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.”




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?


  • 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.)




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.




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.


league of legends gameFifteen years ago, we wrote an article for the New York Times in which Bob predicted that video game sales would soon outpace movie box office receipts. That happened just a couple years later.

The spread between the two forms of entertainment has widened ever since. The 700 top grossing movies for 2015 took in close to $11 billion; the four top films accounting for close to half of that. That’s a lot of money. Sales of video games. on the other hand, were around $61 billion, according to CNBC. Other accounts, perhaps including end-of-year figures that were more accurate, made it around $100 billion. The top selling video game: “Call of Duty” took in $10 billion in 2015 all by itself, right around the total box office receipts of all 700 movies.

And the games go on: “League of Legends,” which is a free game, has taken in as much as the all-time best-selling movie Gone “With The Wind,” even when that one’s gross sales are kicked up to adjust for inflation. Each has taken in about $3.4 billion.

Of course the logical question is “how can a free game make money?” The answer is video games are interactive; you are part of the game. When you choose to play as a character in the game, or several characters if you wish, you can buy weapons for them, armor, clothes, houses, castles, even money to go shopping. Most of these items cost small amounts, from a few cents to couple of dollars. Items you admire on other characters can also have a price tag. It’s small change. They’re called called “micro payments” in the games business, but they add up to major money.

Interactive is the key word here. A couple decades ago Bill Gates predicted that some day we will be able to watch a TV show or a made for TV movie and just as in video games, click on something we like. Like that dress or sport coat a character is wearing? Click on it. Want a couch just like the one that’s in the living room in a “sit-com?” Click on it to find the price and the provider; click again to buy it.

The days of static — stationary — entertainment are drawing to a close. When you buy a ticket to a movie and sit there till the end, that’s all there is. You probably don’t even  stay to watch the credits scroll by? (Just what is a “best boy” anyway?) When you buy a video game, on other hand, you can play it for years. (We met a lawyer a few years ago who had been playing the same game for 12 years — and he wasn’t tired of it yet.

Just as movies replaced opera as the most common form of popular entertainment a hundred years ago, and relegated it to a “seasonal” activity attended by a tiny but dedicated coterie of fans and financed by grants, so movies will eventually be relegated to what are called “art houses,” and profits will depend on popcorn sales.

App Happy

FREAKONOMICSNo matter where we’ve lived, our favorite public radio station remains Chicago’s WBEZ. Now there’s a free WBEZ app for Android or iPhone/iPad. You can listen in live, or use their “replayer” to replay all of the proceeding week. This is the station for “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” the number one radio show in the country.

To use the replayer, swipe a finger to the right on your smart phone or tablet screen, stopping along the way whenever you see a show you’d like to listen to. Our current favorites are “Wait, wait …” and “Freakonomics.” If you don’t like swiping through a list of what’s been playing lately, choose a show from an alphabetic list of dozens.

By the way, the program director told us that WBEZ’s biggest competitor is the Audible.com app. If you listen on your phone, Audible includes short stories, news channels and other stuff besides audio books. It costs $15 a month. We like Audible for its books, such as “The Rosie Project” about a guy with Asperger’s syndrome, one of the funniest books we’ve ever listened to and a favorite of Bill Gates and his wife.


  • CloudConvert.com makes it easy to convert any sound file into an MP3 or other audio format, to play on an MP3 player or elsewhere. First, you upload your files, choose “MP3” or some other format, and then download it back to your computer or device.
  • Taj Mahal up close and at a distance

    Taj Mahal up close and at a distance

    Search on “15 Famous Landmarks Zoomed Out” to see the surroundings of fifteen famous landmarks when you zoom out. That’s perfectly clear. Like the Taj Mahal? It’s surrounded by trash.

  • Soundcloud.com/wearable_progression is a channel for running enthusiasts. It features interviews with super runners, coaches and scientists. It bored the heck out of us, but if you’re into running, this is your channel.

Reader Problem

A reader wrote to say: “A gremlin entered my computer and changed my home page to MSN, which I do not like. Is there a simple way to change it back?”

