FINDING FREE MOVIELAND

A reader asks: “Where are the Amazon Prime movies?”  You’d think Amazon would have a category called “Prime Movies” on their website, but no, too simple.. So how do you find them?

Prime Movies are freebies for those who have paid for Prime membership. To find, type “prime movies” in the search box at the top of the page at Amazon.com. About 135,000 come up. Don’t have time to go through those? Best narrow the search. There are categories off to the left. In what may be the worst designed web page in the known universe, some of those categories don’t make sense, like “used.” (It’s a download, dummy.) Also ignore the price listings; what part of freebie do they not understand?

The second step is to look off to the left again and click “Amazon video.” Now you’ll see all the categories for Amazon Prime Videos, something like 35,000 movies. You can narrow choices from here and get gritty, funny, or political movies made after 2010. We narrowed it to just funny and political, and found shows like “Alpha House,” which is hilarious, “Veep,” and a Charlie Chan movie.

If you narrow your search to four-star and up, you’ll still get thousands of choices. (Too many movies are made.) We clicked “tough guys” and that narrowed our choices to 406 tough-guy movies. (Why isn’t there a category for mild guys?)

If you want new, look at movies that were added this week or in the past few months. Check off multiple categories for a custom result like “musicals before 1960 with four or five star ratings,” or “comedy suspense after 2010.” There should be a category for boring movies, but there isn’t. If you don’t see all these categories, keep clicking or start over. What’s weird is sometimes the same steps yield different results; they must have hired a Microsoft programmer.

Over 66 million Americans now have Amazon Prime, according to the tech news site Recode.net, for which they pay $99 a year up front. That’s roughly $6.6 billion coming in and they haven’t sold you anything yet. If they put it at interest they can make another hundred million or two. And some people say Amazon can’t make money. What you get for your Prime membership are free movies, music, unlimited photo storage, a huge lending library, audio books and two-day shipping. Does any of this explain the downward slide of major retailers the past few years? Uh-huh. Wall Street types call it “Death by Amazon.”

Heaps of Internuts

  • The World’s Most Valuable Brands by Country.” Search on that phrase for an interesting world map from MarketWatch.com. In the U.S., it’s Google, in Japan, Toyota, in South Korea, Samsung, in China it’s ICBC, the government-controlled Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. The Dutch oil company, Shell, is tied with BMW in Germany. Apple, the most valuable brand for five years in a row, shifts back and forth with Google. Eight of the ten most valuable brands in the world are American.
  • Puzzlewood, where Tolkien got his inspiration.

    Patrick Stewart Reads One-Star Reviews of Famous Monuments.” Google that phrase to hear the famous actor read comments visitors have placed online. One guy thinks the Statue of Liberty should have rides. Another thinks Stonehenge needs a coat of paint, that “it’s “certainly past its best.” (Got a point there.) And the trouble with Mt. Rushmore is it’s in South Dakota.

  • AtlasObscura.com has fun stories about places all over the world. We didn’t know that Puzzlewood, in Coleford England, was the inspiration for “Lord of the Rings.” We were looking into going across Canada by train next summer and learned that Toronto has a book vending machine at a book store called “Monkey’s Paw” — named for the famous horror story we would guess.
  • Photoshop Troll Takes Requests Too Literally.” Search on that phrase to find photo mashups by master Photoshop editor James Fridman (stet). For example, two kayakers asked James to put them in more dangerous waters. The photo now shows them paddling inside a pot of boiling water. Misspellings are choice subjects: “Hey James, can you pet me inside of a Bugatti ?” The photo shows the guy turned into a dog, except for the face, sitting in a car and getting petted. A girl who wants to look “grate” is shown as a giant grater.
  • Famous Last Words of 19 Famous People.” Search on that phrase for some interesting ones. Marie Antoinette said, “Pardon me, I didn’t do it on purpose,” as she stepped on her executioner’s foot.
  • JoyofAndroid.com has helpful tips for getting the most out of your Android phone or tablet. There’s a section on common problems with the “Google Home” device, competitor to the Amazon Echo.

Faulty Scales

Everything’s being built with computer chips these days. Joy went ballistic when her new high-tech scale said her body fat was twice as much as she expected — and furthermore that her bone density was low. If that isn’t enough to tick off the Good Humor man, we don’t know what is. She was testing the new “Yunmai” digital bathroom scale. The price is $67.

We’ve come across similar results with the better-known Omron scale. This one gives your supposed “real age.” No matter what age she told the scale she was, it said her real age, body-wise, was two years younger. If she put in “60,” it said she was 58. If she put in “20,” it said she was 18. This turns out to be an electronic fountain of youth! Gizmos like this have become common as the price of computer chips has gone down. A guy commenting on the web about a hand-held gizmo he bought, said he knew by caliper and tape that his body fat was 15 percent. But his hand-held device said it was 30 percent. It’s the new techno-junk.

Out of 828 reviews on Amazon, 80 percent were positive, despite its faults. (We’re keeping it because it looks great and has a huge digital read-out. No glasses required.) One user said it informed her that her body fat went up even though her weight went down — all in one day. One time, Joy got on after a big lunch while wearing heavy winter clothes. The scale read: “Is this Joy?”

 

GOOGLE TAKES “ACTIONS”

When extra features are added to cell phones or the Internet, they’re called “apps” — short for “applications.” Maps and games are examples. When features are added to the new fast-growing digital assistants like Amazon Echo, they’re called “skills;” but when added to Google Home, they’re called “actions.”

Why the difference? We don’t know, and we didn’t make this stuff up. You have to realize that dozens of meetings, attended by high-powered executives, are required to make such decisions. We weren’t invited. Well these gizmos are the fastest growing products on the planet, just ahead of organic carrot juice. And so we looked at what “actions” Google can take.

Users of either device most often ask for weather or music. But what about more difficult questions, like: “Tell me about Tokelau.” This is an island in the middle of the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, and we are always anxious for news. Currently, there’s not much happening on Tokelau and so there’s no news. But other interesting actions are popping up all the time. Here are some we’ve tried so far.

