The battle between Amazon’s “Echo” and Google Home never ends. Which is all good for us.

The other day we turned to Google’s smart speaker and said “Hey Google, play ‘La Bamba.’” That launched a playlist with some of the best rock ‘n’ roll of all time. Joy could hardly stop dancing and return to the column.

Alexa has her own new tricks. For instance, you can give her several commands at once without having to say “Alexa” each time. We said, “Alexa, turn the volume to 7.” A second later, we said “Call Bob,” and Bob’s cell phone started to ring.  We also plied it with questions. “Alexa, what’s the population of North Korea? What’s the population of South Korea?” Note that we only had to say the opening command “Alexa” the first time.

To set this up, tap the Amazon Alexa app on your phone. Then tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) and tap settings, choose your device and scroll down until you see “Follow Up Mode.”  In settings, you can also set up what you want to hear when you say “Alexa, Start My Day.” This can be a fun way to start your wakeup.

We have ours set up to give us the weather and the latest podcast from Planet Money. The first time we tried it, we heard about Grace Owen, a New Hampshire woman who got the lowest Social Security number ever issued: 001 01 001. Grace appeared on “What’s My Secret?” and guess what, that was her secret.

Google Home Strikes Back

We tried a similar new feature for the Google Home smart speaker called “Routines.” You can start by saying, “Hey Google, How’s My Day?”

This launched a weather and traffic report, followed by news briefings from National Public Radio, Fox News, Anchor News, Bloomberg Business News, Score Sports and the BBC Minute. Joy said “Hey Google, skip” during the sports briefs, but not before hearing about March Madness, whatever that is. This was all pre-set; we provided no instructions.

To learn how to customize this daily report, we went to our computer and searched on “Set Up and Manage Routines on Google Home.”

Some of the “Routines” are best for after work. For instance, you can say “Hey Google, let’s go home,” and the Assistant will give you a traffic report, send text messages, read unread texts, and play whatever you’ve chosen, whether it’s music, news, a podcast or nothing. It will even broadcast to all the Google Home speakers at your home that you’re on your way.

Once you get there and settle in, the doorbell might ring. If you have one of these three security cameras – Nest Cam, Logitech Circle, or Tend Secure, you can say “Hey Google, who’s at the front door,” and see the person on your TV. But that also requires the $35 Chromecast plugged into the back of the TV. It also requires that at least one of those security cameras be focused on the front door.

Getting help for a Google Home speaker is easy. When we were on their support website, a small window popped up allowing us to chat with a Google employee. This one was a guy named Ian, from the Philippines. Later, he sent us a replay of our chat by email and added that if we replied to it, he would deal with any other Google-related issues. (By the way, there are 7,614 islands in the Philippines.)

Big Clipboard

The 2013 and 2016 versions of Microsoft Word have an extended clipboard feature. So instead of copying just one item and pasting it in, you can copy dozens and later choose the ones you want from a list.

Here’s how: In Windows 7 or 10, copy something from the web or elsewhere and it automatically saves in the clipboard. To copy, highlight the item with your mouse and hold down the “Ctrl” key on your keyboard while tapping the letter “C” to copy it. On a Mac, hold down the “Cmd” key and then tap the “C” on your keyboard.

Now, in Microsoft Word, change the settings for the clipboard. (You only have to do this once.)  Click the “home” button, then click the little arrow next to the word “Clipboard” in the upper left of your screen. If you want the list to show up whenever you have Word open, click “options” at the bottom of the clipboard and choose “Show Office Clipboard Automatically.” When you’re ready to paste, choose the one you want from your list.

Bob has long used multiple saved clips to use with emails. You can make a standard sign off, with name and web site, or address or whatever. It can be good for canned replies: “Thank you for contacting us,” etc. He has long admired the canned response that the late Sen. Metzenbaum of Ohio used to send to people who wrote him with wild accusations and comments: “Dear Sir or Madam: We think you should know that some crank is sending out letters signed with your name.”


  • is the U.S. government bookstore. They used to have bookstores in many cities, but now it’s just Washington, D.C. You can order online, and the range of topics is enormous; Bob has long been a fan of their titles. Under the “Best Sellers” category, there’s a tax guide for individuals and a book on protecting your family from lead exposure in the home. They also have ebooks.
  • Search on the phrase “Mesmerizing Wind Patterns” to find a page from It pictures a globe showing wind patterns and speed. Turn the globe to see various regions. Click on one to get precise wind speeds and directions. Scroll down the page to see another map of ocean currents, and an animated visualization of every meteorite recorded since 861 A.D.
  • Search on the phrase “Kingsoft Office Free” to find a free word processor, spreadsheet, and PowerPoint program similar to Microsoft Office.




One of our frequent correspondents had a near miss.

That’s a near miss from disaster when he got a phone call telling him his PayPal account had been compromised and he owed $340. The caller said they could fix the problem for $299 but they needed to take control of his computer. They said they needed his bank account number too, so he gave it to them.

There was a lot of background chatter on the caller’s end of the line. The red flags went up, the rockets exploded and the bells started ringing. He turned off his computer, told the caller he just had a power outage, hung up and moved everything from his checking account to his savings account. Then he removed the software the callers installed. Whew. This is a pretty savvy guy we’re talking about, so this can happen to anyone.

So here’s the message: Never, we mean not ever, give control of your computer to someone you don’t know and trust. And … there’s no reason on Earth they need your bank account number. In fact, once he did that, even though he took alarm and took the right defensive action, the same people still call him. They figure they have a live one.

What is to be done, to be done, to be done?