Sure. We know that gremlin. His name is Harold. In Internet Explorer, click the “Tools” button, which looks like a tiny gear up in the right corner. Select “Internet Options.” On the “General” tab, under Home page, enter the website address that you want as your home page, or select “use current page,” which will plug in the address of whatever site you’re on now. Click “Apply,” and “OK.” In Firefox or Chrome, click the hamburger icon, those three stacked lines in the upper right.

Finding a Professional

linkedinThere are many sites, such as Elance.com, Freelancer.com and Odesk, for finding experienced website designers, marketers, programmers, and other professionals. Now LinkedIn offers the same, with “LinkedIn Professional Finder” at linkedin.com/ProFinder. Besides the usual suspects, they also have accountants, legal services, writers and editors, and others. Once you describe your project, you get five proposals, with a price quote and a link to the professional’s page on LinkedIn.

When we tried it, we got a five quotes about updating our website. They all looked good.




Smart people wear glasses.

Smart people wear glasses.

Joy just ordered her first pair of glasses online. She couldn’t resist after reading “Seven Reasons to Order Glasses Online,” an article we found — where else? — online. We’re not going to go into all the reasons, but here are the ones that impressed us.

Number one is price. Number two is free return. The third is parking. These also turn out to be the reasons for almost any online purchase.

It is no secret and no longer a surprise that buying online is the winner in the retail Olympics. Amazon.com is the leader but not the only name in online shopping. Its sales are increasing 20 percent a year, while traditional large retailers’ sales have been moribund for several years; even Walmart is under pressure.

Glasses ordered online are typically around 70 percent cheaper than those bought at opticians. Joy paid over $800 for her last pair. Her online pair from GlassesUSA on the other hand, cost $86. Many were $40 or less, and that includes the lenses. You don’t have to be a budget master to figure out the savings.

As with Zappos, the popular online shoe retailer, you can return any pair you don’t like, and it’s free shipping. We were talking with a clerk in a UPS store a few months ago and noticed a stack of boxes for return to Zappos. We asked and he said his own guess was maybe 30 percent of the shipper’s business was returning online purchases.

That’s a huge amount and it shows you that the only way it works for the merchant is the savings from not having to maintain retail space are still large enough to leave a profit on low prices. Zappos was just recently sold, by the way. The purchaser? Amazon.

App Happy

  • Thomas trainYouTube Red, for Android and iPhone/iPad, gives you commercial-free music and videos from YouTube for $10 a month. Unlike the regular YouTube, you can watch it offline, in a train, or a park, where you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection. There’s a 14-day free trial with a pleasant surprise: They won’t charge you automatically when the time is up the way most free trials do; you decide if you want to continue.

  • YouTube Kids
    , a free app for Android and iPhone, takes the best of kid-friendly videos and makes them clickable from the home screen. Tell the app whether you want videos for school age kids, younger kids, or all kids. If you’re also a subscriber to YouTube Red, you won’t get ads and can view the videos offline.


  • Edx.org has free college courses from Harvard, M.I.T., the University of California at Berkeley, and other leading institutions. Auditing (which means not for college credit) is free. If you want your work verified, perhaps to show to an employer or another college, you pay around $50 to $70 per course. Courses range from the practical, such as data analysis for business, to art, literature and music.
  • How to Safely Get Rid of an Old Computer.” Search on those words to find an article on Techlicious.com, which reminds you to delete your browsing history, uninstall programs, and other steps to remove your tracks.
  • Avvo.com charges $39 to talk to a top-reviewed lawyer on the phone. Get your questions answered in a 15-minute call. (Joy uses a similar online service for medical opinions.)

App Happy

  • sfNetflix Party” is an extension for your Google Chrome web browser. It lets you share a movie with other Netflix subscribers who don’t happen to be living with you. You can chat while you’re watching. If you search on the words “Netflix Party,” it comes right up.
  • “Detour,” a free app from Detour.com, is getting tremendous buzz as the best audio guide for travelers because you receive information from top-notch journalists as you walk. Right now it only does San Francisco, but other cities are coming soon. We listened to a preview of Austin, Texas, which had some down-home charm.

 Reader Pain

photos on tvA reader said she’s going to France but has a photo problem. She’s run out of storage space on her iPhone. She realized that the solution is to upload the old photos to an online storage site, but which one?

