We watched an interview with James Patterson, the best selling mystery writer. (This guy’s office would make a neat freak weep with joy.) He said he insisted his eight-year old son read a book a week all summer. It stuck. Years later he got a perfect score on the verbal part of the SAT exam.

So did Bob. This runs counter to the current millennials and even some earlier gens, who don’t read much at all. What’s a mother, or father, to do? Recent numbers from the Pew Research Center say a quarter of Americans don’t even read a book a year. This is not a reflection on their intelligence; one of the smartest guys Bob ever knew is an Irish guy who only owned two books, both Reader’s Digest condensed versions. That could have been because he couldn’t afford more, but he was loaded, so that wasn’t it.

But it does bring up the issue that books can get expensive. So how do you get cheap or free books if you’re not close to a library, or it doesn’t have many ebooks for download? If you type “ Free Kindle Books” into, you get a list of hundreds. If you go to, they have links to 68,682 free or cheap children’s books. That should keep the little ones busy at bed time. To put the rest of us to sleep, they have 81,000 titles for adults. Some are free, some 99 cents, on up to $3. has 54,000 books you can download for free. has fewer, but still close to a thousand at least.

On, check off favorite categories for devices like Kindle, Nook, Google Play, etc. You’ll see links to free or cheap books and get more suggestions in a daily email if you wish. By the way: You don’t need a Kindle to read a Kindle book, just add the Kindle app to your phone, tablet or computer; it’s free.

We checked off literary fiction, current events, science fiction and a few other categories. In came several freebies: “My Favorite Husband,” a screwball comedy by Pam McCutcheon,  as well as many best-sellers for $2, such as “The Informant,” by Kurt Eichenwald, a political thriller. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” about food choices, normally $14, was $2.

Handy Windows Shortcuts

Joy often finds some reason to use Bob’s computer, but he says it never works right afterwards. So recently, she signed on as a guest user. You can do this in Windows 10 by holding down the Alt key and tapping the F4 key; you’ll get a menu which includes “switch user.”  In Windows 7 and 8, hold down the “Ctrl,” and “Alt” keys and tap the “Delete” key. Then click “switch user.”

This led us to think about some other handy shortcuts, which are common but we’ve found not everybody knows them.

Win X:  Hold down the Windows key (looks like a flag) and tap the “X” key. This brings up Control Panel, Task Manager, System, Search and many other common functions. (Does not work with Windows XP.)

Ctrl C: Highlight some passage you want to copy by running over it with the mouse cursor, then hold down the “Ctrl” key and tap the “C” key.

Ctrl V: Hold down the “Ctrl” key and tap the “V” key to paste what you copied somewhere else.

Win Prt Scn: Hold down the Windows key and tap the Print Screen key to take a picture of anything on your screen. Use “Ctrl V” to paste it somewhere, like in an email, or Microsoft Word. (In Windows 7 and up, use the Windows snipping tool when you want to capture part of the screen.) Bring it into the free Windows “Paint” program to add comments, underlines, and so on.

Alt Tab: Hold down the “Alt” key and tap the Tab key to switch between an app, such as Microsoft Word, and a website, or between the thing you were working on before and what you’re working on now. This is handy to have a “notes” screen separate from your current screen.

Google Home Calling

At last we can make phone calls with “Google Home,” their new digital assistant device.

Joy said, “Hey Google, call Bob.” And sure enough, his cell phone started flashing, even  though the ringer was off. From across the room, Joy talked to the Google Home speaker and Bob answered.  The call quality sounded a like a really cheap speaker phone, but it could be  handy in an emergency. It’s also convenient. You might be sitting nowhere near your phone, and you can say, “Hey Google, call the nearest Chinese restaurant.” When you’re through,  say “Hey Google, hang up.”

These devices are fun. We often ask things like: “Is the hardware store still open?”  They can also tell you a joke or play quiz games. Recently, Joy had six ladies over for lunch and played a “name that tune” game, by asking Google Home to play music from the 50s, then the 60s, then the 70s. If someone didn’t know the answer, she could ask: “Hey Google, what’s playing?” Amazon’s Echo does this too, but the Google device seems to have better selections.

If you’re lured by one of the 5,000 apps available through Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot, be aware that the small Echo Dot has its own tiny speaker but doesn’t sound as well as the more expensive Echo version. However, you can plug in your own speakers. As usual, prices are coming down: $45 for the Echo Dot, $109 for Google Home. There’s also the “Echo Show,” if you want a screen to see the answers to your questions, and a smart webcam to judge your fashion sense.


  • Christiane Vulpius and Goethe has free college courses from leading universities. We’re trying a world literature class from Harvard, which started by taking us to Goethe’s home in Weimar, Germany and giving us a charming account of his life there. Each video is about three minutes long.

  • has easy experiments and projects for kids. We like the “Make Your Own Lava Lamp” (without electricity).
  • has guides for getting rid of bed bugs, mosquitoes, mice, stink bugs, cockroaches, flies and other pests.




Nearly two years ago we wrote about an outfit that buys your unwanted CDs, books, movies and other assorted flotsam and jetsam of everybody’s life. To paraphrase a popular expression: “junk happens.”

The relief service is called Decluttr, and its parent company, musicMagpie, sells over one million products on eBay and 700,000 on Amazon. They’re the biggest seller we’ve never heard of, and maybe the biggest buyer. They’ll pay you for almost any used CD, movie, or video game and they’ll cover the shipping. They also buy game consoles, iPods, Kindles, some books and wearables, such as the FitBit.

You start by downloading the Decluttr app to your Android or iPhone, and scanning barcodes or entering whatever information you have about the soon-to-be departed. Using the app is fast and if you change your mind about any item, just click the “x” to delete it from your list.

So Joy started by listing a CD titled “The Best of the Canadian Brass.” She likes it and has no intention of selling it, this was just a test. Decluttr offered 21 cents (I think we mentioned this is a not a way to make big money.) Moving right along, they would give her 20 cents for a double CD of James Taylor’s music, and $1.53 for a new book about working with the Arduino microcontroller.

