THE RETURN OF THE PANIC BUTTON

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember: There’s always time to panic.

Flipping That Phone

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

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

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

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

App Happy  

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

Talking Boxes: Google vs Alexa

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

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

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

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

 

BACK TO THE FUTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dumping Java

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

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

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

No More Tears

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

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

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

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

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

Internuts

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

 

THE WEB AND ITS DISCONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the Pop-Up

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

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

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

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

Even Fishier

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

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

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

Cutting the Cord

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

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

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

YOUR COMPUTER’S HEART BEEPS

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

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

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

Talking to Dr. Who

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

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

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

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

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

Internuts

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

Station 307, Where Are You?

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

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

Liquid Cooled Computers

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

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

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

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

UNROLL ME

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

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

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

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

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

Nice Tech Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Internuts

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

Fix That Body

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

THE RIGHT LIGHT FOR NIGHT

White light versus orange light

The latest version of Windows 10 has a “Night Light” feature. It allows you to adjust the screen color from the regular bright white on a sliding scale from a light tan to orange. It’s free and you can get it if you search for “Windows 10 Creators Update.”

Heaven only knows we need it. At least Bob needs it. He uses a tiny program called “Pango Bright,” from Pangolin Laser Systems that allows the user to scale down the screen brightness from 100 percent to 20 percent. Dealing with the fully bright screen is especially annoying at night or in darkened rooms. We owe this to Steve Jobs, who was the first to give us the bright white screen with his new Macintosh. He argued that it was just like typing on a sheet of white paper. Of course, paper doesn’t shine into your eyes, but he probably didn’t write much anyway.

Medical researchers know that the electric light we normally use at night has more blue than orange tones and this suppresses melatonin production. A melatonin deficiency upsets your circadian rhythms, disrupting the sleep-wake cycle. This has been well known since World War II, when the RAF in Britain took to using red light bulbs for pilots’ quarters at night in case they were called out for an emergency; the eyes adjusted more easily to the dark and to reading instrument lights.

If you try the Windows 10 Creators Update and find it buggy, which it has been for some users, you can roll it back. Go to “start,” click “settings,” and then “update & security.” There’s a “recovery” option there.

Stuffed Androids

Right after writing about stuffed iPads, we heard from readers with stuffed Androids. What to do when your storage is full?

“My 15 gigs of internal memory is close to max, but I can’t figure out why,” a reader wrote. We don’t know why either but the answer is usually too many photos. Fortunately, she has a Samsung Galaxy phone that can take an external SD card. Our Google Nexus 6P has no such thing. You can look up “phones with expandable memory” to see the list.

The “SD” designation stands for “Secure Digital,” so called because it is non-volatile, meaning it won’t fade away and is not likely to be disrupted by stray currents and magnetic fields. They come in all sizes and one for 16 gigabytes — which would double her phone’s storage capacity — is only $10. For $30 you can get a tiny plug-in card that holds 64 gigabytes. Bob remembers when SanDisk’s first one gigabyte card sold for $1,000.

We also like the free app “Astro File Manager.” Get it from the Google Play Store. From it, we learned that even apps we’d uninstalled left bits of programming behind, sort of the flotsam and jetsam of the digital seas. Having uninstalled “WebMD,” for example, we had only to press on its folder for several seconds to see a trashcan appear. Tapping the trashcan got rid of the folder. We also found trash left behind by “30 Day Fit,” Epson printers and “What’s App,” three apps we had already uninstalled.

Internuts

  • USAfacts.org was developed by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to figure out how the U.S. government spends taxpayer money, around $5.4 trillion in 2014. It has facts like the number of arrests per year (11.3 million) and number of children in foster care (427,910).
  • You can also get this kind of information from a publication called “The Statistical Abstract of the United States,” published every year since 1878 by the U.S. Census Bureau (Census.gov.). It is free, extremely comprehensive and fascinating to read. Covers everything: population divisions, elections, divorce rates, police and fire departments, even nutrition.
  • By Colin Woodward and Brian Stauffer

    11 Separate Nations.” Google those words (or click here) to find a redrawn map of the U.S. based on a book by Colin Woodard. He says two regions: “Yankeedom” and the “Deep South” have the most influence over America.