First she tried Microsoft’s OneDrive app. “Free storage forever,” they boasted. Uploading her photos to OneDrive began two months ago, with 2000 photos. She’s uploading ten a day and still has 530 to go, and the phone needs constant recharging. The final insult? A message from OneDrive said her storage space is full and she must buy more to continue adding photos. “Forever” turns out to have a Microsoft limit; that limit is ten gigabytes, which is five more than Apple’s iCloud, but not as good as Google Drive which gives you 15 gigabytes of free storage. On Android devices, photos automatically upload to Google Drive.

Our reader can do even better if she subscribes to Amazon Prime, which gives you unlimited online storage for photos. Find it at Amazon.com/clouddrive/primestorage, or just Google the phrase “Amazon Prime photos.”

Tiny LEGO Wonders

tiny lego wondersTiny LEGO Wonders: Build 40 Surprisingly Realistic Mini-Models,” by Mattia Zamboni, is a beautifully-illustrated book, $25 from No Starch Press.

If you’ve ever wanted to build trains, planes and automobiles out of LEGOs but don’t want to buy a ton of them, this is your guide. With large pictures showing how each piece fits together every step of the way, almost anyone could do it, no matter how intricate the finished product looks.  We especially like the excavator, dump truck, and cement mixer.

Bill Pollock, the founder of No Starch Press, said: “I’ve been fascinated by mini-scale building since I went to a LEGO store with a friend and he walked out with a cup of bricks and told me he was going to build an airport. You don’t need a huge collection to bring your ideas to life.”





waze appWe were in a Lyft taxi the other day when the driver voiced a familiar complaint: Mapping apps rarely give you a straight shot to your destination.

Both Google Maps and “Waze,” which is free for iPad/iPhone and Android phones, make too many turns and too many diversions. We prefer Waze but it’s far from perfect. Both make us follow a crazily twisted route half the time. It’s as if we were secret agents on the trail of a master spy. Bob always says to Joy: “Turn that off.” He prefers looking at a map.

For those who want voice directions, start by installing Waze from Google Play or the iPhone/iPad app store. To make the directions less twisted, tap the turquoise icon in the lower left corner. Next tap the picture of a gear in the upper left corner. That’s “Settings.”  If you scroll down to “Navigation,” you can change the default setting from “fastest” to “shortest” route. Of course, the shortest route might take you nine miles on local roads instead of 10 miles on the highway. But Bob prefers the local roads and streets because there are fewer big trucks. You can always change the settings again, depending on where you’re going.

You can also set it to provide traffic warnings. Bob thinks this is as close as you can get to useless. Traffic problems, particularly those caused by accidents, tend to be short-lived. So there’s a time lag. By the time news gets to the sender and is then rebroadcast to you, the problem is usually gone. Construction problems are of course longer term.

By default, Waze shows you speed cameras, traffic jams, police cars (possible speed traps), and several other variables. You can add more items to the map. You might want to hear an alarm when you’ve gone beyond the speed limit. If you change your mind about your destination, which we do frequently, tap the bottom of the screen where you see the time displayed and tap “stop.” Now you’re ready for your next adventure.


  • website -adorable pictures of dogs -before and afterISideWith.com has a presidential quiz. Find out which candidate you’re most like. The Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson said in a New Yorker magazine interview that he took the quiz and found out he was most like himself, but after that, Bernie Sanders.
  • Dogs Before and After Their Haircuts.” Google those words to find some amazing doggie makeovers by experts of cute grooming.

Better Searching

chromeIf you use Google Chrome instead of Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer or some other browser, here are a few tricks.

  • Start where you left off last time. Click the hamburger icon in Chrome (looks like three stacked lines in the upper right corner) and then “settings.” Under “on start up,” check off the box for “start where you left last time” or choose another option, such as starting with a specific set of website pages.
  • Zoom in and out to change type size on a website by holding down the “Ctrl” key (or “Cmd” on the Mac) while you move the scroll wheel on your mouse. If you don’t have a scroll wheel, hold “Ctrl” and tap the plus or minus signs to enlarge or shrink the page. This is a quick way to eliminate the column of ads that are often put along the right side of a web site; as you enlarge the site’s size, they get pushed off the screen.)
  • Scroll down a web page by tapping the space bar. Scroll back up by holding the “Shift” key and tapping the space bar.
  • Quickly clear your browsing history and other items such as stored passwords: Hold “Ctrl” or “Cmd” and the “Shift” key and tap the delete key.
  • If you find a website you want to visit again and again, click on the tiny lock to the left of its address and drag it to your desktop. It will make a shortcut there.
  • If you accidentally close a website tab, hold down the “Shift” key and the “Ctrl”or “Cmd” key and tap the letter “T.” It brings back the page you accidentally closed.