— “Quora.” This is our favorite question and answer site. There are more than 100 million active daily users and they can provide answers to really obscure questions. For instance, we asked Google Home to launch Quora, and then asked: “What is the best way to lower cholesterol for a blood test?” Google said the best answer was from Joy Schwabach, who has answered lots of questions on Quora and has 140,000 views. This turns out to be the same Joy Schwabach whose name is on our column. (How many could there be.) The answer she gave is rather lengthy and somewhat boring, so we won’t go into it. We might note that no one pays for this information.

— “Random Conversations.” This enormously useful “action” allows you to say just about anything and someone out there in the great beyond will say something back. For example, a stranger asked us what we did when lonely or bored. We had much to say on this subject, but unfortunately we cut her off accidentally.

— “Lonely Planet” – You mention an area of the world you’re interested in, like Italy, and get news of attractions. A follow-up email gives you more detail on whichever one you want to know about. We learned about the Museum of San Marco in Florence.

— “Cool Events” tells you about meetups and shows in your area. Unfortunately, the first one they told us about had already started an hour earlier. Ah well, a few bugs to work out.

— In “Animal Quiz,” your Google Home device will ask questions and try to guess the animal you’re thinking of. When we tried it, Google failed to guess “turkey.”

— “Genius” just gives you information about songs. (It’s a very limited genius.) It didn’t recognize “The Star Spangle Banner,” our national anthem, and told us it was probably an album by Jay Z and Kanye West. Seems unlikely.

— “And Chill” offers movie recommendations. We said we liked “Sleepless in Seattle” for its romance, and it said we might like “Man Up,” “Mr. Nobody,” “Revolutionary Road” and several others. Never heard of them.

— “Reverse Math.” You’re given an answer, such as 90, and have to think of three numbers that when multiplied together get that. How about nine, ten and one? That was easy.

There are nearly a hundred of these actions to choose from. (The other gadget, Amazon Alexa, by the way, has 8,000.) To find what’s available, tap the Google Home app on your phone, then “more settings,” then “services.”

Some are remarkably specific, such as the dates and hours for Seattle’s public swimming season, the lunch menu at St. Joseph’s school (they didn’t bother to say which St. Joseph’s school and there are dozens), and the public transportation schedule in Prague. “Mr. Doggy” tells you what’s safe for your dog to eat. (Food, we would guess.) There’s no search function, you have to scroll through them all.

By the way, we’ve often read that Google Home is better than the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot in answering questions, but it’s a mixed bag. Alexa told us that Spain was bigger than Sweden, but Google Home said it didn’t know. Sometimes Google knows but Alexa doesn’t. On the other hand, when you’re looking for Alexa’s new skills, rather than go through all 8000, you can search by topic.

Internuts

StrangeUSA.com says it’s the ultimate collection of the strange. Click on a U.S. state, then a city. We tried Joy’s old hometown of Newport Beach, California. One of the items said the Coronado Apartments, where her nephew lives, is haunted by the spirit of a woman. Lights go on and off, muffled voices are heard, and phantom music emanates. (They just don’t understand the erratic power system in Newport Beach.) They said John Wayne’s yacht in the Bay is haunted by John Wayne. (Bob has been on this boat and didn’t hear a peep. He says it’s more likely he haunts the airport, which he hated.)

KhanAcademy.org has thousands of courses. A new one is “Pixar in a Box.” You learn how the people behind “Toy Story,” “Up” and “Inside Out” create their movies.

— “Big Dogs, Little Kids.” Google that phrase. These are the really cute.

— “How to Use Steve Jobs’ Insanely Simple Strategy For Getting What You Want.” Google this phrase to find an article in Inc. Magazine that includes a video clip of Steve Jobs, Apple Co-Founder, explaining his strategy. As a 12 year-old, he called up the president of Hewlett Packard, who offered him a summer job.

 

 

SLOW WEB

Recently, we wrote about websites that hog your computer’s resources and slow down your world. We dug in and found that our own chief culprit was one of our favorite sites, Techlicious.com. Later we found out it was a temporary problem caused by one of their advertisers. The advertiser has since been shut down.

That’s good news. Even better, our Techlicious contact told us about a free plugin for users of Google’s “Chrome” browser, called “OneTab.” It takes all your open tabs (which show the websites you have open) and merges them into one tab. Collapsing all those tabs into one can cut the computer’s load by up to 95 percent. To find OneTab, search on the phrase “OneTab plugin.” Click the button that says “add to Chrome.” Then, whenever you want to make multiple tabs into one tab, click the OneTab icon. We liked the neatness of a having a list instead of a lot of tabs showing at the top of our screen but we didn’t notice a big difference in performance; maybe you will. It also works with Firefox browsers.

Show Watch

A reader asked us if we’d written about the difference between Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, or had she dreamt it? We hadn’t, so Bob asked her if it was a pleasant dream anyway. “LOL” (laugh out loud), she wrote back.

So we turned our attention to her question. Our attention has a short turning radius, so we were able to note some differences quickly. Netflix costs $10 a month and specializes in TV series, many of which are their own original shows, such as “House of Cards.” You can browse Netflix without joining, or sign up for a free 30-day trial. But if you’re not crazy about it, remember to cancel before the trial period is up or you will find that your credit card is being charged more or less forever.
We have been in an out of Netflix several times. As you browse, you can watch trailers. We tend to have a “Yuck!” reaction to most of these but somebody must like them. For example, their series called “The Santa Clarita Diet” is about a housewife who eats people. It was set in California, so at least the people were organic. The only Netflix original show we’ve ever liked was “Lilyhammer,” a funny crime show set in Norway.
We prefer Amazon Prime, a $99 a year service, which works out to $8.25 a month. Besides lots of free movies and TV shows, you get free shipping on most anything you buy. We loved their “Alpha House,” series about four Republican senators who share a house in Washington. And we got caught up in a CBS series they showed, called “BrainDead.”
Netflix is said to have a bigger selection, but we haven’t found this to be true for our old-fashioned tastes, unless you pay extra for their DVD mail delivery service. Netflix’s streaming service doesn’t have a single James Bond movie, for example, but Amazon has 16 free for Prime members. (There are 26 Bond movies in all; which is a lot of martinis shaken, not stirred.)
If you mainly want a lot of current TV shows, Hulu Plus may be the one to get. Like Netflix, it has a free trial. It airs new episodes just five hours after they’ve appeared on TV. On Amazon, it’s usually about five days later and it’s much longer on Netflix.