  • “UDF Skywalker.” Search on that phrase to find a moveable magnifier showing you what the Hubble Space Telescope sees at its farthest reach. It’s the deepest view ever into the sky and we still find new galaxies. There are more galaxies than there are stars in our own “Milky Way,” which has a little more than 100 billion of them.

 

Free Online Programs

  • WeVideo” is a free program for editing video. A reader said he likes it better than “Final Cut Pro” for the Mac because it’s easier to figure out. Also, since all your editing takes place on the Internet, you can edit your videos from any machine that’s handy, no matter where in the world you happen to be. Hats off to this savvy reader. We had to watch the tutorial a few times to get the hang of it, but then it was easy.
  •  “Clips” is Apple’s newest video editing program and a free download from the app store for your phone or tablet. It doesn’t do as much as WeVideo, but it’s the easiest one we’ve tried since the old “iFlip” camera went out of business. Add cartoon captions, music, voiceover, or images to your video. Use the scissors to edit parts out. Tap the question mark to get instructions. (You’ll find that elusive question mark if you first tap an arrow in the upper left.)

 

A STUFFED IPAD

A friend came home from the Grand Canyon with photos she wanted to transfer to her iPad. She used the “iKlips,” a thumb drive with two ends. One end plugs into your computer and the other into your iPad.

She had a thousand photos of the Grand Canyon, which was perhaps one or two more than necessary, since the Canyon is pretty much the same from century to century. But there was no room left on her iPad, give or take a canyon or so. What is a shutterbug to do? Well, you could delete some of stored photos. After all, how many pictures of Aunt Bertha do you need? Then if you change your mind, you can retrieve those from a file called “Recently Deleted,” a kind of trash can in the Photos app.

Or, you could transfer some of those photos to Google Drive, Dropbox or any of several other free storage options. The most generous of these is Flickr.com, which provides a terabyte of free photo storage. That’s a thousand gigabytes, which is more storage than anyone but the National Geographic can use. (Worldwide, about 1.3 trillion photos are expected to be shot this year. Since they are all terribly important, lots of storage will be needed.)

Another way to free up more space is by installing the latest operating system. We thought our iPad Mini was up to date but noted that it had very little storage space left. After we tapped “settings,” and then “software update,” we regained 850 megabytes — almost a gigabyte! And of course you can always delete apps, either under “settings,” or by holding your finger on an app till it jiggles and gives you an “x.” Bye, bye.

Getting back to the iKlips thumb drive, it’s similar to the HooToo “iPlugMate.” One difference is the iPlugMate works with Windows XP, while the iKlips doesn’t. (We want it known that we are not responsible for strange gadget names.) The iKlips starts at $69 for 32 gigabytes, compared to $30 for the iPlugMate. After using them for three months, the iPlugMate stopped working. We have no explanation; probably something political.

Instant Art

Google has a fun new site named AutoDraw.com, and it’s free. It takes scribbles and turns them into something recognizable.

We started by using our mouse to draw a rough picture of a school bus — just a long box with some circles for wheels. Google put a few school buses at the top of the screen. We pointed to the one we liked best, and holy mackerel, our drawing turned into a neat looking picture of a school bus.  Joy painted it yellow. She added red headlights, a tree and a building. Looked good! We couldn’t add people, however. Every time she drew one, the program changed it to some other creature: a dragon, a dog, a bear, etc. Okay, it’s obviously still a work in progress. But it’s free and it’s amusing; we spent an hour on it.

AutoDraw is one of several options on Google’s artificial intelligence site: There’s one that will identify any object in another language when you point your phone’s camera at it. Another option creates song lyrics, like: “We’ve got glasses in this shot; could be eyewear, maybe not.” Okay, maybe no awards this year, but some day.

A Rosie View

Repairing or changing a web site can cost thousands, so we use Esther Rosie, at EstherRosie.com. She’s in England and generally charges around $50, sometimes nothing.

