ONE MINUTE ON THE INTERNET

From The Guardian, a British newspaper, we learn that one minute on the Internet looks like this: 156 million emails, 29 million text messages.

Wait, we’re still not through. One point five million Spotify songs, four million Google searches, two million minutes of Skype calls, 350,000 tweets, 243,000 photos posted on Facebook, 87,000 hours of Netflix, 65,000 pictures put on Instagram, 25,000 posts on Tumblr, 18,000 matches on Tinder, and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube.

If you take just the online video watched on websites, YouTube, Netflix and webcams, you have 77% of the world’s internet traffic. Whew!

The Readers Bite Back

Camera Raw technique

We recently wrote that there’s no reason to have a terabyte drive if you don’t have a big movie or video collection. A few readers said yes there is. It has to do with photos.

One said: “When digital cameras came out in 2000, I took up photography again.  At the time a photo took up less than a megabyte.  Then I started taking photos in the RAW.  Let me rephrase that: I take photos in RAW format, and they run 25 MB per image.  So now I have two three-TB drives and they are over half full.  There is a world of amateur photographers out there who regularly use drives holding three TB, or more, for their photos.”

Who knew? We are abashed. Meanwhile, some background knowledge is required.

What is “RAW” you might ask. Good question. The letters needn’t be capitalized, because they’re not an acronym for some obscure tech routine. They just stand for all the “raw” data a digital camera collects when you push the button. Ordinarily, a digital camera takes pictures in what’s called “jpeg” format, which is a format that compresses duplicate and some related pixels – the stuff of which the picture is made – to save space and produce a picture that is still sharp but easier to store or send to someone. Handy, no?

If instead of this economical practice of taking compressed pictures, you have all of the digital data still available … well then, you can fool around. One reader points out he can darken the highlights and lighten the shadows to bring out detail that is otherwise washed out or lost. “JPEGs are fine for snapshots, but for images that I hope will have a ‘Wow!’ factor, I want control of RAW.” You can make highlights which are unrealistic but Holy Mackerel stunning. The trade-off is your drive starts filling up.

Another reader said it’s true that a one terabyte drive is “serious overkill,” but there are other reasons for getting one, namely, reliability. “I’ve had thumb drives fail totally more than once. That’s annoying. I know external drives can fail too but they’re more reliable, and the one terabyte size was only $10 to $15 more than the smaller size I was considering.” He adds: “Now that I have two to three backups each of my wife’s and my PCs, maybe I’ll try to download the Encyclopedia Britannica and a few movies with all the extra space, but don’t hold your breath.”

“That storage overkill applies to phones too. My two-year old phone has 128 GB. Only 22.2 GB of that is used.” What annoys him just a tiny bit is he paid an extra $100 for the unneeded storage space. He says: “Oh well.”

Printing a Passage

A reader wonders how he could print just part of a web page. We used to do that by highlighting the part we wanted and copying that into Microsoft Word.

But here’s another way: First highlight the section you want to print. To highlight, hold your left mouse button and drag the cursor over the text, then release. Now, right-click with your mouse and choose “Print.” If you use a trackpad, hold down the left button and drag with another finger. Alternatively, look up “three finger drag” for either Mac or Windows. It’s a change in “System Preferences” on the Mac, or in “Mouse and Touchpad Settings”, in Windows.

Google Bashing

Gone are the days when every story about Google was positive. Now it seems like every story is negative, and it often concerns privacy. It must be hunting season. Let us offer a different point of view.

Suppose Google didn’t collect data about you when you searched the web. Instead of seeing ads tailored to your interests, you’d see ads for everything, including the kitchen sink. Google would make less money, as advertisers saw you weren’t clicking on their pitches. With little income, Google would have to start charging you for their search services. Then you would hear some real protests. Most people are reluctant to pay $3 for an app from the online app store; we can only imagine the protest for paying for search services.

World Community Grid

At the dawn of computer life, when the first emails were getting cranked out, Bob had a vision. The Internet would one day help people help each other all over the world. That turns out to be especially true for users of the “World Community Grid,” launched in 2004 and still going strong with over half a million users.

If you go to WorldCommunityGrid.org, you can get in on the action by downloading their free program, which is sponsored by IBM and uses their security system. The program allows scientists to use your computer’s power when it’s idle, to analyze cancers, Ebola, the Zika virus, microbiome immunity and other projects. It has partnerships with 449 companies and organizations and 52,000 active users. If a single computer had been used to handle the projects they’ve finished so far, it would have taken 1.5 million years.

Go to WorldCommunityGrid.org to sign up or see what they’re working on. We did notice that the program causes our computer’s central processing unit (CPU) to work much harder. From Task Manager, we can see that it’s often working at 50 percent now, much of that due to World Community Grid. But we have fast machines, with 12 gigabytes of RAM, so it hasn’t slowed us down.

 

GETTING A SMART PHONE

iPhone 6s versus iPhone SE, courtesy of KnowYourMobile

Hard to believe but there are still people out there thinking about getting their first smart phone. That’s a cell phone that can search the web and take selfies. About 80 people a year die while taking selfies. Sometimes they step back too far at the edge of the Grand Canyon, sometimes the flagpole on the tenth floor is slippery.

Well, this has happened to us twice now. Not getting killed taking a selfie, but talking to older people who have decided they want one of those smart phone things. In one of the great marketing coups of all time, Apple has somehow made people believe that a smart phone is an iPhone.

This is despite the reality that Android phones – those using the Android operating system instead of Apple’s – outsell iPhones by a staggering ratio of six to one. And yet, in both recent examples of older women who have asked for our help, each thought that only iPhones were smart phones.

There are considerable difference in prices. But for our friend Nancy, who uses a  wheelchair, Joy got on the case:

At the bottom you can get an Android phone for $40 from TracFone.com. But it can be aggravatingly slow at times, and tech support is almost non-existent. For tech newbies, even an older iPhone has great tech support. What’s more, you get the latest operating system on all models starting with the iPhone 5, which came out six years ago. The latest iPhone operating system, iOS 12, lets you enjoy video conversations with up to 32 people at once. (We want to emphasize that, because wouldn’t you know it, it comes up all the time. There’s no way to get a mob together for a spontaneous demonstration unless you can get everyone to agree on where and when to be spontaneous.)

