other choices were “add to roll up” or “keep in inbox.” If you do nothing, they all stay in your inbox. If you add them to your rollup, they appear as one email, containing brief summaries.

Internet marketers never sleep and Joy was amazed at how many offbeat newsletters she was getting. For example:”Friends of Florida State Forests,” “Hello Baby,” and “Big Oven.” (We’re not an enemy of Florida forests, but we didn’t know we were close friends.) If you make a mistake, you can click the unsubscribe list and choose to keep any part. You must share an Unroll.Me link on Facebook at Twitter to keep unsubscribing after the first dozen or so. But you only do that once.

So to get to the end of the story here, Joy rolled up 127 subscriptions and unsubscribed 191 others. Since not every newsletter sends a message every day, a typical roll-up has about a dozen messages combined into one. If it turns out she feels she’s missing all that excitement, she can always go back by going to Unroll.me for a second chance.

Nice Tech Support

When we created our first website using Microsoft software back in 1997, we could call Microsoft up any time and get a human to help us. Those were the days.  Maybe that’s the reason Google’s “Project Fi” cell phone service has amazing tech support. It’s still new.

Google’s Project Fi combines T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular into one service and charges $20 a month for unlimited domestic calling and texting, plus $10 a month for each gigabyte of data. If you only use part of a gigabyte, you get the difference back.

We almost got a free replacement for our $400 Google Nexus phone after Bob closed the car door after Joy and crushed it in her coat pocket, which was dangling over the edge. (Bob likes to open and close the door for Joy. Sometimes being a gentleman just doesn’t work out.)

We called Project Fi because there was a picture of a dead Android on our phone. This is a picture of a robot lying prone and looking very dead. The case had been crushed by being caught in the car door and the glass was now slightly cracked and the phone wouldn’t power on.

The tech support guy spoke English, which was not as surprising as his offer to send us a new phone if we couldn’t get rid of the dead Android body. That was quite a gesture, since we explained that we were the ones who broke it. He understood. and knew we no longer had a warranty, but was still willing to replace it. (We want to point out here, lest anyone think we got special treatment, that he did not know we were journalists).

Following his instructions, we got the phone going by holding the power and volume buttons at the same time. But these stuck there because the frame was bent. Bob was able to straighten it with a screwdriver and a hammer and we decided to live with the tiny crack in one corner. The Project Fi guy still insisted on giving us $20 off on our next bill, which brought it down to $7 for the month. Our service bill is really cheap, normally around $27 a month, and the price stays the same for data even if we’re in another country, which we never are anyway. This service is only for Google phones.

 Internuts

  • CIA Factbook.” Search on that term (or click here) to find the CIA guide to the world. Besides geography and basic facts about countries; there’s a lot of history. For instance, it has presidential briefings from the Nixon era and information on the CIA’s involvement in wars in Southeast Asia. A how-to section tells you how to file a “Freedom of Information” request.
  • Dog Saves Unconscious Bird.” Google that phrase to find remarkable photos and video of a dog who whined until his owner came out to rescue an injured bird.
  • The U.S. Map Redrawn as 50 States with Equal Population.” Search on that phrase to find that Orange County, California, would be a state on its own and Nevada/Utah/Colorado would all be just one state.

Fix That Body

Portrait Pro, a $40 program, lets you make an old face look 30 years younger, or a young face look thinner or unblemished. Now there’s Portrait Pro Body. It makes your body look like a model’s.

As we mentioned when we wrote about Portrait Pro many moons ago, Joy liked her new face so much she was tempted to go around with a printout of it plastered on her real face. Portrait Pro Body now smoothes your body as well as your face. In tutorials that open up when you start the free trial, you’ll see thinner waists, awkward bulges removed, shoulders broadened, and a sleeker you. (Should be useful for posting to online dating sites.)

Start by adjusting the photos they supply. They’ll show you where to click. It’s easy to draw lines around a torso, then go over to the torso slider and broaden or thin it. It’s $40 from PortraitProBody.com.