FOR NEW STYLE FUN, CHECK OUT INTO THE MIST

A friend invited me to a live concert, complete with mystery mansion, at IntoTheMist.net. At first it seemed like a video game, but there was more.

The setting was the Roaring ‘20s, with jazz bands, bootleggers and flappers. I headed upstairs to the “high roller” area. Suddenly I was in the midst of a Zoom meeting. The chips were flying and the bettors looked attractive. But I ducked out. I prefer family poker.

I followed arrows on a dark hallway, stumbling around till I accidentally found myself outside on the virtual street. It was a bit spooky, so I quickly re-entered and found a room with a live actor playing the poet Langston Hughes. He introduced himself and asked my name. The poetry was great, the biographical detail charming. Others soon joined us.

The joint was jumping by the time the live concert began, with 143 people watching the Chicago Cellar Boys play jazz-age tunes. The female singer wore her hair short with “shiny bangs,” as one participant described them. The texts never stopped flying, mostly from the U.S., but also from Hong Kong. We could see each other, unless the other person had clicked off their webcam. I turned mine off so I could dance. 

My friend found a lot more to explore than I did. She went beyond the blackjack table and Langston Hughes rooms to find a magic area, an actor portraying Dorothy Parker and another impersonating Ernest Hemingway, as well as a 1920s’ quiz, which she won. Then she watched a contortionist in a hidden room, visited a speakeasy, and saw some “face acting.” Tickets cost $16. 

Alternatively, ZoomTheater.com offers free, live events for over 2,000 people per audience.  Right now they’re showing Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Turn your microphone on so they can hear you applaud. 

Reaching out With Avatars

I bought a condo from a broker I found online two years ago. How did I remember his name after all this time? He used a free app called “Bitmoji” to send me a text a few times a year.

Bitmoji, for Android and iPhone, creates a free caricature for use in email or texts. Just snap a selfie and they do the rest. It’s quite flattering. Even if you’re having a bad day, it will make you look younger and more appealing. I chose a girl in glasses with a ponytail and a heart on her T-shirt. I can pop it into a regular text message, or into Gmail, WhatsApp, Instagram and others. I can add words such as “Great!” or “Congratulations!” If I just want to acknowledge receipt of a text, a green check mark can appear with my cartoon. Bitmoji has a stunning variety of options.

If you want to do more, consider these tips from the CEO of Ripl.com, which offers customizable templates for $15 a month. He says:

  • Send your customers a “love note” by direct message through your social media business profiles. Call them by name, and mention a specific purchase or chat. 
  • Share your customers’ stories and testimonials. 
  • Celebrate your customers’ milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries and big purchases. 

Free WiFi

After reading about a bill in Congress to stop cities from offering free WiFi, I wondered which municipalities offer it. There’s a free app for that. It’s called “WeFi.”

WeFi finds only the safe kinds of free WiFi. What’s more, it keeps WiFi turned on in places like home or work. It’s off when WiFi is not available.That keeps your phone from heating up as it searches for a signal.Years ago, I couldn’t figure out why my phone felt like a piece of hot coal in my pocket. It was searching for a connection. When I launched WeFi, it showed me a map with dozens of free WiFi hotspots. And it automatically connected. For example, I entered Target today and was instantly connected to their WiFi.

But perhaps you won’t have the WeFi app installed when you need it most. In that case, go to a major chain, such as McDonald’s, Walmart or Home Depot. Then tap “settings” on your phone, tap internet settings, and look for the company’s name. Most big stores and restaurants have free WiFi.

Reader Warning

After installing the latest Windows updates, a reader writes: “My icons were larger and half hidden. The start button and taskbar were also hidden. I blindly got into settings and changed the display resolution from 1980 by 1080 (which is recommended) to 1600 by 1200, and the screen came back to a workable size. However, I lost two folders of folders and videos. I immediately did a (Windows) recovery and am back to normal again.” His lesson: “Think twice before downloading this update.”

Wise words indeed. If you’re unsure, you can pause automatic updates until Windows gets its act together. Type “Windows Update Settings” in the search bar in the lower left of your computer screen. Click “advanced options.” Choose “pause updates” and select a date when you want the updates back. As the New Yorker cartoon goes, “How about ‘Never.’ Is ‘Never’ good for you?”

Turn Off the Router

A reader noticed that his Gmail wasn’t always alerting him with a ding when an important message came in, or it arrived late. Rebooting the router was all he needed to do. 

CNET quotes a WiFi expert as saying that turning the router off and on again solves 90 percent of problems. That’s because the router drivers get “discombobulated,” (a scientific term apparently). 

 

PASSWORD PROBLEMS

A reader asked me to name the best password manager. That’s tough. I’ve had bad luck with nearly all of them.

I’ll never forget the time I lost the master password to a Dashlane account, waving goodbye to dozens of passwords I’d updated because Dashlane told me to. I bombed out with LastPass too. It suffered a bad breach in 2015, compromising tons of email addresses.  The company had a couple more incidents in 2017 and 2019. Recently, I took “1Password” for a spin.

Nearly every blogger recommends 1Password. Even the New York Times does. I found it confusing, as did the users who griped about it on Reddit.com. I’d rather use a freebie. Google, Firefox, Edge and Safari all have built-in password managers. Google’s, for the Chrome web browser, is my favorite.

The latest version of Chrome, which updates automatically, has an improved “Password Checkup” function. To find it, go to Passwords.Google.com and click on “Password Check-up.” There I discovered that over 100 of my 407 passwords have been compromised. Fortunately, there’s still time to panic, because only one or two of those sites have my credit or banking information. But changing them is an ongoing headache. I’ve now whittled the list down to 74 baddies. 