We found her years ago through the freelancer site Elance.com, but she has since gone on her own. (We’ve gone to that site before to contract for other skills, but results have been mixed.) One of the nice things about Rosie is she’s easy to understand, unlike other programmers we’ve dealt with. She specializes in WordPress sites. WordPress makes it easy to make changes to a website without any programming knowledge. If your site isn’t already a WordPress site, she can convert it for you. Every so often, there’s a problem we can’t fix. Recently, it was a hack attack. Why a hacker should bother with our site is a mystery, since we don’t sell anything and offer no political opinions.

Amazon Conspiracy?

If we were conspiracy theorists, we’d suspect Amazon of something or other, perhaps stupidity.

On February 28, Joy wrote a review of the book, “Law Professors,” by Stephen Presser, and rated it five stars. It appeared on the site until April 10, when it suddenly disappeared. Bob wrote a positive review of the book two days later and it too disappeared. We tried to re-submit them and Amazon sent a note saying it will not post reviews of anyone perceived to be biased.

Darn, they caught us. We were biased in favor of the book because we liked it. This is apparently quite different from so-called “professional” reviewers, who accept money for reviewing things on Amazon and are therefore considered not biased. We just don’t seem to understand e-commerce.

How to Turn Your Old Laptop Into a Chromebook

A reader sent us a great article on “How to Turn Your Old Laptop Into a Chromebook.” If you’re even a little bit technically competent, it’s a good way to save $300 and get a lightning fast machine, ready for email, the web and more. (Chromebooks use Google’s Chrome operating system and the programs are free online.)

There are many of these “how to turn your laptop into a Chromebook” articles online, but if you add the words “by Wayne Williams” to your search phrase, you’ll see the one the reader sent us. (Or click here.)  It’s easy to follow and nicely done. We plan to try it the next time we’re ready to dump a laptop.

 

 

THE CROWD “SOURCERESS”

“Crowd-sourcing,” also called “crowd-funding” is like found money. Instead of one sponsor, you have hundreds, perhaps thousands of strangers donating to your cause, with few strings attached. A new book, “The Crowd-sourceress” by Alex Daly, ($17 at PublicAffairsBooks.com) offers advice on how to do it.

Over 100,000 projects have been funded by Kickstarter.com, one of several crowd funding services, since it began in 2009. We are talking big bucks here. It’s common to hit a couple hundred thousand and can sometimes bring in a couple million. This has even drawn the attention of major corporations, like Samsung, General Electric and Hasbro. Because after all, there’s no interest charge, unlike borrowing from a bank.

Sometimes there’s also no accounting. When you kick in to finance some new product or project — and we have kicked in — you do not get stock or a share of the profits, if any. What you get is the right to buy the product, if and when it actually appears. Sometimes you can get your money back, sometimes not. We got our $150 back when the product we kicked-in for hadn’t appeared a year after the designers said it would. They were really angry at our lack of patience, and said so vigorously. By the way, the product never appeared.

Crowd-funding websites vary. With Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing. Set a goal to raise $50,000 and that’s the floor; if you only raise $49,999, you get nothing. On Indiegogo.com, you keep whatever comes in. Those who kick in may get small extra rewards for their investment, like a T-shirt or an autographed book. If the company fails to produce, they must give a refund or are legally liable. Of course, if they can’t make the product and go belly up, being legally liable is sort of meaningless.

Hey Google, Delete That

Google Home, a speaker with a virtual assistant inside, records your every request. That’s so it can get better and faster at understanding you, says Google. If you don’t turn it off, it’s still listening. But if you’re paranoid, you can delete every request you ever made, along with additional comments you didn’t know were being recorded.

Go to History.Google.com/history/audio. Click the three dots above a conversation and choose “delete.” Our most recent requests were: “Play ukulele music,” “When was the Federal Reserve created?” (1913). and “How long do giraffes sleep?” (About an hour.) We have wide-ranging interests.

Finding a Good Movie

We just had a lengthy conversation with Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s Echo Dot. It was all about movies. She would have gone on for hours if we’d wished.