We have had similar run-ins over the years. On one occasion, Joy gave control of her computer to someone she thought was from Microsoft. On hearing this, Bob, who has the same level of suspicion as a CIA agent who’s also paranoid, said hang up the phone and do it now. Joy had to reformat the computer afterwards.

So, when you have a problem with the computer, be it large or small, where do you turn? The stores that offer tech services have a natural conflict: they charge quite a bit for doing not much but the real profit is made in selling something additional. So the guys and gals who do the tech work often find it easier to tell the person seeking help that it’s better to just reinstall Windows. We’ve had this from two people we know just in the last couple of weeks. It’s a never -fail fix, somewhat expensive, but everybody comes out happy. Of course, there’s the additional expense of replacing the programs that got wiped out when you reinstalled the operating system.

We have tried the sites that provide contacts with freelancers who sell various skills and have various levels of expertise. The results have varied. There are lots of these sites. Last June, Forbes Magazine had an article called “79 Websites to Get Freelance Jobs Fast.”

These sites are legitimate and the freelancers do the work but results vary. Years ago, we went to a website called CrossLoop and by chance got a guy who was terrific on computer problems. The web site is no longer in operation. The guy’s name is Kenny. We’ve never met him but he’s who we recommend when there’s a problem. He’s at We’ve also gotten great help from Esther, a website expert, at By the way, we get no percentages on this or any other kind of payback from anything we write about; we want to go to “Reporter Heaven” when the time comes.

Going on Wheel of Fortune

Joy wanted to be a Wheel of Fortune contestant and they ask you to upload a one-minute video. So she got up early one morning and did it, putting her Android phone on a shelf, making sure the camera was facing her, and tapping the video button. It worked fine, though she had to try four times to get it under one minute.

The video was automatically uploaded to From there, she put it on YouTube (unlisted) and shared the link with Wheel. Unfortunately, the next step proved impossible.

The directions said to upload a headshot. But she kept getting “upload fail.” She tried three different browsers, two kinds of photo formats, three resolutions, and used two different computers. Finally, she tried submitting her application with just the video and no headshot, and that worked fine. We’ll let you know if she makes it.

Killer Course

Google is offering a free crash course in machine learning. That’s the kind of learning a computer does when it learns by watching rather than from explicit directions. As Yogi Berra once said: “You can see a lot just by looking.” Quite so. That’s how a Google computer beat a world champion in the game of Go and that’s how the future “Terminator “will figure things out.

Machine learning doesn’t happen automatically; it requires a savvy program. If you’re interested in learning, search on the phrase “Machine Learning Crash Course,” and look for the Google link. The prerequisites are mastery of entry level algebra and proficiency in programming, especially coding in Python. There are free tutorials in Python on YouTube, and we also like the paid lessons at


The Numbers Report

  • According to researcher Dscout, the average person touches their phone 2,617 times a day. Heavy users touch theirs 5,427 times a day. By touch, they mean every tap, swipe, type or click. The company recruited 94 Android users and installed touch monitoring software on their phones. Those people are now in rehab.
  • reports people are clicking on links they get from Google more than the ones from Facebook and other social media sites. This is a shift. For the past three years, most people used a Facebook link or similar social site to get to another website. Facebook lost 12.7 percentage points in share of visits between 2016 and 2017 while another social site, Instagram, saw their share increase ten times. Of course, Facebook owns Instagram.




An old friend in the computer gaming business called to pitch a new product. The product was interesting though not yet ready for prime time. But his call opened a window we hadn’t looked through in many years.

We hardly ever mention computer games anymore, because it has become a specialty in its own right and is too narrow for this column. And yet, they’re still out there. More than half a million people tune in daily to Twitch.TV, where they can watch other people play video games. Ten million have downloaded the app to watch Twitch on their phones. Sound pretty stupid? We tuned in (because we have to) and it was actually interesting. In fact it was more interesting than a lot of the TV shows we’ve looked at for ten minutes or less. You can also tune in to watch artists draw the characters and scenery that go into these video games.

This harks Bob back to the early days of personal computers, when the popular machines were Commodore and Atari, and the conventional wisdom from the far-seeing pundits was that personal computers would never amount to much and were only good for games. They didn’t understand what was happening, of course. Bob’s own managing editor told him it was just a fad. What strikes us about conventional wisdom was how conventional it is, and that the wisdom part usually drops off the edge of an intellectual cliff.

Well things went along, and two students at Harvard designed a spreadsheet they called “Visicalc” that would run on Radio Shack’s TRS-80 personal computer. A guy in the dorm had one. But he transferred out and took his computer with him, so they were stuck with writing it for an Apple, another guy in the dorm had one.  Radio Shack went bankrupt, Apple became a giant. Many things are subject to chance.

Painting with Bob Ross

Games lost their prominence but continued to live. They’re out there now; go to the web site and watch. You think this would be a really boring thing to do? You think wrong. There are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of games going on. In the corner you’ll often see a picture of the player. You’ll hear their excitement, and feel it too. Get the monster, find the treasure, be a hero, or heroine.

The program our old friend was pumping is a new arrival, still in “beta” testing, as they say.  It’s called “MobCrush;” you can download the app or go to Gamers who play programs associated with movie studios, game companies and other commercial enterprises can earn anywhere from $15 to $2500 an hour, depending entirely on how many viewers they can pull in. The minimum payout starts with around 5,000 followers.

So the kid who won’t go outside because he or she is playing video games could have earnings potential. A guy we know says his daughter, an artist, has over 10,000 followers. Well, that’s ten thousand potential customers. Dead artists can also pop back. An old PBS show, “The Joy of Painting,” with Bob Roth, streams live, so to speak, on Twitch.TV. He died in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of viewers continue to watch the show. Other artists can be watched on Twitch by typing “creative” in the search box at the top of the screen. The Japanese “Manga” style is popular.