Google recently made it easier to change bad passwords, by adding a “change password” link in Password Checkup, which takes you to each website’s home page. Just  click “forgot password” on the sign-in screen and let them send you a password-reset link. It’s also a good idea to set up two-factor authentication so that no one can break into your Google account and see your list. 

Because of the new password-checkup system, there’s been a 37 percent reduction in compromised credentials stored in Chrome. It’s been used 14 million times so far. 

A Revised Opinion

When I first wrote about my Sonos One (Generation 2) smart speaker, I thought it was pretty dumb. The sound quality was no better than the Altec Lansing VS 2320 speakers I use with my computer. Yet the Sonos cost $200 and the Altec Lansing is only $65, or $25 on eBay. 

The other dumb thing, I discovered later, was how the Sonos with Alexa inside was a bit of a Nazi, compared to the Alexa inside my Echo Dot. I used to have the Sonos in the bedroom. But if I asked the Echo Dot in the living room a question, the Sonos answered from the bedroom and I couldn’t possibly hear her. The Sonos is now in the living room, where so far she is behaving herself.

I like her better now. I no longer have any CDs, having given them away after turning them into digital files on my computer. But I’ve discovered I can “cast” the tunes to the Sonos. To do this yourself, highlight a bunch of songs in Windows Media Player and then right-click the list, choosing “cast.” Once my TV showed up as a place I could cast to, but I haven’t seen it since. The beat goes on.

The Best Headset for Calls

I’m using a headset for phone calls for two reasons. First, it can be hard for someone to hear me. Second, I’d rather not blast cell phone radiation into my brain for an hour at a time, though it’s probably harmless.

First I tried a Bluetooth headset. But a call would come in when I wasn’t ready. I’d have to go into Bluetooth settings on my phone and re-pair the device.  Instead, I switched to the kind that plugs into the phone. Mine has a boom-type microphone. That’s convenient because it doesn’t rub against me and create its own noise. 

The “Cell Phone Headset with Mic Noise Cancelling & Call Controls,” for Android, iPhone and PC is comfortable and works great. It has its own volume control and is considered a call-center headset, so it’s high quality. Yet it’s only $33 from Arama on Amazon. I’m going to use it for Zoom calls too.

Internuts

  • GadgetGameShow.com:  The show on this website is called “What the Heck is That’?” and is like the old “What’s My Line?” It’s hosted by NBC Today Show Gadget Guy Steve Greenberg. When I tuned in, they were trying to guess a techy suntan lotion dispenser.
  • Going to Space to Benefit Earth’‘ is the name of a remarkable talk on YouTube by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. He describes the space colonies he’ll help build. Shifting industrial processes to space where they can’t pollute Earth may be the answer to our current environmental woes, he says.

  • In2013dollars.com: Despite the “2013” in the name of this website, it tells you how a dollar from any year up to 2021 compares with a dollar today. If you spent $40 on a fancy meal for four in 1975, for example, that’s the equivalent of spending $194.48 today. A similar site is measuringworth.com.

 Numbers Report

Electric vehicles with batteries are expected to be competitive with cars in four years.That’s because the price of a lithium-ion battery pack is expected to drop to $100 per kilowatt hour by 2025. The price already dropped from $1,191 in 2010 to $137 per kilowatt hour in 2020, in real-inflation adjusted dollars, according to BloombergNEF.

That’s good news for windmills and solar panels too. With prices dropping, companies will use batteries to smooth out intermittent power. And as the world uses more clean energy solutions, the higher volume will drive prices even lower.

 

 

 

 

 

SMARTER EYES

My mom used to swear by eye exercises. She said they would correct nearsightedness. Science may be proving her right.

Kubota smart glasses can fix your eyesight, if you wear them 60 to 90 minutes a day, according to a report in ZME Science. They work by shortening the distance from the cornea to the retina using augmented reality and virtual reality. Fortunately, you don’t have to wear them for hours at a stretch. They’re a bit odd-looking. At a distance, the lenses look like windshields after rocks have shot through them.

The smart glasses were developed by Kubota Pharmaceutical Holdings of Japan. In Japan, 95 percent of those under age 20 are myopic. In South Korea, it’s 96 percent, a bit less in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Tests are now being conducted on 25 people in the U.S., though the first glasses will be sold in Asia 

Too much staring at close-up screens or books trains the eyes to see much better close up than at a distance. Kubota glasses stimulate the retina, using defocused virtual images to reverse myopia. I’d like to try them. Close-up vision is my superpower, but I’m no good at anything more than a foot away– unless I have my glasses on. For evidence that eye exercises help, see 8-best-eye-exercises-to-treat-astigmatism at Insight Vision Center.

 Holographic Visits

Talk about lowering your carbon footprint. Companies are transporting holograms of top executives and celebrities around the world, making them show up together on a virtual stage. 

The idea has been around a while. In 2012, a dead rapper called “2Pac” arrived in three dimensions at a music festival in Coachella, California. I looked at something similar at arhtmedia.com. Actor Colin Firth materialized out of nowhere to talk on stage. It looked like teleportation. Wow!

A techy friend is skeptical. “It’s obvious that the images are flat and not 3D,” he said. I decided to ask around, and went to Quora.com, the question-and-answer site. A gravitational wave researcher from the University of Glasgow told me that ARHT Media and others use the word “hologram” loosely. A hologram uses light that either starts from behind an image and passes through it. Or it starts in front of the image and never comes near it.  ARHT seems to be using the second kind, he said, creating a 2D version of a person instead of 3D. “They mostly give shots from the front where it looks perfect. Good luck to them; it’s probably good enough to be useful. But there’s one or two brief diagonal shots where it looks like a photo on glass.” Prices range from $15,000 to $40,000. 

