GOOGLE ASSISTANT KEEPS ASSISTING

Google Assistant is now inside our Android phone. She says little but hears all. You’ll get yours soon enough.

Google Assistant will do your bidding when you speak to it, even when the phone is dark and locked. We could be lying on the couch half dead and say, “OK Google, call the Doc.” The next step: it will bill us too.

Most Android phones don’t have the Assistant yet. You can find out when yours will have it by Googling the question. (Yes, Google has become a verb.)  Last month, we read that the Assistant would be on both the “Nougat” and the “Marshmallow” operating systems at the end of February. That’s 30 percent of all Android phones. We got it on our Nexus 6p in mid March. That would be the Ides of March. Uh-O.

To test it, we said: “Play music by the Beatles,” and it did. We said “Play music by Ferde Grofe,” and it played a lot of stuff, including Gershwin. When we said “play music,” it played a selection based on our known tastes. It doesn’t work as well as Google Home or the Amazon Echo. Many times, when we said “OK Google, stop,” it didn’t stop and we had to reach over and sock it in its nose button. Similarly, it didn’t resume when we said “resume.” Instead it gave us a link to a resume builder, as if we were applying for a job. This dyslectic reaction does not occur with Google Home or Amazon’s Echo, they start playing again instantly.

Continuing on this ever-shifting path through the woods, Joy said: “OK Google, call Bob.” It asked if she meant Bob Clark, her nephew, or Bob Schwabach. When she clarified the situation, it started dialing. She said: “What fabric stores are nearby?” and it gave her two. She said, “Text Betty,” and the Assistant told her to go ahead with the message, then asked if she wanted to send it or change it. This is good. Because texting is fast and very current; young people don’t call, they text. Remember to say “period” or “exclamation point” or whatever punctuation you want, like sending a telegram (whatever that is).

You can also say: “What’s on my calendar,” “Mute my phone,” or “remind me to do 50 jumping jacks one hour from now.” Use your voice to go to any website, instead of typing it in. We said “Go to Facebook” and it went there. This could be a boon for those with low vision as well as the millions addicted to Facebook. (We’ve noticed most people go on Facebook to brag or complain about something, usually politics. There’s a whole lot of moaning and groaning going on.)

We tried giving the same directions on Windows voice assistant, Cortana, on our Windows 10 computer. But when we said, “Hey Cortana, go to Facebook,” she said “I’m fine, but my connection’s funky. Check back shortly.” We liked the “funky” part.

We also tried giving voice commands to Siri on our iPad and that worked okay. We’ve noticed, by the way, that the people we know with iPhones and iPads don’t use Siri much. We have no explanation for this.

A Smarter Mom

Joy’s been pretending she has a baby, to test the “Project Nursery SmartBand,” one of those fitness trackers that goes on your wrist. This one’s for new mothers and pregnant women. So far, the baby’s doing fine.

The SmartBand looks like any other fitness tracker, but does a lot more. Tap a picture of a baby to log diaper changes, bottle, pump or breast feedings, baby’s weight, etc. The diaper logging is detailed: You can log dumps for number one or number two. Mom’s info can also be logged as well, including her weight, water-drinking habits and medication use. Set an alarm to feel a vibration when you need to wake up. The band also tracks your sleep time.

A Reader With A Long Vista

A reader told us he’s running Windows Vista on an old Dell computer. It works great, and it has 50 years of his wife’s genealogy research on it. But he’s getting dire messages about the end of Microsoft support for Vista. What should he do?

We too get panicky messages from various companies telling us they will no longer support whatever it is they used to support very poorly before. We know there’s always plenty of time to panic, so in this case we advise installing a good anti-virus program like Avast, either the free or paid version, take two aspirins and lie down for a while. The only difference between the free and paid versions is that with the paid version you get some protection before bad things happen; with the free version, it works on problems after they arrive.

We have an old Windows XP computer we bought last year off the web for $70.  We use it to run old programs we still like. It works fine, and we feel safe using the free version of Avast. Microsoft stopped offering support for XP three years ago. And since then, we’ve noticed some differences: The old XP runs much faster than our newer computers, and because the old programs have fewer features, they’re easier to use.

Best numbers we could find on the web tell us that about 250 million Windows XP computers are still in use. Among those users are the U.S. Navy, federal government, other armed forces, banks, companies, etc.

By the way, should you be so inclined, you can still get a free upgrade to Windows 10, despite Microsoft’s announcement last summer that you now have to pay $120. Google the term “Windows 10 upgrade for users who use assistive technologies.” Click the “upgrade now” button and a copy of the program is saved to your machine. Click on it when you’re ready to install. The only thing you should check is your computer’s resources; Windows 10 likes and sometimes needs a fast processor and lots of memory. Good luck.

 

CAR TECH

We had a gizmo attack. A gizmo attack is when some new gizmo comes out and you feel you have to have it. Normally you should lie down and wait for this feeling to pass. But not always. So we went for it.

We spent $500 for a driving aid called “Navdy.” This is a hamburger-sized device that sits on your car’s dashboard and projects a head-up display that brings you directions, text messages, phone calls and many other now necessary aspects of the modern world. Think of it as the same kind of display fighter pilots see — at least while there still are fighter pilots.

In our case, we fitted this device in our 17 year-old Honda minivan which doesn’t have any other fancy car tech. The only problem we’ve had with the car is that Joy sometimes gets lost. So she figured this would be a great navigation aid, with a lot more features besides. A small step for womankind.

The Navdy projects a picture of your route onto a small clear plastic screen. It doesn’t interfere with your view; your eyes stay on the road. But if an exciting message is displayed before you, that may be a different problem. Texting while driving has become a major cause of the increased accident rate of the last couple of years. We’ve never done it. However, the Navdy user doesn’t have to either because this feature can be turned off.

