FOR COMPLICATED TAXES, GET A HUMAN

The rivalry between TurboTax and H&R Block is like Hertz and Avis. I started with one company and ended up with the other.

Despite my glowing review of TurboTax a couple of months ago, I ran into a snag. I had a complicated tax situation because my husband invested in partnerships. They generated a kind of document called a “K-1.” Actually, lots of them.

On the TurboTax website, I pushed the “Do my taxes for me” button and got a nice lady in Missouri. But she bailed out when she found out about my K-1 tax docs. TurboTax experts won’t handle returns with more than one of those. She suggested I do them myself and use their live chat, but I was afraid of messing up.

So I went on H&R Block’s website. There you can choose an accountant by location and I found one nearby. I biked over and dropped documents off rather than uploading them to the site. It took the guy only eight days to complete my returns. That was five months faster than last year.  Even better, the H&R fee was 20 percent less than I paid previously. I owe no taxes this year and will get a $400 refund! What a contrast to TurboTax. Their computer said I owed $3,635 to the state. H&R’s human representative said I owe nothing.

To VPN or Not to VPN

 A reader asked if he should get a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for enhanced privacy. You can get a great one from Proton Technologies, for free.

A VPN shields your identity from malware and hackers. This is important when you’re using public WiFi in a risky place. Also, a VPN also enables you to watch Netflix when you’re in another country. And it allows you to get better prices for stuff you buy online. Some sites give discounts based on location.

The free version of ProtonVPN works great. Proton Technologies was founded by a group of scientists who met at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research. It works with Android, iPhone/iPad, Windows, Mac, Chromebook, Linux, and Android TV. They also offer free, encrypted email.

When I launched the VPN on my Chromebook, I clicked the “quick connect” button and didn’t have to do anything else. But I didn’t see a big drop in ads until I turned on incognito mode. That’s exactly what HowToGeek.com predicted. They say you to be incognito and use encrypted email and messages for full protection. To get to incognito quickly in Chrome, Edge or Firefox, click the hamburger icon, (three stacked lines). You’ll see “incognito” or “private window” on the menu. 

App Happy

  •  Digital Compass” puts a compass on your phone.  I found it helpful when getting off a train in Chicago. The voice on Google Maps said to turn south, but which way was that? Yes, there’s a compass in Google Maps, but it’s so tiny I didn’t notice it. I like the big one Digital Compass, from Axiomatic, has.
  • “Relaxed,” from Game Mavericks, will put you to sleep. It’s a free app with stories,  games, meditation exercises, music and nature sounds. Get it at relaxed.mobi

Slow iPhone?

 If your phone is getting slow, it might be running out of storage space.

 The iPhone works constantly to juggle things when your storage dips below one gigabyte, according to an article on ZDNet, “Is Your iPhone Feeling Slow?” At that point you should delete or transfer any extra photos and videos, as well as games or apps you aren’t using. To delete an app, put a finger on its icon till it jiggles, then tap the “x.” 

If your battery is more than three years old, it will slow down your phone. Check its health with the free app “CoconutBattery” from coconut-flavour.com. It works with iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

If your Android phone is running slow, get the free CCleaner. It gets rid of junk files and empties the cache. Consider uninstalling any apps you aren’t using. Ccleaner periodically asks me to do that, but I love my apps too much to get rid of them, even if I haven’t used them in a while.

Free Microsoft Office 365

The only reason to buy Office 365 is if you prefer to work offline on documents, spreadsheets or slideshows. Otherwise, you can do all of that for free at Office.com.

The only trick is you’ll need your Microsoft password. If you’ve forgotten it, go to account.live.com/resetpassword.aspx. Or search on “forgot Microsoft password.” 

How to Spot a Scam

Beware of email that looks legit, like the one that tells you “it’s time for the annual review of your Social Security account.”

That email directs you to socialsecurity.gov, which sounds real. But a woman told CBS News that after she went there and began verifying things, she grew suspicious. She called the Social Security Administration, and sure enough, they said it was a scam. The real site is ssa.gov.

Here’s the basic rule: Avoid any email asking you to verify your information, unless it’s an email you were expecting.  Be leery of any unexpected offers.

Email Tip

When my Gmail inbox gets overloaded, I select all messages by clicking the box at the top of the list. Then, I uncheck the boxes next to any I want to keep before clicking “delete.” This really speeds things up! 

 

I LEARN TO FLY A MINI DRONE


HS210 (mini drone) HS 160 (black drone), HS 175 (gray drone) Photo by Richard K. Stare

DJI makes the best drones, according to just about everyone. But who wants to spend a thousand dollars? I don’t know about you, but I’m not planning to become a drone professional.

Recently, I borrowed a $31 Holy Stone “HS 210” mini-drone from a friend. It’s astonishingly easy to fly, compared to the last miniature drone I flew. The old quadcopter shot past me like a rocket, banging against every obstacle in my apartment. Not this time.

Push a button on the three-inch-by-three-inch flying machine and it launches. Push another and it flies in circles. Push another and it does aerial flips, or lands. Push two buttons —  if it’s about to hit Aunt Sally — and it shuts off instantly.  It hovers in mid-air like it’s sitting on a solid surface. A user on Amazon said it got her anti-drone daughter back to flying with the family.

The HS 210 stays aloft for 21 minutes if you use all three rechargeable batteries, one at a time for seven minutes each. Set it to fly at a slow speed to avoid running into things. I enjoyed flying it around the living room. The propellers are caged so they can’t break off or slice into something.