For less ambitious business theater, the kind where you can see a product in 3D and explore its parts just by waving your hands, the $2,200 “Solo” from Hypervsn.com looks like a better bet. The company has sold holograms to BBC, CNN, Financial Times and USA Today. Their basic kit includes software, 3D content and hardware. They also have kits you can rent. 

Killing Spam Calls

Beware of Robokiller, a popular app for blocking telemarketers and spam calls.  Some users say it blocks their friends and paves the way for spammers. What’s worse, they can’t get rid of it. If this happens to you, go to deactivatemyphone.com to have Robocaller or one of the other Nazi programs removed. I’ve had pretty good results with the app “TrueCaller,” but am glad I now use an Android phone with automatic call screening.  Call screening is available on Google Pixel, Motorola and Nokia phones.

Internut

 Terrafugia.com is the website of a flying car maker. The site has a YouTube video showing it take off and land. This isn’t one of the awkward car-planes you may have seen before. This thing is smooth. Volkswagen also has one called the Hover Car. A YouTube video shows it in China.

App Happy 

LetsRoam.com offers an app to take you on scavenger hunts in 400 cities worldwide, such as Worcester, Massachusetts. They’re done on foot and usually last 90 minutes to two hours. As they say on their site: “It takes a courageous city to own a nickname like Wormtown but it will take even more courage to conquer the Wormtown scavenger hunt. What turned the soulful Palladium towards heavy bands like ‘Hatebreed’? Which fountain’s heating up the Worcester Common?” Find out if you can. The cost is $12 per player or you can get an annual pass with unlimited scavenger hunts for $63. 

 Learn Computer Graphics

How do you make the graphics in popular video games like Fortnite or Call of Duty? Or create animations like Toy Story or  Frozen?

Gabriel Gambetta, the author of a new book, “Computer Graphics from Scratch,” from NoStarch Press, says anyone who is familiar with high school math can do it. But it’s not a quick study. There’s enough info in his new book for a university course. In fact, the book is based on the course Gambetta taught, before he became a senior engineer at Google. Previously, he founded the game company Mystery Studio and helped get “Improbable Games” off the ground when it had just 30 employees; it now has over 500. His website, gabrielgambetta.com, includes his email if you want to get in touch with him.

 

 

WHAT’S APP WITH THAT?

A couple of months ago I started using the free app “WhatsApp” for sharing pictures and making free phone calls. Now millions are angry with the app, turning instead  to “Signal” or “Telegram.”

Switching from WhatsApp to Telegram is like switching from sugar to corn syrup. Telegram has had problems with foreign terrorists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It was recently used for hacking into Facebook accounts. And it’s not that private. Telegram allows businesses to collect data on you so they can send you ads.

But what’s so bad about WhatsApp, anyway?  I don’t care that it’s owned by Facebook. Starting in May, businesses will be able to collect data on you so they can send you messages. But that’s OK with me. That’s how WhatsApp can sustain itself and develop new features without charging me. I don’t expect people to work for me for free.

WhatsApp may have features you have not explored yet. For instance, it allows you to email your text conversations, along with any pictures or videos involved. Just tap the three dots in the upper right corner, choose “more” and  “export chat.” I read on the web that this is also available in Signal, but it didn’t work for me. As with Signal, WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted, so no one can read them but you.

An alternative is “Beeper,” for $10 a month. It  merges 15 chat apps into one, so you don’t have to sign in to each separately. These include WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Slack, Twitter, Discord, Instagram and Facebook Messenger, among others.  Apple’s iMessage is officially for iPhone/iPad only. But if you’re techy, you can use a free app called AirMessage to get iMessages on your Android phone. But it only works if you use a Mac as a server.

A Toy for the Switch

Photo courtesy of Polygon.com

I could hardly wait for my ten year-old friend to arrive so I could show her my new Nintendo Switch gaming machine. But she prefers talking about the olden days while we watch old movies together. Is the new generation sick of video games or is she just a well-brought up child?

I thought she’d change her mind when she saw the “Ring Fit Adventure” game, but we never got past the setup screens before she was bored to tears. I’ll have to wait for a visit from one of my nieces and nephews.

If I take my Switch on the road, it would be handy to have the $39 Genki “ShadowCast,” coming out in April. ShadowCast works with a Switch or a Playstation 5  to display your game on a TV, desktop computer or laptop. That way you don’t have to lug around a bulky docking station. The ShadowCast is about the size of a thumb drive. It records your games and streams them out for others to watch. You could go pro and sell tickets.

Unfortunately, ShadowCast is still a project on the crowd-funding site, Kickstarter. But it has raised nearly two million dollars, after only requesting $30,000. If you don’t want to wait, previous models are available from the company. But some, such as the “Covert Dock,” for $69 from genkithings.com, are currently out of stock.

Ripping CDs

I’m moving to a condo a few blocks away– my first-ever real estate purchase. It’s a bit smaller than my current digs, so I’m transferring CDs to digital files to save space.  Here’s my recent discovery:  Windows Media Player stinks compared to Ashampoo Burning Studio.