As Bob pulled away, a diagram of the road ahead and the cross streets was immediately projected as if into the air between the steering wheel and the windshield. (Joy likes it when Bob drives.) He cycled through messages by pressing a button/wheel combination attached to the steering wheel. He waved his hand to see an incoming phone call, while an image of the caller hovered before him. (He didn’t answer; no talking on phone while driving. Never liked that guy anyway.) He scrolled with his thumb on the steering wheel to see gas mileage, a compass and other info.

If we had entered a destination, directions would appear as if in the air. If the road curved off, the display showed it curving. All fairly remarkable. After a few blocks we drove home, dismantled the device, boxed it up and sent it back to Amazon. The nice thing about Amazon is they let you return things and get your money back.

Because when all was said and done, one over-riding question remained: Did the device eliminate distractions while driving? The answer was no. Though Bob was rather enjoying himself, Joy felt sure an accident was imminent. And Bob admitted it did take attention away from what was happening around him.

Well, that was crucial, wasn’t it? It’s not that the device didn’t work, it worked just as advertised. But the main purpose was to make you driving experience safer. It certainly didn’t feel safer. We don’t know about you, but messages in the air, even if you can see past them to oncoming cars, are about as subtle as a hand floating between you and the window.

The Navdy gets rave reviews from PC Magazine and 97 percent of reviewers on Amazon, but it’s not for us. Even without messages and road diagrams in your face, the mounted device itself is a distraction. If you like bobble-heads, wiggly hula dancers or fuzzy dice moving around in front of your windshield, Navdy probably won’t bother you. But it was too much for us. Besides, we prefer Waze (a free app owned by Google) to Google Maps, which is what Navdy uses for navigation.

Finally, if you need directions, why not just let your cellphone tell you as you go? Joy puts her phone in the cup holder and lets Waze call out directions. She never has to look at it. Bob looks at a map just once, never asks directions and has never gotten lost. He also always knows where our car is in parking garages. (Oh, stop bragging.)

A Tip From Vanna

It’s not often you get a tech tip from Wheel of Fortune. But co-host Vanna White gave everyone a good one the other night.
When saving a great photo to your computer, put “fav” after the name. Later, when you’re searching for your favorite photos, you’ll find them easily, even if they’re scattered all over the hard drive. Just search on “fav.”

Getting a Cheap Smartphone

A reader told us she’s ready for her first smartphone because she’s going on a long road trip. It’ll be handy to get maps and make motel reservations on the road. The good news is they cost very little.
The same cheap TracFone service that works with so-called “flip phones” also works with cheap smartphones. Our neighbor got the Alcatel OneTouch Pixi Pulsar from Walmart for $20 and has a TracFone service costing $7 a month. She plays games on it every day, uses it to hail Uber cabs, and gets maps, email and text messages. The big difference is storage space and photo quality. The phone can’t

Alcatel Pixi Pulsar

hold more than a few basic apps. She can play “Word Chums” or “Scrabble” but not both. Otherwise, it does everything she needs it to do, such as going on the web.
To get started, search on the phrase “TracFone, bring your own smartphone.” Then when you click “smartphone plans,” you’ll see that under “90 day pay as you go” there’s one that costs only $7 a month. Or, start at TracFone.com, click “shop phones” to get an idea of which smartphones are compatible with their service. Instead of buying one from TracFone, you can get better prices elsewhere. The same Alcatel phone selling for $20 at Walmart is $30 on the TracFone site.

FINDING FREE MOVIELAND

A reader asks: “Where are the Amazon Prime movies?”  You’d think Amazon would have a category called “Prime Movies” on their website, but no, too simple.. So how do you find them?

Prime Movies are freebies for those who have paid for Prime membership. To find, type “prime movies” in the search box at the top of the page at Amazon.com. About 135,000 come up. Don’t have time to go through those? Best narrow the search. There are categories off to the left. In what may be the worst designed web page in the known universe, some of those categories don’t make sense, like “used.” (It’s a download, dummy.) Also ignore the price listings; what part of freebie do they not understand?

The second step is to look off to the left again and click “Amazon video.” Now you’ll see all the categories for Amazon Prime Videos, something like 35,000 movies. You can narrow choices from here and get gritty, funny, or political movies made after 2010. We narrowed it to just funny and political, and found shows like “Alpha House,” which is hilarious, “Veep,” and a Charlie Chan movie.

If you narrow your search to four-star and up, you’ll still get thousands of choices. (Too many movies are made.) We clicked “tough guys” and that narrowed our choices to 406 tough-guy movies. (Why isn’t there a category for mild guys?)

If you want new, look at movies that were added this week or in the past few months. Check off multiple categories for a custom result like “musicals before 1960 with four or five star ratings,” or “comedy suspense after 2010.” There should be a category for boring movies, but there isn’t. If you don’t see all these categories, keep clicking or start over. What’s weird is sometimes the same steps yield different results; they must have hired a Microsoft programmer.

Over 66 million Americans now have Amazon Prime, according to the tech news site Recode.net, for which they pay $99 a year up front. That’s roughly $6.6 billion coming in and they haven’t sold you anything yet. If they put it at interest they can make another hundred million or two. And some people say Amazon can’t make money. What you get for your Prime membership are free movies, music, unlimited photo storage, a huge lending library, audio books and two-day shipping. Does any of this explain the downward slide of major retailers the past few years? Uh-huh. Wall Street types call it “Death by Amazon.”

Heaps of Internuts

  • The World’s Most Valuable Brands by Country.” Search on that phrase for an interesting world map from MarketWatch.com. In the U.S., it’s Google, in Japan, Toyota, in South Korea, Samsung, in China it’s ICBC, the government-controlled Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. The Dutch oil company, Shell, is tied with BMW in Germany. Apple, the most valuable brand for five years in a row, shifts back and forth with Google. Eight of the ten most valuable brands in the world are American.
  • Puzzlewood, where Tolkien got his inspiration.