If you want to go to the next level, there’s a mid-sized drone for $60, the “HS 160.” It has a camera. But inside the house it can be nerve-wracking. That’s because once inside, we tend to fly it lower, so there’s a “ground effect,” also called “aerodynamic drag.”

The HS 160 controller has a slot for your phone and an app to command your drone. You see what the drone sees. Press a button to take a photo or long press it to take a video. The videos and photos I saw, taken by my friend outside and inside at eye level, look great.

You can also use the HS 160 to take photos or videos from above. This would be handy at a wedding or party. But don’t get close enough to see what the guests are eating. The FCC says a drone

must be about 55 yards (50 meters) above humans. At press time, Amazon said they’re out of stock, but Holy Stone has lots of similar models.

Getting Creative

“This is sand” is a free app from ThisIsSand.com. As you hold your finger on your screen, sand piles up, making colorful patterns. The variety is amazing. I made overlapping mountains of many colors. Someone else made a genteel couple.

Zen coloring app for adults” is more than your ordinary coloring book. Add frames to your creation, as well as textures, such as burlap, silk or raindrops. I used the app on my Chromebook so I’d get a larger coloring surface.

Learning to Code

I quit trying to get a second degree in computer science many years ago because I was no good at it. But if I’d had a free app like “Mimo,” I would have done much better.

It starts out slowly, showering you with praise as you go. Start by choosing between Python, a general purpose programming language, or CSS, the language of the web. Then choose between beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. I found it fun, especially when I saw my name go up on the leaderboard because I’d stuck with it for 20 minutes. You get more projects with the pro version, which is $80 a year after the free trial, from GetMimo.com.

Zoom’s Footprint

A recent article in ZDNet recommended using email instead of Zoom video conferencing because of its lower carbon footprint. But compared to flying all over the world for meetings, Zoom is remarkably pro-environment. If six people confer over Zoom every week for an hour over a whole year, the amount of carbon dioxide released would be equivalent to driving a car nine miles! Even if the six people lived in the same town, they’d drive a lot more than that to get together — after just a week! More info at DavidMytton.blog.

Offering Help

I often want to help someone who lacks tech skills, but asking them to download software like TeamViewer can be more than they can handle. Recently I learned that Windows has its own help mechanism. Just type “quick assist” in the search bar in the lower left of your screen. Choose “assist another person.” You’ll  be given a code. Give it to the person who needs help. If you’re the one getting assistance, launch Quick Assist and type in the code someone gave you. That way they can control your computer remotely and fix what ails it.

Internuts

  • GlobalDataLab.org steered me to some fascinating statistics on refrigerator ownership. I was led there after receiving an email claiming that only 25 percent of the world’s population has food in a refrigerator, clothes on their back, a roof over their head and a place to sleep. Feeling skeptical, I wondered how many people worldwide have a refrigerator. According to GlobalDataLab, in most developed countries, it’s around 99 percent. In Cuba, it’s 86 percent. In Bangladesh, it’s 41 percent. Relatively few countries are below that.
  • FoodRevolution.org just finished broadcasting a variety of speakers talking about foods that prevent cancer, heart disease, dementia and other chronic illnesses. Members get access to the recorded versions. But the site also has lots of articles and recipes year round. Who knew that seaweed can help ward off Covid? It was in the journal Cell Discovery. Get ready for a bowl of miso soup with kombu or a seaweed salad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAVE YOU BEEN ‘FLoCed?’

There have been lots of complaints about Google’s new “FLoC” tracking system. You may be wondering what the fuss is all about. Here it is, in a nutshell.

 “FLoC,” which stands for “Federal Learning of Cohorts” replaces third party cookies that track you on the web.  Instead of being followed individually, your anonymous browsing activity gets lumped with thousands of similar users. Then the whole group is given an identifier. For example, if 3,000 users visit a bunch of furniture websites, a group identifier will allow advertisers to send furniture ads their way

Despite the complaints, FLoC seems less intrusive than the current system. Significantly, Google says there won’t be any identifiers on sensitive activities. These include searches for personal medical, political and religious information. But skeptics fear that these areas could be added in the future, and somehow traced back to you.

In any case, only one half of one percent of Chrome users in ten countries, including the U.S., are part of the FLoC trial. You can see if you’ve been “FLoC’d,” by visiting AmiFLoced.org. I’m not part of the trial, but if you are, and you’re concerned, consider one of the browsers that opted out of the system, such as Vivaldi or Brave. 

Google Play Books

I like to read books in the Kindle app on my phone or tablet. But I was reminded of Google Play Books when they offered me a discount recently.. My favorite feature in both apps is the ability to make highlights by dragging my finger over a section.

Google highlights are automatically saved to a Word-like document, which you can view or edit at Docs.Google.com.That’s nice, but I have so many documents stored in Google Docs that my  highlight pages are tough to find. 

Kindle highlights are much easier to locate. They’re found at read.Amazon.com/notebook. The icons for your books appear in a column on the left. Click one to see the highlights you’ve made. Click “options” to go right to that part of the book.

When I went there, I found highlights for the book, “Polio: An American Story,” among hundreds of others. I viewed a highlighted sentence about Americans being encouraged to spray their living rooms with DDT. A note I’d made appeared under the highlight. Handy.

Speaking of Kindle stuff, your Kindle’s lockscreen can now show the cover of the book you’re reading. It’s available on most Kindle models, but not the Fire tablet. To set it up, find “Show Cover” in “Device Options.”