Back to Nancy: Joy suggested the iPhone 6s for $200 or the $160 iPhone SE. Big savings there. Unfortunately, the iPhone 6s isn’t waterproof, so if she needs to text anyone while diving it’s not going to work out. The biggest difference between the 6s and the SE is screen size. The iPhone 6s has a bigger screen; it’s about $40 bigger.

Blocking Spam Calls

Courtesy Joseph Enriq  

We recently got a voice mail saying the license key of our computer “had been expired.” Besides using bad grammar, they wanted us to call an 800 number to fix it. Sure, we’ll get right on it.

Remember this: Computer companies never call you, you call them. The call we got was labeled “spam” on our Android phone, but they were still able to leave a message. To make sure it didn’t happen again, we blocked the number. Here’s how: Tap the phone icon on your phone and go to “Recents.” Tap a number, then tap “Block.” But what if the number you want to block isn’t on the list? In that case, tap “settings” from within the phone app. Then tap “Blocked Numbers,” and “Add a Number.” On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” tap “Phone,” and then “Call Blocking and Identification.”

Spamming has gone wild. By the end of the second quarter this year, which went to the end of June, 4.1 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S. That was up a lot from the 2.5 billion placed in the first three months. That’s about a dozen calls per person for everyone in America, including little babies, who must wonder what to make of it all.

The number of Robocalls, recorded messages that often start out with “Do not hang up, this is an important message,” are not exactly the same as the number of spam calls, which can be from a live voice, but the purpose is the same. Believe us: whenever you get a call that starts out “Do not hang up,” hang up.

This is big business. Spam calls brought in an estimated $9.5 billion last year and there are very few businesses that bring in that much. If it starts by saying “This is an important message,” it isn’t. And that free cruise to the Bahamas isn’t free.

Pop Out

A reader told us he couldn’t figure out how to block pop-ups on his computer. He writes: “Using a Toshiba laptop — and with no grandchildren around — I’ve been going in circles with Chrome trying to block the growing number of stupid ads (some blatantly sexual).”

We thought at first he meant the kind of ads that you can block with the free “Ad Block Plus,” from AdBlockPlus.org. But he was talking about the kind that flash up in the lower right of the screen. Those are called notifications. Often, you’ll be on a site and something will pop-up to give you two choices: “Allow” or “Block.” If you choose “Allow,” you’ll get notifications.

For a while, we were allowing notifications from one of our favorites, ZME Science, but they got too frequent. Joy likes FEE.org, ”Foundation for an Economic Education,” but its notifications got to be too much too. To block a notification in Chrome, click the stacked three dots in the upper right. Then click “Settings” and scroll down to where it says “Advanced” and click on it. Now click the right arrow next to “Content Settings,” and click the arrow next to “Notifications.” For any you don’t want, click the three dots next to it and then “Block.”

App Happy

  • Think Dirty” is a free app for checking out the chemicals in make-up, sun block, and other products. The Natural Resource Defense Council says there are 80,000 chemicals that are not fully tested. Federal agencies test about twenty a year; so this may take a while.
  • EWG’s Healthy Living” is a free app for testing skin products and food scores. We learned that our Neutrogena T/Gel shampoo is a cancer risk, but the Neutrogena Triple Moisture Shampoo is only an allergy risk. Moving on to food, we looked at one of Joy’s favorite products, tomato paste, and learned which ones don’t use BPA in the lining of their cans. (Muir Glen, for one.) EWG.org, the home of the Environmental Working Group, also has guides on their website.

 

REALLY BIG NUMBERS

An exchange of emails with a reader on the subject of falling prices for large storage drives, led to an inevitable question: What are they good for?

In short, once you get past a few gigabytes – which you can buy as thumb drives for less than $10 – just what are you going to store? We know that the general notion is that bigger is always better, and at these prices why not go nuts and pull up the truck?

Terabyte drives are now common. That’s a thousand gigabytes, a million megabytes, a big number. Let’s talk reality here. According to Britannica, all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica would take up 4.7 gigabytes. That’s all the words and pictures, including an index. Throw in a World Atlas, the Webster Collegiate Dictionary, half a dozen reference books and you might get up to using ten gigabytes.

That’s one percent of the capacity of one of the new terabyte drives. So what do you do with the other 99 percent? You could store all your notes and letters. That wouldn’t take much, really. Every column we’ve ever written can be stored in one-tenth of a gigabyte. (A sobering thought.) So, saving words doesn’t take much of that digital space. There must be something you can do with what’s left over.

We know two people who have terabyte drives and use all that space. What do they use it for? Movies. A one-terabyte drive can hold around 700 movies. But who on Earth can watch 700 movies? How many movies could you watch more than once? Five? Six? Even recording them is a bit of stunner: If you did it for eight hours a day, five days a week, it would take five months. That’s dedication. Which brings us right to our next topic.

Recording Streaming Video

Both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video let you download streaming video to watch offline on a plane, a train, or anywhere you’re not connected to the Internet. Now you can use that big thumb drive!

Netflix makes it easy. Tap the icon on your phone, then tap “Downloads.” You’ll be taken to an area called “Find Something to Download.”

It gets tougher with Amazon Prime videos (free movies for Prime members). Whether you use an Android phone or tablet, or an iOS device, such as an iPhone, iPad, iPod or Apple TV, you’ll need the Amazon Prime Video App, from your phone’s app store.

When we looked it up on our Android phone, it came with a warning about damaging our phone. But we trusted Amazon, so we chose the option to open it with a “Package Installer.” Then we got another warning, “For your security, your phone is not allowed to … blah, blah blah, etc.” Lawyers. Heaving a sigh of resignation, we tapped on “settings” and chose “allow from this source.” Phew, that was a lot of work.