Battery Life

We killed the battery in our old laptop by leaving it plugged in all the time, though after seven years it might have caught something deadly anyway. Battery death can happen to phones too, in just two to three years. The key is don’t over-charge.

A free app for Android phones called “AccuBattery,” from, gives you an alarm when the phone you’re charging has reached the 80 percent level. According to the app maker, charging to the 80 percent level instead of 100 triples the battery life.

Though modern phones are protected from overcharging when you plug them in all night, some experts say their batteries last longer if you turn your phone off after charging it completely. Another tip: Don’t let an Android or iPhone go completely dead. The battery will last longer if you charge them when they still have around 20 percent left.

By the way, a new battery for our old Windows 7 laptop cost $27 on eBay. We gave the old computer away, and warned the person not to do as we did, leaving it plugged in. It should run on the battery alone a couple of times a month. When we’d had the laptop a few years, it no longer stayed charged for six hours but started sighing at two.

Extension Extermination

Adding too many extensions to your web browser, whether Chrome, Firefox or something else, slows it down. Here’s how to remove them:

In Chrome, go to chrome://extensions and click the trash can next to any you don’t want. Sometimes, however, the extension still has access to your account, even though you deleted it. Go to and click on “Sign in and Security,” then “Apps with Account Access,” to see which apps can access your account.

In Firefox, click the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) in the upper right corner of the screen. Then choose “Add-ons.” Here you can disable any you don’t want or add new ones.

In Safari, pull down “Preferences” from the Safari menu. Then choose “Extensions” and “remove.” In Microsoft Edge, click the three dots in the upper right corner and then “Extensions.” In Internet Explorer, click the “tools” button, then “add-ons.”


  • Cob house coziest place.” Search on that phrase to find a so-called “cob” home with a 25-foot high solar dome in Norway. The family grows almost all their food in an amazing greenhouse.
  • has some great Calvin and Hobbes’ snowmen comics. Joy sent the link to her nephew, who’s a big fan. More at



A reader innocently called a tech support phone number he saw on the Brother Printers website. It turned out to be a scam. Unlike “click bait,” which leads you to fake news stories or other web sites, this one goes after your wallet.

When our reader called the supposed tech support number, he was told they needed to take control of his Macbook Pro to fix a major problem. They said he had a lot of “stuck” and “sleeping” files (whatever those are), and added he needed to pay $299 a year for a firewall. Fortunately, he said “no.”

He added: “They told me there was no way that I would get the printer to work without their firewall!”  But he did after watching a tutorial on YouTube.

The same thing happened to our friend Ida last year. She went to the Brother Printers site, called a number listed there, and was scammed. Joy used Windows’ “System Restore” to get her computer working again. Remember: If it seems fishy, it probably is.

We like Brother Printers okay, but this is a bad situation. We notified them about the problem more than six months ago.  A spokesperson wrote back and told us they were aware of everything and were working on it. Slow going; apparently they take a lot of coffee breaks.

Video Editing

We don’t’ have the patience for video editing. (Actually, we don’t have the patience for much of anything, which is why we write short items.) What we like are programs that do all the work, like “Fast Flick” in the new Corel Video Studio Ultimate 2018.

The $100 program finally makes it simple, three clicks and you’re done. Click to choose a template, click to add pictures and videos, click to add text. (Okay, it’s four clicks if you want to change the background music.). The result is amazingly professional.  Our movie had fast dissolves, picture-in-picture, nice transitions and so on.

The program does much more, if you’re adventurous. You can show multiple video streams simultaneously, remove distortion from wide-angle or action camera footage, create a video in 360 degrees, and create a stop-motion animation. Some of the tutorials are great, but the one on stop motion left a lot to be desired. You can get a free trial at

If you just want a simple slideshow, try the free Google Photos at Click “Create” and choose from nine templates, such as “They Grow Up So Fast,” “Selfie Movie,” “Doggie Movie,” “Meow Movie,” “Mother’s Day Movie,” and “In Loving Memory.” For a Valentine’s Day movie, Joy clicked on Bob’s face, then hers, on a page that showed all the faces of family and friends appearing in previous photos. Google Photos automatically found photos with us in them and put them into a romantic slideshow with music. Can’t beat the price.

(subhed) Internuts

  • takes you to a long list of very specific categories on Netflix that you might otherwise never find. For instance, what if you want … “Alien Sci Fi,” “Basketball Movies,” “Movies for Ages 11 to 12,” or “Quirky Romance?” Joy counted 221. How about “Steamy Thrillers?”
  • recommends medical care in clinics and hospitals abroad. Current estimate is that 1.5 million Americans have made these trips, sometimes called “medical tourism.” Savings are huge. Bob’s doctor said he is worried about the trend. Here’s a graph showing their affiliations with more than a thousand hospitals. The “quality” destinations are higher quality than what people in the U.S. have been able to find, but this is very much from an English-speaking perspective. For example, India is also very popular as a quality destination from neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but it is definitely a cost destination for patients from the US and Australia.
  • has sweet and hilarious short videos of dogs. Let’s face it, dogs are cute.
  • presents ideas in pictures. We liked their infographic on common fallacies, like thinking something must be true because an expert said it. This reminds Bob of Mark Twain’s definition of an expert as “Someone who lives more than 50 miles away from you.”

Choosing Your Music on Google Home

A reader said that when he asked his Google Mini to play music, the voice in the box said he didn’t have a music plan. What’s up with that?

