I DREAM OF GENIE IN A HOCKEY PUCK

Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo Dot

The “Amazon Echo Dot” is a small $50 box with a genie named Alexa. You ask her to play music, and she plays music. You ask about the weather, she tells you the weather. She even tells you what’s playing at the Bijou, or wherever.

It is absolutely the future, though it’s sometimes like dealing with a drunken monkey. “Google Home,” a similar device just arrived. But the future is still struggling toward digital Nirvana.

Alexa responds to voice commands. We ask her to play Bach, she plays Bach. Though oddly enough, there is a popular French album of cool jazz, called “Play Bach,” which Amazon actually sells, and we actually bought. But Alexa ignores that and plays Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” which is the most perfect ever Halloween music. But for reasons known only to the mind of a digital assistant, part way through, it switches to playing Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn.” Nice, but not Bach.

Nothing ventured, nothing heard. “Alexa! Play Beethoven.” The ever obedient if somewhat addled Alexa responds with Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet. Well, she’s very young and probably just listens to Rock.

What we got here is something that looks very much like a thick hockey puck. Inside is a personal assistant that’s like “Siri” for the iPhone or “Google Now” for Android, but more, and more fun too. We plugged in a couple of good quality Altec-Lansing speakers we got for $20 on the web. Sound is great.

Once Alexa is set up, she’s always on. She connects through Wi-Fi and does your bidding, more or less. She can even play games with you, like word games, Jeopardy and Twenty Questions. She’s terrible at them, so you’re likely to win all the time. Joy likes her seven-minute workout. She even took her to a friend’s place, along with a portable speaker. Worked fine.

Back to music: You can say “skip,” “pause” and “resume,” and she’s always ready to play. In her million-song library, she didn’t have “Diamonds are Forever,” the theme from an old James Bond movies, but for an extra $4 a month we could expand our choices to 30 million songs, so we said “sure.” We moved on to old folk songs, like “John Henry Was a Steel Driving Man,” and “You Load Sixteen Tons and What Do you Get?” Alexa can read you a book, or a children’s book for the kids. She can order a ride from Uber or Lyft. You can also ask her to “Find my phone,” and she will if it’s on.

Bob’s imagination took off. Think of the protection possibilities, he mused. Some bad guys break into your house — or your business, and you say “If you don’t leave immediately, I’ll call the police.”

“Sure, sure. they would say. Just stay where you are and tell us where you keep the dough.” But it’s too late. The call will already have taken place, triggered by your voice saying “call the police.” Because, of course, the digital assistant is always on. Future versions need only add the ability to make phone calls, just like your cell phone. In fact, such a phone already exists. It’s called “Ooma,” and is a competitor to “Vonage” and “Magic Jack.” You can say, “Alexa, use Ooma to call Mom.” A little web searching will tell you all about it.

You can connect the all-knowing hockey puck with a security system like “Scout” from ScoutAlarm.com, but it doesn’t yet do everything we’d like it to. Still, Alexa is learning new skills every day, and it won’t be long before Alexa can order photos of the bad guys sent to the police, and everybody on Facebook for that matter, including the time and date stamp. The only escape for them will be moving to the Hindu Kush.

The Amazon Dot, second version, with Alexa inside, is less than a third the cost of their original product, the $160 “Amazon Echo.” Plug your own speaker into the Dot. We have seen the future, and it looks like a hockey puck.

Internuts

  • lazy-bandA frequent correspondent sent us a link to Wimp.com/brassband. It has a video of the laziest brass band in the known universe. Very amusing.
  • Girl Speaks 20 Languages.” Search on that term to see an amazing video on YouTube. The 20 languages include lesser known ones like Sami, spoken only in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. She speaks fast, like a native, whether she’s speaking German or Tamil, the official language of Sri Lanka.
  • 33 Roald Dahl quotes.” Search on that phrase to find thoughts that will “inspire you to live like a kid again.” (Dahl is the author of many children’s stories, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) It’s one of the many pages in ThoughtCatalog.com.

 

Private Web Searches

20-languagesIf you use StartPage.com, all web searches will be private. Click on the word “proxy” next to any search result to have the website address encrypted. Your results still come from Google, but you’re not tracked. DuckDuckGo.com is similar, and a favorite of many of our readers.

Alternatively, you could use Google Chrome’s “incognito” mode. Hold down the “ctrl” key in Windows (“cmd” on the Mac), and tap the shift key and the letter “n.” Not only are you un-trackable, but your searches won’t show up in a history of where you’ve been. Of course, incognito mode has limits. Some sites require you to have “cookies” turned on. They won’t operate if they can’t collect information about you in incognito mode.

 

IT’S ON YOUTUBE

goodnight-goonYoung children love to hear the same story over and over. Our dental hygienist told us what she does to keep from going nuts. She calls that old story up on YouTube.

So we searched on “Goodnight Goon,” a Halloween classic. Our dental hygienist had been reading it to her two little boys every day for a year, until finally she called it up on YouTube. This was definitely the right thing to do. Because whatever the story, there’s someone reading it aloud.

Be specific in your searches: We searched on “Cat in the Hat read aloud” and there he was. There were several readers and they all showed the pictures in the book; one had half a million views. You can subscribe to a channel such as “Reading Pioneers” to find out when they post a new one. But you are not limited to children’s stories, not at all. You can have Gone With the Wind read to you, or War and Peace. They’re both guaranteed to put us to sleep.

But as they say on late night TV commercials: “That’s not all you get.” We turn to YouTube when we don’t know how to do something. Every time we get a new product, for example, we go to YouTube to see the set up and get tips on operation. You can find set-up and user demos on just about anything: vacuum cleaners, can openers. drones, new TVs with impossible to figure out options, and on into the night.