It’s much easier on an Amazon Fire tablet. We tapped on the already-included Amazon Video App, then tapped “Movies” and “included with Prime.” Then we chose one and tapped “Download.” It informed us that we didn’t have enough storage space for the movie. An extra SD card solves that, and they’re cheap – 32 gigabytes cost $13.

For offline music, there’s “Audials,” a free app for recording radio stations from all over the world. It has over 100,000 radio stations, as well as podcasts. We tapped the classical genre, found a station, and tapped “record.” Worked great, but it also recorded the commercials. We tuned in a station from an autonomous region of Finland called the Aland Islands, and then stations from Bosnia and Bhutan. Not every station gives you an option to record, but if there is one, it’ says so right on top.

We found the computer version of Audials to be a clunky disaster, and it costs $3.49 a month.  It’s supposed to find the best version of a song, movie or TV program. We searched on “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles, and the first five versions were either from Beatles clones or worse. One was in German, another had someone singing along in an amateurish way.

Amazon Discounts at Whole Foods

Nearly every time we go to Whole Foods, now owned by Amazon, we see someone who doesn’t have the Whole Foods app on their phone but still wants an Amazon prime discount. They’re app-less.

The checker always says, “just link your phone number to your account.” The young woman ahead of us today was totally confused. “My bank account?” No, it’s your Amazon Prime account, if you have one.

Here’s how. Go to Amazon.com/primesavings and click “update mobile phone number.” Then look for blue price signs at any Whole Foods store for member savings. If you see a yellow “sale” sign, you get an extra 10 percent off.

App Happy

  • Wolf+Friends” is a free app for iPhones, iPads and iPods. It’s for moms who want to connect with like-minded women who are raising children with special needs such as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder or other issues.
  • Google Translate, a free app for Android, iPhone and computer, now supports 50 languages after adding 13 new ones this month. It works offline or in real time, translating what the person is saying to your language, and translating what you are saying into theirs.
  • Tor Browser” is considered by many to be the most secure browser in the world, and they’ve just come out with a version for Android. It’s in the testing phase, so you have to install “Orbot,” another app, to make it work.

 

 

LET THE ROBOT TAKE IT

Michael Faraday

“Robo calls” are getting worse. Adrian Abramovich, of Miami, has been accused of making 97 million spam calls and is facing a $120 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission. There’s a call-screening feature in the new Pixel 3 phone from Google, and it’s a sure bet you will soon see it in other makes.

When your phone rings, you’ll see a “screen call” option. Tap it and a recorded voice in the Pixel phone asks the caller to state their name and the nature of the call. The caller might say something like “You have won a free cruise.” (We win an amazing number of those, which is unfortunate because Bob doesn’t like cruises.) At this point, you can tap a button to get more info without answering the call. The same screening feature will likely appear on Google’s Pixel 2 phone later this month, and other Android phones are sure to follow this lead.

Our readers have probably noticed that we normally don’t do phones, and the reason for that is we figure people with cell phones are elsewhere absorbed. Joy and I were in an elevator recently and a young woman got in without looking up from her phone or even pushing a floor button. Of course, there’s no phone signal in elevators, because of something called the Faraday Cage effect, but whenever Bob mentions this, it turns out that none of the users have ever heard of Michael Faraday, which is too bad, because he’s the reason they have electricity.

The reason we’re talking about the Pixel phone now is Joy has one. We are nothing if not parochial. One of the things she likes about her Pixel 2 phone, which at $649 is cheaper than the $799 Pixel 3, is that it gets all the Android updates as soon as they come out. For instance, Pixel phones will be the first to have “Duplex,” the artificial intelligence service that calls restaurants, hair salons and others to make reservations for you.  We never make reservations, but we like the theory.

Getting to phone service, what we like best is Google’s “Project Fi,” which is only available on Pixel phones and certain LG and Motorola models. It combines service from T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Sprint, and searches for the strongest signal. The basic charge is $20 a month for unlimited calling and texting, plus $10 for every gigabyte of data. You get money back on any part of a gigabyte you didn’t use. We get money back every month; we’re not surgically attached to the phone.

A Reader’s Tests His Speed

In a recent column we mentioned that the closer your device is to your router, the faster your Internet speed. So one of our readers put it to the test.

Going to SpeedTest.net, he tested his computer’s Internet speed from 20 feet away. The download speed was 34 megabits per second and the upload speed was 12 megabits per second. Moving out to 100 feet away, the download speed dropped to just under 3 mbps and the upload speed dropped to 4mbps – a huge difference!

Maps With Music

We switched to the free app “Waze” after getting annoyed with Google Maps for unnecessary twists and turns. However, Google now has a new music feature and an “events” information button. Do not use this while you’re driving.

The music feature lets you see playback controls such as play and pause while the map is showing on the phone screen. To turn it on, tap the Google Maps icon on your phone. On Android phones, tap the three lines in the upper left corner, then “Settings,” and finally “Navigation Settings.” Turn on “Show media playback controls.” On an iPhone, tap the Google Maps icon, then the picture of a little gear, then “Navigation.” After turning on media playback controls, you’ll have a choice of Apple Music or Spotify. On Android phones, the choices are Google Play Music or Spotify. If you don’t see playback controls, be sure you’ve got the updated version of Maps. Just tap “help” then “update.”

The latest version of Google Maps invites you to explore your own city. We tapped “Events” and then “Date” to look at things going on this weekend. Later, we tapped “this month” to see the whole month. You can also tap “now” to see what’s going on today. It’s just busy, busy, busy all the time.

Light Up Your Life

LED Projects for Geeks” is a book by John Baichtal that has a dozen do-it-yourself projects that use LED lights. You can control lights with hand gestures, or an LED sash that flashes scrolling messages you send from your phone. Bob wants to program it to read “Silent Partner.” The book is $25 from NoStarch.com.

Free Book For Windows

We were intrigued by the offer of a free online book, called “Windows 10 Troubleshooting Guide.” We’re always attracted by “free.”