This is a new trick. To use it, enable the “Valossa” skill, by tapping the Alexa app on your phone and searching on “Valossa.”  Though it’s called Valossa, you have to use the words “Ask Movie Finder.” We started by saying, “Alexa, ask Movie Finder to find that movie about the smart girl.” We were thinking of the movie, “Gifted;” it’s still in theaters. She gave us “Get Smart,” from 2008, “School on Fire,” from 1988 and “Three Smart Girls,” a Deanna Durbin movie from 1936 about three girls who try to rescue their father from a gold digger.

This is just where the conversation begins. You can ask for more details about the first, second or third result. She’ll give you the director and a synopsis. If one movie sounds good, ask for similar movies. Asking for movies similar to “Get Smart,” led to “Wanted,” “Harlem Nights,” and “Love, Honor & Obey,” none of which were like Get Smart, but, hey, it’s a start. Get details on those, or ask for a longer list. She’ll give you the genre too, like “action/comedy/thriller.” This conversation can go on as long as you wish. It also works from a computer: Go to WhatIsMyMovie.com and type a query in the search box.

Cool Phone Tricks

We looked up “cool phone tricks” on the web and found some fun ones. Such as…

  • Go to sleep with music. On the iPhone or iPad, first tap the clock app. Next tap “Timer,” and then tap the musical note. Scroll to the bottom of the list of sounds and choose “stop playing.” Now, whatever app you’re using to play music or an audio book, it will stop when you told it to stop. If you don’t have any music in your iPhone’s music library, get the free Pandora app, or iHeart Radio or Spotify. Or play something on YouTube. For Android phones, use a free app called “Sleep Timer.” If you use Audible books, there’s a sleep timer built in.
  • When you’re out with binoculars, or have access to a telescope, you can take a picture of what your binoculars or telescope sees. Hold your phone up to the telescope or binoculars and press the camera icon to take a photo. Now you’ll have a memento of something far, far away.
  • Turn Wi-Fi off with your voice. Works with Siri, Google, and Cortana. You might want to turn it off if you’re away from home and the phone feels hot in your pocket because it’s continually searching for a Wi-Fi connection.

Good “Habyts”

Our nephew teaches high school math, and the first thing he does when the kids come in is confiscate their cell phones. He prefers it to having the same “put away your phone” discussion a hundred times throughout the year. “They’re addicts,” he says.

For controlling younger kids, “Habyts” is a free-to-try app for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. It goes beyond shutting off an app when it’s study time; it also teaches good habits. You can get them to the dinner table promptly, since the parent’s dashboard has a “pause everything” mode which shuts down all their activities. You can also encourage good study habits, assign chores and reward them with points. At certain hours, block recreational websites and leave educational ones open. Ditto for games and other apps. Let them use Microsoft Word during study time, but not Minecraft. After the 14-day free trial period is up, Habyts’ plans start at $4 a month. Find it at Habyts.com.

 

 

 

 

DAMN THE PRINTERS, FULL SPEED AHEAD

You like humor on the web? We like humor on the web. And among the funniest things to read are printer reviews. If you read those you might never buy a printer. Joy said to Bob: “I wish I could find one printer without lots of negative reviews, but it’s impossible!” (She gets emotional about these things.)

Some printers have online reviews from nearly 10,000 users. Most are favorable, but the ones that aren’t can be very funny. Example: “I wish I could give this atrocity of a printer 0 stars. I have literally spent hours, HOURS, of my life trying to fix (it). I have read all the detailed instructions on the Canon support website, followed them, with a flashlight I might add, all to no avail.” Of a similar Canon printer, a guy said it required a master’s degree in tech support. Another pronounced it “dead on arrival.”

The Canon PIXMA MX922 is Amazon’s best-selling all-in-one machine. It has 6,369 four-and-five-star reviews. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But look at the 1,616 one-star reviews. These are not happy people: “For those of you who might be inclined to think I’m too simple to understand how to fix such a basic problem, my husband, is an engineer with 20 years experience in the industry.” He said: “What the %#%*$#%&&!!!!” because he couldn’t figure it out either.” By the way, we used to have one of these Canon PIXMA printers too. “Used to” because we gave it to Goodwill. The paper jammed almost half the time we tried to print.