We also go there on health matters. We recently searched on “how to put drops in your eye,” for example. It was surprisingly instructive. Joy’s disabled friend Nancy needed eye drops four times a day, starting two days before her cataract surgery. But every time Joy tried to put the drops in, Nancy involuntarily closed her eyes. YouTube explained how to do it:  Put a drop in the corner of a closed eye and let the person blink it in. Or have the person hold down their lower lid while you lay a drop in there. It turns out that only the pupil is sensitive to touch.

Tough Going on the Fitness Front

fitbitDo Fitbits and other wearable devices make you exercise more? According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, those who use step counters and other trackers actually exercise less. We find this hard to believe, but it’s backed up by Lancet, another prestigious journal. Their reasons? The constant monitoring either makes you discouraged or complacent.

One out of five Americans has one of these things. Joy, who has a normal pulse rate of 44 and needs no fitness training, has tried several. Before she lost it, her favorite was the “Vivofit” from Garmin. It shows a red line across its tiny screen to tell you you’ve been sitting too long. But it also tends to pop off if you wear it on an ankle, which is how Joy lost hers.

Secret Email 

What if Hillary Clinton had used encrypted email? Would she have avoided the great bugaboo of her campaign?

Naturally enough, that’s what the people at “StartMail” say. It’s a $60 a year encryption service. The company doesn’t respond to requests for information, even from the U.S. government.  It’s based in Holland, where U.S. data collection methods do not apply. They say they have never cooperated with the U.S. National Security Agency, and unlike many free services, they themselves cannot read your mail.

StartMail allows you to send unreadable email that becomes readable when the recipient answers a secret question. All they see at first is your name and the subject line. Your “sent mail” folder is also encrypted. The service saw a surge in membership after Yahoo recently admitted that 500 million email addresses were hacked.

Internuts

  • 2016-electionEconomicNoise.com was suggested by a reader. Search on the word “paraprosdokian” (we know: hard to believe) to find funny examples of sentences with a twist ending. Example: “If I had a dollar for every girl that found me unattractive, they’d eventually find me attractive.” Or “I was going to give him a nasty look, but he already had one.” And our favorite: “If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.”
  • BallotReady.com gives you a complete ballot with links to information about all the candidates. Just put in your address. If you live in California, the results are insane.
  • Search on the phrase “hidden Roku tricks” to find PC Magazine’s article on how to get the most out of your Roku, a streaming media player. We like the idea of putting a movie or favorite actor on your watch list. Select “My Feed,” and then search for the one you want to add.

App Happy

  • moviesItcher” is a free iPhone/iPad/Android app for deciding what movies to watch, what books to read, what music to listen to and what games to play. Start by rating five things in each of those categories. If you make a mistake, you can undo your rating. We accidentally rated a Beatles book highly and got too many Beatle book suggestions. So we tapped on our rating to undo it.
  • Loop by Seedling” is a free app for iPad/iPhone for looping photos together in a non-stop animation. Their sample video shows two stuffed animals playing tic tac toe. We tried to make a bunny appear to be throwing a ball. The movie business need fear no competition from us.

The Streaming Blues

Our friend was all set to enjoy a live streaming event on the Web when a screen message asked her to install an updated version of “Adobe Flash.” We showed her she can avoid this sort of thing by using Google Chrome instead of Internet Explorer or Firefox.

A year ago, Google execs got so annoyed with Adobe Flash software that they started blocking it. (Interestingly, Steve Jobs felt the same way about Flash and banned it form Apple.) Websites now must use a different kind of video player if they want their content to be seen. So you don’t need Flash to watch a movie or video on Google Chrome. If you do use Adobe Flash, keep it updated. Hackers can take advantage of older versions.

 

EASY BACKUP

windows-10To be sure your important files are automatically backed up, turn on a feature in Windows 10. This is pretty handy and here’s how to get it.

Click the “start” button. Then choose “settings,” by clicking the gear off to the left. Now choose “Update & Security,” and then “Backup.” Plug in a thumb drive or any kind of external storage device. Click “add a drive” and choose the one you just plugged in. You’ll now see a list of folders that will be automatically backed up. Click on any you don’t want and choose “remove” to remove them. Click “add a folder” to add the one you do want.

Avoiding Hackers

hacker Hotel and library computers are easy to compromise. In short, they’re generally not safe from hackers wanting to steal your information or your identity.

We used a hotel’s “business center” computer a while back at L’Auberge in Del Mar, Cal., a three-star hotel, no less, and within a couple of days started getting scurrilous ads in our email, some really filthy stuff. At the “Conrad” in Indianapolis, one of Hilton’s upscale hotels, we noticed the computers in the business center had not been upgraded in more than four years, and did not seem at all well protected. Joy installed the latest Internet Explorer. She shouldn’t have been able to install anything.Preview

Almost no computer that can be accessed by the public is safe from someone installing the kind of software that logs your keystrokes – every letter and number you punch in.  So we got pitched recently about a program that encrypts every keystroke you enter.

It’s called “GuardedID,” and sells for $30. It prevents bad guys from doing what’s called “screen scraping,” getting info from your screen even if they can’t capture your keystrokes. It also prevents so-called “click jacks.” These are hidden objects in legitimate ads; you click on the ad and it takes you somewhere else.

OK, so whether you add GuardedID to your anti-virus and anti-spyware arsenal depends on how paranoid you are. We decided to install it. We may not need it, but remember: even paranoids can have enemies.

New Printer

epson-xp-640-printerOur laser printer is great for documents and clip art, but not so hot for photos; inkjets have had our best results. So we tried the new $150 Epson Premium XP-640 “Small in One” for photos; the “in one” part is that it comes with a scanner on top. Here’s what we found:

It’s heavy and not small, and $150 seems steep for an inkjet. It was difficult to set up and annoying to use, but  … it produced outstanding photo prints and you could do them 4×6 or 8×10. We were impressed with that. But as the song says, you must remember this: The quality of any print is heavily dependent on the quality of the paper.