It’s available at solvusoft.com/en/windows-10-troubleshooting-guide. It has chapters on freeing disk space, speeding up your computer, tackling the so-called “blue screen of death,” and so on. Some explanations need improving. For instance, the author tells us  five ways to find the “Task Manager,” but doesn’t mention the easiest one: just right-click the mouse pointer anywhere in the taskbar. Bringing up the task manager lets you get out of problems like a program that freezes. Just highlight the troublesome program name and click “end task.”

Similarly, he gives three steps to get to “Disk Cleanup.” But you can go there directly by typing those words into the Windows 10 “Cortana” search bar on the left of your screen. Overall, though, there’s good info here, and you can’t beat the price. Another way to go is type “troubleshoot” in the Windows search bar.  Windows gives you a long list of items to investigate, including power settings, printer and Internet connections.

App Happy

  • “Nwsty” is a free app for those who feel over-informed. It gives you the headlines and the gist of the story. Android version here. iPhone version here.
  • Google Duo” is an alternative to “Facetime,” which is for iPhone users only. With it you can video chat with Android and iPhone users.

 

POP-UPS ON YOUR PHONE

Android Emulator from Andyroid.net

An interesting thing happened: Joy was looking up recipes at VegetarianTimes.com. But as she was viewing these in the Chrome browser on her Android phone, she was inundated, distracted and annoyed by a constant barrage of pop-up ads.

They were stupidly annoying: “You’ve won a new iPhone 9!” was the first one. (That’s not even the name of the new iPhone. It’s iPhone XR or XS. They skipped number nine).  The second pop-up: “You’ve won a prize on Amazon!” Really! The ads were so bad she closed the browser and started over.

Pop-ups are supposed to be blocked automatically, if you want. To find out, she went to the Chrome browser, tapped the three dots in the upper right, then “settings,” then “site settings.” Yes, our pop-ups were set to be blocked, but after a further search, we discovered Chrome’s “Data Saver.”  Its main purpose is to save you money on your data feed costs by compressing web images, but it also blocks malicious pages and phishing attempts. The default position is off, so we switched it to “on.”

To block pop-ups on an iPhone or iPad, open the Chrome app. Tap “More Settings.” Tap “Content Settings” and “Block Pop-ups.”

Mac Update

We looked into the latest free software update for the Macbook: “MacOS Mojave.” It has one feature we would use, if we actually still had our Macbook. It failed to survive a glass of orange juice.

The update is called “Dark Mode.” It gives you white text on a dark background, which is a lot easier on the eyes. Bob’s favorite is the old-fashioned green text on a dark background, which used to be the way we got text in the old days. He gets this with a program called “Writer;” it can also provide white letters on a blue background, like the old WordPerfect program.

Black letters on a white background, which is the way almost all computer screens show text, was a Steve Jobs’ idea. It makes the screen look just like printing on white paper, he said. Of course, white paper doesn’t constantly shine light into your eyes and he didn’t write anything anyway, but everybody sort of obediently said “Yeah,” or words to that effect.

To get the new Macbook dark screen, go to System Preferences, which you can find at the top left of your screen by clicking on the three rows of 12 dots. Choose “General.” Then turn it on. You’ll see dark mode in most of the built-in apps, such as messages, calendar and mail.

Coding Cards for Kids

Programmers normally use slugs of code someone has already written. These are modules which perform routine tasks. For example: recognizing where the cursor is as you move it around the screen, or connecting to the Internet. After all, why reinvent the wheel or reprogram something that has already been programmed a million times.

Scratch Jr Coding Cards” is a box of 75 colorful cards that lets children use the same approach. They’re for ages five and up, and cost $25 from NoStarch Press. The cards tell you what to do to create a moving cartoon on your phone or tablet screen. You start with a character and a painted background. You plug in a pre-built movement module and tell it how far you want your character to move. Joy found this almost too much fun to stop and had to be pried loose by the promise of a cup of herbal tea.

The first lesson involves making a cat get out of bed and say “Hi.” The card directs you to choose a background, such as a bedroom. Next it has you move colored blocks (code modules) into place in a chain. Each of these blocks holds different commands. You click a green flag to start the animation. Our only problem came with the “disappearing” command. Our cat disappeared and we couldn’t get it back. (We thought the cat always came back.)

Scratch Jr is designed for a tablet, and you’ll find it in the app store on your device. However, we used it on a Windows computer. We got around the restriction by first downloading the free Android simulator from Andyroid.com. Once installed, we searched for “Scratch Jr” and installed it. Then we were ready to follow the coding cards. The last card shows you how to open one of 20 sample projects, ready to be customized.

SSD Prices Tumble

A reader who recently sped up his computer by putting in a solid state drive (SSD) was astounded at how cheap they’re becoming, and how quickly.

He writes to point out that “The Samsung 500 gigabyte SSD I bought from Amazon for $100 for my desktop; and bought again a week later for $98 for my HP Pro Book; is now $88!  How low can they go?  Remember what happened with thumb drives?  Whee!  We’re in for a ride, I think.” Thumb drives went from about a thousand dollars a gigabyte to $5 for 16 gigabytes.

Internuts

  • World’s Largest Donors of Foreign Aid

    WalletHub Cell Phone Savings Calculator.” To swallow that mouthful, go to Wallethub.com, click “Tools” and then “Calculators.” Under “other,” you’ll find one that lets you compare cell phone contracts from all the major carriers.

  • 25 maps that will change the way you see the world.” Search on that phrase and find a YouTube video. The first map divides the world into one-billion person chunks. More people live inside a circle containing part of China, India and Indonesia than live in the rest of the world combined. Another map shows the tiny amount of land in 22 countries that Britain never conquered.

 

INTERNET BLUES

A reader wrote to say she can’t get fast Internet service from her Internet provider. They say it’s because she’s in a rural area, at the very edge of their coverage. “An update available on my iPhone 6s took a day and a half to download,” she says.  “The update on my watch took even longer.  My son got both done at his school in two hours!  It’s ironic that in order to pay the bill I have to mail it in.”