    Patrick Stewart Reads One-Star Reviews of Famous Monuments.” Google that phrase to hear the famous actor read comments visitors have placed online. One guy thinks the Statue of Liberty should have rides. Another thinks Stonehenge needs a coat of paint, that “it’s “certainly past its best.” (Got a point there.) And the trouble with Mt. Rushmore is it’s in South Dakota.

  • AtlasObscura.com has fun stories about places all over the world. We didn’t know that Puzzlewood, in Coleford England, was the inspiration for “Lord of the Rings.” We were looking into going across Canada by train next summer and learned that Toronto has a book vending machine at a book store called “Monkey’s Paw” — named for the famous horror story we would guess.
  • Photoshop Troll Takes Requests Too Literally.” Search on that phrase to find photo mashups by master Photoshop editor James Fridman (stet). For example, two kayakers asked James to put them in more dangerous waters. The photo now shows them paddling inside a pot of boiling water. Misspellings are choice subjects: “Hey James, can you pet me inside of a Bugatti ?” The photo shows the guy turned into a dog, except for the face, sitting in a car and getting petted. A girl who wants to look “grate” is shown as a giant grater.
  • Famous Last Words of 19 Famous People.” Search on that phrase for some interesting ones. Marie Antoinette said, “Pardon me, I didn’t do it on purpose,” as she stepped on her executioner’s foot.
  • JoyofAndroid.com has helpful tips for getting the most out of your Android phone or tablet. There’s a section on common problems with the “Google Home” device, competitor to the Amazon Echo.

Faulty Scales

Everything’s being built with computer chips these days. Joy went ballistic when her new high-tech scale said her body fat was twice as much as she expected — and furthermore that her bone density was low. If that isn’t enough to tick off the Good Humor man, we don’t know what is. She was testing the new “Yunmai” digital bathroom scale. The price is $67.

We’ve come across similar results with the better-known Omron scale. This one gives your supposed “real age.” No matter what age she told the scale she was, it said her real age, body-wise, was two years younger. If she put in “60,” it said she was 58. If she put in “20,” it said she was 18. This turns out to be an electronic fountain of youth! Gizmos like this have become common as the price of computer chips has gone down. A guy commenting on the web about a hand-held gizmo he bought, said he knew by caliper and tape that his body fat was 15 percent. But his hand-held device said it was 30 percent. It’s the new techno-junk.

Out of 828 reviews on Amazon, 80 percent were positive, despite its faults. (We’re keeping it because it looks great and has a huge digital read-out. No glasses required.) One user said it informed her that her body fat went up even though her weight went down — all in one day. One time, Joy got on after a big lunch while wearing heavy winter clothes. The scale read: “Is this Joy?”

 

GOOGLE TAKES “ACTIONS”

When extra features are added to cell phones or the Internet, they’re called “apps” — short for “applications.” Maps and games are examples. When features are added to the new fast-growing digital assistants like Amazon Echo, they’re called “skills;” but when added to Google Home, they’re called “actions.”

Why the difference? We don’t know, and we didn’t make this stuff up. You have to realize that dozens of meetings, attended by high-powered executives, are required to make such decisions. We weren’t invited. Well these gizmos are the fastest growing products on the planet, just ahead of organic carrot juice. And so we looked at what “actions” Google can take.

Users of either device most often ask for weather or music. But what about more difficult questions, like: “Tell me about Tokelau.” This is an island in the middle of the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, and we are always anxious for news. Currently, there’s not much happening on Tokelau and so there’s no news. But other interesting actions are popping up all the time. Here are some we’ve tried so far.

— “Quora.” This is our favorite question and answer site. There are more than 100 million active daily users and they can provide answers to really obscure questions. For instance, we asked Google Home to launch Quora, and then asked: “What is the best way to lower cholesterol for a blood test?” Google said the best answer was from Joy Schwabach, who has answered lots of questions on Quora and has 140,000 views. This turns out to be the same Joy Schwabach whose name is on our column. (How many could there be.) The answer she gave is rather lengthy and somewhat boring, so we won’t go into it. We might note that no one pays for this information.

— “Random Conversations.” This enormously useful “action” allows you to say just about anything and someone out there in the great beyond will say something back. For example, a stranger asked us what we did when lonely or bored. We had much to say on this subject, but unfortunately we cut her off accidentally.

— “Lonely Planet” – You mention an area of the world you’re interested in, like Italy, and get news of attractions. A follow-up email gives you more detail on whichever one you want to know about. We learned about the Museum of San Marco in Florence.

— “Cool Events” tells you about meetups and shows in your area. Unfortunately, the first one they told us about had already started an hour earlier. Ah well, a few bugs to work out.

— In “Animal Quiz,” your Google Home device will ask questions and try to guess the animal you’re thinking of. When we tried it, Google failed to guess “turkey.”

— “Genius” just gives you information about songs. (It’s a very limited genius.) It didn’t recognize “The Star Spangle Banner,” our national anthem, and told us it was probably an album by Jay Z and Kanye West. Seems unlikely.

— “And Chill” offers movie recommendations. We said we liked “Sleepless in Seattle” for its romance, and it said we might like “Man Up,” “Mr. Nobody,” “Revolutionary Road” and several others. Never heard of them.

— “Reverse Math.” You’re given an answer, such as 90, and have to think of three numbers that when multiplied together get that. How about nine, ten and one? That was easy.

There are nearly a hundred of these actions to choose from. (The other gadget, Amazon Alexa, by the way, has 8,000.) To find what’s available, tap the Google Home app on your phone, then “more settings,” then “services.”

Some are remarkably specific, such as the dates and hours for Seattle’s public swimming season, the lunch menu at St. Joseph’s school (they didn’t bother to say which St. Joseph’s school and there are dozens), and the public transportation schedule in Prague. “Mr. Doggy” tells you what’s safe for your dog to eat. (Food, we would guess.) There’s no search function, you have to scroll through them all.