High quality glossy paper runs anywhere from 30 cents to a dollar a sheet. You can find some for as little as 16 cents a sheet, but we don’t think it’s worth saving money this way if you plan to keep a big print and frame it. A full set of inks for this printer costs around $48, but of course that’s enough for lots of big glossy prints — anywhere from 50-100 of them.

Compared to having your photos printed at Walgreens or some other store, it’s cheap. An 8×10 photo printed at Walgreens or most other stores, costs about $4. Doing it yourself at home would be less than half that. Frame them and you’ve got some nice holiday gifts.

It’s tempting to save by buying cheaper ink from what are called “third party suppliers.” (Shouldn’t they be called “second party suppliers?”) But of course the printer companies don’t want you to do that and say it will void the warranty; Hewlett Packard recently caused howls of protest when they automatically updated their printer software through the Internet without telling anyone that this would make all other ink cartridges non-operational. They disguised it as a “security update.” Pretty sneaky. Of course, for Hewlett Packard, ink is most of their profit. (By the way, we used to have an HP printer that stopped us from using third party inks. We tricked it by going back to an earlier installation of the software and then everything was fine.)

The cost of ink is so high that even Bob’s doctor recently complained about it. We have purchased ink cartridges made by outside companies and had no problem with it. It did not damage our printer and as for voiding the warranty — who cares? In a comparison test by Consumer Reports magazine a while back, reviewers preferred the quality of the third party inks to the manufacturer’s own brand.

Back to the Small in One printer: Using the Epson “Creative Print” app on your phone or your computer, you can make collages, greeting cards, etc. or post to Facebook or Instagram. In theory. Joy, a world-class greeting card maker, found the card feature baffling.

Bottom line here: The photos were great, but the machine is too expensive and awkward to use,

 Internuts

  • tonights-bedtime-storyTonightsBedTimeStory.com has free books to read or listen to. They have Beatrix Potter’s stories, Jack the Giant Killer and 79 classic fairy tales.
  • Fotor.com offers an easy way to make photo collages, Facebook posts, art for your YouTube channel, greeting cards, banners, and other designs. There are ads along the bottom of the screen, but we found these easy to ignore.
  • Gaming.Youtube.com/PrimeTime is an hour-long, live show about video games. Viewers interact with game creators.
  • NoLabels.org is trying to get Congress to focus on solutions, not party politics. It was founded by a former Congressman, Mickey Edwards, who wrote a book about the problem: “The Parties Versus the People.”

 

 

DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR?

 

zus-smart-car-charger

Zus Smart Car Charger and Car Locator

Joy broke her foot this summer, but that didn’t stop her from walking for two hours with her friend Betty. Joy was wearing an orthopedic boot but naturally did not complain as the pain increased. It took two hours because Betty couldn’t remember where she left her car.

There are free cell phone apps for this problem, but we have tested several and they don’t work all that well.  We’ve found they can’t compare with a path-finding gizmo called “ZUS,” which is $30. It not only finds your car, it checks the time left on the parking meter and charges your phone.

To get started, we plugged the ZUS into the car’s cigarette lighter and downloaded a free app. The ZUS has two slots for USB cables and claims to charge your devices twice as fast as other car chargers. Could be, but we didn’t care about that; where it shines is in navigation.

We tapped the ZUS app after parking the car and took a long walk along the lake. When ready to head back to the car, we got a green arrow pointing us in the right direction. When we veered to right or left or reversed course, the green arrow pointed us back to the car. It gave us a progress report along the way, showing when we were 750 feet away from the car, right down to the last 20 feet. This last might matter in a crowded parking lot, like at a sports event.

We compared it to a free app called “Find My Car.” (We’re always eager to avoid paying $30.) First we tapped it to set our parked position, then took a walk again. When returning, we tapped “navigate” to get Google Map’s turn-by-turn directions for walkers. But we were practically standing in the lake when a Google voice announced that we had arrived back at the car.

A few other nice ZUS features: You could be lost in the woods — without cell phone coverage, and still use it to track back to your car. It can share its location with family members, so you could all meet up at the car in the Disneyworld parking lot, without trying to remember where it is. On iPhones and iPads, the app also checks your car battery.

Beware Bogus Email

scamWe’ve recently had calls and emails that claim to be from Citibank. The free cell phone app “Truecaller” blocked the call but we still got it on our landline. Much worse were the emails.

The fake Citibank emails look exactly like a Citicard invoice. It even had the last four digits of a credit card we used to have and a precise sum we owed. The return address appeared to be legit too: “citibank.com.” But appearances were deceiving.

Never click to go to a link in a suspicious email. Call the company and ask if they sent it. Or, here’s a trick Joy uses: Instead of using your left mouse button to click on a link like “Visit Citi Online,” click with your right mouse button. This gives you a menu. From the menu, click “copy link address.” Then paste it into any word processor. Sure enough, when we did this, it showed that the email wasn’t from Citibank but some outfit called “AccountOnline.” Totally bogus, man.

Sharing Your Opinions

many-opinionsA reader turned us on to “Opinion,” a free app for the iPhone or iPad. It puts your opinions out there, as a podcast for the whole world to listen to. A podcast is like a personal radio show. You can add episodes as often as you wish, and create as many stations as you wish. By golly, this could be a series.

We first did a podcast ten years ago, using BlogTalkRadio.com, which is still around. It’s a simple way to go on the air just by calling in. Books have been written on how to do a professional-sounding show, but the Opinion app is as simple as it gets, no manual required.

Go to MadeWithOpinion.com and download the free app or find it in your phone’s app store. Then choose a name for your show. We chose “Bob and Joy.” This gave us our own web address, Bob-and-Joy.MadeWithOpinion.com. (Bob was his usual curmudgeonly self.) Tap to take a picture of yourself or use one you’ve stored. We didn’t have many photos on our iPad, so we Googled “how to transfer photos from your computer to your iPad. ” Answer: You connect your iPad or iPhone to the computer, then use iTunes.  When you’re ready, tap the red “record” button and start talking. If you don’t want to share it with the world, you can save it as a private file.