In the Google Home app on your phone, which you’re asked to install after getting a Google Home device, you can set your music to the free version of Google Play Music, Spotify or Pandora. We subscribe to “YouTube Red” for $10 a month, to improve the range of music we get. Tap “Google Home,” then the hamburger icon (three stacked lines), then “Music.” Tap the service you want to use.

You can also say, “Hey Google, play KLRE radio,” or your favorite station. It comes in from TuneIn Radio. Google isn’t good at calling up radio stations from other states, however. But you can do that easily on your computer or phone. Search on “sports radio in New York,” or whatever category and state you like.

If you have an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, you get more choices including Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio, TuneIn, Gimme Radio, and Sirius. For a change, instead of asking Alexa for a favorite tune, we browsed the library on our phone in the Alexa app to get ideas. When we saw something we liked, we tapped and it started playing on the Amazon device. You can also listen to Amazon Music on your computer through the free “Amazon Music” desktop app. We like “Classical for Babies.” Years ago, Bob read a study that found playing Mozart eased anxiety in hospitals, particularly mental wards. Bach had a similar effect. Back to babies, they seem to like classical music from the Baroque period.



A reader writes that she doesn’t hear from her son. She can send messages but she doesn’t know if he’s getting any email. She may be able to find out what’s up with that by using an email tracking program. (free to try, $24 a year for regular use) can let you know when the emails you send are opened, if they are opened. To get that response, tack “” on the end of an email address. For example, if your friend is, you’d write “”  When Joe Doe opens the email, you’ll get a message in your inbox saying when and where he opened it. It works with any email service, from Gmail to Yahoo.

When Joy tried it out, with Bob sitting in the next chair, it said he was 25 miles away. Windows uses your Internet Protocol address, rather than your actual address, and that’s what they use too. But at least she knew he’d opened her message.

Paid subscribers can make the email tracking automatic and they get extra features:  Your emails can self-destruct – just like Mission Impossible, except no puff of smoke. Your email can also be self-retracting. If the person hasn’t opened the email within a specified time, you can call it back. We do this in Gmail, using the “Undo” feature found under “Settings.” But in Gmail, the undo period has a maximum time lag of 30 seconds.


  • “Mailtrack” is a free extension for Gmail users. Go to, click “install” and then “add extension.” You will then get an automatic email receipt whenever someone has read your email. You’ll also know how soon they opened it; our tax preparer opened our mail four minutes after he received it.
  • Users of Microsoft Outlook, but not the free Outlook Online, can also find out who’s opened the mail they sent. Click the “file” tab, then look under “options.”
  • Users of Google’s “G-Suite,” which starts at $5 per month, get email tracking automatically, along with a lot of other services. It’s designed for business use and allows the wizard behind the curtain to erase mail data from a remote location.

Doctor Robot Is In

Image courtesy China Daily, via ZME Science

“Artificial Intelligence” (AI) is the hot subject of our time. And it’s likely to get even hotter. Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Tesla car maker Elon Musk have both publicly warned against it, but there is no chance of stopping its advance and little prospect of even slowing it down.

A couple months back, a Chinese robot passed the state medical exam, and was officially certified as a doctor. He failed miserably the first time he took the test, but after reading four million medical records and 400,000 articles, he scored 96 points above a passing grade. It took him only a fraction of the time normally allotted for humans to take the test. More than half the questions involved analyzing patient cases, diagnosing the problem and recommending treatment. Dr. Robot is formally named “Xiaoyi,” which means “Little Doctor,” and he will begin his practice in rural China.

The Numbers Report On Robots

  • According to research firm IDC, 60 percent of the 2000 top public companies in the U.S. will replace humans with robots by 2025. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates an 85 percent decrease in idle time when workers collaborate with robots.
  • According to Novatio Solutions, the return on a robot investment occurs within six to nine months. Novatio, which brings wireless networks to public schools, was named “Newcomer of the Year” at a New York City technology show. They say their robots are nine times more effective than a full-time employee at one-tenth the cost.

App Happy: Bumbling Along

A young friend of ours met the man of her dreams, a pilot, using the free Bumble app, which has 18 million users. It sounds like a nice alternative to the usual online dating sites.

You can read all about Bumble on Wikipedia, but here are the basics: Users are required to register through Facebook. Women must initiate any contact with a male match, or it disappears in 24 hours. Swipe your finger to the right to “like” a match, swipe left to disregard. If you have a great conversation, you can bookmark or “favorite” it.  You can search for a “BFF” or “best friend forever” instead of a mate. For $10 a month, you get extra features, like the “beeline,” which lets you see a list of users who liked you, and “rematch” which lets you look at expired matches.


  • The Surprising Thing Flight Attendants Say You Should Never Do on an Airline.” Google that phrase for an eye-opening article from Inc. Magazine. In sum, never drink their coffee or tea; it’s made from the airplane’s onboard water system and has been shown to have E coli bacteria. One flight attendant said the maintenance crew, seeing that it failed their health test, pressed a couple of buttons and presto change-o, it passed!
  • Eight Questions to Ask Someone, Other Than What Do You Do?” Search on that phrase to find some great suggestions from the Harvard Business Journal. How about asking: “What are you looking forward to?” “What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?” “Where did you grow up?”





The HP desktop computer we bought on Amazon less than two months ago wouldn’t start. For a few hours, we panicked. The solution? Unplug the machine. Hold the power button until the little light on the back of the computer goes off. (That’s if it’s a desktop computer, the type sometimes called a tower.) This frees the computer from hibernation mode. Viola, as we say in fractured French! It’s fixed!