By the way, we’ve often read that Google Home is better than the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot in answering questions, but it’s a mixed bag. Alexa told us that Spain was bigger than Sweden, but Google Home said it didn’t know. Sometimes Google knows but Alexa doesn’t. On the other hand, when you’re looking for Alexa’s new skills, rather than go through all 8000, you can search by topic.

Internuts

StrangeUSA.com says it’s the ultimate collection of the strange. Click on a U.S. state, then a city. We tried Joy’s old hometown of Newport Beach, California. One of the items said the Coronado Apartments, where her nephew lives, is haunted by the spirit of a woman. Lights go on and off, muffled voices are heard, and phantom music emanates. (They just don’t understand the erratic power system in Newport Beach.) They said John Wayne’s yacht in the Bay is haunted by John Wayne. (Bob has been on this boat and didn’t hear a peep. He says it’s more likely he haunts the airport, which he hated.)

KhanAcademy.org has thousands of courses. A new one is “Pixar in a Box.” You learn how the people behind “Toy Story,” “Up” and “Inside Out” create their movies.

— “Big Dogs, Little Kids.” Google that phrase. These are the really cute.

— “How to Use Steve Jobs’ Insanely Simple Strategy For Getting What You Want.” Google this phrase to find an article in Inc. Magazine that includes a video clip of Steve Jobs, Apple Co-Founder, explaining his strategy. As a 12 year-old, he called up the president of Hewlett Packard, who offered him a summer job.

 

 

SLOW WEB

Recently, we wrote about websites that hog your computer’s resources and slow down your world. We dug in and found that our own chief culprit was one of our favorite sites, Techlicious.com. Later we found out it was a temporary problem caused by one of their advertisers. The advertiser has since been shut down.

That’s good news. Even better, our Techlicious contact told us about a free plugin for users of Google’s “Chrome” browser, called “OneTab.” It takes all your open tabs (which show the websites you have open) and merges them into one tab. Collapsing all those tabs into one can cut the computer’s load by up to 95 percent. To find OneTab, search on the phrase “OneTab plugin.” Click the button that says “add to Chrome.” Then, whenever you want to make multiple tabs into one tab, click the OneTab icon. We liked the neatness of a having a list instead of a lot of tabs showing at the top of our screen but we didn’t notice a big difference in performance; maybe you will. It also works with Firefox browsers.

Show Watch

A reader asked us if we’d written about the difference between Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, or had she dreamt it? We hadn’t, so Bob asked her if it was a pleasant dream anyway. “LOL” (laugh out loud), she wrote back.

So we turned our attention to her question. Our attention has a short turning radius, so we were able to note some differences quickly. Netflix costs $10 a month and specializes in TV series, many of which are their own original shows, such as “House of Cards.” You can browse Netflix without joining, or sign up for a free 30-day trial. But if you’re not crazy about it, remember to cancel before the trial period is up or you will find that your credit card is being charged more or less forever.
We have been in an out of Netflix several times. As you browse, you can watch trailers. We tend to have a “Yuck!” reaction to most of these but somebody must like them. For example, their series called “The Santa Clarita Diet” is about a housewife who eats people. It was set in California, so at least the people were organic. The only Netflix original show we’ve ever liked was “Lilyhammer,” a funny crime show set in Norway.
We prefer Amazon Prime, a $99 a year service, which works out to $8.25 a month. Besides lots of free movies and TV shows, you get free shipping on most anything you buy. We loved their “Alpha House,” series about four Republican senators who share a house in Washington. And we got caught up in a CBS series they showed, called “BrainDead.”
Netflix is said to have a bigger selection, but we haven’t found this to be true for our old-fashioned tastes, unless you pay extra for their DVD mail delivery service. Netflix’s streaming service doesn’t have a single James Bond movie, for example, but Amazon has 16 free for Prime members. (There are 26 Bond movies in all; which is a lot of martinis shaken, not stirred.)
If you mainly want a lot of current TV shows, Hulu Plus may be the one to get. Like Netflix, it has a free trial. It airs new episodes just five hours after they’ve appeared on TV. On Amazon, it’s usually about five days later and it’s much longer on Netflix.

The Rise of Planet Chromebook

An insurance company called “Safeware” told us that two years ago only three percent of their policies for school computers were for Chromebooks, a computer designed primarily for web use. Currently 23 percent of policies cover Chromebooks, a 650 percent increase.
A big reason is price: Chromebooks cost $149 to $499 and the software is all free online. But compared to iPads, they get damaged accidentally 60 percent more often. This could be because a large percentage of them are used by small children. However, when damage occurs, Chromebooks cost only half as much iPads to repair. We turn to ours whenever our Windows computer gets so slow we’re tempted to fix it with a hammer.

Email Spoof

We’ve been spoofed! A friend told us an email that appeared to come from us actually came from someone in Russia.
Fortunately our friend read the message carefully and saw that it came from an email address that wasn’t ours. But the part that shows “display name” had ours. Apparently, you can set up an email account and use someone else’s name as the display name. It’s called “spoofing,” and some email services don’t permit it. In our case, the message read that it was coming from “Joy Schwabach” though the sender’s address was not Joy’s. If in doubt, contact your friend by phone or email instead of clicking on the message. It may well be that the action of clicking on anything in the message is what triggers some malware program.

Printer Scam

Our friend Ida had a strange thing happen on the website for Brother Printers. Clicking on a link on the official website led to a fake tech support number. When she called it, the person answering told her they needed control of her computer to fix the problem. She did what they asked (even though she’s not stupid). She could tell they’d done something, because all her familiar desktop icons disappeared.
We went over to her place and showed her how to do a “system restore.” (Type it into the Windows search bar or help section and follow the instructions.) Then we went to the Brother site ourselves. Sure enough, clicking on a legitimate looking link took us to a scammers’ website, this time with a link we could click to start a “fast install” program. (We are very reluctant clickers.) We told Brother tech support about it and they said they would report it to their team. Brother happens to be one of our favorite printer companies, so we have no doubt they got right on the problem. Still, it was a shock to see that kind of thing on the website of a large legitimate company.

