DRIVING AN OLD COMPUTER

We heard from several readers who were wondering if they should buy a Chromebook to replace their old Windows machine.

A reader writes: “I saw an article that said, ‘Using a five-year-old computer is like driving a 1966 car on the interstate.” Her computer is four years old, and ran Windows 8 until she upgraded it to Windows 10. It came with four gigabytes of RAM, and her daughter added another four gigabytes.  But that “didn’t seem to make it any faster,” she said. Even after she switched to a fiber-optic internet provider, it was slow.

We hear you. Even our super-fast Windows machine with an i7 processor and 12 gigabytes of RAM gets slow when the antivirus program is scanning, or for unknown reasons.

If you search on the phrase “15 reasons why Your Computer is Slow,” you’ll find many possibilities, such as a virus, a slow processor, a full hard drive, too many startup programs, or too many tabs open. Joy usually has at least six tabs open.

A Chromebook has several advantages. It doesn’t need antivirus software or reformatting. It repairs itself every time you boot up. Bob dumped a load of soup on ours, calling to mind the time he killed a Mac by spilling orange juice on it. It  had no effect on the Chromebook.

Another alternative is the Chromebox. It’s like a Chromebook, except it’s part of a desktop system– not a laptop. You can hook up an old monitor to it but you may need an adapter cable and a compatible printer. A Chromebox starts at around $250. An adapter runs around $20. Chromebox-compatible printers go for as little as $40, like the HP Deskjet 1112.

Our reader said: “The sales guy at Best Buy didn’t think it was a good idea. He got to talking about all the extra cables, converters, etc. that we would need to purchase to hook up an older monitor, keyboard, and mouse.  I was overwhelmed and just thought, ‘better stick with a Windows computer.’” We disagree. The extra expense is trivial compared to the extra cost of a Windows machine.Your current keyboard and mouse will work just fine.

Making Calls on a Computer

Joy found it a bit strange to hear her friend Betty’s voice coming through the laptop, but it was loud and clear. She was camping out at a hospital to help a sick relative and forgot her phone charger. Fortunately, she had her computer and made phone calls on it.

Search on the phrase “Make a phone call with Google Hangouts” and follow a few simple steps to set it up on a computer, iPhone, iPad, or Android. Start by signing up for a free Google Voice or Google Fi account. It’s also great for text messaging.

Internuts

  • 88 Comics that Introverts Will Understand.” Search on that phrase to find some funny cartoons. One of them reminds us of Joy, who often replays old conversations in her head when you think she is listening to you.
  • The Most Valuable Vinyl Records on Earth.” Search on that phrase to see a list from DigitalTrends. An Elvis Presley record is valued at $300,000. A Beatles, limited-edition record once owned by Ringo Starr fetched $790,000 in 2015.
  • Words to Turn a Conversation Around (And Those to Avoid).” Search on that phrase to find some useful tips. For example: Avoid the word “just.” It’s seen as too whiny, as in “I just want one thing.” A good word to use more often is “willing” as in: “Would you be willing to come to a meeting?” “Willing” usually gets a yes response even in tricky situations.

Playing Baseball with Alexa

You don’t need to buy an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot to have fun with Alexa. All you need is the free Alexa app on your phone.

To get started, find it in the app store and install it. When it’s installed, tap it to open, and then tap the blue circle in the lower middle to talk to Alexa.

Although we usually use Alexa to find out the weather, answer a trivia question or play music, she has many skills.

We said:  “Alexa, play ultimate history quiz,” to get three true-or-false questions designed by History.com, which is part of the History Channel, Bob’s favorite. Joy missed this one: “Fortune cookies were invented in Japan.” She said false, thinking they were first baked in the U.S. She also wrongly guessed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the National Park Service. No, that was Woodrow Wilson’s doing. She said “false” instead of “true” when asked if the Republican Party was formed to combat slavery. (It sure was.) If you wish, they’ll tell you how you rank against others. Joy said she preferred not to know. It wouldn’t be fair if Bob played. People in the newsroom used to tell others, “Don’t bother with the reference books. Just ask Bob.”

For more tricks, go to Amazon.com and click on “Alexa skills” in the drop-down list in the search bar. Search on any term you fancy. Baseball fans might like the “Background Baseball skill” to listen to games from 1933 to 1973. We asked for a random game, and got the 1934 All Stars Game. It’s famous because National League pitcher Carl Hubbell struck out five of the game’s best hitters – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin – in succession, setting a longstanding All-Star Game record for consecutive strikeouts.

 

 

 

EH? SPEAK UP!

Joy’s totally nuts about exercise classes and once found herself trapped in a place where the music blasted so loudly that the instructor had to scream over a microphone. She should have left immediately.

The tiny hairs in your ears lay flat when assaulted by noise. Like good soldiers, they bounce back– if they’re not insulted too often. After awhile, they can’t bounce back anymore and you have hearing loss.

A loud rock concert — 110 decibels–  gives you permanent hearing loss after just a minute and a half, according to HowToGeek.com. An NFL game or a noisy bar gets up to 90 decibels of sound, and will cause hearing damage after a couple of hours. If you want to find out how loud the neighborhood is, download a decibel measurement app to your phone or tablet, such as the free Sound Analyzer for Android or iPhone. It said our place was almost as quiet as a library.

Bob is a big fan of ear plugs, and always wears them to the movies. But what are the best ones?  For concerts, ReviewGeek recommends “Etymotic Fidelity Earplugs” for $14 from Amazon. (We figure those would also work for noisy bars and football games.) For airplanes, there’s “Earplanes,” which come in a set of three for $14. For yard work, there’s “EP4 Sonic Defenders, also $14.