But then she went to Decluttr’s new store at to see they were charging $3.19 for the James Taylor album. That was cheaper than Amazon’s price of $6.27. The Arduino book, by the way, was $25 on Amazon.

That’s a big spread between what you get and what they get and clearly you could make more by selling this stuff on your own. If we still had our old Samsung Galaxy S3, for example, they’d give us $28 for it, about 60 percent of what we got on eBay. So what it boils down to is convenience. As they like to say in Silicon Valley whenever they have a product that isn’t working perfectly but is sort of in the ballpark: “Just move it out the door.” It’s a way to clear space at the warehouse — which in this case, would be your home or garage.

Should you want to buy more stuff (and who doesn’t?), go to the Decluttr online store. (To find it fast, Google the words “Decluttr store”). They sell iPads, tablets, phones, game consoles and music. For example, a seven year-old iPad sells for $72 when we looked. (Ours was around $500 back in those early days and is still fine for looking at websites and reading books, but most new apps won’t work.)  An iPad Mini 2 like the one we bought four years ago, costs $162, or $245 on Amazon. A Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with Verizon service sells for $365 on Amazon, but $245 on

The Best Password. For now.

A few weeks ago, the rules for passwords underwent a big re-think. Well, at least the advice for making passwords. Most businesses, schools, libraries, etc., are still way behind — though we expect them to catch up in a few years.

Back in the mists of time, Bill Burr, a mid-level manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency, wrote an eight-page publication to describe the best way to create passwords. He said you should have at least seven characters, including at least one capital letter, one number and one symbol. We’ve all been doing that ever since and he’s the guy to blame.

Now he says he’s sorry, he made a mistake; a password comprised of a long, easy-to-remember phrase is much harder to crack. How much harder? Well, he figured out the typical password created using his original advice could be cracked by a randomizing computer program in about three days — depending on the speed of the computer, of course. But cracking a password made up of a long, easy-to-remember phrase  — you pick it — would take much longer.

A couple years ago we suggested making a password out of the first letter of each word in a song title, and then made a mistake on our own favorite title. That helps, actually. We mean, as long as you remember the mistake.

A Reader Cruises High Seas

A reader wrote to say: “My wife and I just returned from a cruise. Cruise ships are infamous for obscene charges for inferior phone service.”

Actually, hotels are known for that too. We’ll never forget the $264 we were charged by the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. Calif., for making just one phone call. “That’s our policy,” they said. Our policy is never to stay there again.

The reader’s Cruise Ship solution was to sign up for Verizon’s international plan. They charge $10 every 24 hours, but only if you use it. “The service is much faster and cheaper than the ship’s rip-off,” he notes. You can skip any number of  days or weeks without incurring a charge. You get a free text an hour before the start of a new 24-hour period. So if you don’t need the Internet that day, change your phone settings to airplane mode to avoid being charged.


Tower: “TWA 2341, for noise reduction turn right 45 Degrees.” TWA 2341 responds: “Center, we are at 35,000 feet. How much noise can we make up here?” Tower: “Sir, have you ever heard the noise a 747 makes when it hits a 727?”

More Money

After we mentioned the website, to track down money owed you, a reader gave us his expert tips. Working for AMC and Loews theaters, he reclaimed over $750,000. Sometimes the missing money hadn’t come in simply because the envelope was wrongly addressed.

His key insight: You have to search states you never lived in. His girlfriend, for example, got a check from California, because PayPal is located there. Chicago, he writes, is “notorious for blocking you from getting money back, and California lost a federal case for not returning money.” MetLife keeps millions from old insurance policies, he says, but his mom got $600 back from them.

His other insight: Go beyond They claim to have every state’s database, but they don’t, he says. For instance, they have four listings for Missouri, but the official Missouri website has twice that many.



We learned some interesting things about websites. For example, the minimum length for a website ending, which refers to the site’s “domain,” is two letters. There are more than one billion web sites and every possible letter combination has been taken.

We went to to verify this and searched on Sure enough, it’s taken, though apparently it isn’t being used. (If you go to, it just hangs there. It’s sort of a no-show show.) The domain name “tv” is for the Pacific island country of Tuvalu.

Domain name sales are big business. bought for $35 million back in 2009.  You can buy the website name “” for $3,250. “” is $4000. We know a few people who profited from this kind of sale back in the day. It’s harder now to buy a site name that isn’t already owned by someone. If it isn’t taken, it costs $12 to register. LOL: lots of luck.

You might want a website ending in “TM.” That’s the country extension for Turkmenistan, but it also stands for “trademark.” Some companies use a website ending in “.co,” the country code for Columbia, because it sounds corporate. Instant messaging programs like to use “.im,” which is from the Isle of Man. “Ly” used to be popular; it’s from Libya, but there have been problems.

Fun With Electronics

Robotic Artist

What does a woman really want for her birthday? An Arduino, that’s what. Bob got Joy an electronics kit for her birthday, complete with soldering iron and extra parts. Its core is a microcontroller called the “Arduino Uno,” which is about the size of a business card. Then “The Arduino Inventor’s Book” came in for review. This is an actual micro-controller, as they say, a kind miniature computer, and should you want one it will set you back $20-$30 by itself.

The Arduino controller uses computer programs to make things happen in the so-called real world. Joy’s first project was to make the Uno’s little LED light pulse like a heartbeat. From there, she created a blinking message in Morse Code. The next project involved blinking red eyes on a toy spider. Next, she hopes to weave lights into fabric to make a Halloween costume, or perhaps a mobile advertising board.

Bob bought her a kit: the “Ultimate Microcontroller Pack,” $84 on Amazon, which includes its own instruction book. But there’s a much better one available from No Starch Press: “The Arduino Inventor’s Book.” If you work with that one you’ll want to get the “SparkFun Inventor’s Kit, version 3.3,” which is $100 from The book itself is $30 from

You can make an electronic turtle that draws pictures on paper, or a simulated greenhouse, a tiny electric piano, an animation machine and more. Remember, you have to put this thing together yourself, so these paragraphs should only be read by kids who are less than twelve years old, or people who are still that old in their hearts.