Let us leave Canon for now, less we sound like a shill for other brands. Believe us, things are no better elsewhere. The number one best-selling color laser printer, the Brother MFC-L2700DW, has 1,724 reviews. About ninety percent are four or five star, full of lavish praise. But don’t forget the 204 negative reviews. One is titled: “Buy if you want to spend 10 hours on hold, only to have tech support trash your new computer.” Another concludes “Oh Brother!”

The HP Envy 4520 is the top top-selling inkjet printer on Amazon. Its overall rating is 4.1 out of five stars. But 382 people gave it withering, one-star reviews. One guy spent four hours on the phone with HP trying to get it to connect to his laptop before they concluded it was not their problem. Our own experience with HP “tech support” was the guy didn’t fix the problem, but did offer to sell us a new one. Many complaints focused on HP’s intrusive on-screen ads. On the Envy 4520, every time you print, you get a pop-up ad for HP’s ink subscription service. The cheapest plan costs $132 a year for 50 pages a month which is less than two pages a day. Since the printer costs $50, the makes the actual price with ink — and we figure most people will want to print with ink — close to $200.

The cheapest color inkjet printer we could find was the HP Deskjet, which you can get from Walmart for only $20, but you have to pick it up yourself. At those prices they don’t want to pay to ship it to you. Once again, the ink price is the killer.

Speaking of Ink

Were we speaking of ink? Printers follow the old razor blade marketing gimmick: Give the razor away, sell them the blades. Similarly, inkjet printers sell for $30 or less and yet ink cartridges sell for $40-$50. To cut that cost, we turn to so-called “third-party” inks.

HP is particularly interesting when it comes to ink costs, because nearly all of the company’s profit comes from selling ink. It’s actually an ink company. Their cartridges have identification chips that the printer checks for and refuses to print if you try using someone else’s ink. Naturally, we tried. (You think we’re going to let them get away with this nonsense?) So we tried, and were rejected. Well, we are used to rejection, and have been thrown out of the some of the best computer companies in the land. If there’s a screen message asking you if this is HP ink, say no. Be honest. The printer will eventually give up and actually print. At least that’s been our experience and others on the web. The quality was good and the ink cost was one-fifth the HP price. Hah, humans win again. Remember our team motto: obnoxious in victory, petty in defeat.

Over a thousand people on Amazon gave four and a half out of five stars to an ink supplier called “Arthur Imaging.” They offer a 28-pack of inks for $30, including 12 large black cartridges, four small black and four small in each color. But four percent of users complained that the inks weren’t accepted by their printer (they should have kept pressing the button) or the quality wasn’t there in color photos.

Another choice is the 18-pack from Office World for $21, which got a five-star rating on Amazon. Only two percent of the 1,002 people who tried it were unable to print or were unhappy with the results. Once again, people: never give up.

As for us, we use an Okidata color laser printer. Must be ten years old. The main reason we use a laser printer is the cost of color. Though you pay a lot more upfront for a good color laser printer, the toner replacement costs, in the long run, are lower than for inkjets unless you can find third-party inks that work well. Main thing is we like the print quality.

On the down side, this printer must weigh about the same as a freight car, and it’s not on wheels; you don’t ever want to have to move it around. The on/off button sometimes won’t turn off, which is only fair, because sometimes it won’t turn on. (Always keep pushing the button.)

We like Okidata because their tech support is incredible — all day every day, and all night. We went on a quest for a second printer only because our Okidata doesn’t do “cloud printing;” and it won’t print from our phone or Google Chromebook. So we save those documents to a thumb drive or email them to ourselves, then open em up on another computer.

 

 

BUYING A USED NEW COMPUTER

Buying a new computer is fun and they’re pretty cheap now. But watch out for the online reviews; trust no one and don’t speak to strangers.