After you talk, you’ll have a chance to edit the results. We left our mistakes untouched, but you can tap on a pair of scissors to cut the parts you don’t want. You can talk for up to ten minutes. We talked for three, following the journalist’s rule of “keep it light, tight and trite.” The premium version of the app is $5 and lets you talk as long as you want. (Remember the rule.)

How will others discover you? You can add yourself to the iTunes Podcast directory.  Do a search on “Apple Podcasts Connect” for instructions.

Reader Warning

google-nowRecently, we said you could add “Google Now” to your old smart phone if it didn’t already have it. “Now” now lets you speak your search terms instead of typing them. It seemed like a good thing but it can cause problems.

A reader said he ran into trouble immediately after installing Google Now. Instead of many screens full of apps, he now had just one page. He tried turning off Google Now, but the only thing that worked was uninstalling it. Fortunately, when he did this, all of the missing apps reappeared.

 

 

ADVENTURES IN VIRTUAL REALITY

google-cardboard-virtual-reality-viewerThere’s been so much talk about virtual reality we decided to give it a try. Regular reality requires so much effort.

So we busted the budget and spent $10 at Amazon for Google’s cardboard virtual reality headset. We later found we could have bought one at KnoxLabs.com for $5. (Amazon isn’t always the cheapest.).

Is it worth it? Well, yeah. The resolution isn’t the sharpest, but there you are flying inside a wrap-around video. There are reports that some people experience dizziness and even nausea from this experience but we had none of that; it was more like being in an IMAX theater in your living room.

So what’s the gist of virtual reality? It’s more than an IMAX experience because it’s three-sixty, as they say. That’s 360 degrees, a wrap-around. You can look at what’s behind you as well as ahead and all sides. It’s also 360 degrees up and down; you can see the clouds up above and the ground (or water) under your feet.

This is all early days. It is obvious that we are looking at a technology in its infancy. The details are going to get sharper, there will be background music and we will be invincible as we romp through fantasy land.

Now as the device goes, it is sort of a souped-up version of the stereopticons that were popular in the early part of the 20th century. In those you slipped a photo card with two versions of the same image, in front of two viewing lenses. The photos were of the same subject but each taken at a slightly different angle, so that when viewed through the two separate lenses the eyes saw something that appeared to be in three dimensions. The picture appeared to have depth.

With Google’s VR (Virtual Reality), we also need to start with a picture, which because things have advanced a bit since the turn of the last century, can now be in motion. The double photos that you stuck in the stereopticon are now replaced by your cell phone. The cell phone can present motion and sound. But where do you get the goods?

We were impressed with a free app from the New York Times called “NYT VR.”   Within the app, we tapped “The Fight for Fallujah,” about the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. This is right up to the moment. We were on the ground with Iraqi forces as they retook the city from ISIS. The city is in ruins and there’s a headless body in the road, but you don’t get close enough to be sick. At the refugee camp, an Iraqi woman with a family of eight tells you it’s heaven compared to her past: At least there is food, she says. As you turn your head from left to right, up and down and even behind you, there’s lots to see. The city, once home to 300,000 people is a total mess. In calmer scenes with no war, we swam with whales, walked through New York and went to Pluto (still embarrassed by not being a planet).

Others are in this game. Sony’s PlayStation VR is $500 or you can spend $600 for a viewer from Oculus Rift. We can expect wide open competition soon.  If you want to see what’s out there before spending a nickel, look up “virtual reality” or “VR” apps in your phone’s app store. Each one we looked at had an option to also view the video without VR.

Back to the cheaper future for a moment: The Cardboard viewer app has a 30-second intro. with a forest and a fox waiting for you to follow him. A minute later, you fly with seagulls, a noisy crowd. The NYT VR app has a dozen video choices. Each time you select a new one you have a choice of downloading the video or streaming it. Unless you have a super-fast Internet connection, it’s best to download.

Fun and Food Games

yes-chefWe love it when readers suggest apps. That’s how we heard about “Yes Chef,” a free app for the iPad and iPhone.

Yes Chef is a cooking robot who reads the recipe to you. We said, “Chef, let’s get started,” and it offered a dozen recipe suggestions. You can be more specific if you wish, saying for example, “Chef, Charred Broccoli Salad.” Then, “What’s the first step?” The chef will tell you what to do and say how much of an ingredient you need. You can pause the recipe recital by saying “pause.” This is great fun, and prevents sticky hands from gumming up your iPad. It makes cooking feel like a game.

Speaking of games, we recently started watching “Wheel of Fortune” again, after years away. They have a new app: “Wheel of Fortune Free Play,” which is much improved. This was all so exciting, even peripatetic. Joy had to take a nap.

Allo!

allo“Allo” is what “Hello” sounds like if you’re French. It’s also a free text messaging app for your smart phone. It’s getting a ton of publicity, both good and bad. We like it.

Critics say it fails in its primary purpose: providing you the information you need during a conversation. Picky, picky. If your primary purpose is fun, the app succeeds quite well.

In the text messaging window, “Google Assistant” is always there, ready to tap. The Assistant prompts you to you set up reminders, book a flight, get the latest sports scores, get movie show times, put an item on your calendar, or find a restaurant nearby –all while you’re still in the text-messaging window. This can be handy if you’re texting someone and need the info but don’t want to leave the messaging app to get it. (Some criticism comes in because sometimes you click on a link and go on the web, instead of staying in the chat window.)

The Assistant can also launch one of several games, display a poem, and answer your questions, all without leaving the chat area. This led us to play word and geography games and read some fun Emily Dickinson poems.

 

 

JUST THE FACTS

onlybothIt’s remarkable what you can find on the web. One of our favorite sites: OnlyBoth.com, now rates hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, and corporate income taxes by country.

In the hospital section, click “best in class” and choose a condition. We learned that the University of Chicago Medical Center has has the second-lowest rate of accidental cuts and tears from medical treatment among all the 4,803 hospitals. If you click “needs improvement,” you’ll find it has the seventh-most patients who left the emergency department before being seen (9%) among the 585 hospitals that have very high emergency-department volume (60,000+ patients annually).