Internuts

  • ASlobComesClean.com gives good advice, slob-to-slob. Why listen to someone who was born organized?  Dana White coins words like “deslobification” and “procrasti-clutter,” to guide you in your decluttering adventure. Joy prefers her book, “Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff.” But the blog is a good place to start.
  • Restoring a dragon in a carousel

    OnlyInYourState.com is a website for roadside attractions. We like the dazzling dragon at the carousel museum in Albany, Oregon.

  • Ecuador Legalized Gangs, Murder Rates Plummeted.” Click on that link to find a fascinating article. Gangs started acting like community service organizations, adding women and children, when the government legitimized them.

New Way to Get Your Email

It’s frustrating to label an email “spam” only to see it come back again and again. So we love the new blocking feature in the free “Edison Mail” app for your Android or iPhone.

You don’t need to change your current email address or service to use it. Just sign in with your Gmail, Yahoo, or whatever service you use. It works with all the major providers. Like Gmail, it uses a “bot” or robot to comb your mail to fit it into categories. But the ones it adds are handier: packages, bills and receipts, travel, entertainment, subscriptions and security.

To get rid of a pesky sender, tap an email. Then tap “block.” All mail from that source  will skip the inbox and go directly to the trash from then on. Though you could set this up in other services like Gmail, it’s more work than simply tapping the word “block.”

Edison Mail also has a handy “unsubscribe” feature. Tap the hamburger icon, which is three stacked lines in the upper left. Then tap “subscriptions.” Tap “unsubscribe” next to any newsletter you don’t want to receive any more.

Since launching three years ago, Edison Mail has sent more than 10 million flight notifications (such as letting you know if the plane is on-time or delayed, and if the gate has changed), tracked shipping for over 90 million packages, and organized over 500 million receipts.

To Screen or Not to Screen

One thing we love about Google phones, such as the Pixel 2 and 3, is their “Call Screen” feature. Until Joy learned she’d been screening out Bob’s doctor.  

Rumor has it that it’s about to roll out to Motorola, Nokia phones and other “Android One” phones as well. It works like this. A call comes in. You’re not sure whose number it is. You tap “Call Screen” and the person is asked to state their name and the nature of their call. You see a transcript of that as they’re talking and can tap to answer or hang up. The odd thing is, caller ID doesn’t always kick in. It didn’t for Bob’s doctor.

He told us that he’d called a couple of times and that he should probably let the call screening feature take his name next time. His number is on our contact list, so there should have been caller ID, but there wasn’t. Call Screen screened out our friend Jay too. So we may just stop screening for awhile.

Free Calling

When our niece first got an iPhone, she didn’t pay for cell phone service. Whenever she was in range of WiFi, she made a free call or went on the Internet for free.

Most people have a data plan, which costs money. You use it when you’re out of range of WiFi. But if you didn’t turn on WiFi calling, you might be using your data plan when you don’t need to. We don’t remember turning ours on, but it was on when we checked.

On an iPhone, go to “Settings” then “Cellular” then “WiFi calling” and toggle it on. On an Android phone, go to “Settings” then “Network & Internet” then “Advanced.” On our phone, we tapped “Configure SMS calling,” then noticed it was already on. These settings vary, however, depending on the Android version you have. If in doubt, search on the phrase, “how to do WiFi calling in Android 7,” or whatever version of Android you have. To find your version, tap “Settings,” “About Phone,” and scroll down to “Android Version.”

 

COPY THAT

A reader says he uses the free LibreOffice as a Microsoft Word equivalent, but wishes he had an “extended clipboard.” That’s a program that lets you keep copying items from the web or elsewhere without losing the first thing you copied.

He writes: “If I can’t find some program or add-on that will let me send 10-20 items to a clipboard to then mass paste to a Word document or spreadsheet, looks like I will be forced to buy from Microsoft. Prior to Windows 10, I had been using Office XP Pro for many years on all my computers. Any suggestions?”

We suggested “Comfort Clipboard,” free for 30 days and then a one-time charge of $20. The reader says: “I gave it a good workout over the last two days. We are changing our electric company and I highlighted enough stuff from web pages and PDF files to fill six pages of a document. If there was something I could not highlight, I was able to use PrintKey, a 20-year-old (screen capture) program, to select what I wanted off a web page and send it to the clipboard. Unlike the Microsoft Office clipboard, Comfort Clipboard does not appear to have an overall size limit in terms of megabytes, and is not limited to 24 items.” It was such a good program he decided to buy it.

If you have a Mac, you might like the free version of “Alfred 3,” from Alfredapp.com. Unlike Comfort Clipboard, it doesn’t just save text, it saves web links as well. Another alternative is the free “Ditto Clipboard Manager” for PCs. It saves text and web links, and is activated when you press the “Ctrl” and tilde key.

Glitter Girl Shoots Again

Photo courtesy of Makers.com

Though we wrote about this last time, we didn’t feel we did it justice. A 13 year-old girl named Jordan Reeves was born without a left arm. So she worked with an engineer from Autodesk to create a 3D-printed prosthetic arm that shoots glitter.

All of this reminds Bob of a story from almost 50 years ago. The setting was a fast-draw contest in Tucson, one of those strictly-for-fun events that tourists get a kick out of. Everybody had an equal-weight gun and drew and fired, the winner being the fastest. The winner was a 15 year-old girl. She drew, fired, and hit the target in three-tenths of a second. Take that, Wyatt Earp.

Internuts

TrustedHousesitters.com is one way to get a free vacation. Stay in someone’s house and look after their pets. It costs $79 a year to join, but competition is stiff for coveted travel destinations. Popular house-sitting destinations include the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, New Zealand and Australia. If you’d rather hire a house sitter than sit, that also costs $79 a year. All sitters are verified through criminal background checks and other means.