The Rise of Planet Chromebook

An insurance company called “Safeware” told us that two years ago only three percent of their policies for school computers were for Chromebooks, a computer designed primarily for web use. Currently 23 percent of policies cover Chromebooks, a 650 percent increase.
A big reason is price: Chromebooks cost $149 to $499 and the software is all free online. But compared to iPads, they get damaged accidentally 60 percent more often. This could be because a large percentage of them are used by small children. However, when damage occurs, Chromebooks cost only half as much iPads to repair. We turn to ours whenever our Windows computer gets so slow we’re tempted to fix it with a hammer.

Email Spoof

We’ve been spoofed! A friend told us an email that appeared to come from us actually came from someone in Russia.
Fortunately our friend read the message carefully and saw that it came from an email address that wasn’t ours. But the part that shows “display name” had ours. Apparently, you can set up an email account and use someone else’s name as the display name. It’s called “spoofing,” and some email services don’t permit it. In our case, the message read that it was coming from “Joy Schwabach” though the sender’s address was not Joy’s. If in doubt, contact your friend by phone or email instead of clicking on the message. It may well be that the action of clicking on anything in the message is what triggers some malware program.

Printer Scam

Our friend Ida had a strange thing happen on the website for Brother Printers. Clicking on a link on the official website led to a fake tech support number. When she called it, the person answering told her they needed control of her computer to fix the problem. She did what they asked (even though she’s not stupid). She could tell they’d done something, because all her familiar desktop icons disappeared.
We went over to her place and showed her how to do a “system restore.” (Type it into the Windows search bar or help section and follow the instructions.) Then we went to the Brother site ourselves. Sure enough, clicking on a legitimate looking link took us to a scammers’ website, this time with a link we could click to start a “fast install” program. (We are very reluctant clickers.) We told Brother tech support about it and they said they would report it to their team. Brother happens to be one of our favorite printer companies, so we have no doubt they got right on the problem. Still, it was a shock to see that kind of thing on the website of a large legitimate company.

RANSOM!

A reader writes to tell us her Windows files have been hijacked. The hijacker is demanding money to release her photos and personal documents. Here’s what to do and how to prevent that.

Restart the computer. Keep tapping the F8 key as you start up. A recovery option will come on the screen. This will take the machine back to a time before the hijack. (And to think that some people say time travel is impossible.) If for some reason this doesn’t work, there are lots more ways to do it in PC World’s article “How to Rescue Your PC from Ransomware.”

It’s better to avoid being taken for one of those rides in the first place by getting free anti-ransom software. Google the word “Cybereason” and click on the second result, “RansomFree by Cybereason.” The product has had over 50,000 downloads so far and customers report that it blocked ransom attacks. The FBI reports that ransomware is the biggest threat facing consumers in 2017.

Calling by Voice

In a previous column, we mentioned how nice it would be if Alexa, the voice inside the Amazon Echo Dot, (or Google Assistant, the voice inside Google Home), could make emergency calls whenever you said something like “Call Uncle Max.”  But you don’t have to wait for Google or Amazon to add this feature. You can command your phone to call someone, just by using your voice.

With Siri, start by tapping “settings,” and then tap to allow “Hey Siri.” Now she’ll answer your voice commands. Once you do that, a whole world opens. She’ll make a phone call for you. Siri will also read you the subject lines of your email, if you say “Hey Siri, read my email.” She’ll also read the news headlines, answer questions, start a game or some other app, if you name it. She’ll play music in your library, and do hundreds of other things. For a complete list, search on the phrase “complete list of Siri commands.” You can do similar searches for complete lists of commands you can give the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. You can ask Alexa to read you a book, for example.

On any Android phone with the Lollipop, Marshmallow or Nougat operating system, say “OK Google” to call anyone in your contact list, just by using their first name. (“OK, Google, call Stephanie.”) But you can also call those not on your contact list.  Say, “Call the Main Library; you have to add the town you want. If it doesn’t work, make sure you’ve updated the Google app on your phone.

If you have a Windows phone, or an older phone, try the free app “VoiceDial.” Tap its icon to dial with your voice.  Then say “Hello Blue Genie, dial Joe Doe,” or whomever.

We can imagine the following scenario. Your mother is sick and can barely move. Tell her to keep her iPhone plugged in and within shouting distance. Then she can say “Hey Siri, call 911.”

Automatic eBay

A friend of our inherited a collection of Robert Crumb comic art, more than a thousand pieces. Odd subject. Selling it piece by piece on eBay would be exhausting. We have an idea for her: “FedEx Valet.”

Most FedEx stores offer this service. They say “bring designer clothes, electronics, sporting goods and more to your local FedEx office.” Don’t even bother to pack it up. They’ll send your stuff to Valets who photograph, list and ship your stuff when it sells. You get up to 80 percent of the sales.

Internuts

— Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is still doing shows about nothing. That was the original pitch for the Seinfeld TV series. This new one is ComediansInCarsGettingCoffee.com. It’s very low-key, as you might expect, and we found it mildly amusing.

ClientsFromHell.net. Yes, there are people out there dumber than anyone you know. Hundreds of them. Remember: roughly half the population is below average intelligence.

Lights! Action! Special Effects!

We never asked for six camera angles, or text that follows our hero through the opening credits. But we always wanted to do that trick where one character or object is in color while everything else is in black and white. You can do that and plenty more with “VideoStudio Pro Ultimate” from Corel.