Clicking on “country tax systems,” we discovered that the United Arab Emirates has the lowest corporate taxes of 195 countries. In fact, the rate is zero — that’s pretty low. Most are around 23 percent. In the U.S., it’s 35 percent, or 39 percent if you count state taxes, one of the highest tax rates in the world.

Interesting Numbers from a Reader

Labor prices are up, transistor prices are down. A reader writes that every time he had his Yamaha stereo equipment fixed over the last ten years, the price has been the same, $110. The first time the labor cost $30 and the transistor cost $80. Today, the labor is $90 and the transistor is $20. As the British say: “What you gain on the swings, you lose on the round-abouts.”

Free Information

tapping-a-phoneWhen you’re out of range of your home Internet connection, and you want to look up a phone number on your cell phone without incurring data charges, it would be nice to get that for free. A reader wondered whatever happened to the free “411” service. There’s a free app for iPhones and an easy way to get that info from any phone.

On any phone, dial 1-800-Free-411. You’ll hear an ad at the beginning of the call and again when you get your number.

An app called “411” is available in the iPhone app store.  We tried it on our iPad and it worked fine. You get the same results from WhitePages.com.

 

App Happy Trips

Google Trips” is a free app for Android and iPhone. It’s a new way to plan trips.

When you open it, you’ll see trips you’ve already been on and trips you’re planning. How do they know? Google culls them from your email; every place you’ve talked about is picked up. If you never mentioned it, it won’t be there. We found it to be a good reminder of where we’ve gone in the last six years. It’s easy to forget — and some of them were really forgettable. if you don’t like this feature, you can turn it off.

We tapped on our trip to San Francisco and then tapped “things to do,” “food and drink,” and “getting around,” for the next time we go. There’s also a “need to know” category with info on hospitals, local currency and Wi-Fi hot spots. When you want to plan a new trip, just type a destination in the box labeled “Where do you want to go?”

Step into the Paint Shop

paintshop-pro-exampleCorel’s “PaintShop Pro” was one of the earliest photo editing programs we ever reviewed. We’ve looked at every version over the past 26 years. This program used to cost hundreds of dollars and we always felt it was for professional artists. But now it’s only $80, and much more user friendly. There’s a free 30-day trial.

The nuts: Tutorials and onscreen guides pop up when you start the program. They do a great job of explaining nearly everything. On the Corel website, there are even more tutorials, for things like turning photos into coloring books. We like the basic “one step photo adjust” command, which produced some of the best results we’ve ever seen. Some of the other adjustments, such as working with “RAW” images, are similar to controls found in the $120-a-year Photoshop program from Adobe.

Paintshop Pro comes with templates for making brochures, collages, greeting cards and social media posts. Our only complaint is many templates cost an extra $5. We hate that nickel and dime stuff. In the greeting cards area, for example, the only freebie was a one-page birthday card. If you’re into making your own greeting cards, as we are,  you’re expecting to be able to make the front, back and inside in one operation. If you like doing cards, you can get thousands of templates, including photo cards, for around $30 on Amazon. Search for Nova Development’s Greeting Card Factory, Hallmark, American Greetings and the great old Broderbund programs like Print Shop ($10 at Amazon.com).

In new features, PaintShop comes with its own screen capture program. It goes way beyond the free “Snipping Tool” that comes with Windows, or the free screen capture tool on the Mac. It can capture sound along with images, and individual website elements like drop-down menus that only show up when you hover.

NOTE: The software tools that come with your computer are good enough for most of us. In Windows, type “Snipping Tool” into the search bar to find a good screen capture. On the Mac, hold down the “Cmd” and “Shift” keys and tap the number “4.” Both Windows and Mac do a good job of saving anything you see on your screen, and if you need to add text or arrows or underline things in your screenshot, you can bring the image into a free program like Windows Paint or Paintbrush on the Mac.

 

 

TEACHING AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS

 

Alcatel Pixi Pulsar

Alcatel Pixi Pulsar

Recently, we bought a $21 smart phone for our 97 year-old friend, Ida. It was not only economical (meaning cheap), but it’s been fun and instructive.

The keyboard on the cheap TracFone is too tiny for anyone but a teenager to type on, so we taught Ida how to use Google’s voice assistant, called “Google Now.” If you have an Android with an operating system that came out before 2012, you can download Google Now from the Google Play store. (IPhone users can download the Google app from the App Store.) We never used it much ourselves, but we’re not 97.

Talking is usually faster than typing whenever you need to search for something or give information to an app. To wake up the Google Now assistant, tap the microphone or say “OK, Google.” With Ida, we said, “OK, Google: What day is Halloween 2016?” Back came the answer: “Monday.” We tried several more queries, like “What’s the weather?” “Where’s a good Chinese restaurant?” If it’s a complex question, like “Why did Germany lose World War II,” you’ll get a list of links that take you to the Internet.

We asked Ida to try it. She said, “OK Google:  No More Questions.” She thought she was saying goodbye to the app, something that had never occurred to us. But anything you say to Google Now is the equivalent of a request, so the app responded by listing a rap song called “No More Questions.”

Moving right along, Ida wanted to watch a video on her new $21 phone. We tapped the YouTube  app and watched a nine year-old girl singing a tune by Adele, which cracked her up. Next she wanted to play a game, so we downloaded the free “Word Chums,” a Scrabble look-alike. She loved it, and it was good tapping practice. Because you have to tap quickly and lightly on these phones, not slow and hard. She also practiced calling Lyft, Uber’s rival in the taxi business, using only voice commands to set the pickup point and destination.

Finally we taught her to turn on the cellular connection when she leaves her apartment. It should be off when you’re connected to your home or public Wi Fi so as not to incur charges from overuse. But when you go out, you may need to take a call. For many phones, just tap “Settings” and then turn the mobile data switch to the “on” position.