For more tips, look for PC Magazine’s article: “30 Hidden Features of Google Chrome.”

Reader Complaint

CortanaiPhone users like Apple’s Siri, for communicating with their phone by voice instead of text. Android users like Google Voice. But a Windows phone user wrote to tell us he hates Microsoft’s Cortana. It’s always listening.

To turn it off on a Windows phone, go to settings, then “privacy,” “speech,” “inking” and “typing.” Select “stop getting to know me.” This will disable dictation and stop Cortana from collecting info on your contacts, calendar events, speech patterns, handwriting and typing history.

If you don’t like Cortana on your Windows 10 computer, disable it there too. Use the search bar on the lower left of your screen and type “Cortana settings.” When it comes up, click the button to turn it off.

We had been ignoring Cortana in Windows 10 until this question came up. Now we’ve discovered it can be fun. Click on its “ask me anything” bar to bring up the news. We then clicked the microphone to issue a voice command. We said “Play the Beatles,” and to our surprise 13 Beatles tunes started playing one after another in the Groove Music app. We said “Show Times for Mr. Holmes” and it gave us the trailer for this 2015 movie, along with its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and other sites, and a link to websites where we could watch it, such as Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. Naming a current movie, “Bad Moms” gave us show times in local theaters.

Cortana also does reminders. We said “Remind me to turn off the stove in 20 minutes,” and 20 minutes later it popped up to remind us. There’s also a free Cortana app for Android or iPhone to get these reminders and other Cortana features on your phone.

If you want some tricks for talking to Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, check out Hey-Siri.io. The site explains 489 Siri actions for both iPhone/iPad and the Mac. For instance, you can say “Take a photo,” “Enable airplane mode,” “Read my messages,” “Convert dollars to Euros,” and many other commands.





Archie Barwick -virtual chat with WWI soldierChatting with your friends and family members through text messages is fun. How about hopping on a time machine to chat with a World War I soldier?

The soldier is “Archie Barwick,” an Australian who died in 1966 but is still virtually alive in text messages through the magic of a “chatbot” created by News Corps Australia. In real life, Barwick kept a 400,000-word diary, which is the base for his conversation with you.

Here’s a sample: “We had a fine tea just before we left the firing line. The cooks brought up as much steak & bacon as you could eat & to spare, plus tea, boiled potatoes & onions mashed together.

“We marched about three miles and bivouacked out on an open piece of ground for the night. We just simply threw ourselves down and slept as we were. To many of us it was the first time we had closed our eyes for six nights so you can imagine how we looked.”

Sometimes the question you asked can’t be answered, but a similar one can be. We typed:  “Can you see the enemy?” Up popped an alternative suggestion: “Thoughts on Germans?” Archie said: “They’re a miserable, ragged-looking lot, with a few fine men here and there. I reckon a man is quite justified in shooting the dogs on sight.”

To chat with Archie, go to Messenger.com on your computer or install the Facebook Messenger app on your smart phone. You can use Messenger for video chats, but not with Archie. If you don’t have a Facebook account it will ask you to create one. They’re free. Type “Archie Barwick.” Then click “Get Started.” Archie will write you a couple times a day.

This brings up the problem of whether a conversation with a computer is real or not. The “Turing test” was proposed 66 years ago by British mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing. Basically, it came down to the question of whether or not a human could tell they were talking with a computer.

In the early days of Apple and Atari computers (1980-82), programmers played around with developing such artificial response routines in an attempt to simulate an actual person in the machine. One of the earliest programs was an artificial psychiatrist with canned questions and answers that were very close to a real therapy session. It was meant to be amusing but quite a few people took it seriously and began to talk about their personal problems, some found it easier to talk to a machine. Around the same time, programs were developed to automatically write prose and a kind of free-form poetry. Bob remembers one that started out with the striking line: “The policeman’s beard is half constructed.” Hard to top that.