Finding Your Stuff

I’ve lost a gadget in couch cushions too many times to count. If I’d had a Samsung phone with “Augmented Reality,” (AR), and their new $30 “Galaxy SmartTag,” I’d have found these things easily. The AR aspect makes it different from similar smart tags. 

“AR Finder” shows you how far away you are from a tag and points you in the right direction. Once you’re 130 yards away or less, it will ring loudly, even if you’re offline. You can put a SmartTag on a backpack, a wallet, a key chain, or any object. It can also control the lights, if you have the smart kind.

App Happy Trivia

Whenever I’m visiting my sister and brother-in-law in California, we watch “Jeopardy.” We compete with each other loudly, calling out compliments when one of us hits the nail on the head. Now I can practice with a free app.

Jeopardy World Tour,” free for Android and iPhone, lets you play by yourself offline or with others online. I thought it was fun.

Password Tip

Here’s a  suggestion from PCWorld.com: The longer the password the better. JackandJillWentUpTheHill is harder to crack then $xZ1#. If you use ten characters or more, hackers must go through at least a sextillion number of combinations to guess it. Lately, I’ve been using actors and movie titles, such as BogartInCasaBlanca. I add a special character and a number, when required.

Drones in the Classroom

Three thousand drones are heading to classrooms this year through a partnership with drone maker Draganfly and Woz Ed, a program designed by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. 

Students get an intro to aviation in kindergarten. Later they get hands-on experience piloting and spotting for drone missions. Then they study the physics and engineering aspects. By the time they leave high school, they’re certified drone experts. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projected more than 100,000 new jobs in unmanned aircraft by 2025.

Internuts

  • The first room burglars check for valuables.” Search on that phrase to find an interesting RD.com article. The bedroom is the worst. They zero in on the bedroom closet, the dresser and under the mattress.
  • Collections.Louvre.fr/en has the entire 480,000 works from the Louvre Museum online. I was surprised to find only a few paintings by Renoir. There are eight at the Art Institute of Chicago. Turned out I wasn’t turning enough pages.
  • BrainPickings.org, a site suggested by a reader, has interesting essays, including several by Oliver Sacks, author of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”  He said the best way out of the doldrums is through music or gardening.

Windows Updates

A reader reminded me that you can’t avoid Windows updates forever. If your system gets buggy after an update, use Windows recovery mode to fix it. Then wait a bit, but don’t delay the next update indefinitely. They help you avoid security risks. 

 

SPRING CLEANING

Worldwide shipments of desktop computers have dropped in half since 2010, while tablets and laptops have surged, but I still like the feel of a good desktop. I just have to remember to clean the inside occasionally. This is the perfect time of year for that, before summer starts to fry everything.

I’ll never forget the time my husband cleaned my sister’s desktop computer for her. No wonder her machine was slow! The dust bunnies were thick and still multiplying.

Dust never sleeps, especially inside a desktop. The cooling fans bring in air from the outside, clogging the parts with dust. If it gets hot enough in there, the central processing unit (CPU) as well as the graphics processing unit (GPU) can conk out. It’s like putting a gun to a computer’s head. 

To take the case off the back of a desktop, unscrew the bolt and use the lip to pull it straight off. You may want to put the machine on its side first. To put the case on again, line it up along the bottom, a little to the right, before sliding it into place. 

A friend of mine uses ultra-thin brushes on a vacuum cleaner to get at dust that’s really stuck. But blasting away with compressed air should be good enough. Get two cans of the stuff. One can may fizzle out after a couple blasts but will be ready to go again as soon as you’ve done a few blasts with the other can. Be sure to blast everywhere, even inside the CD drive in front, which you can get at if you unscrew a bolt and lift the handle. An old paintbrush can also help you knock dust off the fans.

My Chromebook doesn’t have a fan so there’s no air to draw in and create dust. Maybe your laptop doesn’t either. But be aware that they can still get hot if they sit on your lap or on a towel or blanket, covering the vent. 

Facebook Breach

Half a billion Facebook users had their names, email addresses and cell phone numbers exposed recently, including 32 million from the U.S. You can check if yours was on the list by going to haveibeenpwned.com. (Note that there’s no “a” in “pwned.”) My Facebook account was fine, but there were lots of other sites where my data had been exposed. Fortunately, none of those had sensitive information. Otherwise, I would have changed their passwords.

Porn on the Lock Screen

Porn messages kept showing up on the lock screen of my phone, no matter how many times I erased them. The messages said that my “collaborators” could still access the files.

The porn files showed up in Google Drive and Google Docs, because of a rogue app pretending to be Google Drive. When I uninstalled it, the porn went away, both in the Drive and in the Docs. The real Google Drive app was still there.

The Google support page is full of complaints on this issue, with no solution offered. I figured that the problem was a rogue app because I could uninstall it. The real Google Drive can’t be uninstalled on Android phones, only disabled.

Wild About Chromebooks

A reader writes: “Thought I would give you an unsolicited testimonial for a new computer I bought for my wife. She is not a computer person but enjoys all the web stuff like Pinterest, Facebook, local news, email, music, etc. She does nothing with applications that require disk storage such as word processors.” Previously she used a two-year old Toshiba laptop.

“She was always having trouble with it with login problems or the computer slowing down,” he said. “Anytime she has trouble, she screams my name and expects me to fix it (instantly).  Well, I solved this problem. I bought her a Chromebook.”

He bought her the Acer Chromebook C740, a refurbished model he got for only $107 at Walmart. It has a sixteen gigabyte solid state drive, four gigabytes of RAM, and an Intel dual-core processor. The screen is 15 inches.