For some unknown reason, Windows Media Player keeps getting stuck before it finishes ripping the songs off a CD. I thought at first the drive had overheated, but even after cooling off, it gets stuck again. Ashampoo’s Burning Studio works like a charm and has loads of extra features. For example, I can continue working on something else and watch the progress meter in my taskbar so I know when it’s time to insert another CD. There’s a ten day-free trial, or you can use the free version, “Ashampoo Burning Studio Free.”

I gave away my vinyl collection because my record player bit the dust. But I saved “The Best of Pete Fountain, Vol. 2.”  I can’t find it on CD or streaming services. So I’m going to use recordrescuers.com/ which charges $35 an album to digitize, using an $800 needle. The owner says customers can’t believe how good their vinyl records sound when he’s done with them.

App Happy

  • GolfNow is a free app for iPhone or Android that makes it easy to reserve a golf course. My brother-in-law swears by it. Courses that were previously impossible to reserve are child’s play with the app. You can arrange to split the cost of a round with friends before arriving at the course. Or just book yourself. If you prefer, skip the app and book a course on their website, golfnow.com.
  • AfterPay is a free app for Android and iPhone that lets you buy something in four installments with no interest charges or fees. You get a choice of 48,000 retailers.

 

 

 

 

JOY’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

Photo courtesy of TomsGuide.com

I’ve never been into the sort of video game where you jump through hoops and fire shots against  bad guys. Not since the days when I played “Fatty Bear’s Birthday Surprise” with my  nephew. But the Nintendo Switch brings exercise into the equation. That’s a game changer.

The Switch is similar to the Nintendo Wii. Both devices sense your movements. Either one can tell if you swing an imaginary tennis racket or land a one-two punch. But the Switch is getting rave reviews for portability and performance. It’s about the length of a ping pong paddle but is rectangular and narrower. It’s best if connected to a TV via a docking station, so you don’t have to squint.

 To get the most out of it, I bought an $80 game called “Ring Fit Adventure.” It comes with a “Ring Con–” a hoop reminiscent of the old “ThighMaster” from the 1990s. It’s a big ring you squeeze with your hands or pull apart while jogging or walking as your character senses your movements. Your body motions propel her forward through lovely forests and streams as she roots out evil. Holding the hoop low makes her leap.

To get started, a small controller goes into a pouch on a strap that fastens around your leg. The other controller slots into the Ring Con hoop, which you hold in your hands. Before you begin, Adventure Fit asks questions about your age and fitness level, and gives you a few strength tests. These involve squeezing the hoop, a sort of steering wheel, and pulling it apart. The game also tests your flexibility and ability to jog or run. If you need to protect your joints, you can define “jog” as a walking pace and “run” as a brisker walk. My character ran like mad when I barely jogged.

Photo courtesy of jelly.deals

The game gives you helpful prompts, so it’s almost impossible to get lost, though I did pause the game once or twice to do a Google search when I wasn’t quite sure what was meant. When I faced a bad guy, I knocked him over by doing squats, abdominal work, lunges, arm exercises or stretching, all led by an encouraging voice.

Moving on from “Adventure Fit,” I tried “Jeopardy,” a $10 downloadable game. I’ve never been so excited playing a game by myself. I felt as if I were on the actual TV show. The act of buzzing in to square off against computerized opponents was so thrilling I almost missed an important phone call. 

If you want to play with friends or strangers online, you have to join the Nintendo Online Club, which costs $4 a month or $20 a year if you pre-pay. But that’s not all you pay. The Nintendo Switch, docking station, controllers, holder for the controllers, 128 gigabyte memory card and carrying case costs $479 on Amazon. Eek! However, I figured it was a good way to spend my stimulus check. I can hardly wait to play with kids.

A Better Cell Phone

The reader’s Moto G Power in a leatherette case.

A reader writes that his new LG phone is a dud compared to his older one. No wonder LG is thinking of getting out of the cell phone business. They’ve been losing money since 2015.

The reader’s first cell phone, the LG Rebel 4, cost only $10 because Amazon threw in $40 worth of airtime on TracFone, which charges about $10 a month for the budget plan if you pay annually. His second LG phone, the Rebel K31, cost $50 without the airtime. You’d think the newer LG would be better but no. When using free calling apps like Signal, WhatsApp or Line,  the K31 produces a lag between the time someone speaks and the time the recipient hears it, making an odd gap in every conversation. It’s almost as if the person responding is slow-witted. That’s because the newer LG phone has an inferior processor. The  older one, the Rebel 4, though lower-powered, has a Qualcomm. With it, there are no lags.

 “The Rebel K31 was a turkey from the start,” the reader said. The phone he bought to replace it, the Motorola Moto G Power, with Android 10, “is a real smartphone, not a Rebel toy.” He continued: “The screen is so responsive. And there’s a solid feeling to the phone’s performance.”  The battery life is great too. It’s expected to last three days between charges. The reader said that after playing games and talking on the phone for hours one day, the phone still had a 75 percent charge the next day, and 50 percent the day after that. Amazon’s price is $133 if you get a Moto G Power with TracFone service. 

 If you’re wondering whether now is a good time to buy, experts suggest you upgrade when your Android phone’s operating system is three versions or more behind the current one, which is Android  11. Alternatively, you can install a good app, such as Malwarebytes, when your phone no longer gets security updates. 

Internut

RD.com/dentist has a Reader’s Digest story about a guy who opened his mouth to 50 dentists in 28 states, just to see how their advice would vary. The ones with no financial interest in the outcome said all he needed was a $460 crown. At the other end of the spectrum were those who recommended a $25,0000 reconstruction. The current issue of Reader’s Digest has an article about dentists who do almost as many root canals on a single patient as they have teeth. One lady spent $50,000 on non-existent problems.