The upshot of all this is that the advance of artificial intelligence moves apace and will someday be fully upon us. People like Elon Musk, developer of the Tesla electric car, have recently warned that when that day comes, we may not be pleased.

Games We Used to Play

Ticks Tales -game“Monkey Island” is a video adventure game from 1990 and still Joy’s favorite. (Too difficult for Bob). Now “Tick’s Tales: Up All Knight” is a retro game in the manner of that earlier LucasFilm classic.

When neighborhood troublemaker Tick tries to impress the girl of his dreams by drawing a sword from a stone, he draws the ire of the evil goblin “Bloodclot.” The game has lots of puzzles and the kind of graphics you’ll remember from the old days. We mean if you were around in the old days. (We were recently talking to a twenty-something girl who referred to those days as “pre-me.”) It’s available for PC, Mac and Linux for $8 from Store.Postudios.com, Steam and the Humble Bundle Store.

The July issue of Scientific American magazine, by the way, had a headline article on the value of playing computer games for brain development. We made that same argument in this column more than 30 years ago. It was obvious then and should be obvious now, that when you observe children playing video games you notice that they become better at it by developing a sense of pattern recognition. They are often able to predict what will happen next. People who worry about too much attention being paid to video games are missing an important point: it requires an active brain.

trendsThe Numbers Report

About half of all U.S. households get video from “video on demand” services, such as Netflix or Hulu, according to a recent Nielsen report. The average person watches videos 99 minutes per day on their phone, up from 62 minutes last year. They also walk into lamp posts more often.

Turn Down the Volume

A reader wrote to say that his listening to online radio is nearly spoiled by loud commercials. He asked if we knew a way to force Windows to play everything at the same volume. Aha! We do.

There’s a little icon of a speaker in the lower right of your Windows computer screen.  Click it with your right mouse button. Then click “playback devices” with the left mouse button. From here, click on your speaker and click “properties.” Move over to the “Enhancements” tab and click. In the long list of enhancements, you’ll find one that says “Volume equalization.” That’s the one. Check it.

Family Safety

Many children browsing the web have stumbled onto pornography sites. To protect the youngsters in your household, you can tweak the settings in Google or Bing.com.

Go to Google.com/familysafety or Bing.com/account to select the level of safety you wish. “Strict” on Bing.com means that a search on a term such as “bare bunnies” produces nothing worse than an old article about Playboy bunnies, without any incriminating pictures.


  • sketching tip10 Sketching Tips for Beginners.” Google that phrase to find some useful information on how to draw hair, add textures, mirror an image or make a silhouette. (People will sometimes say “I just can’t draw,” but in fact it can be learned.)
  • 10 More Enigmas That Defy Explanation.” Search on that phrase to find some amazing stories. A 19-year-old woman in Minnesota was found frozen stiff outside her home. Doctors thought they would have to amputate both legs if they could even possibly revive her; they also expected severe brain damage. Instead, she woke up on her own and was fine, the ice melting away. She didn’t lose a single finger. (She’s thinking of moving to Florida, however.)



skype usersOur 96-year-old friend Ida uses the free Skype service to have video-chats with her friends in Australia. One day, her account was wiped out. Could this happen to you? (Think of that question as having been asked in scary monster movie title type.)

You might think this had something to do with her age, and she must have hit the wrong button or spilled something on the keyboard. But no, we found dozens of similar complaints on the web. One guy wrote: “Where has my account gone? I do business all over Europe and today you just trashed my account with the credit I had as well?  You idiots.  If somebody within Microsoft made the decision to do this – I’ll stick their head in a metal bucket and thrash it with a hammer for a month!” He and others had lost the cash account they used to call landline phones. (Calling other Skype users is free.)

We helped our friend Ida start over by clicking “create new account” in the Skype window. We then searched for her friends, adding them to a new contacts list. This was pretty easy since she just had three. But if you use Skype for business, you should back up your contacts in case of disaster. Click “contacts” and then “advanced.” Next click “backup contacts,” and save them where you can easily find them again. Also under “advanced,” you can click “restore contacts.”

App Happy

bsafebSafe” is free for Android and iPhones and intended to be used for emergencies. It sounds an alarm and creates a video with your precise location that you can if necessary share with police. If you want, you can tap a timer to automatically send an SOS within a few minutes unless you shut it off.  If you fear you’re about to be attacked, make sure the attackers are in the video.