If you’re in the same rocky boat, go to speedtest.net to verify how fast your Internet connection is. (Just click “go” and they do the rest.)  Our connection is pretty fast, with a download speed of 20 and an upload speed of 4.57. Our reader’s download speed was only “point 34” and she got only “point 17” for upload, both way less than one. Her Internet Service Provider still called her service “high speed,” she says. This is one angry customer.

CNET.com says that a new router can help enormously. Search on the phrase “CNET Best Wireless Routers for 2018.” They cost around $100 to $400. Another option is satellite service, which costs around $50 to $100 a month or more for 10 to 50 gigabyte of data. Fifty gigabytes of data would allow you to watch Netflix or other streaming movies for 10 hours a day every day of the month, or chat on Skype for over nine hours a day. If you’re doing that, you may need help from more than a router.

If you run a speed test on your computer and find that your connection is fast, but your web experience is slow, consider upgrading your computer or reformatting it. Our Windows computers used to be so pokey, we could make tea and get back before a page loaded. But we suspected that our Windows computers were to blame. To get a faster experience, we got new computers, with Intel i7 processors and 12 gigabytes of RAM. Now they’re speedy, just like the Macbooks and Chromebooks we’ve tested, using the same Internet connection.

Clean Air?

One of our relatives was born with a withered leg and it may have been because her mother used a paint stripper while pregnant, in a closet. A device called the “Atmotube” can warn about such dangers.

This kind of problem was first mentioned in ancient Rome, when Pliny the Elder, a Roman Senator, wrote that pregnant women were at risk of flawed births from the fumes generated by oil lamps, particularly at night when the lamps were nearly done and were sputtering.

These “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) are up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors. Examples are acetone, methanol, benzene, ethanol, toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde. Many VOCs are found in cleaning supplies, paint, varnish and solvents.

In our tests of the new Atmotube Plus, our living space air quality ranged between 91 and 99 percent pure. That info was reported in a free app on our phone, which also gave us the VOC level, atmospheric pressure and temperature. The Atmotube can also sense smoke and other hazards.

The new Atmotube Plus, $99, is about the size of a tube of lipstick and can be worn on a string around your neck. It’s for indoor use only. There’s also the Atmotube Pro, $189, which handles indoor and outdoor air quality. It can detect pollutants, as well as dust, pollen, soot, and mold spores.  Both work for a week on a single battery charge. Plug it into your computer to recharge.

A similar device, called the “Eve Room 2,” displays air quality readings and temperatures. The catch is, you need an iPhone to use it. It costs $100 and is about half the size of a cell phone. To find out the air quality of your room, you can ask Siri, look at the device’s results on your phone, or stare at the gadget itself. It uses Apple’s HomeKit software. So if you have other Homekit gadgets, such as Philips “Hue” adjustable light bulbs, you can make the bulbs flash when the air quality is poor. It detects volatile organic compounds.

Moving up in price, you can get a “GLAS” thermostat from Johnson Controls for around $300. It reports indoor and outdoor air quality, including pollen counts and ozone levels. You can also usually get this kind of information for larger local areas from the newspapers and TV weather summaries.

 Retro Fun

The current Playstation Pro 4 is $670, but if you prefer the retro games of the 1990s, you’ll be able to get a miniature version of the original for $100 in December.

The mini version, called the Sony Playstation Classic, comes with 20 pre-loaded games. It’s 45 percent smaller than the original, which came out in 1994. Games include Final Fantasy VII, Jumping Flash, Ridge Racer Type 4, and 17 others.

If you’re a Nintendo fan, there are classic versions of that too. The NES Classic Edition console is around $60 and includes 30 classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Donkey Kong, PacMan, and The Legend of Zelda. An HDMI cable lets you plug it into your TV for the big picture.

A New Way to Browse the Web

Most people use Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Safari, or Opera. Consider Vivaldi, free from Vivaldi.com. It’s for computers only, not phones. We loaded it on our machine and definitely like it.

One of the things we like is the side bar, which has quick access to nice extras, like bookmarks, downloads, notes and a history of where you went on the web. It also lets you add any website to the side panel, so you can hold on to that page while you check out what’s new on Facebook or other sites. We watched a video clip in the sidebar while continuing to work on other things. If you like to jot down ideas while you browse, you can highlight a paragraph on a website, then use your right mouse button to save it to a notes section on the side. Could be useful for journalists.

The Numbers Report

More than 200 current British divorce proceedings cited the war game “Fortnite” in their complaints, according to Divorce-Online.co.uk. We would guess the number in America would be several times higher. There are 125 million registered players worldwide.

 

BUILD YOUR OWN

We remember when personal computers first came out. You could build them yourself if you were savvy. That’s what Michael Dell did way back when. He sold them to other college students and the business went on from there.

Now there’s a computer that kids can put together. The “Computer Kit Touch” is $280 from Kano.me. Designed for young children, it has a ten-inch screen. Follow a printed storybook to build a portable, touchscreen computer, and attach a keyboard. From there, kids can make apps, art, and games with simple steps. Included apps are Chromium (a web browser similar to Chrome), YouTube, Libre Office (similar to Microsoft Office) and Google Drive; more are available in the app store, such as “Hack Minecraft.”

Beginning programmers start with colorful blocks of pre-written code that can be dragged into place on the screen with a finger movement – after all, it’s a touch screen computer.  At the advanced level, Javascript and Python, two programming languages, come into play.

There’s also a non-touch screen version of the Computer Kit for $200. A Harry Potter wand  will let you program spells inspired by the Harry Potter movies and books.

 Cheapest Security Camera

The “Wyze Cam Pan” is a $30 security camera with more features than the more expensive “Nest Cam Indoor” or the Amazon “Cloud Cam,” according to testers at CNET.com. The cheap Wyze has some of the same features found on $200 security cameras like the iSmartAlarm.