RANSOM!

A reader writes to tell us her Windows files have been hijacked. The hijacker is demanding money to release her photos and personal documents. Here’s what to do and how to prevent that.

Restart the computer. Keep tapping the F8 key as you start up. A recovery option will come on the screen. This will take the machine back to a time before the hijack. (And to think that some people say time travel is impossible.) If for some reason this doesn’t work, there are lots more ways to do it in PC World’s article “How to Rescue Your PC from Ransomware.”

It’s better to avoid being taken for one of those rides in the first place by getting free anti-ransom software. Google the word “Cybereason” and click on the second result, “RansomFree by Cybereason.” The product has had over 50,000 downloads so far and customers report that it blocked ransom attacks. The FBI reports that ransomware is the biggest threat facing consumers in 2017.

Calling by Voice

In a previous column, we mentioned how nice it would be if Alexa, the voice inside the Amazon Echo Dot, (or Google Assistant, the voice inside Google Home), could make emergency calls whenever you said something like “Call Uncle Max.”  But you don’t have to wait for Google or Amazon to add this feature. You can command your phone to call someone, just by using your voice.

With Siri, start by tapping “settings,” and then tap to allow “Hey Siri.” Now she’ll answer your voice commands. Once you do that, a whole world opens. She’ll make a phone call for you. Siri will also read you the subject lines of your email, if you say “Hey Siri, read my email.” She’ll also read the news headlines, answer questions, start a game or some other app, if you name it. She’ll play music in your library, and do hundreds of other things. For a complete list, search on the phrase “complete list of Siri commands.” You can do similar searches for complete lists of commands you can give the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. You can ask Alexa to read you a book, for example.

On any Android phone with the Lollipop, Marshmallow or Nougat operating system, say “OK Google” to call anyone in your contact list, just by using their first name. (“OK, Google, call Stephanie.”) But you can also call those not on your contact list.  Say, “Call the Main Library; you have to add the town you want. If it doesn’t work, make sure you’ve updated the Google app on your phone.

If you have a Windows phone, or an older phone, try the free app “VoiceDial.” Tap its icon to dial with your voice.  Then say “Hello Blue Genie, dial Joe Doe,” or whomever.

We can imagine the following scenario. Your mother is sick and can barely move. Tell her to keep her iPhone plugged in and within shouting distance. Then she can say “Hey Siri, call 911.”

Automatic eBay

A friend of our inherited a collection of Robert Crumb comic art, more than a thousand pieces. Odd subject. Selling it piece by piece on eBay would be exhausting. We have an idea for her: “FedEx Valet.”

Most FedEx stores offer this service. They say “bring designer clothes, electronics, sporting goods and more to your local FedEx office.” Don’t even bother to pack it up. They’ll send your stuff to Valets who photograph, list and ship your stuff when it sells. You get up to 80 percent of the sales.

Internuts

— Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is still doing shows about nothing. That was the original pitch for the Seinfeld TV series. This new one is ComediansInCarsGettingCoffee.com. It’s very low-key, as you might expect, and we found it mildly amusing.

ClientsFromHell.net. Yes, there are people out there dumber than anyone you know. Hundreds of them. Remember: roughly half the population is below average intelligence.

Lights! Action! Special Effects!

We never asked for six camera angles, or text that follows our hero through the opening credits. But we always wanted to do that trick where one character or object is in color while everything else is in black and white. You can do that and plenty more with “VideoStudio Pro Ultimate” from Corel.

VideoStudio Pro is aimed at amateurs but has features that pros should adopt, such as “auto ducking.” We see — or rather “hear” — this problem in many older British films: We can hear the character’s crunchy footsteps on gravel but not what he is saying. Auto-ducking lowers the volume on the one so you can hear the other. We’d never think of attempting it in our own videos were it not for Corel’s tutorials, which are really good.

The tutorials are the first thing you see when you open VideoStudio. The guy leading them reminds us of David Attenborough, the famous narrator of Nova’s nature documentaries. He doesn’t have Attenborough’s British accent, but a similar gentleness makes you think “I can do this!” (We mean the video editing, not the documentaries.)

In less than a minute, we were using one of the many templates to turn our photos and video clips into a professional looking production. It began with photos scattered on a table, each one containing one of our images.

It takes patience to work through all the tutorials. Fortunately, you can backtrack to any segment. Sample them for yourself at Learn.Corel.com. The site also has a free trial version of the software, in two versions: $80 for VideoStudio Pro and $100 for VideoStudio Ultimate.

 

 

THE RIGHT BROWSER

Which is the safest way to browse the web: Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, or Mozilla Firefox? According to the blog “How to Geek,” Edge has a slight edge. Many say Firefox has the last word on privacy and we find that’s it pretty private.

In 2015, Firefox instituted “tracking protection.” It removes all tracking elements from pages you visited using the “private browsing” feature. To use private browsing in Firefox, hold down the “Cntrl” (or “Cmd” on the Mac) and the “Shift” key. Then tap the “P” (for private) key.

It was news to us that advertisers and websites can track you in Google or Microsoft’s browsers even if you use the “incognito” or “InPrivate” modes. All those modes do is prevent your browsing history, cookies and cached data from being stored on your computer. You’re still tracked, unless you use Firefox.

We don’t care if we’re tracked, because it means we’ll see ads targeted to our interests. Of greater concern are viruses and hackers. Microsoft and Google use what’s called a “sandboxso that each component of your browser is kept separate, making it hard for a hacker to join them together. Firefox has over 18,000 “extensions,” which are apps that live in the browser. As you might expect, sandboxing all of them has been a problem. They’re still working on it. Google has over 50,000 and managed to do it.

The only reason Microsoft Edge might be considered slightly safer than Google Chrome is that it keeps a better list of bad websites, making sure you steer clear of those. However, this shouldn’t matter if you use anti-virus and anti-malware software.