Fun Buying a New TV

Our elderly neighbor asked us to go TV shopping with her. We did and were surprised at how far behind the curve we were, TV-wise, that is.

We remember when so-called “4K TVs” came out just four years ago. A 55-inch set, which is admittedly pretty big, sold for around $20,000; the very largest still do. Three months later, they cost $7,000. Our neighbor just bought a 43-incher from LG for $427. She was tempted to buy a four-year warranty, but we told her we never buy the extended warranty; they’re  usually not worth it — except for the store that sells it — and anyway: she would be 102 by the time it expired.

Of course it’s worth noting that just as the TV manufacturers measure their screens diagonally, instead of vertically — apparently under the belief that many of us watch television at a 45-degree angle — so they think packing a lot of dots on the screen provides a sharper picture. For most people, the viewing difference is slight, and for some it’s non-existent. But hey, that’s marketing.

What amazed us the most was the “4K TV” so highly touted as the most advanced just a couple years ago, is now standard. If you want to see a plain-old high definition (HD) TV, the salesperson leads you into a closet, scornfully chuckling all the way, and leaves you there to grope around in the dark.

A “4K Ultra HD” has four times the picture quality of ordinary HD TV. That’s about eight million pixels, compared to around two million for regular HD. A pixel is a dot. How can they fit in all those pixels? Make em smaller.

It’s so close to the experience of an actual movie theater you might as well stay home, which an increasing number of people are doing. In an obvious effort to reverse this trend,  is now offering a movie theater ticket a day if you pay $10 a month. You get the tickets on your smart phone. Are there that many good movies? Not a chance.

The big question is, what’s the point of having a 4K TV if there isn’t any 4K content? A 4K TV comes with access to Netflix, Amazon, UltraFlix, Fandango Now, and Vudu, and they all have some 4K content, but not a lot. Netflix’s original series are all in 4K, but you have to pay $12 a month instead of $8 a month to get it; there are 122 of them.  YouTube has about a hundred 4K titles but they are for sale, not rent, and start at $25 each.

Bottom line? No rush. Our Sony TV from 2012 still looks great. There’s not enough 4K content to justify getting a new one. We now expect the usual hate mail from TV makers.

Fun In the Woods

Our nephew just got married and his bride loves camping. So we got them an “Adventure Ultra” for powering up gadgets in the deep, dark forest. It will help find the way to grandma’s house.

The Ultra, $130 from, can power phones, laptops, fans, lamps, Bluetooth speakers and small LED TVs (32 inches). Plug a TV into its regular outlet and keep it going for three hours. There are four ports for USB devices. How much power do you get? You can charge a smart phone eight times or a laptop twice; weighs a pound and a half.


  • 20 Years Ago, Steve Jobs Demonstrated the Perfect Way to Respond to an Insult.” Or so the title says. Google those words (or click the link) to get some advice. First, use silence to collect your thoughts. Acknowledge your adversary’s point. Note that when many decisions are made, mistakes can be made. Say things are much better than they were and your team is working hard. Bob prefers other responses to insults.
  • 23 Awesome Things You Didn’t Learn In School.” Search on that phrase to see short animations of the Pythagorean Theorem, a baby’s face forming, and a cheetah’s tail balancing the animal’s angular momentum as it turns at top speed.





It’s summertime and art shows have sprung out all over. Every time we go to one we see paintings that might have been done with a computer program. Some of them they are, and they’re often the best in the show.

One artist whose work we liked said she used Ulead PhotoImpact, an old program you can find for about $5 on the web. We like it too and have used it for many years. On the other end of the scale is the new Corel Painter, which sells for $429, for Windows 10 or Mac.

This is the program to get if you want the kind of effects professionals get. You can recreate brush strokes, palette knife smears, colors that drip or wash out — for those special casual watercolor effects, and it’s all digital. Check out examples by Googling the phrase “Corel User Galleries.” The examples are knockouts. You can try out some yourself at, where you can  download a 30-day free trial and paint along.

When you watch painters painting with a computer program, it looks like they are using brushes dripping with paint, but they’re using only a stylus. Painter’s new “thick paint” lets you carve into, scrape, and push around paint using the digital equivalent of palette knives. (The Italian for this scratching technique is “Sgrafitto,” and it’s been around since ancient times; it’s the common technique for decorating ancient Greek vases.) Add thick layers or nubby texture to a two-dimensional picture to make it look three dimensional. You can change the lighting as you paint, to produce effects like parts that seem to be shining. We watched an artist digitally painting on top of a photograph that was showing beneath the surface of his screen. That kinda makes it easier to do someone’s portrait.

Now there will be the usual spontaneous protest demonstrations by purists. And to them we say: Before the 18th century artists mixed their own paints and made their own brushes; now they go to the store. Times change. When Beethoven composed his sonatas and concertos, the piano was a new instrument; the word was short for “piano forte,” meaning it could go either soft or loud, unlike its predecessor, the harpsichord, which has only one level. The piano was the modern synthesizer of its day. Times change; art is up to the artist.

 Find That Phone

One of us (we dasn’t say who) is always misplacing her cell phone. (Oops.) We can call its number from another phone or ask Alexa to do that if we can’t find another phone or are just feeling too lazy to look for one.  But what if the lost phone is off? Aye, there’s the rub.

For Android phones, go to, sign in, and ask your phone to ring. It will ring even if you’ve silenced the ringer. Unfortunately, it won’t work if your battery is dead or the phone is off. Nothing can be done about that; dead phones are dead.

For iPhones, go to and put in your user name and password. Click  “Find my iPhone.” When a map comes up, click “devices” in the upper left, choose your device and click “play sound.” Unfortunately,  you have to have the “Find My iPhone” app set up on your phone first. For instructions on that, go to and search on “How to Use Find My iPhone.”