Like most security cameras, the Wyze has free cloud storage. Or you can store your video clips on the device itself if you add a microSD card.  With a free app on your phone, you can check on live feed – meaning whatever is happening at that moment, view saved clips and adjust settings. Wyze stores video clips for free for 14 days (other services require a paid subscription after 24 hours). Most importantly, it alerts you when the motion and sound detectors are triggered. You can have a separate alert set for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Its field of view is greater than Amazon’s Cloud Cam or the Nest Cam Indoor. The camera has a normally fixed angle of 120-degrees but can pan 360 degrees and tilt 93 degrees.

Podcasts

Our young relatives love podcasts, and we’ve become fans as well. These can come in on an Alexa or Google Home, a smartphone or a computer. These are hot right now and figure to last well into the future. They offer brief broadcasts that are on your call, and not on a network’s schedule.

Our favorites are “Planet Money,” and “Freakonomics Radio,” but there are hundreds more. To start, say: “Alexa, play the ‘TED Radio Hour,’ or “Hey Google, play ‘Hidden Brain.’” Or go to the website.  We also tried “This Week in Tech,” and “This American Life,” from National Public Radio.

Selling Your Phone

What’s the best way to sell an old phone? According to Flipsy.com, carriers like Verizon and AT&T pay 30 percent less than online buyback companies. What’s worse is they just give you a credit line for that amount, to be used for buying some of their services.

For example, Flipsy.com will give $270 cash for an iPhone 7. At AT&T you can only get a $130 credit.  Verizon is the best of the major brands; it will give you a $173 credit. We could get $338 for our Pixel 2.

We could probably earn a bit more on eBay, but Flipsy has an advantage. It doesn’t require a detailed listing, nor do you have to do customer service, such as dealing with returns.

One problem: You don’t want to sell your old iPhone until your new one arrives. Some of Flipsy’s partners offers a 45 day price lock. Here’s how it works. Type in the model of your phone. When the next page comes up, notice the four columns. Next to the type of payment they accept, such as credit card, you’ll find the number of days they guarantee the price. Most have around 20 days, but a few, like BuyBackWorld.com, WeBuyMobile.com and BuymyPod.com offer 45 days of locked in pricing.

Duck Duck Go

Several readers have recently reminded us that DuckDuckGo.com is a good alternative to Google.com if it bothers you to have your browsing tracked. But DuckDuckGo has some other features as well. Like:

DuckDuckGo has a built-in loan calculator. Type “Loan 50,000 at 3.5% with 25% down for 15 years” and the answer comes back: $268.08 for 15 years. Total interest paid is $10,754.57.” You can get these results on Google too, with more clicks.

If you come across a shortened web address, like Bit.ly/scicabinet, and you aren’t sure you want to go there, you can type “expand Bit.ly/scicabinet” and DuckDuckGo will give you the full address.

DuckDuckGo results are different from Google’s. It shows the same results to all users, but Google tailors yours to what you usually search for. However in our tests, the two results lists weren’t much different, and Google’s results are a lot better looking and often include photos. For instance, if you want to know the major rivers in Africa, or any country, Google’s results will include scenes with those rivers.

To set up the “Duck” on your phone, go to the app store and download the DuckDuckGo app. On your computer, open your favorite browser, find “Settings” and change the default search engine to DuckDuckGo. For example, in Google Chrome, click on the three stacked dots, choose “Settings” and click “Manage Search Engines.” Then scroll down to “Other Search Engines” and choose “DuckDuckGo.” Or don’t change your default and just go to DuckDuckGo.com whenever you want the privacy.

App Happy

  • Gyft.com sells gift cards through a free app for iPhone and Android, or you can use it to manage any gift cards you’ve received.
  • GraphoGame is for children 4 to 9 and has been shown to increase reading scores around 16 percent after 15 minutes a day of play. The game was developed by Finland and Cambridge University, England, and helps children learn their first letters, syllables and words, using rhymes and sounds. Cost is $6.

 

A TRAVELING MAN

A reader wrote to tell us about “Mobile Passport,” a free app which lets him breeze past the long lines at the airport after an overseas journey. Here’s how it goes:

“So I was blindsided on a recent overseas trip when my daughter told me about this app.  By filling out some basic info and submitting it electronically when you arrive stateside, you skip right past the long line at immigration, to go to a line of one person (in our case) who was enlightened like we were.  It took us about one minute. This will certainly change when others learn about Mobile Passport so don’t tell anyone.  But for now, wow!”

Okay, so we’re telling someone; what can we say? Actually, things being what they are and this being a newspaper and all, we’re telling a lot of people.

Mobile Passport is less well known than a similar app, called “Global Entry.” But Global Entry costs $100 every five years unless you have one of several credit cards that offer this perk. The Mobile Passport app is free and was developed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It speeds you through customs at two cruise ports and 25 airports. Download it at MobilePassport.us and read more about the various credit cards at ThePointsGuy.com.

Here’s another good travel app: Airhelp.  If your flight is delayed, canceled or overbooked, you can get up to $700 in compensation. AirHelp is free for Android and iPhone.

Better Wi-Fi

Another reader writes to say: “Our daughter and family are living with us until her new home is completed. She didn’t think my Wi-Fi system was up to her standards, so her husband installed their Apple router and extender and unplugged mine. But he left my two Netgear range extenders in place.  Later experiments showed this was a mistake.”

Apple uses range extenders to, well, extend the range. Google WiFi and some others use what’s called “mesh” network. The techy part: A range extender or repeater takes in a signal and kicks it out again with more power. Both repeaters and extenders can slow down your web browsing by cutting your bandwidth in half. They also require software updates, which can be a hassle. A “mesh” network is a group of routers that communicate wirelessly to each other to create a single Wi-Fi network. Updates happen automatically as needed.

We use “Google WiFi,” which is the number one seller on Amazon in the “mesh” category. We only needed two units, but you can buy a three-pack for $256. Otherwise, they’re $129 each and you need one for each dead zone. Each unit is about the size of a thick hockey puck. We had trouble getting it to work, but found that tech support was great. (Their phone number is on the bottom of the device.) If you want more info about the differences, see an article from PCMagazine.com called “Wi-Fi Range Extenders versus Mesh Kits.” Let the games begin.