Unusual Web Browsers

And now for something completely different … There’s much more out there than you can ever find time for:

Opera Mini. For smartphones and tablets, Opera Mini claims to save up to 90 percent of data costs; we saved 50 percent. It also blocks ads and makes multi-tasking a breeze. In our tests, it was just as fast and lovely as any browser, even when watching a movie.

ScienceDirect,for phone, tablet or computer. Browse through the titles of 14,324,115 journal and book articles on just about any scientific research topic you can think of. Shouldn’t take you more than a few decades. See anything you like? “Open access” books and articles are free, others are $35.

Torch” is a favorite of video pirates. (Computer only.) Has a built-in feature for downloading music and video from YouTube and Vimeo. Uses Bit Torrent for rapid downloading of videos. Has lots of games.

Beware the Mac App Store

If you use a Macbook, you’ve probably noticed apps for sale in the App Store; scammers lurk there.

The most benign offer to sell you something you can already get for free, such as the online version of Microsoft Word. The worst install malware on your system. Look out for apps offering Microsoft templates. Get those for free at Templates.Office.com. For other apps in the Mac App Store, look at reviews. Often, the first few are phony. Scroll past those to see what victims are saying.

NOTE: This sort of thing goes back many years, in fact for all of the 36 years we’ve been writing this column. An easy way to get a product to sell is to find one that already exists for free and offer it for a price. We have seen this done with bundles of free programs as well as single ones. Take a look at Ninite.com for totally free programs.

Speeding up Your Computer

If your Windows 10 computer is running slowly, open Windows’ “Task Manager” or the “Task Manager” in your web browser.

There are at least three ways to get to the Windows task manager. Bob uses “Ctrl-Alt-Del.” That means holding down the “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys on your keyboard and tapping the delete key. (“Ctrl-Shift-Esc” also works.) Or, right-click the taskbar at the bottom of your screen and choose “Task manager.” Each item on the list that comes up under “more details” is one of the processes or programs running in the background and almost certainly slowing you down.

Joy’s computer is often running at 99 percent of its brain chip’s capacity, so clicking “task manager” is an everyday thing for her. When Bob checked the brain on his PC, it was running at just three percent of capacity. (He says that fits well with his own brain activity.) Recently, a “speech engine” was hogging the lion’s share of Joy’s computer’s resources. Since she hadn’t been talking to Cortana (Window’s voice assistant) lately, she clicked it and chose “end task.” We also shut down “Microsoft Search Protocol Host.”

But it could be that having too many tabs open in your web browser is the culprit. Rather than shutting them all down, find out which one is the resource hog. In Google Chrome, look for the three vertical dots in the upper right corner of the screen. Click “more tools,” and then “task manager.” When we did this, we noticed one website was the real pig. So we closed that tab. Or rather, Joy did. Bob tends to be a one-tab-at-a-time kind of guy. (You can do something similar in Firefox with an add-on.)

Chrome also has a “reset” button. Type chrome://settings in the search bar and when you get to settings, type “reset settings.” You can bring Chrome back to its original state. It keeps your bookmarks but gets rid of the junk that bogs you down.

Internuts

MyReps.Datamade.us will tell you the names of all your political representatives, right down to the local sheriff. Next to each name is a “contact” button. There are also links to their websites, Twitter, and Facebook pages.

Step into a Miniature World of Paper.” Search on that phrase to find a National Geographic video full of leaping and flying paper creatures. It’s origami gone wild.

Cute Animal Tweet Off.” Search on that to find a Mashable article with cute baby animal photos.

WORTH FIVE BUCKS

Cartoon Portrait by a Fiverr Artist

Ever watch a video of an artist drawing? These quickly-drawn cartoons are used in ads and training videos. We got one for fun. It cost $5.

Our interest began when a reader asked for our recommendation on “whiteboard animation software.” That would be software that creates cartoon videos. “PowToon” and many others are free, but we weren’t sure about the art part. That’s when we turned to artists on Fiverr. There are hundreds and most are super cheap. Fiverr.com is a marketplace for people who sell services in dozens of fields at surprisingly low prices.

Wouldn’t it be fun, we thought, to have a video clip for our history club? We’re doing “history of fashion” and a plain PowerPoint presentation might be dull. Add a video clip and interest always picks up.

So we chose an artist whose sample video looked good. He’s in Pakistan where the average income is about $1200 a year, so $5 goes further. We gave him 15 photos to use as inspiration. We just wanted drawings but what we got were all the photos arranged as a presentation. Still, it was okay for $5. For hand-drawn art you have to go Fiverr’s “graphics” section and choose cartoons or comics that can then be animated. Or you can use stock comic characters that the whiteboard artist already has.

Next we had a technical problem with our website and we hired a guy from India who fixed the problem within a few hours, again for $5, The total price was $6 with Fiverr’s $1 processing fee. All payments are handled through Fiverr, which you pay either with a credit card — like any normal purchase, or through PayPal. The only downside is you pay upfront when selecting a vendor.

Besides programming and whiteboard animations, other Fiverr categories include music, advertising, “fun and lifestyle,” illustration, writing, business advice and so on. Under the “fun” category, we found $5 charms sporting a tiny map of your hometown or favorite location.

Update: Be wary of any vendor on Fiverr.com who needs a user name and password. The guy who worked on our website may have hacked it. We’re in the process of making it bulletproof now.

App Happy

  • CamFind” is a free app that tries to identify what you take a picture of. It might be handy for foreign signs. We tried it out on a German sign on a web page, saying “Ein-U Ausfahrt freihalten” and found out it meant, roughly: “Don’t block the exit.” (Well. anyone would have known that.)
  • SendOutSupport” is a 99 cent app for those suffering from depression, stress, bereavement and other mental problems. Users search professional support networks and get helpful tips.