 “She does not have to login,” he added. “She simply closes the cover and it goes to sleep. To use, she simply opens the cover and it is ready to go where she left off. It is fast. It requires no antivirus or anti-malware software.  It has no CD/DVD drive but it does have two USB ports.  She can link to Bluetooth speakers.  She can use a web word processor if needed and print to a WiFi printer that we have.” Best of all there was no learning curve. She just clicks on one of the four icons for “Chrome,” “Email,” “YouTube” or “Docs.”

 “She loves it and doesn’t bother me at all anymore,” he said.  “I love it. It is the best investment in computer devices that I’ve made in years.  Of course, I still have my high horsepower desktop for my work and games.”  

Sending Sensitive Email

If you ever send someone sensitive info by email, encrypt it. The free version of ProtonMail, formerly used only by CERN scientists, makes it easy. All user data is protected by Switzerland’s strict privacy laws. 

There’s a free app or you can use it in a browser such as Chrome or Edge. To send an email, click the encrypt button to give it a password, adding a hint for the recipient. The message evaporates after 28 days. Or you can set your own time period. 

 

 

NON-FUNGIBLE IS ALL THE RAGE

Did you hear about the New York Times article, still online, that sold for $560,000? How about the digital cat in a pop tart? It sold for $590,000. Or the 5,000 online images that sold for $69 million? They’re part of the brave new world of “Non-Fungible Tokens.”

 “Non-fungible” means “can’t be copied, unique,” much like the items on Antiques Roadshow. In the digital world, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are sold in online auctions. If you buy a token, you own a link to a unique piece of digital art, music, video clip or what-have-you. Recently, a video clip of  LeBron James’s basketball dunk was tokenized. The buyer paid over $200,000.

Before NFTs, digital files weren’t considered unique because they’re so easy to copy: Just send your friends the link. By using the blockchain, a kind of online ledger, each file gets a stamp of authenticity, which can be traded. 

I’ve just been pitched on an NFT for a novel, “Catch 42,” by Feliz Holzapfel, who once sold a digital marketing agency to a big firm. The auction for Catch 42 and its artwork is going on now as you read this.  

I read an advance copy of the book. The hero is an ordinary guy, scrambling to make a living, when a mysterious voice from the future asks for his help. It’s an exciting story, with lots of helpful explanations of concepts like quantum mechanics, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Links to TED.com talks on artificial intelligence, biotech and other new frontiers come at the end of many chapters. 

Holzapfel considers his NFT an experiment, a way to teach people about a new phenomenon. The auction will include original artwork in high resolution. All profits go to the artist in the first round, later to charity. You can read all about it at Catch-42.com. It goes on sale in the regular channels May 13.

Though in its infancy, NFTs are a way for artists, writers and musicians to benefit from royalties on their works, since the value of tokens on resale can go up in value as the artist gains fame. Recently, however, prices are down 70 percent from their peak, according to Bloomberg. The average token’s price is now $1400. But the idea behind NFTs is still sound.

Search on “NFT writer on the side” to find a podcast about turning your own book into an NFT. Check out some of the art that sold for $69 million at beeple-collect.com. But beware. One guy spent $500 on a broken link. The art he bought was taken down after the website hosts found out it was fake.

New App From Google

Take a picture of a receipt, your driver’s license or some important document and a new Android app from Google called “Stack,” will automatically categorize it, making it easy to find in the app.

After installing Stack, I opened it and tapped the plus sign to add a document. When it asked me for the source, I chose “camera” to take a picture of a grocery store receipt. It was automatically categorized. Even the name of the store was slotted in.My driver’s license was automatically stored under “IDs.” What’s more, I can search on text within any image or PDF. I typed “baguette” and a grocery store receipt popped up.

For more info, see Stack.Area120.com. “Area 120” refers to Google’s tech incubator, where engineers try out new ideas. 

 Fleeced

Have you been fleeced? “Fleeceware” is another name for an app that lures you into downloading it for a short free trial before hitting you with a high subscription fee.

Avast, the antivirus company, found 204 fleeceware apps, with expected revenues of $403 million. The Apple App Store had more of them than the Google Play Store — 134 compared to 70. All together, these apps were downloaded one billion times. According to a ZDnet article, some apps charge more than $3000 a year.

The most popular fleeceware are in categories like astrology, photo editing, music lessons, cartoon creation, video editing, and QR code scanners. Most offer a three-day free trial. After that, if you forget to cancel, it can cost you from $4 a month to $66 a week. 

To cancel an Android app, open the Play Store, tap the hamburger icon (looks like three stacked lines), and choose “Subscriptions.” Click on an app, then “Cancel Subscription” at the bottom of the page. It’s a good idea to cancel in advance so you don’t forget. You’ll still get your free trial.

Virtual Hug

Now that so many have been vaccinated, there’s less need for Alexa’s virtual hug. But it still might be nice to say, “Alexa, send a hug.” She’ll ask you who you want to send it to. The recipient will see their Echo smart speaker light up in yellow. When I tried it, Alexa said: “Joy is sending you a hug.”

Internuts

  •  StillTasty.com tells you if you should keep or toss something from the fridge or pantry. For example, salsa can last a month after being opened. Olive oil lasts 18 months to two years.
  • Wolfram Summer School.” Search on those words to find a summer school for grad students, undergrads, professionals and professors.The topics include physics, science, technology and educational motivation. It all takes place online from June 28 to July 16. Wolfram is the creator of the well-known “Mathmatica” software.