Internuts

  • TheWeek.com/audio has audio versions of “The Week” magazine, which a reader wrote to tell us is his favorite. We get it too. One article told us that crows make up after fights by sitting close and preening each other. Wild idea.
  • Online.seterra.com has fun geography games for adults. Focus on whatever area of the world you’re interested in. Somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of Americans, depending on age groups, can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Forty percent can’t find England and eighty percent can’t find Afghanistan. (This reminded Bob that in an Interview, Paris Hilton thought London was a country.)
  • SpotTheStation.nasa.gov tells you when the International Space Station is overhead. The space station is the third brightest object in the sky and easy to spot if you use the coordinates on the website. It looks like a fast-moving plane.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Whether you use Chrome, Firefox or some other web browser, there are shortcuts to make it all faster on your computer.

We searched on the phrase “30 Useful Keyboard Shortcuts on Chrome” and got these gems, though you could substitute Firefox, Edge and Safari. In our tests, the same shortcuts work for all four browsers.

For example, Joy likes to have a dozen tabs open, so the command “Ctrl W,” (Cmd W on the Mac), which closes the current one, is useful, as is “Ctrl T” or “Cmd T” to open a new tab. “Ctrl D,” (“Cmd D” on the Mac) automatically bookmarks a page. “Ctrl F” or “Cmd F” opens a search bar to let you find a word or phrase in the page you’re on. These commands also work in Firefox and Microsoft Edge.

Facebook Privacy

A company called “Cliqz” tells us that Facebook’s tracking scripts monitor nearly one third of your browsing history, even if you’re not a member of Facebook. Ironically, you must sign up for Facebook just to delete the data Facebook has already collected about you.

Just for fun, we tried the Cliqz web browser, which claims to keep you from being tracked. First, we noticed that it brought in our Google Chrome favorites, so it feels like we’re still in Chrome. We were about to add an extension, but that is not allowed in Cliqz, because it aims to create a perfectly safe environment. Extensions or add-ons can add security risks, though most are safe. Anyway, having too many of them slows your browsing.

 

 

GO GRANDMA GO

A few years ago, our friend Ida got a smart phone so she could use Uber and Lyft. We wish there’d been a connection to “Go Go Grandparent” back then.

Any cell phone will do.  And imagine this: you can even call from what’s called a landline, whatever that is. Go Go Grandparent connects you to Uber and Lyft with nothing extra to do on your part. Register at GoGoGrandparent.com. Then call Go Go Grandparent from any phone. Press “1” to be picked up at home. Press “2” to be picked from wherever you were last dropped off. Press 3, 4 or 5 to be picked off at one of your usual locations. Press “O” for an operator you can talk to if you’re confused.

The pickup is from Uber or Lyft. The call is transferred to them automatically. A friend of ours says the first time she did this, the driver thought her name was “Go Go Grandparent Betty.” Other than that, it works fine. The operator tells you the driver’s name and license plate, which is information you’d normally see in your smartphone app. During registration you can sign up to have text messages automatically sent to a friend or spouse, so they know when you were picked up, when you arrived and when you got back home. There is no escape.

Go Go Grandparent charges a 13 percent commission on each ride, which averages about $2.50. Otherwise, it’s the same cost as Uber and Lyft, which are generally  cheaper than ordinary taxis. Register online or by calling 855-464-6872.

Speeding Up A Slow Computer

A reader writes, “I want to change over my desktop’s hard drive to an SSD. Prices have really tumbled!” He wondered if he needed to clone the drive. For those who came in after the movie started, “SSD” stands for “solid state drive,” and it means there are no moving parts, everything is on memory chips. Result: faster than you can blink.

We answered him the next day but he’d already found his way. This is one savvy guy: he wrote a program for the old Commodore 64 computer back in 1984 and was written up in a magazine. Some of our readers are techier than we are.

For the rest of us, there are great tutorials on the web about swapping a laptop’s hard drive for an SSD. It’s remarkably simple. We watched a YouTube video called “How to Upgrade Laptop Hard Drive to SSD without Reinstalling Windows.” There’s also an article at HowToGeek.com called “How To Upgrade and Install a New Hard Drive or SSD in Your PC.” Or you can get a cloning kit from Amazon for around $24. Search on the phrase “SSD hard drive cloning kit.”

But the big question is, does it really speed up your computer?  Our knowledgeable reader says: “As far as performance goes, this is the best $100 I ever spent on a computer.  Startup now takes only a few seconds.  Heck, the Windows logo screen at the beginning doesn’t even get a chance to get going.  Sign in and the desktop is right there, no waiting.” These drives cost anywhere from $29 to $600, the cost depending on the capacity of the drive. But it doesn’t speed up web browsing. For that you need a fast processor, like the Intel i7, and eight to 16 gigabytes of RAM.

App Happy

Paris Hilton, 2009

Paris Hilton had 80,000 views of her photos but gained 1.4 million more after using a free app called “Plotaverse.” (That many people remember Paris Hilton?) Plotaverse creates photos that move and sway. Paris was always good with that. Facebook named it one of the top five photo apps for creating ads. And it currently has over four million users.

Plotaverse comes in three apps: “Plotagraph,” “Plotamorph” and “PlotaFX.” On their website, we saw a woman with Mickey Mouse ears morph into a man, and a field of flowers come alive with birds. Reminds us of Pixar or Disney. In an “Elle” ad, the model’s hair begins to flow as you look at the photo.

The pro versions of the app are $99 a year. But in the Google Play and Apple app stores you can find free versions.

The Numbers Report

Decluttr.com surveyed 1007 parents in the U.S. to determine how they deal with their children’s smartphones.

  • In the U.S., 20 percent of children between the ages of one and six own a smartphone. (What does a one-year-old say?)
  • Half of parents agree the most appropriate age for a child to own a phone is between 10 to 13 years old
  • Eighty-three percent say their children spend up to 21 hours per week on their phones. (Good grief!)
  • Sixty-eight percent of parents have not placed limitations on their children’s smartphones

One survey respondent said: “My 2-year-old has her own cell phone because she likes to play games and watch YouTube at daycare.” Parents should consider getting a refurbished phone, which can always be upgraded after the peanut butter and jelly attack.