 

 

FAUX FRIENDS ON FACEBOOK

I ignore Facebook friend requests from strangers unless I’m sure they’re faithful readers of this column. But some are tricky.

An apparent captain of an enormous shipping line requested a connection. I thought for a minute it was a legitimate request. One of my friends, a savvy public speaker, was Facebook friends with him. I decided to investigate, in hopes of warning her if he turned out to be a fake.

His Facebook photo, profile and name matched that of the captain he claimed to be, which I found on LinkedIn and on the shipping company’s website. So I accepted his request. Minutes later, I decided it was a risky experiment, so I unfriended and blocked him. That didn’t prevent him from sending me a rude message on Facebook Messenger. He chewed me out for blocking him. It was news to me that someone could write you from Messenger after you’ve blocked them on Facebook. Anyway, I blocked him from both. I can’t imagine a real captain getting angry so quickly.

There’s a lesson here: Identity thieves lurk in social media. I’m sure the real captain would be alarmed to know that someone is using his name and photo.

If someone steals your Facebook identity, go to the person’s profile page and click the three dots to the right of their name. Then choose “report.”  Facebook will investigate. The three dots also give you the option to block someone.

Reader Cuts Cable

A reader writes that he canceled his cable subscription but was unable to get PBS using an antenna. Best Buy’s Geek Squad installed the in-home kind after he had already tried the outdoor version on his roof. Neither brought in PBS.

I suggested getting a “PBS Passport” for $60 a year but he already has that. What he wanted was his local PBS channel. He said it was easier to find the programs that way. It beats wading through the entire PBS library, he says. 

I suggested he go to PBS.org and click “Live TV.” Whatever’s showing right now will start up. Or you can click “Schedules” to see the full line-up. Some programs require a PBS Passport, but many are free. While watching, if you get to a part you want to skip, use the slider to fast forward. The schedules are flexible. I started watching Rick Steve’s episode on the Swiss Alps at least 20 minutes before it officially started.

The reader said: “You’ve unlocked a door to PBS I had no idea was there. I love being able to open the TV listings. I love seeing so many options at once, so many things I didn’t know were waiting. I just watched a 55-minute program on my absolute favorite artist, Charles Marion Russell.”

Tiny Microscope

Want to have a tiny microscope on your phone? The iMicro Q2 fits on any smartphone lens, and can magnify objects 800 times. In tests it was shown to be as good as a desktop microscope. It sticks on your camera’s back camera and only weighs 1/60th of an ounce. It’s not out yet but you can pre-order one for $39 from Kickstarter.com or Indiegogo

How Computers Really Work

Years ago, I almost got a second degree in computer science. I wish I’d had a book called “How Computers Really Work,” which clarifies everything.

The book, by Matthew Justice, takes you from low level circuits to high level code. The author used his own young daughters as guinea pigs. His 17 years at Microsoft as a Windows debugger and automation expert didn’t hurt either. 

Though it takes work to learn it all, and more patience than I have, the book is much more understandable than most books of this type, even when the author delves deeply into machine code, programming languages, operating systems and the internet. He details 41 hands-on projects, including games, running a web server, and so on. It’s just right for the would-be software engineer. More details at NoStarch.com.

Photo Frame Saga 

I promised I would tell you how it went with my sister’s digital photo frame, the one I got her for Christmas. She gave it back to me.

It’s not that she didn’t like the “Aura Carver,” from AuraFrames.com. But Aura Frames are not compatible with 5G households. Hers is 5G.  

The Aura Carver has an ugly power cord, but that’s easy to hide if you place your frame against a wall that has an outlet. I put mine in the kitchen. The photos I’d previously emailed to the frame look great. Only one was sideways. The frame allows two vertical photos to appear side by side instead of leaving blank space. All settings are modifiable. I changed how long an individual photo displays from ten minutes to 15 seconds. 

Alternatively, you could buy an Amazon Echo Show, which has no photo size limitations, unlike the Aura, which limits each photo to no more than 9.5 megabytes. However, the Aura does allow you to display an unlimited number of photos. With the Amazon Echo Show, there is no restriction on size of the photo, or the number. And it has other features. You can watch Netflix, make video calls, play games and so on. But I like the ease of a dedicated frame.

 

GOLD VERSUS BITCOIN

Bitcoin, the digital currency, has been going up like crazy. But is it a better store of value than gold?

Last year, Bitcoin went from a little over $7,000 to over $26,000 per digital coin. On January 8, a single coin hit $40,675.80!

I’ve had some experience with cryptocurrency. In 2017, I bought part of a Bitcoin at Coinbase.com, when it was valued at around $4,000. I bought a bit more when it rose to $15,000. What can I say, I’m a gambler. Unfortunately, I sold it after it crashed below $4000. Disaster! I admire those who “HODL” a Bitcoin acronym standing for “Hold On For Dear Life.”

According to a deVere Group survey of their own clients, 67 percent of Millennials — those born between 1980 and 1996 — say the future is with Bitcoin, despite these ups and downs. But how much can we trust deVere’s prediction? Well, it’s a worldwide organization with 80,000 clients in 100 countries. Their survey went out to every one of those. They conclude that the Millennials’ preference for Bitcoin will be especially significant when a $60 trillion transfer of wealth takes place between them and the baby boomers.

Another reason for Bitcoin’s rise, deVere says, is inflation. When central banks around the world go overboard printing money, traders get leery of investing in currencies and look for safe havens. We’ll see.

Zoom Trick

A free app called “Overviewer” was recently developed by the husband of a kindergarten teacher. She wanted her Zoom class to look down on her while she drew, while also being able to see her face in a side window.