Safe Travels

A reader pinned us down about a travel router we wrote about recently. To avoid unsafe WiFi networks in hotels, we suggested using the “RavPower FileHub Plus,” to share your phone’s cellular connection with other devices. That turned out to be expensive and well, let’s face it: wrong.

It turns out that the $40 FileHub shares either a WiFi or wired connection, not cellular.  That’s actually a good thing, because a cellular connection gets expensive fast as you eat up data. But it begs the question: Is using a so-called “travel router” any safer than using the hotel’s naked Internet connection? You bet.

Yes, an extra layer of security is added because you’re prompted to use your own password. Hackers are unlikely to be able to listen in, unless you’re one of those people who choose “password” for your password.

But the manual for this thing is a hundred pages long and far too tech-y. Our reader said the real instructions start on page 44 and he wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing — even though he’s a retired Information Technology guy! But the travel router did create a more secure WiFi connection for all of his devices. (Years ago we used to complain about the people who write tech manuals but it was like whistling into the wind and we gave it up.)

Another option is the “Nano Travel Router” from TP-Link, $25 on Amazon. It’s so small, it could fit in your glasses case. (You should get one of those tracker stickers so that later you can find your glasses.) Like the RAVPower, it creates a secure WiFi hotspot so that all of your devices can get on the Internet safely in a hotel or other public environment. The RAVPower FileHub gets higher ratings, possibly because it also stores a lot of movies. But Amazon recommends the one from TP-Link. versus 23andMe

Joy was disappointed when said she had no Cherokee Indian heritage. According to her grandmother, her grandmother’s father was a full Cherokee.  So she sent a DNA sample to  23andMe and got a health report to boot.

Unfortunately, this report also showed zero Native American heritage. The  best explanation she could think of was that some whites were captured by Indians or joined voluntarily and grew up with the tribe. Ben Franklin once complained about the large number of colonists who chose to leave civilization for the life of the tribe. So perhaps Joy’s ancestor lived as a Cherokee but had no Cherokee blood.

The basic 23andMe report is $99, and if you order a health report too, the total is $199.  It’s full of info. Joy’s dad had Parkinson’s disease, so she was happy to learn that she had no genetic variants for Parkinson’s. She has a 30 percent chance of getting Alzheimer’s after age 85, though diet and exercise can prevent it, even when the odds are much higher. The report has dozens of oddball observations as well, such as whether you have the elite athlete’s genes for sprinting. (Joy does not.)  It said she was likely able to handle more caffeine than most people. (Not true.) They also said she was likely to weigh more than the average woman of her height. They said the average American woman who is 5’6″ weighs 167 pounds, but Joy weighs 118. So the bottom line (so to speak) is that the current fashion for having your DNA read does not produce infallible results.



We recently mentioned using “File History” in both Windows 10 and Windows 8 because it backs up changes you make to your files. You can find it by typing the name in the Windows search box. Another solution is “Google Backup and Sync.” It’s free and somewhat simpler and works for both Windows and Mac. It automatically backs up all your files, or just the ones you mark; it also keeps tracks of the files you delete.

We were deleting some old stuff recently and Google Backup  popped up with a message to ask if we wanted to also delete them from our Google Drive account, which is online storage. This is also free and if you use Gmail for your email service, you get the Google Drive storage automatically with it. We said yes. Whether you use Gmail or  some other email service, like Outlook or Yahoo, you’ll want to get the backup-and-sync program  by going to

If you need to find a file or photo you deleted accidentally, go to and type the name of the file in the search box. If you can’t remember the name, look through the list of everything you’ve stored there and hopefully you will recognize it when you see it.

Fun With Numbers

Let’s have some fun with techno-numbers. If we’re going to save things to Google Drive, and ask questions all the time, how much data does a giant data handler like Google hold?

Well, does anyone still remember punch cards? Plenty of people probably do. We used to feed these paperboard cards into IBM card readers, and that told their ridiculously expensive huge air-conditioned computer what to do and how to do it. You can still see this in action in some old movies; it’s done to convey a sense of modern technology at work.

An educated guess is that Google has a storage capacity of 15 exabytes, which is 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, each byte representing a letter or number, or what they call a character. A punch card can hold about 80 of these characters. So15 exabytes would require enough punch cards  to cover  all of New England to a depth of about three miles. This would definitely depress property values

How many servers does it take to handle that much data? Well a server is a term used for a very powerful computer but not a supercomputer, say one that’s somewhere between ten to a hundred times more powerful than what we have on our desks. In actual use, the only part of that computer they use is a circuit board with all the requisite chips on it — no need for a screen or keyboard or any of that extra stuff that humans need — and they stack those boards up on racks  It’s estimated that Google has at least one million of them; this number is constantly increasing. Amazon probably has about two million servers. Very impressive. Not easy to compete with that. Facebook probably has about 70,000 to 80,000 servers, which is enough to handle a billion or more people at a time sharing photos, updates and snaggy remarks about politicians.

Most of this stuff is what we would call “guesstimates,” but it won’t be that far off. The amount of electricity required to keep the wheels turning, so to speak, may be as a much as one percent of world output. But it’s worth it, and much more productive than lighting night ballgames.

Facebook Tips

We get a lot more birthday greetings on Facebook than we ever remember to give out. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

How come everyone else is  on the ball? We discovered their secret, and it’s simple. On, click “Events” from the list on s the left. Then click “birthdays.” You’ll see a list of who has a birthday this week and later on.

Here’s another tip: To chat back and forth with a Facebook friend, click “Messenger” in the top left under “News Feed.” If you can’t find your friend in the list on the left, just type their name in the search box at the top. Click “Message”  to send them a private message. This is  similar to texting on a phone.