DiscoverQuickly.com helps you build better Spotify playlists. Spotify is an online music service that plays just about any song you request. It’s free if you don’t mind ads, otherwise $10 a month.

MyModernMet.com has interesting articles on art. We learned about an 85-foot tall sculpture, the meaning behind a Norman Rockwell painting, and books that really teach you how to sketch.

Still Time to Panic

There’s always time to panic. Well, usually, anyway.

We were traveling when our Chromebook went on the blink. It seemed obvious we needed a computer to write the column, so Joy rushed to Office Depot and bought one.

Our $200 Acer 14 Chromebook was stuck in an infinite loop, playing the same maddeningly loud six-second riff from the Nutcracker suite. Bob thought it might be because Joy left it on a vent in our hotel room, with the heat on. In any event, Joy rushed off to buy a replacement.

She came back with a 4.5-pound Windows monster that cost $625. She didn’t realize how spoiled she was by the lightness of the three-pound Chromebook. On the Chromebook, it was easy to do all our writing using Google Docs, which is similar to an old version of Word. So there was really no reason to buy another Windows machine, except nostalgia. We can get back to our favorite Windows programs when we’re back home on our desktops. But for traveling, a Chromebook is hard to beat.

Just when we were thinking that, Joy plugged in the Chromebook, which had finally run out of battery life and stopped playing the maddening tune. It sprung back to life easily. Remember: There’s always time to panic.

Hospital Gifts Revisited

In a recent column, we mentioned that you could use Amazon to send gifts to people in the hospital, with no delivery charge if you’re a Prime member. It turns out it’s more complicated than that.

We asked the hospital concierge what happened to the gift we sent and they said it went to the dock. Joy asked where the dock was, and went on a wild goose chase through various basement hallways. She saw the waste department, the engineering department, the Fed-Ex office, everything but the dock. After giving up, Amazon sent a note that the item had been returned and our account would be credited. In other words, they failed to deliver.

Student Hackathon

NationalCyberLeague.org has team competitions for high school and college students. For a $35 registration fee, students work on real-life security issues. For instance, they help police crack passwords to access a hacker’s computer.

WEARABLE MARVELS

We were invited to preview the first-ever wearable tech exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. We came. We saw. We were disappointed.

Self-lacing shoes got our attention right off. Nike’s version of Marty McFly’s “Back to the Future” shoes worked fine in the exhibit but aren’t playing well in the rest of the country. As the Washington Post reported recently, at least one user said his shoe lost connection to the Internet and wouldn’t lace. He couldn’t tie it manually because the shoe’s software was buggy. Pushing onward, Nike will come out with shoes that collect information about your athletic performance.

In another part of the exhibit, we saw the late actress Marlene Dietrich’s 1950s tech vision. Dietrich imagined a future where dresses glowed. A company called ElektroCouture made a version of the dress she described to a designer. It uses 151 LEDs, 313 flowers and 2,371 crystals. It switches light patterns to match Dietrich’s songs.

Also on view was the “Gravity Jet Suit,” by Richard Browning, CEO of Gravity Industries. The suit cost $440,000 to make, and you can see a video of Browning in it on YouTube if you search on “Real-Life Iron Man Sets New Flight Speed Record.” It set a speed record for a device of this type. It goes 32 miles an hour.

Ray Girl

A 13 year-old girl named Jordan Reeves worked with Sam Hobish of Autodesk to design a 3D-printed prosthetic arm that shoots glitter. With her mom, she founded the nonprofit “Born Just Right.” Reeves shared her glitter cannon at MakerFaire and TEDx. She was born without a left arm but now considers herself a superhero cyborg.

Sensors for the Blind

SpiderSense” is a jacket that helps the blind see. It has 12 sensors, vibrating to let you know if you’re getting near something or it’s getting near you. It could also be used by soldiers in areas of low light or heavy smoke.

Skin Talk

Tattoos on the skin will allow you to dial your phone, turn on music, and play video games. Microsoft and M.I.T. developed the system called “DuoSkin.” The tattoos are electronic circuits which last for months on non-skin surfaces.

as a self-lacing shoe.

Texting on the Computer Instead of Your Phone

Away from home for two weeks, we’ve had an unusual number of text messages on our phone. Frankly, we can’t stand typing on the phone screen. If it bothers you too, here’s how to see your text messages on your computer instead of on the phone and respond to them with a full-sized keyboard.

For Android phones, go to Messages.Android.com on your computer. Then on your phone, tap the Messages app, then tap the three vertical dots in the upper right corner. Now choose the menu item “Messages for Web.” And, while still on your phone, tap the blue link that says “QR Code Scanner” and point your phone at the big QR code on your computer screen. The code is scanned automatically and all messages are copied to your computer screen.

On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then “Messages.” Toggle on iMessage, then tap “Text Message Forwarding,” and choose the computer or tablet you want to use. For more detailed info, search on the phrase “How to Send a Text Message From a Computer.”

Reader comment

We recently wrote about cell phone batteries, noting that you could leave your phone plugged in all night without harm. It would take two or three years for a phone’s capacity to drop by as much as 20 percent. Yet the average person gets a new phone before this happens. A reader wrote:

“Just read your article on cell phone battery life, so I was curious as to how old the battery is in my Samsung Slider. The date code on the Samsung battery is April, 2012. I guess I need to have a birthday party for it next month.” We hope he invites all the other batteries in the neighborhood.

Hacked!

Our friend Betty said we sent her a virus by email and her iPhone was hacked. Gosh, we hope it wasn’t us. But she’s right that even iPhones are vulnerable.

One way to protect yourself is with “McAfee Mobile Security & Safe Web VPN,” for Android or iPhone. It will tell you if a public Wi-Fi spot is risky, cloak your identity, and stop you from clicking on malicious links. There’s a seven-day free trial, then it’s $10 a month for most features.