For several hours before that, we thought we had a dead computer. HP’s troubleshooting site told us to hold down the power button, but we didn’t do it long enough the first time. (HP said nothing about making sure the light had gone off before we released the power button.) While panicking, we had time to kick ourselves for not having created a recovery USB drive. We have one now, in case something serious comes up later.

Normally, you just tap F11 as your machine is booting up to enter recovery mode.  (Or press whatever key your computer manufacturer has chosen. Google the words “recovery” and your brand of computer. For Macbook recovery, tap three keys –“Command,” “Option,” and “R” when you hear the startup chime. Now you can’t do any of these magic keystrokes if the computer doesn’t come on in the first place. So go to square one and use your recovery disk or drive.

To create an emergency recovery drive to bring back a Windows 10 computer from the dead, type “recovery” in the search box and then click “create recovery drive.” It will prompt you to insert a blank USB drive, also called a thumb drive or memory stick. When we did that, it automatically backed up all our files as well.  In Windows 7, type “create a system repair disc” into the Windows search bar and follow the prompts. They’re easy. To create a recovery USB drive for a Macbook, download the “OS X Recovery Disk Assistant” from

Hey, Baby

Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot, now does text messaging and calling. Just say “Alexa, send a message.” Or, “Alexa, call so-and-so.” (No, you don’t call them a so-and-so.)

So Joy said: “Alexa, send a message.” “To whom?” Alexa said. “To Betty,” said Joy. Next, she dictated the message: “Hey Betty, how’s it going?” So Alexa sent a text message that read: “Hey baby, how’s it going?” Who knew that Alexa was sexist.

For now, Alexa’s text messaging only works with Android phones, but the messages can be sent out to any phone. She can also do phone calls. Joy said, “Alexa, call Bob,” and so she did. This could be handy if you fell and can’t get up, or can’t reach your phone, or you’re really lazy.

To set it up, go to the Alexa app on your smartphone. In the lower left of the screen, tap the icon that looks like a speech bubble. It stands for “Conversations.” From there, click to enable text messaging.


  • has tips for frequent flyers. We discovered you can use your airline miles to get a ticket for someone else, rather than pay a fee to transfer the miles to them. Just sign in, book a flight, and fill in your loved one’s name. Otherwise the airline will ding you for a substitution fee.
  • has The Greatest Finds of 2017. They have these lists going back for several years and for different categories. For example, you can check for new animal species found, and new archaeological sites like underwater cities.

A Bit Of Coin Here and There

On an individual basis, the people of Jacksonville Florida hold more Bitcoins and other crypto currencies than any other place. They hold an average about $31,000 per person according to The next closest city is Memphis, then Albuquerque, Charleston and Alpharetta, Georgia. New York is number 10, with about $7,000 in crypto currency per person.

But as a percent of the entire crypto currency market in the U.S., New York is number one. It has about seven percent of the market. Chicago is second, followed by Jacksonville, San Francisco and San Antonio. China has banned it, but Australia has made it legal currency. In South Korea, you can buy Bitcoins at 7-Eleven stores. Denmark has announced it is in favor all currency being digital. In Arnhem, the Netherlands, bitcoin is legal for all transactions. (Bob says this is a really interesting city, especially for World War II history buffs.)

Converting a PDF

A reader wondered how to convert a PDF to a Word document without buying a conversion program.

“PDFs” are files with photos and text that are locked in place. But you can edit them using free websites such as or

When you get to, ignore the words “free trial.” That’s a free trial of the premium version from NitroPDF. Just click “select your file” and choose the PDF you want to edit. They’ll send you an email with the converted document in under a minute. It worked perfectly in all but one of our tests.

We also like the free PDF editor at Joy used their eraser tool to erase parts of a poster for her Woman’s Club, leaving in the border and logo, and substituting a new event. It was easy to use and free.

The Office 365 version of Microsoft Word will also convert a PDF to a Word document. Launch Word and open a PDF. It converts automatically.




A reader latched onto his wife’s old Samsung Galaxy phone, now that she has a new one. At first he thought he needed a cheap phone service to go with it. We suggested a Tracfone plan for $7 a month — $21 every 90 days for 60 minutes of talk time. But he decided to go even cheaper: use free Wi-Fi to make calls.

If you use Google Voice, Google Hangouts, Skype or some similar service to make calls, you don’t need a dedicated phone service. Search on “How to Make Phone Calls and Texts from your Smart Phone without Cell Service,” which leads to full instructions at (Gotta love that name.)

But what about the landline? You know, it’s what we used to call “the phone.” We still have one of those. We like the big handset, the big buttons, and the ease of putting people on speaker phone; then everybody can hear our private phone calls. We use Vonage, which uses the Internet to make calls. Our monthly bill is $13, but with taxes and fees, it costs $22 a month. Call quality is excellent, and all those governments are delighted by the extra fees.

Our reader also likes Magic Jack, a Vonage competitor. Like Vonage, Magic Jack comes with a device that connects a landline phone to the Internet. All landline calls are then made over Wi-Fi (wireless). The Magic Jack device is free for new users during the first 30 days. That means you can sign up to try it out without paying anything. If you keep it, you pay $35 for the device and get 12 months of phone service for free. After that, it’s $39 a year or $89 for three years. You can probably use your old landline number, but it’s not guaranteed. (Ours was available, the reader’s was not.) There’s also a Magic Jack app for your cell phone, so landline calls can be automatically transferred there.

We use our Vonage service to automatically transfer calls to our cell phone after just one ring. This is so we can use the free cell phone app “True Caller” to block junk calls, of which we get many. (Wait. You mean you don’t want to hear our pitch for a free trip to the Bahamas plus a way to reduce your electric bill?)