  • has over 80 classics available for free download. Joy has read so many classics, there are only 12 she hasn’t read yet, like George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” and “Ulysses” by James Joyce. You can read them online or download to your phone, tablet or computer.
  • lets you check the ingredients in cosmetics, lotions and other products to find out if they’re cancer-causing or otherwise unsafe. We expected to find a lot of scary stuff listed in “Cetaphil,” a lotion our dermatologist recommends but it wasn’t too bad. Sure enough, the cyclopentasiloxane, ceteareth 20, benzyl alcohol, farnesol, sodium hydroxide, sodium polyacrylate and  phenoxyethanol carried a modest risk, but the other 17 ingredients seem OK. Hey, beauty has its price. (Bob hates cosmetics.)

Central Casting

We cast movies from our phone to our TV screen using Google’s $35 “Chromecast.” A reader wondered about the $69 “Chromecast Ultra.”

“Chromecast Ultra” is like the Chromecast, but offers a richer looking picture. Like the Roku player, and the Amazon Firestick, it brings in many channels: Netflix, Hulu Plus and Google Play. But unlike Roku and the Amazon Firestick, it can’t bring in Amazon Prime video. Apple TV is another way to mirror the contents of your phone or iPad onto the TV.

If you have the original Chromecast, you may want to move up a generation, to the $35 version. We recently looked at our friend’s TV using an original Chromecast, and the picture was muddy. But you don’t have to go all the way to Chromecast Ultra, unless you have a 4K TV and want the best picture possible. We helped our friend install the regular Chromecast in its latest version and the picture improved dramatically.




Ever wonder if your email account has been broken into? We wondered about that too. A new app called “Edison Email,” checks these things.

When we clicked on “security,” we were warned that our passwords had been leaked. The message read: “This email address and password match public database breach records.” They suggested a change of password.”Public breach records” means people’s accounts, mainly business records, have been broken into, collected, and lo and behold, your password was among the records stolen.

This in itself is not a disaster, unless … you used that same business password for other accounts, which Joy did. One of those stolen passwords was the same as one for our credit card. Now, following the rule that
“there’s still time to panic:” Just because your passwords or words were in the hacked accounts and hence stolen — like the millions broken into at TJ Max and other big retailers — doesn’t mean you’re necessarily in any danger, because it takes criminals a lot of time to try all those possibilities.

But … if you’ve forgotten how to change your password (just in case), search on the phrase “how to change my password in Gmail,” or whatever  email service you use. In Gmail, the world’s most popular email service, click the picture of a tiny gear in the upper right, then go to “settings.”

Besides the security warning, Edison Email, (from brings in your existing email account and organizes it. Tap “travel” to get travel notifications, or “packages” to find out if your package has arrived. For the iPhone, iPad or iPod, there’s a “Smart Reply” feature. With it, responses like “Got it,” or “See you soon,” can be filled in automatically, saving you some typing. The free Gmail app for smart phones and tablets also has this smart reply feature.

Filling In

Joy’s nephew sold her a life insurance policy to sign and email back. After printing out the forms and signing them, she used the scanner at our local  library to email them back. But she could have done it much easier without leaving home.

Adobe has a free app called “Fill & Sign.” It works great. Sign with your finger on your phone or tablet screen. A similar app, “Adobe Acrobat Reader,” also free, also allows you to fill in forms and sign them.

Of course, filling out a form on a phone is difficult, given the tiny screen. So you may want to start on your computer and do everything except the signature. To start, get the latest version of Adobe Reader at After you install it, you can open any PDF document and start typing in your responses. Email it to yourself and open it on your phone or tablet. To add a signature, use Adobe’s “Fill & Sign” app or the free Adobe Acrobat Reader app for smart phones. We used our finger to sign, because we have thin fingers, but if you want to be fancy, use a stylus.


  • shows where you’d end up if you dug straight through the Earth. This is a topic that every child in the world has wondered about. Most of the time, you’d end up under water, because after all, the world is mostly covered with water. But if you could paddle a boat somewhat east of Bermuda, and start digging, you’d hit Australia. If you started north of Mongolia, you could hit the tip of South America. These projects are shovel ready.
  • shows you how long you can be out before getting a sunburn. You type in a city, and they’ll give you a rating, based on how fair you are. The old rule, “be careful between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.” still applies.
  •, home of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, helps you find what you are owed. We were amazed to find over $100 in our name from AT&T, $50 from Google, and $5 from PayPal. It was easy to submit a claim. The checks are in the mail. We’re gonna go nuts on Bundt cakes.

Practicing Safe Internet

Malwarebytes, a free anti-malware program, has tips on traveling safe. Here’s a sampling:

Go directly to a hotel’s own website to book your stay instead of using an online travel service. A study by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that about 15 million people get scammed by travel sites each year. They think they’re booking through a legitimate site, but it’s actually a scammer’s site. Bob says he has always gotten his best prices by calling a hotel directly.

Before booking a hotel room, ask the person who answers the phone to email you a copy of their security and privacy policies. (We’ve never done this but a someone we know who’s paranoid recommended it.) Do they even have security software? Some years ago, we stayed at a
“Conrad” Hotel (upscale Hilton) in Indianapolis and the computers available for guests had no anti-virus protection. Joy took it upon herself to protect the guests by installing some free security software on the hotel’s public computers.

That was very nice of her but the fact that she could do it meant that anyone else could have installed anything, including a “key logger” to capture a guest’s every key stroke. This past April, Intercontinental Hotels said that 1,200 of its hotels in the U.S., including Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza were victims of a three-month attack aimed as stealing customers’ credit card data.

Look out for public WiFi in airports and hotels. You may want to disable your Wi-Fi connection. There’s a malware campaign called “DarkHotel” that targets in-house WiFi networks at luxury hotels. Alternatively, you could use your phone’s cellular connection and share it with your laptop or tablet. The RAVPower FileHub Plus, for $40, is a best-seller on Amazon. It does not create an Internet connection, but if you already have one on your phone, it will extend it to your other devices. A more tech-y way to go is to use a virtual private network. That’s it; we have to go hide in a closet.



We have a reader named McCoy, and he maintains that he is “The Real McCoy” (accept no substitutes). Well, we believe him and he has some good tips, which we will pass along a little further down the way.