To help out, her husband used a stack of books to mount his iPhone from above, turning it into an overhead camera. Do a web search on “New App Lets Teachers Use iPhone or iPad as an Overhead Camera” for details.

Free Movies

I love showing classic movies to a 10 year-old girl I babysit, including the 1933 version of “Little Women,” with Katherine Hepburn. Such classics are free on YouTube and generate an interesting discussion about the difference between “the olden days” and now. (Update: The free version of Little Women is now for rent, but many other freebies remain.)

More classics are uploaded all the time. For example, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” was placed on YouTube in June. Other freebies include “The Inspector General” with Danny Kaye, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,”“Jane Eyre,” and many others.

Free Books and Audio Books

“Library Explorer” lets you borrow books for free to read on a screen. I borrowed a 1996 Irish memoir titled “Are You Somebody?” The author, ever lonely, likes to say hello to the fridge when its motor gears up. You can borrow as many books or audiobooks as you like. I shortened the web address to: tinyurl.com/libraryexplorer. If your session expires, just click “borrow again.”

Low-Cost Cell Phone Service

A reader told me about Ultra Mobile, which uses the T-Mobile network to provide really cheap cell phone service. It gives you unlimited calling and text messages, plus a gigabyte of data for $10 a month, paid a year in advance. If you exceed a gigabyte, your internet experience slows down but never ends. “You could truthfully say it has unlimited data, if you have the patience,” the reader notes. Fortunately, he didn’t have to buy a device from Ultra Mobile. “I brought my own phone, a Motorola 5G+,” he said.

An Ultra Mobile user on Amazon objected that its free international calls shut off after 20 or 30 minutes. Another user argued that the phone service slows down after 500 megabytes, not a gigabyte. But it all sounds OK to me. An Amazon review explains in detail how to set it up. It’s a little techie.

The Stylus Revisited

A reader liked my suggestion of using a stylus to tap on a phone instead of smudgy fingers. But he feared losing it. So he bought the “Hprime 3 Pack Stylus Pen Holder, Self-Adhesive.” for $8. “I stuck one on the back edge of my iPhone case,” he said. That brought mixed results.

Going in and out of a pocket all day, the stylus hit a snag sometimes. It works better if you keep your phone in a bag or purse. But there’s no problem sticking a stylus on an iPad or tablet. The reader uses a $10 Diodrio pencil/pen holder, which attaches with an elastic band. Besides tablets, it works with any paper journal.

New from Google

The Chrome browser now automatically blocks ads that use an excessive amount of computer resources, according to bleepingcomputer.com.

In other news, Chrome now shows you the battery level of anything connected to your computer by Bluetooth, such as headphones or speakers.

Speaking of batteries, the new “Extreme Battery Saver,” which works with the Pixel 3 on up, pauses most apps and slows processing to save battery life even more than the regular “Battery Saver” does.

Also for Pixel owners, Google’s new “Hold for Me” feature works well. But I found it hard not to stay glued to the phone, watching the transcript roll by, as a voicemail message played silently. I got a bleep when it was time to talk to a representative. But at least I didn’t have to hear endless repetitions of: “Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line.”

SANITIZING THE PHONE

For Christmas, my brother-in-law got me a phone sanitizer that looks like a flower vase.

If I drop my phone into the $80 “Oblio,” I get a germ-free phone after 20 minutes. Or so the company claims. But the directions asked me to flip my phone to clean the other side when the 20 minutes were up. When I flipped it, the purple ultraviolet light, the one that cleans, did not come on. Tech support was no help. They asked me to send a video of the problem. That’s when I discovered that the UV light doesn’t come on at all now, even at the start.

A good alternative is the $80 “PhoneSoap” sanitizing box. It sanitizes both sides of a phone at once –no flipping necessary– and it charges your phone. The same company sells a product called “HomeSoap” for $200. It handles tablets and small household items. They use a clinical laboratory to prove their products remove 99.9 percent of bacteria. I have a PhoneSoap box myself. Wish I could figure out what I did with the charger.

Beware of Amazon Reviews

You’d think you could trust the average Amazon review. Not so.

Recently an Ars Technica reviewer bought a $24 drone after seeing thousands of positive reviews. It broke after an hour. He discovered that the bulk of the reviews weren’t about the drone. They were about honey! Amazon had been tricked into including five-star honey ratings in a drone score. That made the drone look like a big success.

It’s better to look at the most recent reviews. In the case of the $24 drone, some of the recent reviewers reported that their drones had broken after the first hour or two. On a competing drone product page, thousands of vodka, bracelet and Christmas card reviews were inserted to boost the score. A reviewer from Buzzfeed.com reported a similar experience.

When Amazon became aware of the bogus rating, the 6,000 comments about the $24 drone dwindled to 50.

Goodbye Free Ink

HP killed its “Free ink for life” deal. The people who had signed up for it were miffed. But HP’s latest deal sounds pretty good too.

HP charges 99 cents to ship you enough ink to print 15 pages a month. If you want 50 pages, it’s $3 a month. It goes up from there. Over eight million subscribers worldwide have signed up. Search on “HP instant ink printers” to find compatible printers, such as the OfficeJet Pro or Envy Photo or click here.

If you don’t already have an HP printer, however, I recommend a Canon inkjet or Okidata laser printer. My Canon has been trouble-free since I bought it. Okidata has rich color, is cheaper in the long run and has great tech support, unlike HP’s in my experience. When my HP inkjet printer was experiencing a minor software issue, their tech guy couldn’t handle it. He suggested I buy a new printer. The Okidata tech team, by contrast, has fixed all my printer problems for free for the last 20 years. I’ve never had to tell them I’m a reviewer.