Mini Home

Anyone who bought a Google Pixel 2 phone recently also received a free “Google Home Mini.” We already had a Google Home speaker and an Echo Dot from Amazon but we bought a phone and got the Google Mini anyway. We like it.

We put it in the bedroom, where we can set a sleep timer. You just tell it “Hey, Google, play Beethoven” for 30 minutes.” This works more often than not. Or, you could say:  “Play music until 11 p.m;” the device knows what time it is. The sound quality isn’t as good as what you get on the $129 Google Home, and unlike Amazon’s Echo Dot, there’s no way to connect an external speaker. Ah well, these are hard times for techno buffs.

But it’s fun to ask questions. Joy asked: “ Hey, Google, how are you?” She answered that she was cold and told us a fun winter fact: The biggest recorded snowflake ever found was 15 inches across and eight inches deep. It landed in Montana, where they understand cold. Since the device knows where you are, it would presumably change its response for someone in Arizona or Florida. We’ve asked her to recite a poem. She likes Robert Louis Stevenson, but we’ve also heard Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

The Google Home device is about the size of the Dot, and has a similar price, $49 vs $50. One trick they can all do, if you have an Amazon Fire stick or a Google Chromecast: “Play Stranger Things on Netflix,” or any other of the many titles that are on there. Your TV should then turn on and start playing the Netflix show. Or you can move things along by saying things like “Skip 30 seconds.” Who wants to put up with the pokey pace of the original show? These are modern times.

Animated Effects

If you use Adobe Final Cut Pro to edit videos, you don’t have to learn all the ins and outs of the program to add animation effects. FxFactory has a program called “Animated Elements,” a $49 plug-in that works with Adobe’s program to create the effects for you.

Go to or look them up on YouTube to see a demonstration of geometric shapes, fireworks and 150 other customizable effects to make anything in your video stand out. In the demo we saw, dancers had stars above their heads, skiers had swirls and movie titles danced.


  • lets you learn a language by practicing with native speakers.
  • helps find roommates for baby boomers and empty nesters in Colorado, California, Florida and Arizona.

Memory Stick Security

A common ploy to get spy software onto a company or government network is to drop a memory stick in the parking lot or a corridor. Curiosity is normal and when someone picks it up and plugs it into their computer to see what’s onboard, it can add a virus within a second. Of course, it might just be one of your colleague’s thumb drives with personal notes. How can you not plug it in to see?

You can encrypt your own memory sticks and flash-drives. Some come already prepared. We like the “Data-Sur 2 Personal,” from iStorage. It adds military encryption so no one can see whatever you’ve saved there. We saw eight gigabyte versions for sale online starting at $57. You can save a lot of money, of course, if you’re willing to do the encryption yourself. Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Enterprise come with “BitLocker,” used for that purpose. Others can use “Veracrypt,” though you’d better be prepared for some difficult instructions.



There’s an old Hollywood joke about the devil going to visit a talent agent and telling him he can put together any movie he wants, with any actors he wants, and no budget limit and the only thing he has to provide in return is his immortal soul. The agent thinks about this for a minute and says: “What’s the catch?”

So our Gmail slowed to a crawl, and for a few seconds we couldn’t figure out why. But a Google search came back with the answer: It’s the cache, stupid. Well all right they didn’t say stupid; we filled that in ourselves.

All the images that come up when you browse the web are “cached,” sort of the internet’s garage, so that the website will load quicker the next time you go there. Of course you may never go there again, but nonetheless it’s all still sitting there. If you go to as many sites as we do — hundreds, the sheer weight of the cache starts slowing down your email. It’s time for early Spring cleaning.

If you’re using the Chrome web browser in Windows 10,  click the three stacked vertical dots in the upper right of the screen. Then choose “More tools.” Then click “clear browsing data.” For Chrome users in Windows 7, click “More,” then “Options,” then “Under the Hood,” then “Clear browsing data.” In the Microsoft Edge browser, click the icon called the “hub.” It looks like half a star next to stacked lines. Then choose “settings” and “choose what to clear.” In Firefox, tap the menu button, then “settings,” then “privacy.” In Safari, tap the Bookmarks button, then the Bookmarks icon; tap “History” and “clear.”

Right Neighborly

We remember when CraigsList let you post an ad for free. Now they charge $10-75 for job listings, and services. It was getting bad for an acquaintance of Joy’s, a woman who repeatedly posts job listings at $45 each. We suggested she use instead. You sign up for your city or area only and posting is free.

Once you’re in, you’ll get a daily list of links to the latest posts. We saw someone looking for a photographer, others reporting news of roaming dogs, and more offering to do babysitting, plumbing or tax preparation.

More on Hair Care

A few readers wrote to tell us they got an error message when they tried Ashampoo’s free Meltdown/Spectre checker to find out if their systems had been hacked. Unlike Windows 10 users, Windows 7 users were first asked to download a free Microsoft utility called Windows Management Framework. Doing so gave them an error message. We wrote Ashampoo in Germany and they were apologetic and said they’ll fix it. Which brings up something we have mentioned before but not for a long time, and it is that almost every program we have ever run has one or more bugs.

We learned from another reader that we were wrong to mention only Intel chips as being vulnerable.  According to Google, which uncovered the problem, AMD and ARM are also potentially vulnerable, as well as the devices and operating systems running on them. In other words, it’s everybody’s fault. As we said: bugs.

Watch Out

A reader showed us the transcript of a chat she had with a Dell representative concerning which computer to buy. It was enlightening and shows how they can intentionally mislead the ill-informed just to unload the junk in the warehouse.