VideoStudio Pro is aimed at amateurs but has features that pros should adopt, such as “auto ducking.” We see — or rather “hear” — this problem in many older British films: We can hear the character’s crunchy footsteps on gravel but not what he is saying. Auto-ducking lowers the volume on the one so you can hear the other. We’d never think of attempting it in our own videos were it not for Corel’s tutorials, which are really good.

The tutorials are the first thing you see when you open VideoStudio. The guy leading them reminds us of David Attenborough, the famous narrator of Nova’s nature documentaries. He doesn’t have Attenborough’s British accent, but a similar gentleness makes you think “I can do this!” (We mean the video editing, not the documentaries.)

In less than a minute, we were using one of the many templates to turn our photos and video clips into a professional looking production. It began with photos scattered on a table, each one containing one of our images.

It takes patience to work through all the tutorials. Fortunately, you can backtrack to any segment. Sample them for yourself at Learn.Corel.com. The site also has a free trial version of the software, in two versions: $80 for VideoStudio Pro and $100 for VideoStudio Ultimate.

 

 

THE RIGHT BROWSER

Which is the safest way to browse the web: Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, or Mozilla Firefox? According to the blog “How to Geek,” Edge has a slight edge. Many say Firefox has the last word on privacy and we find that’s it pretty private.

In 2015, Firefox instituted “tracking protection.” It removes all tracking elements from pages you visited using the “private browsing” feature. To use private browsing in Firefox, hold down the “Cntrl” (or “Cmd” on the Mac) and the “Shift” key. Then tap the “P” (for private) key.

It was news to us that advertisers and websites can track you in Google or Microsoft’s browsers even if you use the “incognito” or “InPrivate” modes. All those modes do is prevent your browsing history, cookies and cached data from being stored on your computer. You’re still tracked, unless you use Firefox.

We don’t care if we’re tracked, because it means we’ll see ads targeted to our interests. Of greater concern are viruses and hackers. Microsoft and Google use what’s called a “sandboxso that each component of your browser is kept separate, making it hard for a hacker to join them together. Firefox has over 18,000 “extensions,” which are apps that live in the browser. As you might expect, sandboxing all of them has been a problem. They’re still working on it. Google has over 50,000 and managed to do it.

The only reason Microsoft Edge might be considered slightly safer than Google Chrome is that it keeps a better list of bad websites, making sure you steer clear of those. However, this shouldn’t matter if you use anti-virus and anti-malware software.

Unusual Web Browsers

And now for something completely different … There’s much more out there than you can ever find time for:

Opera Mini. For smartphones and tablets, Opera Mini claims to save up to 90 percent of data costs; we saved 50 percent. It also blocks ads and makes multi-tasking a breeze. In our tests, it was just as fast and lovely as any browser, even when watching a movie.

ScienceDirect,for phone, tablet or computer. Browse through the titles of 14,324,115 journal and book articles on just about any scientific research topic you can think of. Shouldn’t take you more than a few decades. See anything you like? “Open access” books and articles are free, others are $35.

Torch” is a favorite of video pirates. (Computer only.) Has a built-in feature for downloading music and video from YouTube and Vimeo. Uses Bit Torrent for rapid downloading of videos. Has lots of games.

Beware the Mac App Store

If you use a Macbook, you’ve probably noticed apps for sale in the App Store; scammers lurk there.

The most benign offer to sell you something you can already get for free, such as the online version of Microsoft Word. The worst install malware on your system. Look out for apps offering Microsoft templates. Get those for free at Templates.Office.com. For other apps in the Mac App Store, look at reviews. Often, the first few are phony. Scroll past those to see what victims are saying.

NOTE: This sort of thing goes back many years, in fact for all of the 36 years we’ve been writing this column. An easy way to get a product to sell is to find one that already exists for free and offer it for a price. We have seen this done with bundles of free programs as well as single ones. Take a look at Ninite.com for totally free programs.

Speeding up Your Computer

If your Windows 10 computer is running slowly, open Windows’ “Task Manager” or the “Task Manager” in your web browser.

There are at least three ways to get to the Windows task manager. Bob uses “Ctrl-Alt-Del.” That means holding down the “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys on your keyboard and tapping the delete key. (“Ctrl-Shift-Esc” also works.) Or, right-click the taskbar at the bottom of your screen and choose “Task manager.” Each item on the list that comes up under “more details” is one of the processes or programs running in the background and almost certainly slowing you down.

Joy’s computer is often running at 99 percent of its brain chip’s capacity, so clicking “task manager” is an everyday thing for her. When Bob checked the brain on his PC, it was running at just three percent of capacity. (He says that fits well with his own brain activity.) Recently, a “speech engine” was hogging the lion’s share of Joy’s computer’s resources. Since she hadn’t been talking to Cortana (Window’s voice assistant) lately, she clicked it and chose “end task.” We also shut down “Microsoft Search Protocol Host.”

But it could be that having too many tabs open in your web browser is the culprit. Rather than shutting them all down, find out which one is the resource hog. In Google Chrome, look for the three vertical dots in the upper right corner of the screen. Click “more tools,” and then “task manager.” When we did this, we noticed one website was the real pig. So we closed that tab. Or rather, Joy did. Bob tends to be a one-tab-at-a-time kind of guy. (You can do something similar in Firefox with an add-on.)

Chrome also has a “reset” button. Type chrome://settings in the search bar and when you get to settings, type “reset settings.” You can bring Chrome back to its original state. It keeps your bookmarks but gets rid of the junk that bogs you down.

Internuts

MyReps.Datamade.us will tell you the names of all your political representatives, right down to the local sheriff. Next to each name is a “contact” button. There are also links to their websites, Twitter, and Facebook pages.

Step into a Miniature World of Paper.” Search on that phrase to find a National Geographic video full of leaping and flying paper creatures. It’s origami gone wild.

Cute Animal Tweet Off.” Search on that to find a Mashable article with cute baby animal photos.

WORTH FIVE BUCKS

Cartoon Portrait by a Fiverr Artist

Ever watch a video of an artist drawing? These quickly-drawn cartoons are used in ads and training videos. We got one for fun. It cost $5.