This goes back to a topic we wrote about a couple weeks ago. But it’s an important topic, and becoming more immediate as the world goes increasingly gonzo about these new digital assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo. We are going gaga along with everybody else and of course — as usual — the situation will grow increasingly worse as other manufacturers join the fray.

Our Internet signal is strong in our office but not so good just 40 feet away. We bought a Google WiFi router, which certainly  improved our wireless reception but not enough. So we called Google Store’s customer service, which by the way, handles everything Google-related, even Gmail, and it’s free. The tech guy was a native English speaker and first checked our connections to make sure no one else’s WiFi signal was interfering with ours. All was clear there.

The next useful thing he did was introduce us — and now you — to a free app called “WiFi Analyzer,” which works with Android, Apple and Windows 10. The app has a gauge and as we moved the phone around, the needle fluctuated through a range of green to gray. He agreed with the Real McCoy that something was causing a major disruption. He suggested we get a longer cord and experiment with moving the Google WiFi device around.

With a longer Ethernet cable, we were able to put the Google WiFi router in our living room by drilling  a hole in the wall and snaking the cable through from the office. The office had our AT&T modem; the living room just had furniture. This improved things quite a bit. The closer your router is to the center of your house,  apartment or business, the better the wireless reception. Google sells their router as one unit or a  three pack, so you can place additional “points” wirelessly at some distance. (NOTE: Some people may blanch at drilling holes in their walls but it was easy, and Bob feels that walls are meant to have holes and it helps fulfill their purpose. Joy points out that if we had bought the three-pack in the first place, we could have placed the wired router in the office and two wireless points elsewhere.) It’s $170 for a three-pack, $129 for a single.

The Real McCoy Speaks

There are several non-obvious obstacles that can prevent you from getting on the Internet wirelessly, not just having a lot of walls and other stuff in the way.

— Public enemy number one is “video senders.” These are designed to beam your TV picture to another TV in the house. You may not have one but maybe your neighbor does. Baby monitors and security cameras constantly beaming out their signals are similarly obstructive.

Other culprits:

— The microwave, at least while it’s on. Also, wireless speakers and music players. These devices do battle with each other.

— Cordless phones, older Bluetooth devices, Christmas lights,  power cables, mirrors, plaster board, old TVs, fish tanks, and chicken wire round out the list. Chicken wire? Well, you may not have chickens (on the other hand, maybe you do) but the wire mesh is often used to help plaster stick to walls.

The Best Tech Support

Google’s tech support was so awesome that it leads us to discuss the best tech support service we’ve ever encountered. The support guy from Google even emailed us a couple days later — on a Sunday night — to ask if we had any other problems. We’re thinking of putting him on our Christmas list. The only other technical support we ever encountered as good as this is the one provided by Okidata, the printer company. They answer at any hour, every day, and always solve the problem. This is the reason we always buy Okidata printers. So listen up, you MBAs: tech support really is a profit center.

You can call Google  on the phone, chat online, or have a video chat. In the video chat, you can see them but they don’t see you. That way they can demonstrate a product right before your eyes. If you call 855-836-3987, they can route you to the right tech support person. If you lose this number, search on the phrase “Google Store customer service” from and it will come right up.

We even used their techs when we gave an old Google Chromecast device to our friend Frieda but had trouble setting it up. A quick call to Google tech support fixed it.

App Happy

  • Start.Me is a free extension for your browser. It gives you a page on the web with everything organized– your favorite website links off to the left, with today’s news on the right. In the middle are icons for all the most popular websites, organized under the categories “Social,” “Shopping” and “Google Links.” Under links, for example, you’ll find YouTube, Gmail, Calendar, the Google Play store and others. The whole page is customizable. Get it at the website
  • AirBNB, a free app for Android and iPhone/iPad, is now moving beyond places to stay. Click “Experiences,” to find cooking classes, foodie tours, craft lessons, and music tours.

Where’s That Blinking Cursor?

When we’re typing in Microsoft Word on our Windows computers, we often lose sight of the cursor. We move the mouse around and still can’t find it. If this happens to you, change your mouse settings. We did.

In the search box in Windows, type “Mouse Settings.” (In Windows 10, there’s one extra step: Click “Additional Mouse Options.”) When “Mouse Properties” comes up, click the “Pointers” tab. Under “Scheme,” choose “Windows Black Extra Large.” Now look under “Customize,” and find the words “Text Select.” Click to highlight “Text Select.” Then click “Browse” and choose something you find easy to see. We chose the extra large black arrow.



After a lengthy struggle trying to install “Dragon Naturally Speaking” on an ordinary Hewlett Packard laptop running Windows 10, we gave up. The next day, Joy called the company’s tech support and after their expert worked on it for an hour and a half, he got it installed.

It was not a great experience dealing with what is supposed to be the world’s premiere voice recognition software. The idea is you load it in, speak into the microphone and the program turns what you said into words on the screen. The point of that is you can then edit it — do the rewrite. To quote the advice of best-selling science fiction writer Robert Heinlein: “The whole secret of writing is in the rewriting.”

So we have spent the last three days trying out different dictation programs. We started with the best known, Dragon, and for sixty dollars bought “Home,” version 13, the latest available. That was sixty bucks down the drain. Aside from the installation problems, it was extremely slow and made more errors than a last-place ball team. The first fifty words had more than a dozen, some of them hilarious. We saw many irate comments on the web. Of course the Home version is just a small part of their business, so it may be low priority.

Compared to using Google’s free voice recognition, Dragon was a disaster, missing every other word the first time out. Using our Android phone, “Google Voice” got our dictation nearly perfectly the first time and was much faster. Dragon transcribed Bob’s words: “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna,” for example, as “Osama, Osama, Osama.” Does this even make sense? After several hours of similar drivel, we dumped it.