The rep steered her to a thousand-dollar desktop computer, which in our view is a real dud. It had an i3 (super slow) processor and 8 gigabytes of RAM. For less than half the price, we found a Dell PC on Amazon for $425, with a super-fast  i7 processor and a magnificent 16 gigabytes of RAM, along with a two-terabyte drive. It’s refurbished, but that often means some company bought a fleet of them and returned a few unopened. We had a problem with that only once, years ago, and they replaced it immediately.

We had a similar conversation one time with a tech rep for Hewlett Packard printers. After a minute of chit chat about our problem, he dismissed it and said we should buy a new HP printer for a slightly higher piece.

App Happy

  • Burner” gives you a disposable phone number to post on a dating site or when you’re selling something on eBay and elsewhere. It’s free to download to your iPhone or Android phone, and free to use for the first week. After that, prices start at $2 for two weeks.
  • Sumo Paint” is a free online program getting good comments from users and it has a feature that is what many people like best about the expensive Adobe Photoshop. That feature is called “layers.” You can work on parts of any picture, including text, by isolating them in a separate layer. You can, for example, change a stormy to a sunny sky without changing anything else.

Numbers Report, a marketplace for student loan refinancing, decided to look at savings made by those who drop their cable TV subscription, often called “cord cutters.” It found:

  • The average cord-cutter saves $115 a month after axing their cable subscription.
  • Forty-four percent of cable subscribers are considering dropping it.
  • In one year, 31 percent of current cable users think they will no longer have cable. Looking ahead three years, 50 percent expect to have dropped it. In five years, 56 percent of current cable users expect to cut it out.



In its never ending struggle to conquer the world, Amazon is moving Alexa into your car. Well, maybe not your car, but a lot of cars. We have a couple things to say about that. Okay, maybe three things.

For those who came into the movie late, Alexa is this know-it-all device you can ask about anything and it will often come up with the right answer and play music too. But it chops up classical pieces. (It’s best to imagine that somewhere in the middle of the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven dies, and that’s all he wrote.)

Coming out in early February, the car version will plug into your cigarette lighter and all will be well with the world. The last time we mentioned a car’s cigarette lighter, we heard from a reader who believed we were daft (close). He said it was a power outlet, not a cigarette lighter, because nobody smokes anymore. Another informed us it was not a cigarette lighter, it was a cigar lighter.

They call the new Alexa device Roav Viva and it will cost $50.  We asked Alexa what Roav Viva means but she didn’t know. Well, anyway … it talks through Bluetooth to a speaker, in your cupholder or elsewhere. (Bluetooth is a wireless radio transmission protocol named for a long, long dead king of Denmark.) Or it plugs in to your car radio. Look for a tiny socket labeled “aux” on the right side of the car radio. Aux means auxiliary. Our car is 18 years old and has no tiny socket, so another way to go is to listen to Alexa’s calm sweet voice through our smartphone. (The voice is a composite; by the way, there is no Alexa.) To hear her through the car’s own radio we could get an FM transmitter but that also goes into the cigarette lighter, so we’d need a car with two cigarette lighters.

We don’t really “need” Alexa, though we’ve heard of people who miss her terribly when they take trips. Our Pixel 2 phone has “Google Assistant” built in, and phones that don’t have it can download it from the Google Play store. We love Google Assistant, it’s also the voice inside the “Google Home” we have in the kitchen. IPhone users have Siri for the same purpose and they would both seem to be good alternatives to the new Roav Viva.

For other ways to get Alexa in your car, there’s Garmin’s “The Speak Plus,” also coming out in February, for $230. Besides channeling Alexa, it records accidents and delivers alerts. Panasonic is coming out with the Alexa Onboard. Logitech has Zero Touch for $50.

Free Logo Designs lets you create a free logo in three clicks. The only catch is, they ask you to give them credit if you use it on your website, Facebook page or elsewhere. (Failure to do so could result in a visit from the logo police, who are madmen editors.)

To make a logo, start by clicking to choose a template. Frankly, their free templates looked just as good as the professional ones. Type in the name of your company or organization and make up a slogan. Click “Download.” They’ll ask you to share their name on Facebook or some other social media site, but you can ignore that, and then it’s all yours, ready to use in three versions. One comes with a transparent background so you can use it on colored pages.

DesignEvo has over one million icons to choose from in various categories. They also have hundreds of fonts and shapes. Download as many as you want. If you need more fonts, you can download them from other sites, but beware: downloading fonts is an easy way to pick up malware. We were okay downloading fonts from BlueFaqs. Search on the phrase “20 Free Fonts Ideal for Logos and Headings.”  Once you find one you like, click it, then click the download button. Then double-click the “ttf” file and click “install.”

We made a sample logo you can see above.

App Happy

  • Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen” for Android or iPhone tells you which foods have the most nutrition and lets you check off categories to make sure your day has been health-promoting. Each category has a list of examples, with quick video explanations of that food’s powers from Dr. Greger’s site, For instance, kale and collard greens lower the risk of glaucoma and prevent wrinkles, and have powerful anti-cancer and anti-heart disease properties. To earn a gold star from the app, Joy makes a smoothie with greens, banana, soy milk, cherry pomegranate juice, and frozen cherries.
  • “Toca Life: Vacation.” (For iPhone or Android.) See what it’s like going to the airport, jumping on a hotel bed and digging for treasure. The Toca Life Hospital,” welcomes newborn babies and treats the sick.
  • Syntronik,” a free app for iPhone and iPad, offers 25 instrument sounds from 17 synthesizers. It works with Apple’s GarageBand and other programs. They say it captures the “DNA” of the original hardware and accurately reproduces the sound of classic synthesizers.