 

BUYING A RENEWED PC

After 11 years, my friend’s computer conked out, due to a hard drive failure. I tried to talk her into replacing it with a refurbished PC. No dice.

Her first thought was taking it to a repair shop. Angie’s List said it would cost $300 for the drive and installation.  Not only did that sound like too much, but an 11 year-old all-in-one PC with a bad hard drive is likely to have other problems. So she got an HP Elitedesk 800 G1 desktop, which came with a monitor and mouse for $324 from Walmart. I was glad to see it had eight gigabytes of RAM and an Intel i5 processor. (You can compare processors at CPUboss.com.)

Unfortunately, the Elitedesk has an ordinary hard drive. I was hoping my friend would get one with a solid state drive, which is both faster and more reliable. But PCs with SSDs cost around $750 or more if you don’t buy a refurbished model. She could have gotten a great desktop with an SSD for $207 if she’d gone that route.

Typically, refurbished products are stuff that customers returned unused; they’re essentially new. Or they may be defective products returned under warranty which are resold after being repaired. Amazon’s “Renewed” devices, another name for “refurbished,” must show proof they’ve passed various inspections. Amazon guarantees that the battery on any renewed device has at least 80 percent of its original capacity. You also get 90 days to return it. Apple offers deals on refurbished equipment too. They thoroughly test each phone, computer or tablet and swap out any malfunctioning parts. 

Pretty in Pictures

The first thing I did for my friend with the new computer was download the free “Bing Desktop.” It gives you a different background picture each day, called “wallpaper.” Most are spectacular. You’ll find it if you search on “Bing Desktop.”

You can also get a daily wallpaper for your Chromebook, by right-clicking the desktop. Just tap two fingers on the trackpad and choose “Set wallpaper.” Whichever one you choose, click “Daily refresh.” Right now, I have beautiful mountains and tulips.

 On a Mac, open “System Preferences.” Then click “Desktop & Screen Saver.” If you choose “Desktop,” you can use a folder from your photos library and set how often you want the picture to change.

Fastest Phone Charger

Anker sent me their “PowerPort PD 2” charger for iPhone and Android, $21 from Amazon. It’s neat if you have a phone that handles wireless charging, and it charges two devices at once. It’s three times faster than the charger your iPhone came with. But you can go cheaper and faster than that.

The “3-Pack Quick Charge 3.0 Fonken 18W 3A USB Wall Charger” is four times faster than a traditional charger. It works with iPhone or Android. The three-pack costs $18, so you pay less for three of them than you would for one Anker.

Blocking Ads

A reader writes that Google Chrome removed the ad blocker he was using on his Chromebook. When he couldn’t find a replacement, he said: “Whom the gods would drive mad, they first give computers.” 

I found the ad blocker he wanted from AdBlockPlus.org. It’s free for Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Opera and Android. It’s great on sites like Arcamax, which has free comics. Arcamax doesn’t ask you to disable your ad blocker, the way others do.

Using Multiple Accounts on Gmail

A reader wondered how he could check his Gmail from five different accounts by quickly switching from one to another. It’s a snap once you set it up  — which is easy too.

Having extra accounts is handy. That way you don’t have to give out your personal email address to businesses. To rotate between them in Gmail, start by clicking your profile picture. Click “Add account.” Or if you already have multiple accounts, click “manage account” and then “add account.” Keep adding accounts by signing into them.  From there, you can switch from one to another, by clicking your profile picture and choosing one.

It works great with the free Gmail app on a phone too. I added a Yahoo account by signing into it. I was then asked if I wanted to “Gmail-ify” it — a great idea. That allows Gmail to help keep the spam out of Yahoo mail.

Avoiding Cable TV

I signed up for Fox Nation’s streaming service, since I no longer get cable TV, so I could see my friend Cori Munro in her first starring episode on “America’s Most Wanted.”

They charge a dollar for the first month.  If I want to keep it after that, I’d pay  $4.12 a month if I go for two years at a time, or $6 month-to-month. CBS’s streaming service, from ParamountPlus.com, is also $6 a month for the pay-as-you-go month-to-month plan. Kanopy.com offers free TV and movies if you have a library card. There’s also free flicks and television from NBC at PeacockTV.com. I noticed that Peacock has some free Harry Potter movies as well as classics like “Pride and Prejudice.”  Unfortunately, on a Chromebook, the title stuck to every scene of both films I looked at. But it was fine in Windows.

Internut

SowellFilm.com traces the journey of economist Thomas Sowell, considered by some as one of the greatest minds of the past half-century. Here’s one of his sayings:  “Many people, in trying to insulate young people from adversity, insulate them from the things that give them strength.”

 

NEW PORTABLE POWER BANK SAVES THE DAY

On a recent plane trip, I watched in dismay as the power drained from my phone. By the time I got from Chicago to New Hampshire with a stop in Philly, it was circling the drain. 

A portable power bank is the answer. Here are two questions: How fast can it restore a phone to full charge? Does it lose power when not in use? In the past, on the rare occasions when I’ve thought to bring a power bank with me, it turned out it wasn’t charged and I didn’t have time to mess with it.

Power banks with lithium ion batteries should retain their power months after they’ve been charged. But some products that claim to have lithium batteries don’t. A friend of mine has a “lithium” lantern. But it drains quickly.