Reader Quandary

amazon-fireA woman who described herself as “low tech” wrote us with a quandary. Her tablet, a Samsung Note, wasn’t working and she wanted to get something new.

We suggested she try a “factory reset” first before ditching any tablet or phone. First, save your photos and other data. The reset is usually done by holding down the power button while you press the up volume knob. (Search on “factory reset” and your model number if that doesn’t work.) The end result is your tablet or phone is as new and fast as the day you bought it.

If we didn’t already have one, we’d buy a Kindle Fire for $50 to $80 rather than a Samsung tablet for $375 to $500. We’re cheap. The $50 Fire lets you do all of the things most people want to do, such as photo sharing, text messaging, reading books, watching movies, playing games and listening to online radio. For text messaging, we added the free apps “Facebook Messenger” and “Text Me.” You can even print from the Kindle Fire, if you have a compatible printer. Search on the phrase “Printing from the Kindle Fire” to see if yours is on the list.

The new $90 Fire, called the “Amazon Fire HD 8,” is slightly larger (eight inch instead of seven) and comes with Amazon’s new voice assistant “Alexa.” Alexa will answer your questions, tell you jokes, remind you to do stuff, etc.

Facebook Ins and Outs

facebook“Facebook Groups” are a fun way to share posts with like-minded people without the rest of your family and friends joining in. Joy belongs to a group for her women’s club and another for those who grew up in her hometown.

If you’ve never joined a Facebook group but are curious, click “Discover Groups” on the left side of your Facebook home page. When we did, we found several, such as a high school reunion group, a book exchange for fellow college alumni, and “Blissful Warriors” for yoga nuts. You can also create your own group. On the left side of your home page, under “Discover Groups,” you’ll find the option “Create Group.”

If you want to download all the photos you’ve ever posted to Facebook, you’ll find the option under “Settings.” To find “Settings,” click a tiny down arrow in the upper right of the home page. It’s hard to see but it’s a couple icons to the right of the globe. After you tap “Settings,” go to the bottom of “General Account Settings” and tap or click “Download a copy of my Facebook data.”

For a video tutorial on Facebook basics, search on “How to Navigate Facebook for the New User.” There are many Facebook tutorials on YouTube, some oriented to business users.

Finding Solitaire

solitaireA reader wrote us that his Windows 7 laptop didn’t have Solitaire, and he really missed it. So do we all.

He tried downloading a version from Download.com, but it wanted him to pay $30 for something that wasn’t Solitaire. This is a common problem. In fact, our favorite tech guru, Kenny S from helphelpnow.com, says that many of his tech support customers start with problems from Download.com.

But it turns out we don’t need them anyway; Solitaire is included in all Windows 7 machines and is free in the Windows store for Windows 8 and Windows 10. If you don’t see Solitaire in Windows 7, it’s probably because games are turned off. To turn them back on, click “Control Panel,” then “Programs,” and under “Programs and Features,” click “Turn Windows features on or off.” Select the “Games” check box, and click “OK.”

 

 

MAKING MUSIC

musically-appMusical.ly” is a free app for Android and iPhones and it’s been downloaded over 70 million times. It lets you make 15-second music videos. Almost all of the users are teenagers. Some of them are pretty good.

This fast forwards pop artist’s Andy Warhol’s prediction that someday everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Now it’s 15 seconds. These videos can be posted on the site itself, as well as Facebook, Instagram and your private account.

If you’re feeling young again yourself, you might want to post a few dance numbers. Start by choosing the music. For instance, we started with “Obama’s Playlist.” The only tunes we recognized were Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” In the whole “World” section, we found “La Bamba,” “La Vie en Rose,” and the South Korean hit, “Gangnam Style.” In fact, we were having so much fun playing 15-second music clips, it was hard to move on to make a video. (Now we know where to get a tune called “Psychedelic Bollywood.”)

After choosing “Stand by Me” in the rock section, (Bob vetoed Joy’s suggestion of Disney’s “It’s a Small World,”) we put our phone on a bookshelf, tapped the start button and it automatically took a video of us in normal mode. Another time, we tried “fast” mode, and watched our arms flail at super speed. We tapped the edit button to change the lighting. We chose “save privately,” and emailed a copy to ourselves. If you make several videos, you can compile them into a story, or perhaps a musical.

Watching the featured videos, we saw a cute one of a baby being tossed by its parents and two guys in a supermarket doing some amazing floor slides. A couple of cute twins do a rap song. This is all fun, easy and free.

Refurbished Blues

1 slow computerA reader bought a refurbished Windows 7 computer. It works fine and was dirt cheap. But the keyboard didn’t make sense. Whenever he tried to type the “@” sign, he got a quotation mark instead. None of the number keys worked as expected.  If that ever happens to you, it means someone switched the language. But you can switch it back.

There’s a British keyboard and an American keyboard, not to mention all the others. The key to fixing this is to open Windows’ “Control Panel” and click on “Clock, Language and Region,” and then “Change Input Method.” From there you can switch to the American keyboard.

Now back to refurbished computers. Our reader paid $200 for a Lenovo “ThinkCentre IBM” from TigerDirect.com, because he wants to stay with Windows 7. He says he’s never been disappointed by anything bought there. When we visited the site, we saw a Dell Latitude with a 14-inch display for $125, but it has only two gigabytes of RAM, which means slow Internet surfing. For today’s Internet, with all the complex video and photos, at least four gigabytes are recommended. We noticed that if you search on “refurbished laptops” on TigerDirect, only one comes up. But if you just click “laptops” and choose the price listing “from low to high,” there are dozens.

We’ve purchased so-called “refurbished” products in the past and only once had a problem.  It was actually a new computer we bought at an office supply store. When we fired it up, it turned out that there were lots of files on it. It was not a new computer. All of the paperwork was in the box. This leads directly to the question of what is refurbished and what is not.