Our interest began when a reader asked for our recommendation on “whiteboard animation software.” That would be software that creates cartoon videos. “PowToon” and many others are free, but we weren’t sure about the art part. That’s when we turned to artists on Fiverr. There are hundreds and most are super cheap. Fiverr.com is a marketplace for people who sell services in dozens of fields at surprisingly low prices.

Wouldn’t it be fun, we thought, to have a video clip for our history club? We’re doing “history of fashion” and a plain PowerPoint presentation might be dull. Add a video clip and interest always picks up.

So we chose an artist whose sample video looked good. He’s in Pakistan where the average income is about $1200 a year, so $5 goes further. We gave him 15 photos to use as inspiration. We just wanted drawings but what we got were all the photos arranged as a presentation. Still, it was okay for $5. For hand-drawn art you have to go Fiverr’s “graphics” section and choose cartoons or comics that can then be animated. Or you can use stock comic characters that the whiteboard artist already has.

Next we had a technical problem with our website and we hired a guy from India who fixed the problem within a few hours, again for $5, The total price was $6 with Fiverr’s $1 processing fee. All payments are handled through Fiverr, which you pay either with a credit card — like any normal purchase, or through PayPal. The only downside is you pay upfront when selecting a vendor.

Besides programming and whiteboard animations, other Fiverr categories include music, advertising, “fun and lifestyle,” illustration, writing, business advice and so on. Under the “fun” category, we found $5 charms sporting a tiny map of your hometown or favorite location.

Update: Be wary of any vendor on Fiverr.com who needs a user name and password. The guy who worked on our website may have hacked it. We’re in the process of making it bulletproof now.

App Happy

  • CamFind” is a free app that tries to identify what you take a picture of. It might be handy for foreign signs. We tried it out on a German sign on a web page, saying “Ein-U Ausfahrt freihalten” and found out it meant, roughly: “Don’t block the exit.” (Well. anyone would have known that.)
  • SendOutSupport” is a 99 cent app for those suffering from depression, stress, bereavement and other mental problems. Users search professional support networks and get helpful tips.

Giving Google Home Its Due

Most of the write-ups about the new digital assistants focus on “Alexa,” the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot. Its main competitor is Google Home. You can expect at least a half dozen more competitors this year because this is the hottest new tech product this side of the Andromeda galaxy.

We have both and they’re both great, but Google Home lets you command your TV.  For example, we were looking up Elke Sommer on IMDB (the “Internet Movie Database”) and noticed she was in a “Bulldog Drummond” detective movie, “Deadlier than the Male” that we’d never heard of.

Well, we like those Bulldog Drummond movies so we tried to find it on Amazon, which didn’t have it for rent or sale, except for a British DVD that doesn’t play on American players. So we said to Google Home, “Hey Google, play the movie “Deadlier than the Male,” on YouTube on BobJoy. (“BobJoy” is the name of our Wi-Fi connection.) The movie promptly started right up on our TV.  It turned out to be a double feature. Afterwards, another Elke Sommer movie started up. This also works with Netflix movies, if you’re a Netflix subscriber. So basically, you can order even obscure movies and if they’re available on YouTube or Netflix, you said the magic word — or in this case, “words.”

Now, you know that the great rule in the digital world is “whatever you get, you have to get something else to make it work.” So here you also need a $35 Chromecast plugged into your TV. It’s about the size of a flat mini donut. Once it’s plugged in, anything on YouTube or Netflix will start playing on your TV when you give the proper voice command. Remember to press “input” on your TV remote and choose the setting the Chromecast is plugged into. They have slightly different names depending on your brand of TV. Our Sony, for example, offers a choice of HDMI 1, HDMI 2, and so on.

Faceoff – Free Word versus Paid Word

Zinn Art

A reader pinned us down on differences between the free “Microsoft Word Online” and the Microsoft Word that is part of Office 365.

Here’s one: The Office program you pay for lets you work offline, the free version works only online. Once, while working with the free online version, Joy struck a few keys and lost several paragraphs. For some reason, the “undo” feature failed to work and those paragraphs drifted off toward the Andromeda Galaxy. It shouldn’t have happened, but the Universe is a strange place.

One minor difference: The paid version of Word, like the paid versions of Excel, PowerPoint and Access, has a few more options compared to the free one. But more options are exactly what drives us nuts in all the Microsoft products. The free versions have too many options already.

Internuts

  • ZinnArt.com has the humorous works of David Zinn, whose cute mice and alien creatures appear to descend into the sidewalk all over Ann Arbor, Michigan. He and many others come up if you search on the phrase “100 street art examples on YouTube.”
  • Top 100 Sand Castles.” We put that phrase into the search box at YouTube and saw some awesome sculptures. Several of the women made of sand looked like goddesses. The video is followed by time-lapse photography showing you how these sand marvels are made; it’s a lot of work.

 

THE MATCH GAME

Is online dating the worst way to find a mate, or the best? In any event, it’s much more popular than we ever thought.

According to a Consumer Reports Magazine survey of 115,000 subscribers, 44 percent are in a long-term relationship or got married through online dating.  Yet reader satisfaction with these sites is lower than for any other service the magazine rates. They even rate lower than tech support. Now that’s the pits.

As chance would have it, we know four women (no men) who have used online dating services. Two are happily married to the men they met this way, a third is happy in her new relationship and the fourth is still looking and not at all happy with the results. This last one lives in Florida, which might make it tougher to find a mate since that state’s population is heavily weighted toward the elderly and women tend to live longer. Despite the fact that we personally know no men who are looking, or at least acknowledge that they are looking, the overall statistics say more men than women are looking for a mate.

Some dating — or perhaps we should say “mating” — services are quite expensive. Selective Search, for example, charges $25,000 before they fire up their computers. (It’s free for ladies who don’t need client services. That’s for the va-va voom crowd.)