Tweaking Firefox

A reader asked us how to tweak the Firefox web browser. When he opens a new tab, he wants a blank page, not tiny pictures representing his most-frequented sites. Others are bothered by this as well.

Why care?  You might be at work, and your boss may walk by. You don’t want him to know that your visit Facebook more often than the company website. Or you’re shopping for a birthday present for your wife, and she’ll see you’ve just been to Victoria’s Secret.

There’s an easy fix. Click the plus sign next to any open tab in Firefox. Then look to the upper right of the screen and click the picture of a gear. From there, click “open blank page.” If you change your mind, click “Show your Top Sites.”

What Consumers Want

consumers mind“What consumers want” may be just as elusive as Freud’s famous question: “What do women want?” Influence Central, a market research firm, found that:

  • 81% of consumers say they frequently buy items they’ve seen shared on Facebook and other social media.
  • 81% also say product reviews influence the way they shop. 72% say the ability to check social media recommendations takes the guesswork out of buying a new product.
  • 9% of consumers say seeing a TV ad impacts their decision to buy the product.


This fits with what sociologist David Riesman defined as people who are “other directed.”

The Joy of Amazon Prime

Years ago, Joy signed up for Amazon Prime so she could get free two-day shipping. Now they have a new deal: instead of having to sign up for a whole year at $99, you can join for one month.

One month is $9. That way, if you’re organized enough to buy a whole bunch of stuff in a short time, you can get free shipping for less than ten bucks.  If you want longer than that, it’s $11 a month.  Besides free package delivery, online photo storage and a 50 percent discount on some Android phones, you get free movies and TV shows.  Most are stuff we’ve already seen or don’t want, but we’ve gotten some winners, mainly by Googling the phrase “Amazon Prime Video.” That’s how we discovered the “Brain Dead” TV series on CBS.

  A Spark of Genius

adobe sparkAdobe’s website, Spark.Adobe.com, is a free site for turning photos into great looking Facebook posts, web pages and videos.

We were impressed by all the artwork they give you to spruce up your post or page. We took a photo of sisters in a field, added the words, “A Sister is a Friend Without End” (well, sometimes anyway) and voila, something to post on Facebook. We took photos of our late favorite aunt and created a memorial website. It looked much better and was far easier than websites we’ve created with other tools.

When you’re finished, you get a link you can share. If you’d prefer to try this out on a phone or tablet, there’s a free Adobe Spark app for Android and iPhone or iPad.

Can You Hear Her Now?

On Audible.com, we found a recording of Agatha Christie talking about her novels and stories. But it was so old and crackly that it was hard to hear. This was a perfect opportunity to test the new “SoundSoap Solo.”

SoundSoap Solo claims it can clean pretty much any audio clip. We tested it with the Agatha Christie recording by copying it with Windows “Sound Recorder.” Opening SoundSoap, we dragged the file in and looked at the control panel. There are various knobs and dials, depending whether it’s a hiss, a hum or a crackle that’s marring the sound. The free trial lets you play back but not save the results. In the case of our file, the improvement wasn’t much, but if you have a modern recording with poor sound quality, it’s worth a try. SoundSoap has won awards for both PC and Mac use. It could be helpful if you have wind noise in your action-camera footage, or want to be sure the audio you put on YouTube is clear.  The full version costs $79 from soundness-llc.com. Try the free trial version first.




Indian Family Cherokee Indian Reservation

Indian Family Cherokee Indian Reservation

Joy has often bragged about being one-eighth Cherokee. Now she wonders if it’s as phony as a politician in a Pocahontas costume.

Genealogy is a subject that interests lots of people. That interest was piqued for Joy when her sister had her DNA tested by Ancestry.com, and the results came back “no Native American blood.” We immediately wondered if Joy lacked Cherokee DNA too, despite family lore. This took us on a journey of genetic discovery online.