When searching for “how to buy a desktop computer,” you’ll find articles steering you to computers costing $1800 and up. These are fast and mean but appropriate mostly for people who edit videos or play games. Lots of memory and lots of processing power are important in those areas; for most of us, not so much. Searching for “budget desktops,” you get some strange picks, not all of them ready for prime time.

PC Magazine shuttled us to the “Shuttle XPC Nano with Windows 10.” It weighs only one pound and goes for $221 on Amazon. What a deal? But it is oh so techie. The company’s tech support says your keyboard and mouse won’t work until you “patch the installation media” before installing Windows 7. Only then can you install Windows 10. Oh yeah, that’ll go over big with the general market. You would think that since it has Windows 10 in its description, it comes that way. Many users on Amazon noted that they wished they’d bought a more mainstream computer.

Here’s an easy way to find a good one. Type “desktop computer” into the search box at Amazon. We found one from Hewlett Packard for $139. It’s refurbished, but good as new they say. Adding a four-year warranty contract adds another $21 to the price. It has eight gigabytes of RAM, which is plenty for real people. To assess the central processor, we turned to CPUboss.com, and compared it to the one on Joy’s current desktop. It was faster than Joy’s. By the way, the newest, fastest processor available is Intel’s “Kaby Lake, Core H.” If you Google it, you can find a list of all the laptops that have it. Typically, only intense gamers need that kind of speed.

The low price was because it was “refurbished,” which means it went out the door once before and was returned for any number of reasons. The usual reason is the buyer — typically a company — bought too many of them and is sending the excess back. Sometimes it’s just because a buyer changed their mind; maybe they got one for their birthday and can’t use two. Whatever the reason, we have purchased refurbished equipment before and have never had any problems when it’s a known brand like HP. We did have a problem with a new one once, which we bought from one of the big-box office supply stores and it turned out to have someone’s files already stored on disk. The store was apologetic and exchanged it with no questions asked. One of the things we never buy is extended warranties. If it breaks, it breaks; do you really want to go through the hassle of arguing with some company over whether they should repair an item you may or may not have broken yourself?

For 99 out of 100 users processor speed has little meaning. Magazine testing crews and lab results will typically rate one processor better than another because it cut the processing time on intensive work like large database searches by a second or two. For more ordinary calculations the difference is often only hundredths of a second. We’re not that crazy. Back in our “city room” days at newspapers we would often get annoyed by waits of half a minute for something to save or be called up. None of that happens today. Since we don’t play World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, processor speed has little value.

Increasingly, Joy turns to her Asus Chromebook 14 for speed. It’s not that her Windows desktop was too slow when she bought it. It’s that adding a lot of programs to any PC can bog it down. With a Chromebook, nearly everything you do takes place online. A good one goes for less than $300.

Bob uses an HP laptop plugged into a large monitor, keyboard and mouse. Since heat is the killer of laptops, his rests on a shelf with a lot of holes for air circulation. Laptops have their own air vents on the case to let heat escape, but some people put a book or a purse on top and close these off. This is not good; let it breathe.

Let’s Do Lunch

Mixmax is a free service that makes it easy to slug boilerplate into your emails. Boilerplate refers to text that is often repeated. (Our all-time favorite boilerplate was from the late Senator Metzenbaum of Ohio. Whenever he got a crazy, angry or scurrilous letter, he would send back a response that read: “We feel it is our responsibility to inform you that that someone is sending out crank letters under your name.”)

Instead of typing in the same reply to these emails, we now click “templates” from a drop-down list. You can choose from one of the Mixmax standard replies, but it’s more useful to set up your own. Click “new” and type in a standard response to be slugged in whenever you need it. We have three templates so far, all of which include cartoon images of ourselves. Now they’ve got a new calendar app to add to that wonderful service.

Go to app.mixmax.com and click “calendar” off to the left. Choose the days of the week you’re available, and then share a link to the calendar. Typically, the link is cal.mixmax.com/yourname. You could be cal.mixmax.com/JamesBond. (Bob always signs his credit card receipts “James Bond.”) Anyone with a link to your calendar, can click and choose the day they want to meet with you. You need a Google account to use the service, but these are free and can be easily created at Accounts.Google.com.