Giving Google Home Its Due

Most of the write-ups about the new digital assistants focus on “Alexa,” the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot. Its main competitor is Google Home. You can expect at least a half dozen more competitors this year because this is the hottest new tech product this side of the Andromeda galaxy.

We have both and they’re both great, but Google Home lets you command your TV.  For example, we were looking up Elke Sommer on IMDB (the “Internet Movie Database”) and noticed she was in a “Bulldog Drummond” detective movie, “Deadlier than the Male” that we’d never heard of.

Well, we like those Bulldog Drummond movies so we tried to find it on Amazon, which didn’t have it for rent or sale, except for a British DVD that doesn’t play on American players. So we said to Google Home, “Hey Google, play the movie “Deadlier than the Male,” on YouTube on BobJoy. (“BobJoy” is the name of our Wi-Fi connection.) The movie promptly started right up on our TV.  It turned out to be a double feature. Afterwards, another Elke Sommer movie started up. This also works with Netflix movies, if you’re a Netflix subscriber. So basically, you can order even obscure movies and if they’re available on YouTube or Netflix, you said the magic word — or in this case, “words.”

Now, you know that the great rule in the digital world is “whatever you get, you have to get something else to make it work.” So here you also need a $35 Chromecast plugged into your TV. It’s about the size of a flat mini donut. Once it’s plugged in, anything on YouTube or Netflix will start playing on your TV when you give the proper voice command. Remember to press “input” on your TV remote and choose the setting the Chromecast is plugged into. They have slightly different names depending on your brand of TV. Our Sony, for example, offers a choice of HDMI 1, HDMI 2, and so on.

Faceoff – Free Word versus Paid Word

Zinn Art

A reader pinned us down on differences between the free “Microsoft Word Online” and the Microsoft Word that is part of Office 365.

Here’s one: The Office program you pay for lets you work offline, the free version works only online. Once, while working with the free online version, Joy struck a few keys and lost several paragraphs. For some reason, the “undo” feature failed to work and those paragraphs drifted off toward the Andromeda Galaxy. It shouldn’t have happened, but the Universe is a strange place.

One minor difference: The paid version of Word, like the paid versions of Excel, PowerPoint and Access, has a few more options compared to the free one. But more options are exactly what drives us nuts in all the Microsoft products. The free versions have too many options already.

Internuts

  • ZinnArt.com has the humorous works of David Zinn, whose cute mice and alien creatures appear to descend into the sidewalk all over Ann Arbor, Michigan. He and many others come up if you search on the phrase “100 street art examples on YouTube.”
  • Top 100 Sand Castles.” We put that phrase into the search box at YouTube and saw some awesome sculptures. Several of the women made of sand looked like goddesses. The video is followed by time-lapse photography showing you how these sand marvels are made; it’s a lot of work.

 

THE MATCH GAME

Is online dating the worst way to find a mate, or the best? In any event, it’s much more popular than we ever thought.

According to a Consumer Reports Magazine survey of 115,000 subscribers, 44 percent are in a long-term relationship or got married through online dating.  Yet reader satisfaction with these sites is lower than for any other service the magazine rates. They even rate lower than tech support. Now that’s the pits.

As chance would have it, we know four women (no men) who have used online dating services. Two are happily married to the men they met this way, a third is happy in her new relationship and the fourth is still looking and not at all happy with the results. This last one lives in Florida, which might make it tougher to find a mate since that state’s population is heavily weighted toward the elderly and women tend to live longer. Despite the fact that we personally know no men who are looking, or at least acknowledge that they are looking, the overall statistics say more men than women are looking for a mate.

Some dating — or perhaps we should say “mating” — services are quite expensive. Selective Search, for example, charges $25,000 before they fire up their computers. (It’s free for ladies who don’t need client services. That’s for the va-va voom crowd.)

The magazine’s highest ratings went to the top free services: Tinder, OKCupid and PlentyofFish. But a high rating simply meant not quite as bad as the others; only one, Tinder, managed a single rating above “neutral “out of 11 categories.

This is serious business, and we don’t mean just the business part. People’s emotions, health and in some cases wealth as well, are at stake in seeking a partner.  According to the FBI, in a study of six months in 2014, fraudulent date and mate seekers took $81 million through online dating.  In some cases, only the victims’ relatives prevented the searcher from sending cash. When it became apparent no money was forthcoming, the “date” vanished.

From the earliest days of personal computers they were seen as a broader way to meet people than just running into someone where you lived or worked. The fact that it works at all is sort of astonishing but also hopeful, because proximity — direct contact, is necessarily limited. But none of the research on the efficacy of online dating and mating accounts for meets through special interest groups. These have expanded enormously because of online links; we’re talking about people who meet because they like to take cruises or are interested in tropical plants or books or Broadway shows and so forth. None of that is known or counted as online dating, though the computer and the internet brought them together.

Reader Problem

A reader said that when he watches a movie online, it often stutters and stops until it’s finished loading. A way out of that is to download the whole thing first.

Netflix recently started offering movie downloads — as opposed to movie streaming, and Amazon offers it too. For Netflix, first download the app for your smartphone or tablet. Tap the “Available for Download” option. The downloadable movies don’t include the whole list: it’s mainly TV shows and Netflix originals. (Netflix offers a free trial for the first 30 days, then the basic service is $10 a month.)

For Amazon, start by downloading the free Amazon Video app. If you’re a Prime member, there will be some freebies for download. For non-Prime members, TV shows are $2 in standard definition. Amazon doesn’t list all the programs available for download. Find something you like and then search to see if it’s available for download. One of the best thing about downloads is that you can then watch them offline, when you’re traveling for example; we’ve noticed many people doing it on airplanes and train rides.