To uninstall McAfee and try another app, we disabled McAfee’s administrative privileges in “Settings” after first Googling how to do it. But the subscription itself wasn’t canceled until we opened the Google Play store on our Android phone, tapped the three lines in the upper left, tapped subscriptions, tapped “McAfee” and “cancel.” To cancel a subscription on an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then “iTunes & App store,” then “subscriptions.”

Another option is “Sophos Mobile Security.” Unlike McAfee, it doesn’t offer a virtual private network (VPN) to conceal your identity, but it’s free. Sophos prevents you from tapping malicious links or going to fraudulent sites on the web. Many of its advertised features, however, like the ability to filter text messages or block calls, did not work on our phone. We got the message that Google, in the interest of our privacy, does not allow apps to access texts or calls. Nor did Google allow Sophos to remotely lock our phone for us, since Android phones already have this feature built in.

If you just want a “VPN” to protect your identity, it’s coming soon to the mobile version of Opera, and is already on the PC, Mac and Linux versions. Opera is a web browser that competes with Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari and others. It has 320 million users. They just announced they’re rolling out an update that will include the VPN in its mobile browser for Android. A VPN for iPhones hasn’t been announced.

READ THE COMMENTS

One of the best pieces of advice we ever got was: “Read the comments following a review.” Not only are they enlightening, they’re entertaining.

Take the screen-protector review we read at HowToGeek.com. The reviewer said he couldn’t get a screen protector on his iPhone without a massive bubble under the surface. So he bought one at an Apple store for $40, because it came with free installation. We see his point. We’ve never installed a screen protector without leaving bubbles. But in the comments, the readers dumped all over the reviewer.

One guy said this is “not your ordinary dumb, this is some special kind of dumb. I call it ‘iDumb.’” Another pointed out that you could go to a mall kiosk and pay $20 for a screen protector. If they don’t apply it right, they give you another one for free. A third pointed out that many Android phones come with their own screen protector. Or you could buy three for around $12 on Amazon and screw up two of them.

Who even needs a screen protector if you have a phone case? Doesn’t gorilla glass do the trick? The consensus is that if your phone is older than five years or you go to the beach a lot and let sand grind into the surface, then you may need one.

Fake Facebook

We thought our friend Leota was texting us on Facebook Messenger. The message said: “I’m so glad to see you online. Want to connect?” We said sure, and the next thing we knew, we got an ad from Publisher’s Clearing House.

It sounds like a spammer had hijacked her account. If this happens to you, go to Facebook on your computer, tap the triangle in the upper right and click “settings.” From there, choose “Apps and Websites.” If there are any apps you are unsure of, check the box next to them and then click “Remove.” If you receive a text that looks phony, don’t click on it.

True or False?

TrustedNews” is a free extension for users of the Google Chrome web browser. It tells

you whether the site you’re on is misleading or not. We tried it on sites on both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, Fox News, RedState and Breitbart were labeled “biased” but National Review, New York Post and Washington Times were “trustworthy.” We searched in vain for a left-leaning site labeled untrustworthy. Mother Jones, The Nation, The Progressive and others were said to be reliable. Could the TrustedNews extension itself be biased?

According to a University of Missouri Journalism Institute survey, the most trusted news sources in the U.S. include The Economist Magazine, public television, Reuters and the BBC. The least trusted are Occupy Democracy, Buzzfeed, Breitbart and social media. The survey polled 8,278 people who read news online from 28 U.S.-based organizations. The respondents leaned toward the liberal side of the spectrum.

Hospital Gifts

It’s so expensive to send flowers or gifts to someone in the hospital, that we rarely do it anymore. But we’ve just discovered you can use Amazon for that, and get free shipping too, if you’re a Prime member.

Joy used it to send a $7 sleep mask to a friend at a hospital, something sorely needed for afternoon naps. It made a much better gift than most things. All she had to do was send it to the person, in care of the hospital, with the room number included in the first line. It works for flowers too.

Why Does Ink Dry Up?

A reader wonders what to do to prevent printer ink from drying up in less than a year. If you don’t print often, the ink clogs.

Fix a dry cartridge by running the printhead cleaning option, which is described in the manual. If that doesn’t work, try dipping a cotton swab in warm water and pressing it on the part of the cartridge where the ink comes out.

StinkyInkHub, a helpful site, notes that if the ink dries frequently, you should get a better printer, the kind where the printhead is built into the ink cartridge. That way, when the printhead dries up, you just replace the cartridge, with no risk of damaging the printer.

A Bellyful

A reader writes: “I’m an 80 year-old man and I’ve had a bellyful.” He’s referring to tech support over the phone. “They can’t understand me because I’m a dinosaur when it comes to computer lingo. And they’re imitating squirrels when they talk.” We’ve noticed it too. Sometimes Joy calls tech support for her friends, since otherwise they’d have no clue how to follow the instructions.

We find it easier to use online chat on company websites, rather than talk on the phone. At least you can read what they’re saying. If in doubt about the help you’re getting, hang up or start a new chat session. You’ll usually get someone else the next time. In our experience, a cheap phone service like TracFone may have the worst tech support. So if you’re not tech-y, use a product like the iPhone, or a service, like Consumer Cellular, that’s rated highly for hand-holding.

Numbers Report

Which city has more stores that accept Bitcoin as payment? According to Investopedia, San Francisco is number one with 177 locations, followed by Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Ljubljana, Slovenia. Zurich, Tel Aviv and Tampa, Florida round out the list of the top seven. The top six all have Bitcoin automated teller machines.

ALEXA THE SNOOP

Some people have told us they’d never buy a smart speaker with Alexa, because they don’t want to be spied on. If you already have one, and are a bit worried that all your questions to the device have been recorded, here’s how to erase them forever.