Nazi Programs

Programs you just can’t get off the computer are called “Nazi Programs” in the techie trade. The latest version of “Uninstaller,” from Ashampoo, takes care of those. It also gives you a snapshot of what you have installed. We found out we had 85 programs installed, along with 50 Windows apps we never use.

Uninstaller includes “Startup Tuner,” which prevents certain programs from starting up automatically. Using the “Internet Cleanup tab,” we got rid of 14,268 web browsing traces put there by companies who were sure we would never want to be without them.

Uninstaller 7 is better than Windows own uninstaller. Ordinary programs tend to leave bits behind, sort of digital driftwood. These can slow down your computer or make it unstable. Besides those bits, Uninstaller gets rid of unwanted toolbars and browser plugins. Those can be sneaky; they add themselves without asking you first. The program is $40 from




There are 4.66 billion cell phones in the world. Ours cracked. Water got in and they just don’t work as well when they’re submerged. ‘Hooda’ thought it? It was the third gone gadget in a year.

So bye-bye Google Nexus 6P and hello Google Pixel 2. All 158 apps from our old phone transferred over automatically as soon as we signed into our Google account. (Who needs 158 apps? We don’t even remember what they all do; they went in just to test ’em for the column.) The data in some of those apps was gone.

Unfortunately, Joy had a couple hours of Bob’s deep voice recorded on the old phone, telling her about his adventures in Morocco as a young man, when he helped excavate a Carthaginian seaport. All gone. Have to bore her all over again.

If you have an Android phone with a Marshmallow or newer operating system, some of the data in your apps, such as saved locations in your Google Maps or Waze app, will be in your Google account in the cloud. In all Android versions, your calendar, contacts, and email will be saved and automatically restored to a new phone. Look up and look grateful.

The Pixel 2 has “augmented reality,” which is one of those fads of the moment. You can add creatures and features to your photos and your screen. There’s now a Star Wars storm trooper on our phone; if you want, he can multiply into many and follow you around at the hardware store. Kids like it.

Other new features: We can say “Hey Google” to ask a question, get some music, or play a game, without touching the phone. Squeeze to get its attention. (That works with people too.) We said, “Hey Google, what’s new?” And she told us she was celebrating Trivia Day with a fact and notified us that a sea urchin was the first animal to be cloned. Who knew?

The Pixel 2 costs $649 with 64 gigabytes of storage in the 5-inch version we got, or $849 for the six-inch “XL.” That seems a mite high, but our monthly service bill is only $30 using Google’s “Project Fi” service.

Annoying Windows Log On

One of the most annoying features Microsoft has given us is the short life span of an open computer. If you step away or pause to read instructions for a couple minutes, everything goes black and a password is required to get back in. This is to protect you from the numerous spies that are constantly traipsing through your house and office building, hoping to steal the telephone numbers of your relatives and favorite pizza restaurant. You can fix that.

In the search box in the lower left of your screen, type “settings.” In the settings search box, type “login.” Click “sign in options.” Change “require sign-in” to “Never.” Watch out for spies.

Is It a Spectre or a Meltdown?

The specter of a global business meltdown loomed large a few weeks ago, when the press reported a vulnerability in Intel’s chips. Actually, Intel had already known about this problem for several months; they just didn’t tell us. Windows users can check to see if they’ve been attacked, using a free program from one of our favorite companies, Ashampoo.

Go to and type “meltdown” into the search box. Click on the “Spectre Meltdown Checker.” When Joy did it, it said her computer was vulnerable to Spectre but not about to have a Meltdown. She clicked “What should I do?” One of the suggestions was to update the graphics driver. To do that yourself, type “device manager” in the Windows search box, click on it when it comes up, and then click on “Display Adapters.” Right-click the graphics driver and choose “automatically update.” You’d think Windows would do this for you but they were out to lunch. Joy’s graphics driver did need updating, even though it was a new computer. Bob’s computer, of course, was fine.

Another thing the Meltdown Checker suggests is to use “site isolation” in the Google Chrome browser. Search on the phrase “Manage site isolation in Chrome” and follow the instructions. They seem tech-y but are easy enough. If anything, our web experience seemed faster after carrying this out.  But even after doing all this, we still got a “vulnerable” rating from the Meltdown checker. But every computer is vulnerable if the user is prone to click on suspicious links. A friend of ours got panicky when she received a screen message telling her to call Microsoft immediately to fix an emergency problem. Joy grabbed her hand before she could call. Remember this: Microsoft will never ask you to call!

iPad Alternatives

A reader wrote to say he balked at paying $329 for a new iPad or $399 for an iPad Mini 4. Joy feels the same way. She lost her iPad when she left it in the gym. She has no desire to buy a new iPad, because her $50 Amazon Fire 7 tablet, bought two years ago, works fine. The new Fire 7s also cost $50 and are even better.

The only thing that bugs us about the old Fire 7 is that it’s always running out of storage space. However, it has a slot for adding a memory card. You can add up to 256 gigabytes, which is 248 more than it started with. However, we must have dropped the Fire on its head, because our memory card keeps popping back out.

The new version of the lowest-cost Fire tablet, still called the Fire 7, is thinner, lighter and has a better display. Like the older version, it’s seven inches, about the size of the iPad Mini, which makes it easy to hold in the hands, like a book. The battery goes for eight hours, not bad compared to 10 hours for the more expensive iPad.

Other versions of the Fire Tablet have more features and are larger, on up to the $204 version. One thing they have in common: If you also have a $40 Amazon Fire Stick plugged into your TV, which brings in Amazon Prime Videos, Netflix and other channels, you can browse Amazon on your tablet and tap to instantly watch it on TV. For Fire Tablet and iPad alternatives, check out TechRadar’s article, “The Best Cheap Tablets.”