Internuts

  • 10 Instances of Medical Quackery.” Search on that phrase to find an incredible list of bizarre episodes in American history: how George Washington died when they took half of his blood to cure him of strep throat, the first snake oil salesman, and a guy who died just a few years ago after turning himself blue by ingesting colloidal silver. Teething babies used to go to sleep sipping a combination of alcohol and opium.
  • Two Centuries of U.S. Immigration.” Search on that phrase to find an animated map. Colored dots move from countries around the world. It was almost all from Europe and Mexico until this century.

Getting Windows 10 for Free

If you refused to get Windows 10 during the free period, and now wish you had, it’s not too late, no matter what Microsoft originally said. Search on the phrase “Download Windows 10 from Microsoft.com” and be careful to click on the actual Microsoft site, not one of the ads at the top.

But should you upgrade? Microsoft says Windows 10 is the most secure system ever. And yet, security updates for Windows 7 users will be available until the year 2020, and Windows 8 users have until 2023. One of our friends still uses Windows 7 because her printer failed to work when she tried Windows 10. An update to the printer probably would have fixed the problem, but she prefers Windows 7. If you search on the phrase “revert to Windows 7,” you can find out how to go back. But in our experience, it only works if it’s been 30 days or less since you upgraded.

Even then, you may run into problems. A reader tells us he got a “restore failure” message when he tried to return his machine to Windows 8 from Windows 10. Windows 8 had been restored, but all his data was lost in the process. Whoa, that is heavy duty serious. Fortunately, he’d backed up everything before he started the conversion. You should do the same.

 

 

WORLD’S EASIEST TABLET

A reader asked us for our recommendation on the easiest tablet to use – the iPad, the Kindle Fire or something else? The easiest tablet is nearly always the one your friend has, because they’ll help you out.

We always regretted getting an iPad for our aunt, because she never learned to use it. All her friends had computers, but they were thumb-dumb when it came to the iPad. If we’d thought of it, we would have told her to watch YouTube videos. There are good ones on every kind of tablet. So, go to YouTube.com and search on “how to use an iPad” or “how to use the Kindle Fire.” What could go wrong?

Basically, all tablets are similar: Tap on icons to launch activities such as email, movies, books, or the web. Keep in mind that you don’t have to spend $400 on an iPad Mini, or $600 on an iPad Pro, though they are wonderful machines with excellent sound and picture quality. The Kindle Fire 7 is similar, costs only $50, works great, and now comes with “Alexa” built in. Alexa is the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot. Press a button and ask for a song, a podcast, the weather, an audio book, a game or the answer to unlikely questions, like “Who were the Ink Spots?” (She knows.)  Or use it to order stuff. A six year-old girl used it to order a dollhouse. When she described the experience on a talk show, saying “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse,” Echo devices hearing this sprang into action and ordered dollhouses. (Alexa asks you to confirm any orders. Of course the little girl did say yes.)

If you want some Kindling, the Kindle Fire 7 can run for seven hours before recharging. The Kindle Fire 8, a slightly larger tablet, costs $89 and runs for 12 hours on a charge. Amazon Prime members get some free books and movies thrown in.

App Happy

  • MyScript Nebo” is free for the iPad and Windows 10. It’s a note-taking app that was named winner of the 2017 Mobile Apps Showdown competition. It’s the superstar of note-taking apps. It uses handwriting recognition that converts scribbles, mathematical formula, diagrams, or drawings into neat looking results. The only catch? You either need an Apple Pencil ($99 from apple.com) or a Windows 10 computer with a touch screen and an active pen. It’s “coming soon to Android,” as programmers like to say.
  • WithJoy is a wonderful wedding app. (Or you can use the website WithJoy.com.) Our nephew invited us to his wedding this way. We logged in with a special code that arrived on a lovely invitation by regular mail. Then we were invited to share a memory of the bride or groom, add photos, and interact with others.

Internuts

  • What Each State Googled More Than Any Other in 2016.” Google those words to find a fascinating map. In California, they Googled the phrase “2016 Worst Year Ever,” searching on that issue more than any other state. In Montana, it was “Cupping Therapy.” (Movie and Olympic stars like Jennifer Aniston and Michael Phelps use suction cups on their backs to revitalize. It produces giant red welts and dates back to ancient Egypt.) In New Jersey, “Donald Trump” topped the Google queries, in nearby Delaware it was the “Brangelina Divorce.” In Missouri, they were just fascinated by “McDonald’s Breakfast All Day.”
  • Best Metro Areas for STEM Professionals.” Search on that phrase to see the list. WalletHub.com did a survey of the best places to live for scientists and engineers. On the top of the list are Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco, and Boston. Among the worst were Birmingham, Memphis and Honolulu.

Chromebook Considerations

Some of our readers bought a Google Chromebook after reading our column on the topic. These laptops are cheap, lightning fast and trouble-free. But there are some considerations to keep in mind.

One reader wrote to say that the Chromebook doesn’t work with his Okidata printer. It turns out that only a limited number of Okidata models work with Chromebooks. However, HP, Canon, Epson and many others have no problem. Check yours by searching on your printer’s name along with the word “Chromebook.”

Or use a workaround: Use Google’s “Remote Desktop App” to direct your PC to print something for you. Basically, this means you are temporarily working on a Windows, Mac or Linux which is controlled by your Chromebook over the Internet. Joy used her Chromebook to direct her Windows computer to make and print a greeting card. It was real fast.

One reader was disappointed he couldn’t use Quicken on his Chromebook, though he did remember that we warned readers that Chromebooks don’t let you install programs. On the other hand, there’s nearly always an online app that works just as well. For example, search on the phrase “Quicken substitute” to find an article from InvestorJunkie.com. It lists several.

Screen size: Chromebook’s normal font looks awfully tiny. One savvy reader suggested changing the screen resolution, and voila, problem solved. To do this, tap the picture in the right-hand corner, choose “settings,” and in the search box, type “resolution.” Choose a larger number to get a larger font. This works on regular computers too.  An alternative method: Hold down the “Ctrl” button (or the “Cmd” button on a Mac) and tap the plus sign to increase the font size.