In the Alexa app, go to “Settings” and then “History.” You can delete the recordings one by one. Or if you want to delete them all in one fell swoop, open a web browser, such as Chrome or Firefox, and search on the phrase “Amazon manage my content and devices.” Then click on “Devices” and on the three dots to the left of your Echo or Echo Dot. Click “Delete Voice Recordings.” However, these recordings are used to improve voice recognition, so we opted to leave them alone.

Later this year, “Alexa Guard” is coming to all Echo Devices. It will listen for any problems in your home, such as a smoke detector, a siren, or a clumsy burglar dropping something. After recording the noise, it will send you an audio clip so you can hear for yourself and decide whether or not there’s still time to panic.

A Vanity Press For Movies?

Getting your script turned into a movie looks impossible. We recently got a pitch from TaleFlick, an outfit that selects the best scripts using an algorithm.

The catch? It’s not free. It costs $88 to submit your manuscript. After the algorithm sorts through everything, people at TaleFlick go over what remains and choose a few to submit to producers.

So far, every optioned book was turned into a movie by TaleFlick itself. This immediately made us think of vanity presses, which will publish your book if you pay for it.

One of their movies is “Marjorie Prime,” starring Geena Davis and Tim Robbins, about a forgetful woman with a new companion who looks just like her dead husband. We saw it at Amazon but the trailer was too creepy for our tastes.

Downloading Amazon Videos

A reader needed help downloading an Amazon video to his phone. We suggested contacting Amazon tech support, but it’s not easy to find the link. Here’s how.

First go to Amazon.com on your computer. Scroll to the bottom right of the page, and click “help” in tiny print. Scroll to the bottom again and click “Contact Us” under “Need More Help?” Click on the tab that describes what you need help with, whether it’s an order, a device or digital content. Once you choose the description that fits your problem, you’ll have an option to phone or chat on the screen through text messaging. We like the text option because it gives Amazon information to start with and because Joy is a fast typist. It’s also nice to get a transcript of the conversation.

In a chat, Amazon tech support told our reader that to download a movie, rather than just stream it, he needed the free “Amazon App Store” app from Amazon.com/getappstore, which is only available on phones and tablets, not computers. Once he had the App Store installed, he had to download the “Amazon Prime Video app” and choose a movie. It costs $99 a year to become a Prime member. There are a number of benefits, including free shipping and movies to download or stream. There are lots of free movies. Our reader wondered if you needed to be a Prime member to use the Prime app. You don’t. He paid $2 an episode to download the show “Flipping Ships,a kind of fixer-upper show for boat fans.

Internuts

  • Geek.com has a list of “the most bizarre items forgotten by Uber riders.” They include a baby Chihuahua, a tuxedo for a small dog, a full-set of 18 karat gold teeth and a photo of a New Year’s kiss, among others.
  • GoodcarBadcar.net gives you trends in car buying. The top used car for 2018 was the Toyota Camry, followed closely by the Honda Civic. Minivan sales are in a slump, though the Kia Sedona is up over nine percent this year.
  • Goalloutdoors.com has an article titled “How to Camp with Your Dog.” One tip: Bring a long leash and a stake. You won’t want to hold your dog’s leash the entire time. Another tip: Get a medical check-up first, to be sure Fido is fit.

App Happy

“Space: Break Cell Phone Addiction, Stay Focused” is a free app to help you get off the phone. It sends an alert when you’ve overdone it. Your screen dims. If you want to be able to call and text as much as you want without bumping up against your limit, you can tell the app not to count calls and texts in the total.

And then, of course, there’s the free Hoopla app, which we’ve mentioned before. It lets you stream videos, books and audio books for free. Naturally, it’s popular and libraries sometimes have a limit. We notice the limit resets at midnight. Night owls rejoice.

Tech Books

An Italian friend of ours has several patents on automating chicken coops. (Somebody has to do it.) His interest began as a teenager when he played around with circuits back in Parma. Here are the kind of books that would help a tinkerer today, young or old.

  • “A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits,” by Øyvind Dahl, $18 from nostarch.com guides you in several projects such as: a touch-enabled light switch, a digital piano, an alarm that buzzes when it detects light, a night-light that turns on automatically when it gets dark, and five others.
  • Learn Robotics with Raspberry Pi,” by 18 year-old author Matt Timmons-Brown, creator of the popular Raspberry Pi YouTube channel. The book shows readers how to program their own robot from scratch using a $35 Raspberry Pi microcomputer and Python coding.

IS IT CHEAPER TO PRINT YOUR OWN PHOTOS?

Are you better off using an online photo service like Shutterfly or doing it at home?

If you count the pennies, Shutterfly wins. Ink and paper in bulk cost around 12 cents per photo, the same as Shutterfly. But that’s not counting the cost of your printer, and the annoyance of paper jams and hassles. Possible further problem: the ink can dry up and clog the printer if you don’t use it much. We once lined up six printers that had clogged because of infrequent use.

If you need a print immediately, places like Walgreens and CVS will let you pick up your photos a few hours after you order them. We use our printers, an Okidata laser and a Canon inkjet, mainly for Joy’s homemade greeting cards and Bob’s stock analyses.

Talking to Your Printer

Continuing along the printer line: Have you talked to it lately? If you have an Epson EcoTank, WorkForce or Expression Printer, you can talk to your printer, using Amazon’s Alexa, iPhone’s Siri or Google Assistant.

Install the free Epson iPrint app and you’re good to go. You can ask it to print a photo for you or tell you how much ink you have left. If you’re the creative type, ask it to make graph paper or ruled paper, colorful stationary, scrapbooks, calendars and seasonal designs. If you have an all-in-one, a combo printer and scanner, you can ask it to scan and print.