Having just tested the new NitroCharge 30, $80 from myExcitrus.com, I’ll never go far from home without it. It’s around the size of a thick smartphone, but is only around an ounce heavier than my Google Pixel 3a in its case, around eight ounces. It took my phone from 30 percent power to 100 percent in an hour and ten minutes. If I were starting from zero, I could still get two full charges out of a fully charged bank. It did great on my laptop too, going from 43 percent to 95 percent in an hour. In either case, I could have continued to use my devices while they were charging. 

The company name is “Excitrus,” which sounds to me like “Excite-R-Us.” It’s exciting to think I might never be out with a dead phone again.

App Happy Flight

As my plane touched down in Philadelphia, I went to the American Airlines website on my phone to get my boarding pass for a flight to Boston. I couldn’t find it, so I asked the passenger next to me. Duh. She used the American Airlines app.

As soon as I had installed it and signed into the app, I saw my boarding pass. I’d had the AA app on a previous phone, but hadn’t thought to install it on the new one. Oops.

How Much Memory?

You probably don’t want to buy a computer with less memory than your current one has, since it can slow down your web experience. 

To find out how much you have in your Windows computer, bring up the Task Manager by right-clicking the taskbar and choosing it from the pop-up menu. Choose “Details” to see the “Processes,” “Performance,” and “Startup” tabs. Click the “Performance” tab and “Memory,” then look for “Speeds and Slots.” Slots will tell you if you have any space to add RAM. “Speeds” gives you your operating speed. Click “Processes” to find the memory hogs. Click “Startups” to disable programs you rarely use. That way they won’t start up when the computer starts, just when you want them to. 

Or you can use the free CCleaner by clicking “Tools.” Their startup utility is better at labeling the processes you may want to disable. I thought I’d disabled my Hallmark greeting card program’s event planner from starting up, but it turned out to have two instances. Windows had named one  “program.”  Only CCleaner showed it to be another Hallmark process I’d missed.

An Edge to Edge?

Recipe “Collections” in Edge

I’m partial to Google Chrome when I go on the web. But Microsoft Edge has an edge when it comes to recipes.

Search for “salad recipes,” for example and you’ll  see your results in the main part of the page. I clicked on “Tasty Salad,” and saw the recipe fill the right side of the screen, with the search results still in the middle. Now if I decide Tasty Salad is not tasty enough, I can go back over the list in the main part of the screen and choose a different one without having to use the back button.

You can save your recipes to an Edge “Collection” to make them easier to find next time. When you start up Edge, click the three vertical dots in the upper corner. Click “Collections,” then “Start New Collection.” Now browse to a page you want to save and click “add current page.” You can have as many collections as you have interests.

Internuts

  • Call2Recycle.org gives you drop-off locations for old batteries and phones. 
  •  SecureTheCall.org sends emergency phones to seniors. They’ll pay postage on any you want to donate.
  • Earth911.org has info about recycling and earth-friendly practices, such as planting a garden the birds will like or charging your electric vehicle at home and on the go. Here’s an interesting statistic: In 2019, the U.S. threw away seven-and-a-half billion dollars worth of  raw materials found in e-waste.

Starting From Scratch

My neighbors’ children are already learning how to program at school. So why should they get the new book by Al Sweigart: “Scratch Programming Playground?”

Any kid who can master Minecraft might want to try his hand at making his own games using this as a guideline ($25 from NoStarch). There’s an animated art project, a maze runner, a new version of “Fruit Ninja,” “Asteroids,” and more. Adults who remember the classic “Little Brick Out,” the game that inspired Steve Wozniak to build the Apple II computer, might want to try turning a brick-breaking game into a version with extra animation. Free preview at NoStarch.com.

 

GETTING TAX PREP HELP

I’ve never done my own taxes. I was always afraid I’d mess up.

Yet I’ve known about tax software for years. I met my late husband, Bob Schwabach, when I was in public relations, trying to get him to write about it.  He never did review my rinky-dink client. Having been among the first to write about Intuit, he knew it was best.

I’m a convert now. Intuit’s TurboTax website makes it so easy. I went there and clicked  “connect with an expert.” I got a phone call from a folksy guy who drives a school bus. He explained how I could do the taxes myself, paying anywhere from nothing to $170, the filing fee for complex returns. TurboTax reviews all filings. 

If you file your taxes by March 27 and have an adjusted gross income of less than $39,000, TurboTax will assign a tax expert to help you for free. They have many other options as well, such as paying $50 for maximum audit protection. Alternatively, you could do a web search on “IRS Free File,” and choose one of the five websites they recommend. That’s for anyone who makes $72,000 or less. I started there, but stopped when I saw that I’d have to enter 555 stock trades manually. Bob was a day trader.

I went with TurboTax because of their “do my taxes for me” button. Next year I’ll try it on my own. With our Fidelity account, TurboTax automatically filled in all the details. Same with eTrade. But there were some points in the process where my eyes glazed over and I got confused. Fortunately, the folksy guy I talked to said if TurboTax did the whole thing for me, my total bill would be around $300. That’s a lot less than we paid an accounting firm last year. 

Online Meetings – Party-Style

Staring at a wall of faces in a Google Meet or Zoom meeting can be tiring. That’s not how you would interact at a party. You’d go from small group to small group. “Toucan” makes this possible.

On their website, Toucan.events, click on a demo to see it in action. You’ll see your face in its own circle, and other circles to click on. I hovered over one showing a young man and woman and clicked “join.” Instantly, they started talking to me.Though this is a canned demo, it’s quite realistic. I felt like I was really participating. It would be great at an online wedding or big event. Friends could find friends, kids could find kids, and private one-on-one chats could take place with video, not just text.