You might wonder why we even considered paying $60 for Dragon when Windows has speech recognition built in. But it’s far from perfect. We first tried theirs on a Windows 8 machine. (Go to “Settings” and type “speech recognition.”) It worked OK but not great. In Windows 10, it was a total failure, sputtering the same words over and over, like it was having a dictionary fit. By the way, Cortana, the built-in voice assistant, doesn’t do dictation,  just web searches and other simple queries.

Another alternative is those free programs called “extensions” that can be installed in your web browser. We liked the Chrome extension, “Voice Dictation.”  The Chrome web store, by the way, has oodles of free extensions in the form of games, productivity tools, graphics, spreadsheets, etc. Even “Open Office,” nearly identical to Microsoft Office, is a free extension. To use the one we liked best, search for “Voice Dictation in Chrome,” and when it comes up, just click “add to Chrome.” To use it, click its icon in the upper right of your screen.

A few other ways: If you own an iPad or Android tablet, try voice typing in Microsoft Word, a free download. On an Android device, start by enabling “Google Voice Typing” in settings, then just tap the microphone in Word, or “Pages” for iPhones. On an iPad, it’s already set up. Just tap the microphone and start talking.

More with Google Home and Alexa

A couple we met said they only use Amazon’s Alexa to tell them a daily joke. We use her mainly for music and weather. Here are some more ideas a reader sent in.

Babysit the kids. Tell them to ask the Echo or the Google Home digital assistant to play games with them, answer their questions, play children’s songs. Google Home will talk like Yoda or sing to you if you ask. The Amazon Echo or Echo Dot can play Jeopardy and a rhyming game, among others.

We said, “Hey Google, play a game,” and she gave us several choices. Her “Mad Libs” was fun, and got funnier with practice. If you don’t have a Google Home, go to for something similar. On  your phone, try the free Mad Libs app for Android and iPhones. You can  find games for Alexa in the Amazon Skills section of Click anything that interests you and then click “enable.” She didn’t do well in our Mad Libs test, but “Silly Sentences” is fun.

Google Home can be a travel agent. Say “Find me non-stop flights,” adding the date, airline and destination. This also works if you have Google Assistant on your phone or Siri on the iPhone or iPad. For Alexa, enable the “Flight Deals” skill.

For meditation, say to Google Home, “Talk to Headspace.” There are three choices: wake up, take a moment, and wind down. On the Echo with Alexa, enable a Meditation skill. Or you could just download the “Headspace” app on your phone.

Find more ideas for Google Home at, or by searching on “9 Things You Didn’t Know Google Home Could Do.” For the Amazon Echo, search on “Things Echo Can Do.”


  • Eco-Friendly Camp in Botswana has lots of interesting maps, some for different time periods.

  • tells you where taxpayer money is spent. For instance, the Ivy League colleges received $30 billion dollars in tax dollars between 2010 and 2014. Yet their endowment is already big enough to spend $2 million on each student.
  • 17 Charts Show the U.S. is not as Developed as You Think.” Search on that phrase to find some surprising statistics. For instance, eleven countries have more hospital beds per 1,000 people than the U.S. does. Japan has 13, we have three.
  • 10 Incredibly Beautiful Eco-Friendly Places to Visit.” Live with reindeer herders, for example. Our dentist said they had the best steaks he ever ate.







Joy tried to clear up Bob’s startup screen by dragging half the stuff into Windows’ Documents folder. It turned out to be a vanishing act!

Gone was his story about Atlantis and a couple of detective action pieces. And doing a global search to find them, found nothing. Joy was a wee bit upset. She was only trying to help Bob back up his files. She even used the “copy,” command instead of “move,” which should have prevented such losses, but it didn’t. The universe is a strange place.

She used Windows 10’s own backup tool called “File History.” After all, it’s there. But it has to be turned on. You’d think it would be on by default when you started up Windows, but no. We were assured that any changes we made to a document would still be there, even if the document was destroyed or lost.

Should you want to take this trip yourself, here’s the ticket: To use the built-in backup, type “File History” into the search box in Windows 10. Then choose “More Options.” Now choose how often the backup should occur. (We chose every 10 minutes.) Next we looked at the list of stuff to be automatically backed up. The only folder on the list we cared about was “Documents.”  So we clicked on “Music,” “Links” and others to skip.   The backup takes place zip quick and only covers the stuff we care about. If you don’t click on stuff to skip the backup takes a long time.

To recover a document, repeat the File History steps and scroll to the bottom of the screen where it says “restore files from a current backup.” Click the file you want and click the big green arrow. It restores the item to its original location. We tested this by deleting a file we didn’t care about and then recovering it. That’s where many backup programs go wrong, so it’s important to make a test of the recovery feature — make up some nonsense file to use as a test. If all goes well, then … all is well.

He Can See Clearly Now

A reader writes that he never could get used to bifocals so he turned to “computer glasses” for reading his computer screen. These are a step-down from his regular prescription. That’s what Joy uses too.

A doctor might not think to prescribe computer glasses unless you ask for them. Joy’s tri-focal lenses supposedly had a sweet spot in the middle, for computer work, but they were way off: She has to tilt her head back to get the right angle, and reading was tough too. Someone (was it Bob?) stepped on her dedicated pair of computer glasses so we ordered a new one online and they’re incredible. She prefers them for reading too.

The reader says his computer glasses were recommended by an eye surgeon. “Really amazing,” he writes. “They’re made to focus in the two-foot range.”


App Happy

  • One of the great horror writers of all time, Edgar Allen Poe, has his own app. It’s called “iPoe,” and it’s $2 for the iPad, iPhone or Android device. It adds creepy music, animations, and haunting pictures. Not real scary.
  • Toca Lab: Plants,” from Toca Boca, is a $3 app for Android, Kindle and iPad/iPhone. The maker says children love it; bored the bezeeus out of us. You start with a cartoon plant and experiment your way to 35 different plant classes.

Using Word on Your Phone

Creating a Microsoft Word document on your phone might feel like an exercise in self inflected pain, since the screen is so tiny. Typing is tough, but dictation is easier, using the free Word app for Android and iPhone/iPad/iPod.