We’re impressed by the Epson EcoTank printer. The cost, around $350, is higher than an ordinary printer, but you save money in the long run. It comes with enough ink to produce 11,200 color pages, or 14,000 black and white. That’s equivalent to 30 ink cartridge sets, or $1500 in ink value. The catch is once the ink is in the printer, it only lasts a year, so this is for heavy users. Bob once listened to a doctor complain endlessly about his ink costs.

Job Trends

Freelancer.com lists 500,000 freelance jobs around the world and reports on trends. These days, the hottest jobs are in web development, digital creative skills, and social media. People who know how to use Adobe Photoshop are consistently in demand.

Jobs for math wizards fell 31 percent over a three-month period. And jobs for experts in Mathematica and Matlab, two software programs, dropped 34 percent. Jobs in statistical analysis dropped 26 percent. Around 1,948 math openings are listed.

You Oughta Be In Pictures

We’re still enchanted with Corel Video Studio, but it’s $100. How about free video editing?

We just found a new program called “Rocketium.” It lets you make a video online in a couple of clicks and share it by email. The catch is the free version only gives you three videos a month and there’s a small “Made with Rocketium” logo at the top of every screen. But if it’s just for family and friends, they probably won’t mind the branding. You can combine video clips with captions into a single movie.

In five minutes, Joy made a video for her nephew’s birthday, with her own voiceover and music. It was the easiest creation process we’ve seen. It starts with a pre-made video with Rocketium’s own clips and text. You replace them with your photos or videos and your own text. You can edit each photo right there and make the text as jazzy as you wish. A chat window opens up with a representative to answer your questions as you go along. You can get rid of their logo and make up to 20 videos a month for $40 a month. Both versions give you a library of templates to make your video look like a pro’s.

Internuts

  • 33 Useful Kitchen Tricks That Will Save You Hours.Search on that to find a YouTube video with tricks that made Bob say: “Should we get a deep fat fryer?” Fortunately, that only applies to one or two of the tricks. Learn how to make perfect potato wedges, chicken satay or shishkabob marvels, cucumbers as pretty as butterflies, and so on.
  • DiedinHouse.com. For a $12 fee, this site will tell you if someone died in the house you are considering buying. This is actually pretty common, since it’s often the reason the house is for sale. In many states, realtors do not have to disclose this information. The report also tells you whether there was a fire at the house, a meth lab or a sex offender. It also gives you an estimated value of the house.

Battery Myths

According to most experts we’ve read, it’s OK to leave your phone plugged in all night.

But AccuBattery, which makes a free Android app for checking your battery health, told us that charging a phone beyond 80 percent is hard on the battery. Because of their advice, we’ve been using a “Mechanical Timer” to shut it off after a couple of hours.

According to Apple consultant Chuck Rogers writing on Quora.com, the thing you need to be concerned about is cycles. Your iPhone battery is 80 percent as good as new after 500 cycles. A cycle, he says, is one full discharge followed by one full charge. For most users, that’s two to three years of use, whether you leave it plugged in or not. If you are like most smart phone owners, you will be getting a new phone after two or three years. That’s why, he says, It Does Not Matter!”

But there are battery dos and don’ts. For instance, don’t charge your phone in a public charging port. We did that once at the airport. It’s possible that hackers could access your emails, texts, photos, and more. Bring your own portable phone charger. These are small and cost about $15 to $30.

GETTING BACK ON TRACK

The first time we used a Macbook Air, moving our finger on the trackpad caused the screen to jump around like mad. So-called “gestures” can whisk you away to a new place, shutting down whatever you were working on. Recently, a friend complained of this too, so we looked up the solution.

These gestures are amazingly abundant on the Mac and are supposed to offer you alternative ways to interact with your computer. But if you find them as annoying as we do, here’s what to do:

First, click on the Apple logo in the upper right of your screen. Then choose “System Preferences.” Click “Trackpad.” Note the three tabs, including “More Gestures.” Click a tab to see what’s under that category, and put a check mark next to anything you don’t want. There are 14 of them. Only a programmer would need that many.

Making Movies

By Brad Barton

No matter how you look at it, Corel’s $100 program, “VideoStudio Ultimate,” is for serious video tinkerers. It comes with “FastFlick,” a separate program. FastFlick makes a professional-looking movie out of your photos and video clips in a couple of clicks, using music, frames, transitions and background effects.

Joy made a charming video of family photos through the years. But when she looked at it later, there were adjustments she want to make. For instance, she wished it had more captions. So she opened up the movie in VideoStudio Ultimate. That’s where things got confusing for those of us used to simple, free programs, like Google Photos. VideoStudio Ultimate is really powerful. You can make video run backwards, or do the kinds of things you see in professional movies. Among the new features, you can turn a 360 degree image into what’s called a “tiny planet.” The whole environment turns into a ball with people walking along the outside. Or you can make a rabbit hole, looking at what you would see if you were a rabbit in its burrow.

Fortunately, the program comes with ten days free training from StudioBacklot.tv. After that, it’s $8 a month. The guy who does this tutorial is fantastic. You could follow him even if you’d never used a computer before, but somehow it’s not dumbed down either. In the quick start video, he shows you a lot of features we never knew were there, like the ability to do screen captures or create your own music from various mixes. This is definitely pro level.

Free E-Books from Barnes and Noble

A long-time reader tells us that he finds a lot of free mystery and suspense e-books from Barnes and Noble online. He reads them on the free “Nook” app. By the way, you don’t have to own a Barnes and Noble tablet to use it. We  installed the Nook app on our Android phone and Joy downloaded an old favorite, “David Copperfield” and a book about the War of 1812.