Free Trial Tip

To avoid getting dinged when a free trial is up, cancel the same day you sign up. I do it all the time. Only once did the free trial cut off prematurely.

On an iPhone, cancel a subscription by tapping “Settings,” then your name, then “Subscriptions,” and finally the service you want to cancel. On Android, open the Play Store app, tap the hamburger icon, (looks like three stacked lines), then “Subscriptions,” and choose the one you want to cancel. Or you can go to the company’s website. Find your account by clicking the hamburger icon.

NOT FAKING IT

Recently, I wrote about the business of fake reviews on Amazon. A modest form of fakery is writing a review to get a free product. But such reviews are not always fake.

“I do quite a few reviews, particularly if I like the product,” a reader wrote. “Being in business myself, I don’t usually give negative ones. If one of my customers has a bad experience with my product or service, I want the opportunity to make it right, and I give online sellers the same consideration.

“I’ve taken advantage of refunds in exchange for positive reviews,” he continued, adding that he’d never write something favorable just to get a free product. After reviewing a power washer he loved, for example, he got a message from the seller. They offered  him a  refund on the new version if he gave it five stars. Or, he could return it and get his money back. He thought the new power washer was worth the stars, so he bought it. They promptly refunded him the full amount through PayPal.

App Hogs

I had no idea that my phone apps might be automatically connecting with mobile data, rather than waiting till I’m in range of WiFi. That can get expensive.

On an Android phone, go to “Settings,” tap “Apps and Notifications,” and “see all apps.” Turn off data on any big data hog. On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then tap “Cellular.” Tap the switch next to any app to turn it off.  

Alternatively, you can turn off mobile data for every app in one fell swoop. Android systems vary, but on mine, I tap “Settings,” then “Network & Internet,” then “Mobile network,” and toggle the “Mobile Data” switch to the off position. On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then “Mobile Data,” and turn off automatic use. Turn it back on if you’re away from free WiFi and need to connect. 

Internut

Every Alexa command you can give to your Amazon Echo.” Search on that phrase to see CNET’s complete list. For instance, say, “Alexa, what’s the latest on the coronavirus?” Or:  “Alexa, help me wash my hands.” She’ll sing a rap song to keep you scrubbing for 20 seconds.

 

 

GOOGLE RELIC PICASA IS GREAT AT PHOTO ORGANIZING

Many readers have told me they miss “Picasa,” which Google discontinued years ago. It was great at organizing photos.

One reader writes: “I have tried 22 other apps. The main source of frustration is their concentration on manipulating photos, with no attention at all — or very little — to importing, storing and organizing.” In Picasa, for example, he could save an entire set of photos to a single file. A descriptive name told him all he needed to know.

Fortunately, I found the old Picasa. Go to https://archive.org/details/picasa_27 to find the most stable version. To download it, click on the “Windows Executable” file in the upper right. It posed no security threats when I ran it.

With it, the reader said he was able to bring in all the photos on his system, which he found “very useful.” He’s also enjoying the “export” feature, which I also love. I exported my special photos to their own folder, making them easy to find and email. My relatives adore seeing themselves or loved ones in an occasional blast-from-the-past note. I also love the way Picasa shows so many thumbnail photos at a glance, with the file and folder names from Windows off to one side.

On the downside, the reader notes: “All of 16 years worth of incrementally collected albums are gone. That’s too bad, but recoverable.” In addition, “an import from either the camera or SD card does not work at all, it crashes the app.” (That’s funny, it worked for me.)  But “net-net,” he says, “Picasa 2 is very useful to me. Nothing else I have found comes as close to being convenient for opening an existing file, looking at individual photos, deleting them, exporting them, adding captions, and so on. I now have to see if I can in one ‘swell foop’ export all of the photo files, directories and contents to cloud storage.”  He concluded:  “Your help has been angelic, that is, sent by the gods.” My favorite part of the column is helping readers.

Let’s Make a Movie 

My favorite 10 year-old showed me the movie trailers for a murder mystery she made using Apple’s free “iMovie.” They were incredible!  I had to try it myself.

Apple’s free iMovie for iPhone or iPad gives you 14 templates, which makes creating a trailer as easy as filling out a form and tapping on the photos and videos you want to use. The template adds jazzy music, Ken Burns-style transitions, and titles for each scene. My young friend played the bad guy in her trailer. Her sly expression has a movie-actor quality.

Here’s how you can make a trailer on an iPhone or iPad. Tap to open the iMovie program, then select “create project,” and tap on “Trailer.” Now choose a template. You can tap the play button to see if it’s one you want. I like “Retro,” which is James Bond-y. Then there’s “Fairy Tale,” which reminds me of the movie “The Princess Bride,” and “Coming of Age,” which fits a lot of photo sequences. In fact, these are so good, who needs to make a movie? Just make a trailer.

I chose “Retro” for my nephew’s trailer, which opens up to the “Outline” page. Here I changed  the name of the film company from “High Def Productions” to “Aunt Joy Productions” I then typed over the suggested movie title with one of my own, and put in the cast, which in this case was my nephew. Next I tapped the “Storyboard” tab. Here, I could insert photos by clicking blank squares. Each square was labeled with the type of photo or video suggested, such as “action” or “closeup.” Voila, done in five minutes!

Deep Nostalgia

I just saw my two-year-old self come alive in a video, as well as my sister at 3 and my dad at 41.  It was astonishing, thanks to a new “Deep Nostalgia” tool from the family tree site, MyHeritage.com.