More often than not, refurbished products are new. It works like this. Some company buys 500 desktop computers. But it turns out they only need 430 of them. They send the other 70 back. Now, when these get back to the manufacturer or the vendor, it is not worth the time spent in labor to examine each one of these for possible use; if it looks new, it is new. Therefore, these returns are usually re-sold as refurbished.

Now several years ago, buying refurbished was worth it because of the big savings. This has become less so today. Printers, for example, are now so cheap that it isn’t worth looking for refurbished units. We saw advertised in the newspaper a new HP Windows 10 laptop with all the trimmings for less than $300. At prices like this, what is to be saved buying refurbished?

 Internuts

  • woody-allen-cafe-societySmartyPins.WithGoogle.com is a fun trivia game using a Google map. Every answer is the name of a city. They ask you an entertainment, sports, science, culture or history question and you drop the pin down where you think it goes. Joy missed the question about Kansas City, though we’ve had great barbeque there. She earned a bronze pin in the science and geography category.
  • NetflixReleases.com tells you when movies in the theater or elsewhere become available on Netflix.

What’s Your Pattern?

pattern Keeping your smart phone locked could prevent bad guys from getting in if you ever leave it at somewhere. To set a lock, tap “settings” and then “security.” In most phones, you can lock your phone with a four-digit number or use a distinctive pattern. We chose the pattern. It’s quick to draw something on the screen to unlock the phone.

The screen tends to go dark within seconds, requiring you to unlock it again. So we changed the security setting to require a password only after 30 minutes of inactivity.

What we didn’t know was that some patterns are easy to guess. If your name starts with “S,” you might draw an S. Other common patterns are “U,” “N,” and “Z.” Pardon us while we change our pattern.

Dropbox Fiasco

Just about any time someone sends us large files, they use the free service from Dropbox.com. We remember when it was located at Dropbox.io. The “io” stood for Indian Ocean and that’s just where our first files went. They were just getting started then and now are one of the primary methods people store files online. Too bad they were recently hacked. Around 68 million user accounts were broken into.

Which prompts this comment: If you use Dropbox, change your password, just to be on the safe side. We did. (But we’re not telling you what.)

 

 

SKIP THE IPHONE

tracfone-alcatel-pixi-pulsar-smart-phoneWe tried an experiment. We went out to the drugstore and bought a $40 cell phone. It wasn’t the cheapest one; we could have bought one for $13, but Bob noticed it was a so-called clam-shell or flip phone and you can’t load apps onto those.

The impetus for this experiment was our 97 year-old friend Ida. She said she may have to give up driving one day and switch to using one of the ride services, like Uber or Lyft. So then, she would have to get an iPhone so she could call a cab.

Uh-uh, we said. You do need a smartphone or a computer to call one of those ride services but you don’t have to spend $649 to $749 for an iPhone. So we went and bought a $40 smartphone at Walgreens to check that out. We could have bought one for $21.60 at Walmart, but we were on deadline and didn’t want to fool around. So we got a “TracFone,” (the “Pixi Pulsar”) made by Alcatel, a joint French and Chinese company. It uses the Android operating system.

There’s no contract with this phone. You can buy your phone minutes, texts and web time right there at the drug store or order it on the phone itself. We chose the $20 plan for 90 days. You don’t get much data downloading on this plan, but when you surf the Web while connected to your home or public Wi-Fi, you don’t use any cellular data.

What’s astonished us the quality of this little phone, which is about the size of the original iPhone. We put all our favorite apps on it, including “Lightning Bug,” which plays nice background sounds for sleeping. The little phone played ocean waves for us all night, and the battery was only a third less full than where it started. We were truly impressed by the quality and volume of the music we played from Spotify. We signed in to our Gmail account. Then we tried summoning a Lyft driver just to be sure we could if Ida needed to. Oops. We thought we were just trying things out but he showed up to get us in about two minutes and we had to pay a $5 cancellation fee.

What’s the downside here? Well, the phone is smaller than a regular smartphone, so the on-screen keyboard that shows up has really tiny letters and would be hard for some people to use. Joy had no trouble, and Bob could handle it too, but more slowly. Fortunately, the phone took speech commands. Bob was amazed at that. That’s also how we lost $5 to the Lyft service. “Try giving it a command to take us to an address downtown,” Joy said to Bob. So he did, and the phone understood it perfectly.

So this is a keeper for us. If we go to Walmart, we can buy thirty of them for the price of an iPhone. Maybe we’ll give them out as Christmas presents.

Free Slideshows

ashampoo-slideshowThe strangely-named company “Ashampoo” has a free slideshow program we like. It brought back the joy of looking at photos.

SlideshowStudio 2017” from Ashampoo.com starts by asking if you want to make a simple slideshow or a more advanced one. We chose simple, but still got “Ken Burns” (famous maker of historical documentaries) effects and music thrown in. You choose the song you want from whatever music you’ve stored to your computer. If you haven’t stored any, just pop in a CD and follow the on-screen prompts to “rip” music to your machine.

This worked great. Our only warning is to avoid large folders of photos. Bob wondered why Joy was in the office for hours. She was transfixed by the slideshow creation process. She thought she’d turn to stone waiting for a photo to load after she clicked the add-photo button but she couldn’t stop. The solution was to reorganize her folders, limiting each to a dozen or so photos. Otherwise, the program attempts to load hundreds each time you want to add one.

When ready, click “produce” to create slides from cell phone quality on up to the highest resolution (4K).  Even after production, you can edit it, if you notice heads cut off or sideways photos. (By the way: the Ashampoo company took the name after a reviewer said their clean-up utility cleaned his Windows computer “like a shampoo.”)

App Happy

Music DoodleWe’ve written about “Shazam” twice before, but it’s been a while. So when a reader recently said it was his favorite for bringing in music, we thought why not bring it in again for those who were take a brief nap when we did it before.