The reader finds his freebies by Googling the phrase “Free mystery books Barnes & Noble.” He notes that he gets a wider selection than if he goes to Barnes & Noble and types “Free mystery books.” We left out the word “mystery” and noticed many categories off to the left, including humor, current events, crime and suspense.

TV issues

A reader told us he recently switched from AT&T Uverse to AT&T Direct TV. Direct TV is cheaper. So we wrote back and said, “How’s it going?”

“Since we live in ‘Tornado alley,’” he wrote, “I like Uverse because we can follow the storms. With Direct we lose the signal when they are upon us so I have to go out back, look at the sky from my back porch.  Been scary a few times.” (His house was nearly demolished.)

Besides the signal loss, here’s another problem he had with Direct TV: If he changed the channel, it would pause for a few seconds. So he’d hit the button again, and when it finally woke up, it jumped two or three channels. His wife suggested he change the batteries. Bob and the reader both believe this is a universal principle; wives will always suggest changing the batteries. In fact, every time there’s a problem with the remote, Joy suggests changing the batteries. So we do it and she swears it works. Bob disagrees. In any event, after several days, the reader writes, “I had a Eureka moment and unplugged the power to the boxes and counted to 20. Problem solved.” Lesson: If in doubt, unplug and re-plug. We recommend this practice. It teaches the equipment who’s boss.

Annoying Pop-Ups on Your Phone

Another reader wrote that his phone was plagued with pop-up ads. For three months, he visited the AT&T store  to inquire. He shut off all notifications and still got ads. The ads made it almost impossible to carry on a conversation, since they covered the whole screen, and sometimes you had to use the onscreen keypad to tap your choices.

On his last trip to the store, a 15-year-old kid in the store heard his complaint. The AT&T people were telling him there was still one more notification he should turn off, though they couldn’t find any. As he was getting ready to leave, the kid asked for his phone. Shortly afterward, he said, “I fixed it.” The culprit was a free flashlight app from the Google Play store. The kid told him he didn’t need the app, there was a flashlight built in. All the ads were coming from the one app. Problem solved. He was reminded of the quote:  “If the product is free, you are the product.” Second rule: Look for the nearest 15-year-old kid.

 

TV OR NOT TV

A reader writes that his daughter signed up for “Hulu Live,” dropping her cable TV. What do we think?

It’s $40  a month for more than 60 channels. Similar services include YouTube TV, Playstation Vue (no Playstation required), Sling TV, and DIRECTV Now. They’re all about the same price except for Sling TV, at $25 a month, which we haven’t had a good experience with.

We currently pay AT&T $167 a month for TV. So we’re trying out the seven-day free trial of  the $40 a month Hulu service. So far, it’s OK, not great.

Hulu Live brings us our live favorites: Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and 60 Minutes, as well as sports. It also has our favorite movie channel, Turner Classic, and half a dozen others we sometimes watch. We like the Smithsonian Channel, also included, and the History Channel. Bob’s favorite, TVG, for horseracing, is not included. We’d have to pay extra for that, through the Roku Express stick we plug into the back of our TV.

To use Hulu or one of the others, you need a way to stream channels, but there are lots, besides the Roku stick or Roku TV. There’s Amazon Firestick or Amazon Fire TV,  Android tablets or phones, iPhones or iPads, PCs, Macs, Google Chromecast, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and some Samsung and LG smart TVs. The cheapest add-on option is  $25 for the Roku Express.

But it turns out, a cheaper way to go is to complain. We have mixed minds about this. When we needed technical support, the AT&T guy spent almost two days helping us through our problem and there was no charge. But the fact is, AT&T service is expensive, and there’s a lot of competition out there. So Joy went onto their site to ask about dropping cable TV: what they dropped was the price. The new price will last a year, just like last time we tried it, then  go back up. We forgot to inquire last month, so we’re currently paying $197 for TV plus Internet. But after  clicking “chat” on their website, and asking about it, they dropped the total to $122.

The catch is: If we drop TV service from AT&T, they’ll charge us more for the Internet, $50 a month instead of $30. Adding that to the $40 Hulu bill, would come to $90, and leave us with only a $32 a month savings.

This reminds Bob of the early days for computers, back when there were brands like Kentucky Fried Computer, NBI (Nothing But Initials), and other forgotten labels. As a marketer we know pointed out back then, stores weren’t going to carry half a dozen brands of computers. And they haven’t. Similarly, we’re not going to see half a dozen alternatives to cutting the cable. Joy disagrees. But she’s not quite ready to jump on the Hulu ship either.

Internuts

  • 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music on Spotify.” Search on that phrase for a great playlist. If you sign up for a free account at Spotify.com, you can get get hours worth of music that others have carefully curated. Search on whatever phrase you like, such as “50s Party on Spotify.” After you click on the result and it opens up in Spotify, click “save to library.” If you need to listen away from a Wi-Fi connection, there’s an offline mode.
  • 4 year old Russian girl stuns crowd by speaking fluently in 7 languages.” Search on that phrase for something remarkable. This little girl is brilliant. She converses without an accent, answering questions from seven different people in Russian, English, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and Chinese.

Precious Voice Mail

One of Bob’s voicemails for Joy is too good to delete. But if she ever gets a new phone, it won’t be there. Here are a couple of ways to record voicemails to your computer and elsewhere.

If you have an iPhone, you can back up your voicemails to your iCloud account. Search on “How to Transfer Voicemail Messages Between Two iPhones” for instructions. Or tap the share button on a voicemail and email it to yourself.

Android users can record their voice mails with “Keep,” an app that comes with the phone. Email the recording to yourself for safekeeping.

Another way to go is to use the free program “Audacity” for Mac or PC, from AudacityTeam.org or Fosshub.com. Some cell phone services, like Google Fi, automatically save all voicemails for free on your private website space. That’s where Joy found Bob’s old voicemail. (Click “Google Voice” at the bottom of the page at Fi.Google.com.) Others charge you $3 a month for that. So does “YouMail.”