Free Faxing

A reader writes: “I’d like to know if there’s a way to send a fax from my desktop computer.” Yes, but she’d have to connect to the Internet with a dial-up modem or use an app.

That reminds me: When the first version of Windows came out many years ago, I asked a salesman what it was good for. “Faxing,” he said.

Nowadays it’s easier to fax from the web. Go to faxzero.com, type in the sender’s info and the receiver’s info. Then click to attach the documents you want to fax. Who faxes these days? The hospital lab where my sister works, for one.

Recover Lost Text Messages

A friend told me she accidentally erased an important text message on her iPhone. How could she get it back?

With iPhones, if you have automatic backup turned on, you can retrieve messages from  your iCloud account. Here’s how: Go to Settings, tap your name, check to see that your iCloud account has some backups, and reset the phone. This erases everything, which is scary. But restoring the backup allows you to get your lost texts and everything else. There are detailed instructions at BusinessInsider. To find it, do a search on “How to Recover Deleted Text Messages on an iPhone.” For Android phones, try “SMS Backup & Restore,” a free app from the Google Play app store. Or use a service like Google One.

New App Helps with Speech Problems

Look to Speak” is a new, free app from Google that lets you use your eyes to choose a phrase to be spoken aloud. It’s designed for those with speech and motor impairments.

Before you start the app, prop up your phone so it’s just below eye level. On the screen, you’ll see a list of words. Some are listed under the word “left.” Others are listed under the word “right.” Choose from either list and keep glancing left or right as the list narrows itself down to the word or phrase you want, such as “Thank you.” When you’re down to one, it’s spoken aloud. You can edit the list of words and phrases if your favorites aren’t there.

When I tried it, it worked pretty well, though it takes practice. The inventor says it’s useful in situations where other accessibility devices may not be usable, such as in transit, in the shower, outdoors or in an emergency.

MASSAGE GUN GETS A THUMBS UP

I asked a friend who has arthritis in his hands and feet to test a cordless massage gun. He gave it a pleasantly-massaged thumbs-up. A good massage increases circulation, decreases pain and removes stiffness.

My friend reported back: “The Merach Pocket Nano Massage Gun is better than my Wahl Heat Therapy Therapeutic Massager, with one caveat. The hard plastic tips work well enough on muscles and fleshy parts, but pose a problem for bony parts. For instance, I usually run my massager over the tops of my hands. With this, I can only comfortably do my palms.”

But it turned out that massaging the palms worked its magic all the way through to the bony parts as well. It also worked well on the pads of his feet, going through to the top. In short, it’s a much better device than the Wahl. However, the Wahl is $37, the Merach is $99.

My friend’s other quibble is the charging light. “It could be bigger, and brighter. I didn’t know it had one till I read it in the instructions,” he said. “And a heated tip of some sort would have been nice,” he added. Finally: “The instructions are laughable, good only for amusement.” But overall, the Merach is a good massager.

Update:  I’m talking about the latest version of the Merach massage gun, which is shipping this month from this site: indiegogo.com/projects/nano-pro-the-smallest-and-powerful-massage-gun#/  Click here to order from AliExpress.  Click here for a similar Merach gun sold by Amazon.

Funny Video

I’d forgotten how funny JibJab is. It’s a service that drops your face into a zany animation full of singing and dancing. My niece sent me one showcasing her whole family rocking around the Christmas tree in an animated cartoon. What makes it so funny is how big the face is compared to the cartoon body, and how well the lips sync with the music. It’s well choreographed, but takes no work at all. The catch? It’s $24 a year. Well worth it for some.

Microsoft Works Still Works

A reader writes that she’s getting a Windows 10 computer and no longer has a copy of Microsoft Works, her word processor. Fortunately, a copy of the program is available for  free at winworldpc.com/product/microsoft-works/9x. Though the site says it’s compatible with Windows Vista, it also works in Windows 10.

Alternatively, upload your Works files to Google Drive, at drive.google.com. Then use a free program called “Cloud Convert” to convert them to “doc” or document files. If Cloud Convert doesn’t pop up automatically, go to cloudconvert.com/wps-converter. It’s great for converting other kinds of files as well.

Old Android Phones Get a Reprieve

You may have read that older Android phones– about a third of Androids out there — won’t be able to open secure websites after September 2021. That problem is now fixed.

Without the fix, phones with the “Nougat” operating system or older could only have opened insecure sites. There are fewer and fewer of those. The percentage of sites protected by encryption — the ones that use ‘https” instead of “http–” rose to 80 percent in 2019, up from 40 percent four years ago.

Leaving a Zoom Call

Ever feel like you’re scurrying to find the “leave meeting” link in a Zoom call? It can be embarrassing when you’re madly searching for the exit while all eyes are on you. But here’s some good news. A guy figured out how to use a lamp to end a Zoom call. All he has to do is pull the cord and he’s out.

This software is available for free. Look for an article called “Zoom Escape button is the Holiday Gift Everyone Needs.” Or go directly to github.com/lanewinfield/zoomout.

What to Do with an Old Computer

“CloudReady” can turn your old, slow computer into a fast Google-Chromebook-type machine. It’s great if you don’t need any programs that require a Windows or Mac operating system. CloudReady was created by “Neverware,” which Google bought.

But even if your old computer isn’t slow, you might want to convert it to the Chrome operating system to make it more secure. Microsoft no longer offers security updates for Windows 7 or Windows XP systems.