First we went to Quora.com. This is the web’s premier site for asking questions about anything. And it’s free. Joy asked “Is it possible to have zero Native American blood if your great grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee?”  We were amazed at the lengthy and thoughtful answers. Seven genealogy buffs weighed in, some with specialized knowledge and helpful links. Most said it was highly unlikely that her sister’s test was in error, though others suggested getting tested by a rival site, 23andme.com, co-founded by the wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Others pointed out that it’s possible to get nearly all your DNA from one parent, so Joy could be part Indian and her sister, not.  Another said that if you do have Indian blood, there would be supporting documents, since Native Americans were at one time registered. We looked at some records. Ah ha! Her Cherokee ancestors the family insisted she had were in fact listed on an official count.

Which prompted Joy to order her own $99 AncestryDNA.com test. And there she is, dripping saliva into a tube to send off. (Didn’t mean to gross anybody out there.) The results will take about six weeks to come back. In the meantime, we found a whole slew of free tutorials at Ancestry.com/academy/courses/topic. One of them shows how siblings can differ from each other.

DNA analysis is more complicated than we thought. According to LiveScience.com, DNA tests analyze less than one percent of a person’s genome, so they’ll miss most of your relatives. In fact, they say the test does little more than show your “genetic cousins,” people who share genes with you.

We went to a live talk on genealogy now that our interests were engaged. The presenter said he uncovered a slew of cousins he likes better than the cousins he already knew about. He suggests starting your research the old-fashioned way, with phone calls to relatives, even if they are younger than you. Some may have old photos and other info. Also, he said, check out FamilyTreeDNA.com.

Some closing words about Quora.com: This is a question and answer site that promises to fulfill the promise that Bob initially saw as the true value of the Internet: It was that somebody, somewhere, knows that answer to almost any question. It’s still a work in progress but it continues to offer the hope of the whole human race joining in the search for knowledge and sharing what they find. And besides, it cost nothing to join. (Just as it should.)


  • cities then and nowBefore and After Pics Showing How Famous Cities Changed Over Time.” Search on that phrase to discover the immense changes that have taken place, sometimes in as little as 16 years. Singapore, Dubai, and many other cities are utterly transformed.
  • People are struggling to Solve this Brainteaser.” Search on those words to find a fun puzzle challenging you to turn four squares into three with three moves.
  • GatesNotes.com is the personal site of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. He writes a lot of book reviews, posts photos and tells anecdotes about his friendship with investor William Buffett. He recommends “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion, one of the funniest books we’ve read in years.

Reader Problem

A reader writes to say his Gmail account was hacked and he can’t get back in. The hacker changed the password.

He’d hoped there was someone at Google he could call, but all recovery info is online. The first thing to try is clicking on “forgot my password.” If you can reset it to something unlike the original, you’re in and the hacker is out. Problem solved. For other approaches, search on the phrase “Recover a compromised email account.” If you use Yahoo, you can write them directly at account-security-help@cc.yahoo-inc.com.

Book: “Smithsonian Maker Lab”

Maker Lab“Smithsonian Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects,” is a new book by Jack Challoner; $20 from dk.com.

Kids can create a map using invisible ink, play music through paper cup speakers, hoist a weight with a waterwheel and watch a plant grow inside a bottle. The author’s favorite project was making sugar crystal popsicles, “because the result looked beautiful and tasted great, too!” Joy is going to try making her own bath fizzies. The photography is excellent and the step-by-step directions are easy to follow.

Birthday and Other Greetings

Our birthdays are both in July and our best friends have July birthdays too. Want to wish someone happy birthday by email, but dress up the message a little?

Go to images.google.com. Search on the phrase “happy birthday.” Click your favorite with your right mouse button to save it. Now attach it to your message. Or, in Gmail, put it right in the message itself. To do that, click the “insert photo” icon that’s five over to the right of the “send” button. Click “upload,” and browse to where you’ve saved the image you want to use. Voila! It goes in.

This is also great for sending a “thinking of you” card.

Tips and Tricks

david pogueDavid Pogue, who has written a number of technical books on programming, had some good tips we’re passing on.

  • Put your cell phone in a mug when you play music. The sound will be louder and richer. This is especially good for hard-to-hear audio books you might be playing in your car. We used a raisin can because our phone is too big.
  • Shut off a ringing phone in a meeting or another embarrassing situation by pushing any button on the outside.
  • If you put your phone in airplane mode or turn it off, it will charge much faster. Always use an outlet for the fastest charging, not a USB port on your computer.