The magazine’s highest ratings went to the top free services: Tinder, OKCupid and PlentyofFish. But a high rating simply meant not quite as bad as the others; only one, Tinder, managed a single rating above “neutral “out of 11 categories.

This is serious business, and we don’t mean just the business part. People’s emotions, health and in some cases wealth as well, are at stake in seeking a partner.  According to the FBI, in a study of six months in 2014, fraudulent date and mate seekers took $81 million through online dating.  In some cases, only the victims’ relatives prevented the searcher from sending cash. When it became apparent no money was forthcoming, the “date” vanished.

From the earliest days of personal computers they were seen as a broader way to meet people than just running into someone where you lived or worked. The fact that it works at all is sort of astonishing but also hopeful, because proximity — direct contact, is necessarily limited. But none of the research on the efficacy of online dating and mating accounts for meets through special interest groups. These have expanded enormously because of online links; we’re talking about people who meet because they like to take cruises or are interested in tropical plants or books or Broadway shows and so forth. None of that is known or counted as online dating, though the computer and the internet brought them together.

Reader Problem

A reader said that when he watches a movie online, it often stutters and stops until it’s finished loading. A way out of that is to download the whole thing first.

Netflix recently started offering movie downloads — as opposed to movie streaming, and Amazon offers it too. For Netflix, first download the app for your smartphone or tablet. Tap the “Available for Download” option. The downloadable movies don’t include the whole list: it’s mainly TV shows and Netflix originals. (Netflix offers a free trial for the first 30 days, then the basic service is $10 a month.)

For Amazon, start by downloading the free Amazon Video app. If you’re a Prime member, there will be some freebies for download. For non-Prime members, TV shows are $2 in standard definition. Amazon doesn’t list all the programs available for download. Find something you like and then search to see if it’s available for download. One of the best thing about downloads is that you can then watch them offline, when you’re traveling for example; we’ve noticed many people doing it on airplanes and train rides.

Internuts

  • 10 Instances of Medical Quackery.” Search on that phrase to find an incredible list of bizarre episodes in American history: how George Washington died when they took half of his blood to cure him of strep throat, the first snake oil salesman, and a guy who died just a few years ago after turning himself blue by ingesting colloidal silver. Teething babies used to go to sleep sipping a combination of alcohol and opium.
  • Two Centuries of U.S. Immigration.” Search on that phrase to find an animated map. Colored dots move from countries around the world. It was almost all from Europe and Mexico until this century.

Getting Windows 10 for Free

If you refused to get Windows 10 during the free period, and now wish you had, it’s not too late, no matter what Microsoft originally said. Search on the phrase “Download Windows 10 from Microsoft.com” and be careful to click on the actual Microsoft site, not one of the ads at the top.

But should you upgrade? Microsoft says Windows 10 is the most secure system ever. And yet, security updates for Windows 7 users will be available until the year 2020, and Windows 8 users have until 2023. One of our friends still uses Windows 7 because her printer failed to work when she tried Windows 10. An update to the printer probably would have fixed the problem, but she prefers Windows 7. If you search on the phrase “revert to Windows 7,” you can find out how to go back. But in our experience, it only works if it’s been 30 days or less since you upgraded.

Even then, you may run into problems. A reader tells us he got a “restore failure” message when he tried to return his machine to Windows 8 from Windows 10. Windows 8 had been restored, but all his data was lost in the process. Whoa, that is heavy duty serious. Fortunately, he’d backed up everything before he started the conversion. You should do the same.

 

 

WORLD’S EASIEST TABLET

A reader asked us for our recommendation on the easiest tablet to use – the iPad, the Kindle Fire or something else? The easiest tablet is nearly always the one your friend has, because they’ll help you out.

We always regretted getting an iPad for our aunt, because she never learned to use it. All her friends had computers, but they were thumb-dumb when it came to the iPad. If we’d thought of it, we would have told her to watch YouTube videos. There are good ones on every kind of tablet. So, go to YouTube.com and search on “how to use an iPad” or “how to use the Kindle Fire.” What could go wrong?

Basically, all tablets are similar: Tap on icons to launch activities such as email, movies, books, or the web. Keep in mind that you don’t have to spend $400 on an iPad Mini, or $600 on an iPad Pro, though they are wonderful machines with excellent sound and picture quality. The Kindle Fire 7 is similar, costs only $50, works great, and now comes with “Alexa” built in. Alexa is the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot. Press a button and ask for a song, a podcast, the weather, an audio book, a game or the answer to unlikely questions, like “Who were the Ink Spots?” (She knows.)  Or use it to order stuff. A six year-old girl used it to order a dollhouse. When she described the experience on a talk show, saying “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse,” Echo devices hearing this sprang into action and ordered dollhouses. (Alexa asks you to confirm any orders. Of course the little girl did say yes.)

If you want some Kindling, the Kindle Fire 7 can run for seven hours before recharging. The Kindle Fire 8, a slightly larger tablet, costs $89 and runs for 12 hours on a charge. Amazon Prime members get some free books and movies thrown in.

App Happy

  • MyScript Nebo” is free for the iPad and Windows 10. It’s a note-taking app that was named winner of the 2017 Mobile Apps Showdown competition. It’s the superstar of note-taking apps. It uses handwriting recognition that converts scribbles, mathematical formula, diagrams, or drawings into neat looking results. The only catch? You either need an Apple Pencil ($99 from apple.com) or a Windows 10 computer with a touch screen and an active pen. It’s “coming soon to Android,” as programmers like to say.
  • WithJoy is a wonderful wedding app. (Or you can use the website WithJoy.com.) Our nephew invited us to his wedding this way. We logged in with a special code that arrived on a lovely invitation by regular mail. Then we were invited to share a memory of the bride or groom, add photos, and interact with others.