“Shazam” was the secret code word that turned an ordinary boy into comic book super-hero Captain Marvel. (This was one of Bob’s favorites, but no matter how earnestly he said the magic word, nothing happened.)  It’s a free app for Android phones, iPhones, iPad, or tablets, and its secret power is that it can identify music you can hum or sing and play it for you — though frankly, it worked better listening to the radio. Tap the “Shazam” button to let it listen. In our test, it knew in seconds it was listening to “Minuetto” by Luigi Boccherini. (This was the prominent piece in the movie “The Lady Killers.”)  It remembers your selections and you can play them again.

Internuts

 

WATCHING TV SPORTS ANYWHERE

football onlineWhen our friend from Wisconsin (No, his name is not Yon Yonson) is in our neck-of-the-woods, he wants to watch the Green Bay Packer games on his phone. Can he do it? One way is to use “Watch ESPN,” a free app for Android, iPhone and iPad.

We tried out the ESPN app on our phone to watch football in a doctor’s waiting room and it worked fine. But the catch is, you must verify that you have a subscription to cable TV.

Our friend Lee does not have a cable TV subscription. Instead, he has a lifetime subscription to the TiVo service. TiVo users can stream programs to their TV at home or to their phone or tablet. But at least half the users say they had connection problems trying to stream a show on the road. In our tests, we could control Lee’s TV with the Android app but we couldn’t watch anything live because he doesn’t have one of the newer TiVos. An alternative is to download shows while in range of your home Wi-Fi network, but users say this takes too long. Worse, if you have an older TiVo, you’ll need an extra device, the “TiVo Stream.”
If you want a variety of programs to watch on the road, consider Sling.com. It costs $20 a month to watch shows online, but you can’t record anything. It’s live only. Which means, of course, if you’re in Singapore, you can watch your local show but you’ll have to get up at four in the morning to do it.

If you’re a cable TV subscriber, you can watch everything on phone, tablet or computer from anywhere. Download the free app or watch from your favorite browser. For Comcast, go to TVgo.xfinity.com. For Direct TV, go to DirecTV.com and click “watch now.” For AT&T Uverse, go to Uverse.com/live. We use Uverse, so now when we’re at a hotel, we won’t miss our favorite show, “Brain Dead.”

Be wary of searching online for even more alternatives. Some, like Botzmediaz, promise free online sports, but appear to be scams.

Pay What You Want for a Treasure Trove

Lost Planet

Lost Planet

You can get a treasure trove of video games or programming books for whatever price you think is fair. It’s called the “Humble Bundle,” from HumbleBundle.com.

The minimum price is one dollar and much of the proceeds go to charity. As of last year, they’d raised $65 million for charity, which just goes to show how those small contributions add up. We bought a recent Humble Bundle for $1. It included four really good books on programming, including “Automate the Boring Stuff with Python: Practical Programming for Total Beginners.”

The current Humble Bundle is a set of games for the Playstation. You get four games for a dollar plus a 45 percent off coupon. The games include Capcom titles such as “Wolf of the Battlefield” and “Strider.” If you pay $12, which is above average, you get six more games, including “Resident Evil” and “Lost Planet.” Pay $15 to unlock even more. There’s a new deal every week.

Game Music

“Spotify,” the free, ad-supported music app and website, now has music from video games. After listening to Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, it was a nice change to hear the background music for “Super Metroid.” Game music is set to rival movie music.

To find game music after installing Spotify to your computer, phone or tablet, search on the phrase “Guest List: Games Beat.”

Book: Life Hacks

David Pogue

David Pogue

David Pogue, who writes for Yahoo Tech, has a new book, “Life Hacks,” $20 from FlatIronBooks.com.
Though the book deals with everything from quenching a hot pepper fiery mouth (with dairy or peanut butter) to folding an airline seat’s headrest into the perfect pillow. But it’s the tech section where he really shines. Here are a few we found especially helpful:

• If you’ve missed the news for a month, type “August 2016” into the page at wikipedia.org and get a quick summary. If you’re curious about the past, type any month and year. We tried November 1918.
• You don’t need a cell phone contract to dial 911. Put any old phone in the glove box, and as long as it’s charged, it makes a great emergency phone.
• Buy the kids an iPod Touch instead of a cell phone: It’s an iPhone without a monthly bill. It can send text messages, play video, take pictures, surf the web and use all the latest apps. (Our niece used an older model iPhone to avoid monthly bills. She could still make calls over Wi-Fi.)
• Use a blow dryer to unclog your ink jet printer nozzles when they dry up. (We haven’t tried this. Our usual fix is to throw out the printer.)

Broken Mac

Our Macbook Air laptop broke when we spilled a bit of breakfast on it. If only we’d bought a keyboard skin to protect it.

“Kuzy” sells one for $8 at Amazon.com. Many office stores sell them too. If you spill on it, wash it. It also prevents your keys’ markings from wearing off or dust collecting in the spaces. Some users report initial awkwardness while they get used to typing on a skin, but it may save you $750. That’s the amount Apple quoted us to make our laptop live again. Be sure to get the right size. (For Windows laptops, TopCase makes a keyboard skin for $6.)

Our Eye-Opening Experience Continues

Conrad_von_Soest,_'Brillenapostel'_(1403)Joy’s new glasses arrived and confirmed that ordering online works. At $86, they’re not as stylish as her $800 pair, but that’s because she forgot to get the “semi-rimless” frames. If she wants to swap them for an equally-priced pair, there’s no extra charge. 

Meanwhile, ConsumerAffairs.com wrote us to share their ranking of online glasses stores. In their expert reviews, the top-ranked site was 39DollarGlasses.com, followed by Coastal.com, WarbyParker.com and ZenniOptical.com. In their user reviews, the top-ranked site was still 39DollarGlasses.com, but second was Zenni Optical. The others got lots of complaints but these were none from the one we tried, GlassesUSA.

All of these sites let you “try on” your glasses virtually. You can upload a picture of yourself and see how you look in hundreds of styles. Some sites also sell contact lenses.