Wrestling with Python

At the dawn of the computer revolution, Joy took programming classes. She was never good at it. A big problem was typos. Make one error and the whole program is blown. But thanks to a new book we got in for review, she’s discovered the magic of “Python.”

Learning the Python  programming language is as essential to today’s young as knowing math, say some experts. Whether or not that’s true, Python is a huge improvement over any we’ve tried. If you  make a mistake, it highlights the error in red and suggests what’s wrong.

In “Math Adventures with Python;” $30 from NoStarch Press, author Peter Farrell uses Python to crack secret codes, create fractals, and generate virtual sheep that graze on grass and multiply, among other projects. We also tried out “Python Flash Cards,” by Eric Matthes. If you’re curious about Python, take it for a spin by downloading the program for free from Python.org.

 

JOY CATCHES A PHISH

Recently we told you about a Google quiz from phishingquiz.withgoogle.com. It lets you know whether you’re good at spotting hacking attempts in your email. Even so, we almost fell for one ourselves.

We got an email that seemed to be from AT&T, telling us: “You recently talked with someone at AT&T or told us online you forgot your User ID.” It listed our user ID and links to going paperless, setting up auto-pay, or getting AT&T news. All of that looked exactly like a standard AT&T email. It even listed the correct phone number for AT&T.  We called it up and the rep said the email was a phishing attempt. She warned us not to click on anything.

But it’s safe to right-click a link and paste it into Word. When we did that for each link, they all had a phony address in common: clicks.ATT.com, with a long trail of characters after that. Joy accidentally went to clicks.ATT.com when she just meant to Google it, and it looked like the kind of site a beginner would create 20 years ago. The real AT&T address is www.att.com.

Phone Fun

Here are some fun and useful things to try on your iPhone with its latest operating system, version 12. (Android tips later.)

  • Do notifications drive you crazy? You’re in the middle of something and your phone sounds off to tell you the latest news from Zanzibar? Swipe right on the notification and choose “manage.” Then choose “Deliver quietly.”
  • Can’t remember what the doctor said? That’s OK. He doesn’t remember what you said either. Record it. Tap “voice memo,” and hit the record button. Back it up to your private space on iCloud by going to “Settings” and tapping your name. Then tap “iCloud” and “Voice Memos.” Toggle it to the “on” position.
  • Change Siri’s accent to Irish or South African. Go to “settings,” tap “Siri and Search,” then “Siri Voice,” and choose.

Android users who are bothered by the constant ping of notifications can tap “Settings.” Under “Sound,” choose “Default Notifications.” Then choose “My Sounds,” select “None” and “Save.” That silences them all. If there are apps you want to hear from, go to “Settings,” “Apps & Notifications,” and make adjustments. For example, in “Messages,” tap “Notifications,” then  “Default,” “Advanced,” and “Sound.” We like “Gentle Gong.”

To change the voice of Google Assistant, a free app on your Android phone, tap and hold the Home button on your phone, click the funny symbol on the right, click the three dots in the upper left, choose “Settings,” tap “Assistant” and then “Assistant Voice.” Tap the voice you like best. We chose “British Racing Green.” (By the way: It’s called that because it is the color assigned to cars from Great Britain in international races.)

To make a voice recording on an Android phone, tap the “Keep Notes” app, which is located in the “Create” group. Under “take a note,” tap the microphone and blast away. That note can contain thousands of words. The app does transcripts too. But we also like the free apps “Smart Recorder” and “Otter,” for either Android or iPhone.

Password Check

Recently, we mentioned a website, HaveIbeenPwned.com, which tells you if any of your passwords have been stolen. Unfortunately, if it says yes, you have no idea which one it was or when it happened. Now Google offers a free extension for Chrome users called “Password Check.” It alerts you before you enter a bad password.

Get Password Check free from the Google Chrome webstore. Once installed, every time you sign into a website, you’ll get an alert if a password isn’t OK. So far, all of ours have been fine, despite the warning from HaveIBeenPwned.

Book Me a Ride

Here’s a fast way to find the best deal from Uber or Lyft. Use Google Assistant.

Your Android phone comes with Google Assistant built in, but it can be downloaded for free to iPhones, using the app store. To use the Assistant for Uber or Lyft, say “Hey Google, book me a ride to the airport.” (Or wherever you are going.)

You’ll see an estimate of the price for both services. It might be something like “$7 – $24.” The low end would be for car pooling. Tap the one you want, then tap “open app.” You won’t commit  yourself in the Lyft app until you tap “Select Lyft.” In Uber, you won’t commit until you tap “Request Pool” to share a ride with someone else, or “Confirm UberX,” to go on your own.

Those without smart phones who want to use Uber or Lyft can call “Go Go Grandparent” or visit their website. They’ll call  Uber or Lyft for you, no smart phone required. Their fee averages $2.50 a ride.

Internuts

RD.com/funny-stuff has fun pages from the Readers Digest. This is one of those rare internet addresses with a hyphen, so be sure to put it in. Once you’re on the page, take a look at these:

  • “Funny Town Names.” These include Embarrass, Minnesota, Burnt Corn, Alabama, and Hell, Michigan, to name a few. Embarrass claimed to have had the coldest day in America during the recent Midwest Polar Vortex, but they have no proof. It was so cold, the thermometer broke.
  • “Banned Baby Names.” The name “Robocop” was banned in Mexico. “Ikea” is off limits in Australia. No Chinese parent can use the “@” sign for a name. All of these names were tested in court.
  • For a change of pace, go to YouTube.com and search on “Fun to Imagine.” Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman shares his thoughts on the universe.