On an iPhone or Android phone, sign in to your Microsoft account. If you don’t have one, go to and create one; they’re free. Then start a new document. When you click inside it, a keyboard comes up with a tiny microphone. Tap it to dictate. Click the top of the document to reveal the “Save” command. Your document is automatically saved to the cloud. You can find it again at

Zip it Up

The ability to zip a file to save storage space goes back to the earliest days of Windows. In fact, the “WinZip” program is now out in version 21 for $30.  But why pay $30 when you could use the free program 7-Zip?

Well, the answer to that depends on how much free cash you have and how many features you want. WinZip 21 has a lot of extra features. For example, you can encrypt a file, so it takes a password to open it. If it’s an image, you can add a watermark, so no one can copy it without revealing their thievery. You can click to zip and email the file, send it in a text message, or save it to your private space on the web.

The Numbers Report

The three best cities for computer gamers are Orlando, Seattle and Austin, according to a report. But some cities score higher on other variables.

  • Las Vegas has the most video-game stores per person, Memphis the fewest.
  • Pittsburgh has the highest average download speed, around 15 megabits per second, three times faster than Honolulu, the slowest.
  • Gilbert, Arizona has the highest share of households with a broadband connection, 94 percent, almost twice as high as Detroit.
  • Durham, North Carolina has the cheapest monthly internet cost, $40, two and a half times cheaper than Anchorage, Alaska, where the cost is more than $100 a month.




A reader wrote us to say he’s barely able to connect to the Internet wirelessly, even though his phone is just 20 feet away from his AT&T router. Two bars is the best he gets. We told him to call AT&T, since they’ll replace his router or add a booster for free; it’s part of the monthly contract. However, that may not work.

What he’s opened up is a much larger problem that many people experience, and it’s definitely worth going into. It is a trickier subject than it first appears. The subject of radio broadcasts (which is what your wireless modem is doing) and receiving them is a special field of its own in electrical engineering. Antenna design can require some heavy mathematics. Even when the calculations are right, the results are often dicey. Broadcasts can be affected by changes in air temperature, moisture and most of all by what is in between — particularly walls, the thicker the worse.

For instance, we couldn’t get a wireless Internet connection to our bedroom, even though it’s just 25 feet from the office router. Naturally we called AT&T. A technician came out and installed a Netgear booster but that didn’t help. We gave it back to AT&T and bought a “Google Wi-Fi,which is a signal booster slightly thicker than a hockey puck. At first, it worked perfectly. But after a few minutes the signal dropped out.

At that point, Bob brought up the three magic words of wireless reception: “line of sight.” Manufacturers of modems and other signal generators will typically claim a “range of up to 200 feet,” Yeah, if everything’s perfect. They’re talking about the line of sight between broadcast and receiver being clear of all obstacles. Walls are obstacles.

Joy had put the Google Wi-Fi booster next to the office modem. It seemed reasonable, but from there the wireless signal had to go through a closet stuffed with extra equipment and cables, through two tiled bathroom walls, a hall bookcase, then a bedroom wall and all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Books can block an astonishing amount of radiation.

By simply moving the Google signal booster (it has a long cord) so that the signal only had to go through one wall, it was Bingo time. The signal to the Amazon Echo Dot (you know: Alexa) in the bedroom was strong and constant. This will work for anyone with reception problems: remember “line of sight.” Keep that transmission lane as open as possible.

An observant reader could point out we might have improved signal clarity just by moving the AT&T router instead of buying a booster unit. The AT&T technician should have thought of that too, but didn’t. In any event, it was worth a few bucks to get a booster that can be moved around to get the best line of sight.

A New Browser

It’s hard to leave your browser. We remember the first one we ever tried, Netscape Navigator, back in the 1990s. Then there was Internet Explorer (in all its many incarnations), Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Google Chrome, which we’re sort of stuck on. However, the new Vivaldi browser is really interesting.

Vivaldi is available free from and places a lot of extra tools at your disposal. Click the “Notes” icon to make a to-do list or notes page that lives next to the main window, but can be toggled on or off. Click the downloads icon to see your recent downloads. If you tap the F2 key on your keyboard, you can get a list of things to do, such as clear your browsing data, get a list of keyboard shortcuts, open a privacy page, and so on. If you close a tab by mistake, just click the trash can. It has a list of everywhere you’ve been.

Vivaldi comes with a lot of built-in recommendations for where to go on the web. Click on the bookmark symbol to see folders full of possibilities. Under technology, there are over 20 leading sites. There are lots of options under entertainment, news, travel, business and games too.

Vivaldi was created by one of the founders of the Opera browser. Like Opera, it is at its root based on the Chrome browser. It’s like a highly customizable version of Chrome. For more info, search on the ph

rase “9 Reasons to Switch to Vivaldi.” A reason not to switch? Adding an extra layer to Chrome, as Vivaldi does, could slow things slightly.

Internuts has a list of who accepts Bitcoins, the virtual currency. We were surprised to see Subway, Microsoft, Dell, Bloomberg, Expedia, and T-Mobile Poland on the list. A single Bitcoin now trades around $2,600 in US currency.

Fifteen Crazy Things People Have Found in Their Homes.” Google that phrase to find an amazing list. A husband and wife found a Marvel comic book from 1938 worth $1.5 million. Another family found a fully-stocked servants kitchen, complete with pots and pans hanging on the wall, hiding behind junk in the basement. A couple others found cash –$45,000 in one case, $50,000 in another. 

High Jump: Cosmos, the Infographic Book of Space.” Search on that phrase to find out how high you could jump on Pluto, a comet, the moon, and many other places. When you click “jump,” you see a stick figure jump. On Pluto, you could jump around 25 feet. If you made it to comet “67P,” you could jump thousands offeet; landing would be tough though.

Most Interesting Libraries in the World.” Google that for quite a show of beautiful places to read a book. Google “28 Most Spectacular Libraries” for even more. Worth traveling.