Internuts

  • What Each State Googled More Than Any Other in 2016.” Google those words to find a fascinating map. In California, they Googled the phrase “2016 Worst Year Ever,” searching on that issue more than any other state. In Montana, it was “Cupping Therapy.” (Movie and Olympic stars like Jennifer Aniston and Michael Phelps use suction cups on their backs to revitalize. It produces giant red welts and dates back to ancient Egypt.) In New Jersey, “Donald Trump” topped the Google queries, in nearby Delaware it was the “Brangelina Divorce.” In Missouri, they were just fascinated by “McDonald’s Breakfast All Day.”
  • Best Metro Areas for STEM Professionals.” Search on that phrase to see the list. WalletHub.com did a survey of the best places to live for scientists and engineers. On the top of the list are Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco, and Boston. Among the worst were Birmingham, Memphis and Honolulu.

Chromebook Considerations

Some of our readers bought a Google Chromebook after reading our column on the topic. These laptops are cheap, lightning fast and trouble-free. But there are some considerations to keep in mind.

One reader wrote to say that the Chromebook doesn’t work with his Okidata printer. It turns out that only a limited number of Okidata models work with Chromebooks. However, HP, Canon, Epson and many others have no problem. Check yours by searching on your printer’s name along with the word “Chromebook.”

Or use a workaround: Use Google’s “Remote Desktop App” to direct your PC to print something for you. Basically, this means you are temporarily working on a Windows, Mac or Linux which is controlled by your Chromebook over the Internet. Joy used her Chromebook to direct her Windows computer to make and print a greeting card. It was real fast.

One reader was disappointed he couldn’t use Quicken on his Chromebook, though he did remember that we warned readers that Chromebooks don’t let you install programs. On the other hand, there’s nearly always an online app that works just as well. For example, search on the phrase “Quicken substitute” to find an article from InvestorJunkie.com. It lists several.

Screen size: Chromebook’s normal font looks awfully tiny. One savvy reader suggested changing the screen resolution, and voila, problem solved. To do this, tap the picture in the right-hand corner, choose “settings,” and in the search box, type “resolution.” Choose a larger number to get a larger font. This works on regular computers too.  An alternative method: Hold down the “Ctrl” button (or the “Cmd” button on a Mac) and tap the plus sign to increase the font size.

HEY BOO BOO

Google Home

We’re going to talk some more about the digital assistants put out by Amazon and Google. Those would be the Amazon “Echo” and Google “Home.” They are small, relatively cheap (from $50 to $129), and they answer questions and do requests. This is the future.

Essentially what we have are two devices that listen to what you have to say — with sometimes less accuracy than you would expect — and then respond. They can play music, occasionally with nonsensical results, and respond to more direct questions, such as “how many calories are there in an apple?”

This is all new stuff, the edge of wedge if you will. It’s potentially an encyclopedia on your end table, along with lectures, songs, weather, books and history. Some of it will be dead wrong, just as some items in Wikipedia are wrong. This will all get edited and corrected along the way, hopefully, but right now it is what it is, as the Zen Buddhists might say.

The potential is both enormous and obvious. LG recently paired a refrigerator with Amazon’s Alexa, the voice inside Echo, and you tell it what you want delivered. But don’t wait for the fridge, you can do that now with the Echo or Echo Dot. Just tell it what you want; not just food but for your whole life: books, clothes, furniture, electronics, tools, news, movies, and on into the night. Just ask and they will check your credit card and deliver. The number of businesses and jobs that will be wiped out by this technology may lower many people’s credit ultimately, but that’s the way things crumble, to paraphrase a common saying.

If you have a Chromecast or Amazon Fire Stick, ($30 to $40), you can cast a movie, TV show, or news shots onto your TV by voice command. Later — and probably not much later — we can expect the little boxes to come with cameras as well as microphones. They could take your picture and estimate the correct size and color for your wardrobe.

Now some of the people we have shown these gadgets to, and talked about their potential, are worried about their privacy. Well, a lot of people are worried about their privacy, but we fail to see the threat here: You can always turn the little box off. The counter argument of course, is that it may be possible for someone outside to hack in and turn it on without your knowledge. Definitely; it is absolutely possible. The final defense is simple enough: drape a hand towel over it.

Now that we’ve had more time with the Amazon “Echo Dot” (The cheapest version of their information device) and Google “Home,” we’ve noticed some differences.

Let’s start with how we talk to them. With the Dot, we say “Alexa,” to wake her up and get weather, music, news, podcasts and games. With the Google Home, we say “OK Google,” or “Hey Google.” We’ve found it also works to say “Hey Boo Boo,” and we encourage people to try other approaches, like “hey Schmoo-hoo.”

It’s hard to say “Hey Boo Boo” with a straight face, and it works best if you say it softly, not too clearly, so that it sounds like you’re saying “Google” but have marbles in your mouth, or have lost some of your marbles.

Joy feels that both devices are a great way to spontaneously ask for a favorite song or podcast. (Bob is still grumbling about the quality of some of those selections.) Google Home gets its music from YouTube, which, on the plus side, often means original recordings. For instance, we asked for music from “The King and I” and got a couple of songs before it switched unannounced to “The Sound of Music.” On the Amazon device, we got the 2015 Broadway cast of “The King and I,” which was slightly different. On the other hand, the Amazon Dot kept playing “The King and I.”

Amazon Echo Dot

The Amazon Dot gets music from Amazon Music, iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio, Pandora and, if you’re a premium subscriber, from Spotify. Bob says that’s not enough, though we haven’t yet added Spotify. If we ask for music from Bach, for example, Alexa plays a pop version of some Baroque tune. It works better to ask her for Baroque music, but Bob is dissatisfied with the recordings so far.

Bottom line: Amazon’s Echo Dot is cheaper ($50) and does more. Joy uses it to play audio books from Audible.com, something the Google device can’t do. Alexa has thousands of apps called “skills,” which can be enabled through your smartphone. We tried “Magic Podcast,” which lets you use your voice to find a podcast on the topic of your choice. Worked great on Joy’s searches, not so good on Bob’s. Podcasts remind us of the early days of the Internet. There are a lot of amateur shows out there, such as one called “Hardcore History.” We had better luck with Alexa playing “Jeopardy.”