All I had to do was upload a photo, and they did the rest. Clicking on my dad, I saw his 41 year-old self come alive. Then I clicked on my sister and myself. You’d think it might be creepy, but it wasn’t for me. The site lets you download each animated person to share with others. My sister said: “Daddy looks so young!”

To try it out, I had to enroll in the two-week free trial. After that, it gets expensive, though a basic membership is free. Sign in and click on “my purchases,” then “details” to cancel the Premium version. So far, I’m happy with it. Just by entering the birth and death dates for my dad’s parents, I found out who my great great grandparents were, as well as scores of uncles and aunts. In addition, the site allows you to upload your raw DNA data from 23andme or Ancestry.com. 

Going Faster on the Internet

A reader said that after turning the router on and off, his Internet speed rose from less than one megabit per second to around four on average — better, but hardly great. So he called his Internet Service Provider (ISP), which replaced the router with a new state-of-the-art model. “Amazingly,” he said, “where my top internet speed was 5 Mbps, it’s now 20 Mbps.” Best of all, the ISP gave him the new one for free. AT&T has always done that for me when things weren’t working, but I never realized how much it affected the speed.

 

 

 

WHICH AMAZON REVIEWS ARE FAKE?

You can buy a thousand positive reviews on Amazon for $10,900. That’s less than $11 each. So how do you know which reviews to trust?

I looked at an ArsTechnica article, “Posing as an Amazon Seller” to find out. One commenter said he rented a dreadful movie that had 4.5 out of five stars and over 10,000 positive reviews. Now he avoids anything with reviews in the thousands. A reader told me he only looks at the most recent ones. A third commenter observed that some reviewers get $20 per review. He says he’s in the wrong business.

A United Kingdom consumer group found 702,000 product reviewers from just five companies. All were in the review-manipulation biz. Besides offering positive reviews, they sell fake contact and social media accounts to make the reviews seem more credible. In addition, bogus reviewers get refunds on the products they buy and write about. That way their reviews get the “verified shopper” label. Amazon is struggling to deal with the sheer volume of this fraud. They file lawsuits against those who break the rules, but it’s tough to ferret out all the bad guys. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, some Amazon workers took bribes to bring back sellers who had been banned, allowing those sellers to rake in over $100 million. The case is still pending.

The Ultimate Gesture

Until recently, I was anti-gesture. Gestures on a Macbook Air whisked me off to places I never intended to go, so I disabled them in settings. But Android gestures brought me back. 

I started with the “back” gesture on my Pixel 3a phone with Android 11. I started there because it’s the one gesture the iPhone doesn’t have. If I swipe to the left on any screen, I go back to where I was before. Works great. To check if it’s on your Android phone, go to “Settings,” then  “System,” then “Gestures.” If instead you have an iPad or iPhone, swipe up to go back to the home screen. There isn’t a “go-back” gesture for Apple devices.

Another Android gesture allows you to turn on “Do Not Disturb” by putting the phone face down on a flat surface. It’s called “Flip to Shhh.” Too bad it didn’t work for me. But I can swipe down from the top of the screen, then choose it.  On an iPhone X or later,  swipe down from the upper right corner to get to the Control Center. On older iPhones swipe up from the bottom instead.

Here are a few other gestures I like. On an Android phone, tap the power button twice to enter camera mode.  Use the fingerprint reader when you’re on the home screen to quickly check notifications. Hold the Power button for a couples of seconds when you want to get to Google Pay in a hurry. Swipe up from the bottom of any screen to return to the home screen, or swipe up and hold it to flip between the apps you have open. If you squeeze the phone below its midsection, you get Google Assistant. 

Internuts

  • Fake car commercial battery powered.” Search on that phrase to find a funny YouTube video starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus peddling a Mercedes powered by double-A batteries.
  • Insane Battery Hack.” Search on those terms to find an even funnier YouTube video showing you how to hack a car battery.
  • Crowd.loc.gov/campaigns brings you entertaining history stories from the Library of Commerce. I looked at one of Teddy Roosevelt’s letters and was surprised to see him lament: “I am fifty-six years of age, no home. Not a dollar of my own. And no hope for anything better. Unless I find someone able to help me.”

App Happy

Daily Yoga” has free beginner poses to try out. I found them easy to follow. Each short video repeats automatically, so you can practice till you get good. 

What Record Player Should You Buy?

OnBuy.com has an article “The Best Bluetooth Record Players for 2021.” Up till now, I didn’t know you could buy a Bluetooth record player. That way you don’t have to mess with cables.

If you want to send the music to external speakers, get one with “Bluetooth Out.” You’ll also want the “Bluetooth In” feature if you want to play your digital music collection, rather than just records, through the player’s integrated speakers. If you look up “Sony Bluetooth Turntable” you’ll see some nice ones.

Photo Storage

You’ll have to watch your video and photo storage in your Google account starting in June of this year. That’s when they’ll start counting anything stored in high quality or express quality toward your free 15 gigabytes of storage space. You can always put some of your stuff in Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Amazon Photos, or other solutions out there. I just put the Amazon Photos app on my phone. Works great and offers free unlimited storage for Prime members.

Cookies Crumble

Firefox, a web browser that competes with Google Chrome, among others, is crumbling cookies like mad. We’re talking web cookies, the ones that track you from site to site. Now, with Firefox’s “Total Cookie Protection,” every website gets its own cookie jar, so to speak. That way, each cookie will stay contained and can’t follow you. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.