I love the Chrome operating system on my Chromebook, because it never slows down. Every time I reboot, it fixes any problems it may have. But there’s no going back. If you overwrite Windows with the Chrome operating system, that’s it.

 Internuts

  • Cato’s Human Freedom Index.” Search on that phrase to find a list of countries ranked according to personal freedom and economic freedom. It uses 76 indicators, such as religion, trade, safety and the rule of law. Based on 2018 data, the most recent available, New Zealand is first, Switzerland is second and Hong Kong is third. After the top three, we have Denmark, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Estonia, Germany and Sweden. America is now 17th.
  • OutsideOnline.com has interesting podcasts and articles. For example, there’s a recent interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook. He talks a lot about the need to get away from our devices when we’re out in nature. Another one, titled “How the Pandemic is Teaching Us to Listen to Nature,” is by the man who records David Attenborough’s films. Also on OutsideOnline, I read an article on “faux seafood,” which includes a section on a modern form of slavery where fishermen are chained to prevent them from jumping ship when another boat is near. There’s also a great piece called “This 10-Move Core Workout Will Kick Your (whatchamacallit.)”

PLAN TO LOSE YOUR PHONE

I was strolling in Chicago when my phone fell out of my bag somewhere along the river walk. I was notified by email right away. Wow.

“I hope you get this,” the email said. “My wife found your phone downtown. We left it with the front desk person at Boeing.” I was mystified. How did he get my email address?

It was simple. I’d allowed notifications for important messages to be displayed on my Android phone’s lock screen. My email address was listed at the top. I was lucky the phone hadn’t run out of juice and was still showing notifications. The couple who found it had tried calling me first, only to discover I hadn’t entered any contact info accessible from the lock screen.

I remedied that as soon as I got the phone back. First, I tapped the screen twice to wake it up. Then I swiped up to get the password page. Below the area where you can enter a personal identification number (PIN), trace a pattern, or use your fingerprint, there’s the word “Emergency.” Tap it and you’ll see a keypad allowing you to dial 911 or another number. You’ll also see “medical information” or some kind of prompt to get you to list your emergency contact info, address, blood type, allergies, medications, etc. If you’ve already added this info, you’ll see it when you tap “Emergency,” then your name. Don’t worry about privacy. The info is stored only on your phone. Of course, you could leave some fields blank.

If I hadn’t seen the email about my phone, I could have gone to Android.com/find, to see it displayed on a map. That’s because I had turned on a feature called “Find My Device.” Similarly, if iPhone owners enable “Find my Phone,” they can go to icloud.com for their phone’s location.

The husband-half of the couple who found my phone had a great suggestion. On the lock screen, he says, there could be a button reading “I found this phone.” Tapping it would automatically email the owner as well as a couple of friends or family members. After sharing this bit of brilliance with me, he said: “If you take that idea to Shark Tank,‘I want a cut of the earnings!”

What about people who break into a phone’s inner contents without a password? I read that without encryption and two-factor authentication, it’s easy to bypass the password requirement. Hackers can find out how in a Google search. That’s why you should remotely wipe your phone if you’re sure it’s lost for good. Of course, that requires that you set up “find my phone” first. If you do a search on “setup ‘find my phone,’” you’ll get instructions.

Making Music

The “Orba” by Artiphon is a $99 fidget toy for making music.

It looks like a small, lightweight hockey puck you tap to add sounds. I watched a musician play with it, by searching on the words “Orba YouTube.” It sounded as good as most other synthesizer music I’ve heard.

The Orba is both a music-making gadget and a MIDI controller. You can connect it by Bluetooth or USB cable to another synthesizer or app. It will record your creation, giving you a metronome to keep you on the beat. The Artiphon.com website shows you how to play it. It handles hip hop, ambient and pop music.

The Orba is much more portable than other synthesizers. Plug in a headset, stick it in your pocket, and no one will know you’re goofing off.

Group Calls

File:Cartoon Woman Watching A Sad Video In Her Phone.svgI use a free app called “Signal” when phoning friends who don’t have unlimited calling. That way our chats don’t count against their minutes. Here’s the latest news: group calling that’s free and encrypted. There’s a five-person limit, but you can see your friends in a grid, just like in Zoom.

The Signal app comes from Signal.org, a nonprofit. There’s only one problem. Your friend’s phone may not ring when you call them. Many people have reported this annoyance on the web, to no avail. To get around it, send your friend a text in the Signal app just before you call. Text alerts announce themselves with a few trumpet notes on my phone, but my friend gets more of a “whoo whoo.” I didn’t see a way to change it, but that’s OK.

Who Are You Going to Call?

A reader wrote: “Was wondering if you could give me any hints on what to do about my two-year-old Amazon Fire Tablet. Today it would not come back on. Would it be worth taking it to Best Buy’s Geek Squad?”

I told her to save her money. Amazon offers free tech support. To get it, go directly to tinyurl.com/AMZNtech and choose “start chatting” or “we can call you.” That’s what she did. Amazon fixed the problem for free.

Internuts

Havana

Driveandlisten.herokuapp.com makes you feel like you’re on a bike or behind the wheel of a car as you cruise around the world. My favorite was biking along the coast in Tel Aviv. In Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.5 million in Eastern Russia, it was super snowy. That’s a place I’d never heard of, before using this website. I also discovered big cities in Turkey, previously unknown to me. Good geography lesson.

Having iPhone Issues? Here’s How to Fix it Yourself.” Search on that phrase to find a comprehensive article from CNET.com.