In any event, this is the future. We mentioned the tie-in with Amazon and an LG refrigerator. New connections are coming in fast: The “Nucleus Anywhere Intercom” gives you all the existing abilities of Alexa and adds phone calls, either as an intercom or to the outside world: “Alexa, call Uncle Max.” Likewise, a chef’s “sous vide” system from ChefSteps tells you how to control your cooking with ziplock bags, using water at various temperatures. There are also Alexa-enabled lighting systems, weather stations and a universal remote from Logitech. The Logitech “Harmony Elite” ($300) works with over 270,000 devices: It lets you use your voice to control your TV, satellite or cable box, Apple TV, Roku, TiVo, Blu-ray player, game consoles, connected lights, locks, thermostats, sensors and so on. Even as we wrote this column we received notice of a new link to control your burglar alarm system.

In conclusion: Watch what you say and don’t walk around naked.

 

 

GOOGLE WIFI

Google WiFi

From the earliest days, one of the primary rules about computers and related technology has been “No matter what you get, you have to get something else to make it work.”

For example: We wanted our new Amazon Echo Dot to play thunderstorms in the bedroom as we were going to sleep. (This is one of those digital know-it-alls that you place on a table and ask it to tell you things, usually simple things, like “what’s the weather out there?”)

Naturally enough, this didn’t work, because the bedroom was too far from the office router — all of 30 feet. So we bought a “Google WiFi” extender to extend our Internet signal there. This is what is often called a repeater, because it picks up an incoming signal, gives it a kick in the pants, and sends it on for extra distance. So when we add this all up it’s $50 for the Amazon Echo Dot and another $129 for the Google Wifi to make it work.

Our AT&T router should have been enough to do this on its own. After all, we’re only talking about 30 feet, but it couldn’t do it. An AT&T tech guy came out and installed one of their own range extenders to boost the signal but it wasn’t able to bridge the gap, as they say, and so we shelled out for the Google extender. That actually works. In fact, it works so well, that they’re on back order and we had to wait a couple weeks to buy one.

One nice feature: Google WiFi allows you to pause the Internet on various devices. Perhaps you want to be free from the distractions of email and Facebook, for instance. Tell Google, by way of your smartphone, with an app you can get for free, to keep the Internet off for a specified period of time, on a single or multiple devices. This is a good way to prevent children from over-using the web. In other words: shut up, everybody.

The Best Free Anti-Virus

One of the questions we get most frequently is what’s the best free anti-virus program? We went to AV-Test.org, an impartial third party tester, to see what they had to say about the matter.

Panda Free Antivirus” got the highest marks, but close behind were “Avast,” from Avast.com, “Avira,” from Avira.com and “AVG,” from AVG.com. If you go to YouTube and search on “Best Free Anti-Virus,” there are good explanations of pluses and minuses. All three of these freebies work for Windows and Mac.

The three top paid programs for Windows and Mac are Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Trend Micro. The one we use currently, Bullguard, wasn’t far behind.

For many years Mac users didn’t worry about viruses because they weren’t a rich enough hunting ground to bother with. But according to recent studies by Bit 9 and Carbon Black, malware for Macs increased by 500 percent last year, more than the past five years combined. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Interests on Pinterest

Pinterest.com is a website where people pin up pictures. There are about 50 million subscribers to this site — its free, and at least double that number who go there once in a while. From the beginning you could always go on and browse through pretty and unusual pictures, but later they put them into categories, like vacations, properties, art work, etc.

Go to Pinterest.com/categories. We clicked “art” and discovered Stan Ekman, whose works could easily be mistaken for those by Norman Rockwell. Like Rockwell, he illustrated the Saturday Evening Post, especially in the 1940s.

We clicked “Film, Music and Books,” and found some fun posters for old movies, like “To Catch a Thief.” We clicked “49 Underrated Books You Really Need to Read,” and discovered George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” (It’s a bulbous tropical plant with big leaves.) Watch out for the ones showing beautiful pictures of resorts for your vacation. We went to one in California that ranks itself as best in the nation and advertises “walk to beaches.” That walk turned out to be well over a mile, crossing a six-lane highway and then through a whole lot of scrub brush.

As with Facebook, you can follow friends on Pinterest and they can follow you. When you see something of interest, click the icon to pin it on your board. Create as many boards as you like. A few days ago, our niece started a new one with jewelry pictures.  A hint perhaps? Tough luck for her, because Bob doesn’t like jewelry.

News on the FitBit Front

Those who use movement trackers like FitBit had a bit of discouraging news recently, when a University of Pittsburgh study showed that those wearing them didn’t exercise any more than they did before they got their device. The constant monitoring either made them complacent or discouraged. However, a new study by Indiana University showed that using a FitBit, a Garmin VivoFit, or some other “wearable” did make a difference if live coaching was added.

For Christmas, Joy received the new Garmin VivoFit 3, an improvement over the original VivoFit. The original version popped off her wrist one day and was lost forever. The VivoFit 3 has a small round disk on the band that locks it in place when you turn the dial.

The VivoFit 3 also does a better job of tracking a variety of exercises, such as swimming and biking. The earlier version gave Joy credit for only 500 steps — even after she swam nonstop for an hour! Is that a dirty deal or what?  The new version gave her over 3,600 steps. A half hour on a stationary bike earns about the same number (if you wear it on your ankle). A red line streaks across the screen after one hour of inactivity.

The Family Segway

A guy we know gave a Segway miniPRO to everyone in his family. This is a smaller, much cheaper, version of the adult scooters, that Silicon Valley hotshots touted a few years ago as “the next great thing.” (Was it even the next good thing?)  We saw the new Minis on Amazon and elsewhere for $600. The scooter goes 14 miles on a single charge, and charging takes about four hours. It weighs 28 pounds.

Like the Segway, the miniPRO is a two-wheel platform that you stand on and control by way of a stick between your knees. It won’t let you go faster than four miles per hour until you’ve mastered a few tutorials, using a free smartphone ap. Then it can go up to 10 mph. One 63 year-old guy says that he and his wife ride theirs to the grocery store.