Bitcoin Magazine

Joy’s been on a roller-coaster investing in Bitcoin, a form of e-cash currently crashing. Inevitably, there is now an online magazine about these new crypto currencies.

We found out about it from a friend, the former movie editor at the New York Times. Some of her media pals have started a publication called “BreakerMag,” at breakermag.com.

The stories are breezy and light, covering cryptocurrencies and “blockchain.” Besides the latest developments, we learned about a new novel called “Bitcoin Bimbo.” The excitement was hard to deal with.

Blockchain is an encrypted online ledger, normally shared by millions of computers, though some companies have developed private versions. Its goal is to increase efficiency, in everything from everyday legal contracts to international supply chains. For example, Walmart is using it as a tracking system to halt outbreaks of food borne illnesses, like E. coli and salmonella. Tracking a slice of mango used to take Walmart over six days. They’re slippery and tricky. Using the blockchain, it takes 2.2 seconds.

It reminds some people of the early days of the Internet, when everything was booming. “It’s like 1998 all over again,” said an attendee at “Blockchain Week,” which drew 8,500 people to New York City. Then again, maybe it’s not. Naysayers, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, call the whole crypto currency world “evil.” But his track record isn’t great. In the 1990s he predicted that the Internet would be no more important than the fax machine.

 

SOMETHING NEW IN GMAIL

Joy’s favorite part of Gmail is the “Undo” button, which allows you to call back an email that on second thought, you shouldn’t have sent. You can set it to hesitate for as long as 30 seconds, which allows for short naps.

Now this second-thought-er is available in the free Gmail app for Android and iPhone. To try out the “undo” feature of the Gmail app on your phone, compose a message as you normally would. After you send it, look at the bottom of your screen. Tap “undo.”

There’s also a new Gmail look available for your computer. If you’re a Gmail user this new version should pop up as a choice, meaning it will show you what’s new and you can keep that or go back to the old email version. The new one adds icons for your calendar, shopping list, and task list on the right side of your screen. Click the calendar app, and it opens in a side bar, not interfering with your email view. The same goes for the shopping and to do list.

Another new feature is “Confidential Mode,” available for phones and computers. Confidential Mode lets you put an expiration date on an email, making it vanish after a set time. It also keeps the recipient from downloading or forwarding it, though they could do it anyway by taking a screen shot of the photo or message and sending that.

To try “Confidential Mode” on your phone, write a message. Then tap the three stacked dots in the upper right corner and choose “Confidential Mode.” If you’re on the computer instead of the phone, look for the picture of a locked clock in the bottom right of the email window. Decide when your message should expire, anything from one day to five years. (This could save many politicians and any number of shaky romances.) If you change your mind about a message, tap “revoke access.” That’s kind of a harsh phrase, but the programmer was probably having one of those days.

Other new features on the computer: You can hover over an email and snooze it for later viewing, delete it, or archive it. And when you reply, you’ll see canned messages, ready to click on. Joy has been using these in text messages for a while, but they often have unnecessary exclamation points. A different kind of canned message, created in settings, can be used as a signature, like “Yr Hmbl Srvt, Bob,” if you just happened to have dropped in from the Elizabethan Age.

Listening to Magazines

We were surprised to learn that one of our favorite magazines, The Economist, includes an audio version. Download the app, tap the icon for the headset, and listen to all of the articles or create a playlist of the most interesting ones. The voices are professional readers and have that British classic BBC announcer sound. Unfortunately, you must be a subscriber, which costs $147 per year for the digital/audio edition.

We checked to see if other magazines have free audio versions and found the website AudioReadingServicePodcast.com, a service of a public library in Indiana. They have Time Magazine, AARP, Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest and others. The Atlantic magazine has articles available to listen to for free at theatlantic.com/podcasts/audio-articles/.

The Fortnite Craze

Now we get it. We know why our youngest relatives are mad about Fortnite, and a heck of a lot of adults. We read about it in David Pogue’s column at Yahoo.com.

The Fortnite shooter game is free and kinda funny. The first vehicle allowed in the game was a shopping cart. You arrive in the game on a flying bus. And there are no blood and guts spread across the screen; when you shoot someone, they just go down. But the circle you play in gets ever smaller, making it more intense, as the odds of being killed get ever shorter.

Fortnite has 125 million players; about 40 million are there every month. In May, last reported month, the game’s maker, Epic Games, took in more than $10 million a day, as players paid for extra challenges and rewards. Keep those shopping carts rolling.

Who’s Calling?

A reader wrote: “Had a very strange incident with my cellphone recently. I had an incoming call and it was from my own phone number!” Her husband told her not to answer, but she did anyway. And … there was no one there!

This reminds us of sci-fi stories where one meets oneself somewhere and the usual problems ensue. In this case, the call is coming from someone else. You can make any call look like it was coming from another number by using an app that changes the caller I.D. Asterisk.org and FreeSWITCH.com can do this. We haven’t tried these out, so this is just for your own information.

Internuts

  • FreedomInThe50States.org shows you which states have the fewest regulations and lowest taxes. It’s put together by the libertarian Cato Institute. Florida is their number one, New Hampshire number two, and then Indiana, Colorado and Nevada.
  • FakeSpot.com. Surprise! Some Amazon and Yelp reviews are fake. If you’re suspicious, paste in the website listing at FakeSpot.com and click “analyze.” All the ones we looked at got “A” grades, but we’re sure there are fakes out there.
  • DigitalSculpture-uffizi.org. Visit a famous art gallery in Florence, Italy without leaving your sofa. The “Uffizi Digitization Project” has 3D scans of more than 300 items from the gallery’s Greek and Roman collection. Turn around an ancient statue, just by moving your mouse. Most impressive. Uffizzi, by the way, is simply Italian for “offices;” the building formerly housed the offices of the Medici family.