TAMING THE EMAIL BEAST

I feel like Thidwick, the big-hearted moose, throwing freeloaders overboard. My inbox is finally uncluttered, thanks to “OnMail,” a new email service.

Every time a new sender is about to put mail in my box, I hit “block” or “accept.” If I hit “block,” they’re banished permanently, unless I unblock them later. It works better than labeling something “spam” in Gmail, which tends to bounce back. Even Gmail’s filters haven’t worked as well in my tests.

OnMail has many other nice features. For example, it ignores “read receipts,” those notifications senders get when you’ve read their email. That’s to protect your privacy. If businesses know you’ve opened their messages, they’ll bombard you with more. (West Elm, I’m talking about you and your notes on new furniture.)   

Off to the right of each open message are three tabs: “Email,” “Photos,” and “Files.” They’re handy for referring back to previous conversations. For example, to the right of a friend’s note, I see recently-sent photos, a cheesecake recipe and a video.

OnMail has my favorite Gmail feature. I can “undo” a message, un-sending anything I might later regret, such as typos. But that happens less often now because OnMail underlines spelling mistakes, bad grammar and style problems. It offers labels too. Just click the plus sign above any message to label it. I have one label called “very special reader mail,” which is a misnomer, since all reader mail is special. 

I like OnMail’s automatic division of important mail into “Primary” and “Other.” It also sorts mail into folders for contacts, attachments, shopping receipts, packages, events, and price tracking. On the con side, I don’t think their search function is as good as Gmail’s advanced search, but it’s close enough. What’s more, my email to a hundred history club members wasn’t as easy as in Gmail. But here’s another point for OnMail: The pro version offers 500 gigabytes of storage. That’s huge!

Admittedly, if the company hadn’t given it to me to try out for a year, I wouldn’t have gotten the pro version, which is $15 a month or $100 annually. But I plan to renew it when the year is up. Only the pro version lets me use other email addresses within the OnMail inbox. That way I can continue to compose and answer mail from my old accounts. Good thing an Android app is coming soon. An iPhone app is already available.

Temp Crazy

One day, my Android home screen was showing weather for Paxton, Massachusetts. Another day it was a naval station in Virginia, then  Cleveland Ohio, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, etc. I was no longer getting my own weather.

The phone’s compass wasn’t to blame, because Google Maps always gets my location right. So I chatted with Google tech support.  As a Pixel owner, I get free support from support.google.com/pixelphone. They suggested turning off “Improve Location” under “settings” and turning it on again before rebooting. I had to do it again the next day, but now I’m set.

You can get free tech support for any Google product, such as Gmail or Maps, if you have a Google One account, which is $20 a year. It also offers extra storage — 100 gigabytes instead of the usual 15. If you’re already a Google One user, go to myaccounts.google.com and click “help.” There are 14 categories, including “other.” You can chat with a tech or send an email.

Cleaner Water

Recently, I raved over Aquibear, a machine that brings you drinking water purified by reverse osmosis. It’s not on the market yet but KFLOW is, and I think it’s better. It’s $399 on Amazon, or $100 more than the planned price for Aquibear. They recently sent one for review.

KFLOW purifies a much larger amount, up to 1.5 liters or nearly 51 ounces, compared to about 40 ounces from Aquibear. It has a beautiful glass pitcher and comes with its own water meter, so you can see just how clean the water is after purification. Previously, I measured it with a $15 “TDS” meter from HoneForest. “TDS” stands for “Total Dissolved Solids.” That includes lead, arsenic, chlorides, mercury and other heavy metals. KFLOW gets rid of over a thousand contaminates. 

When I wrote about Aquibear, I didn’t realize that with any reverse osmosis system, you have to dump out the reservoir when the purification process is complete. That’s why my readings ranged from a TDS score of one to 94. Now that I’m dumping the old water, about 30 percent of the tank, the values for both machines have been below 20, which the meter says are in the “ideal” range, far better than carbon filters such as Brita and ZeroWater. 

With any reverse osmosis system, people complain about water wastage. But KFLOW does better than most.  It saves 70% of the water you put in the machine. You can water your plants with the rest. Aquibear does equally well on that score. Aquibear also has a setting for hot water, which is nice for tea.

Putting Your Mark on the Map

 Months ago, I reviewed my dermatologist on Google Maps. First I did a search for her at Maps.Google.com. Then I scrolled down to “Write a review” on the left side of the screen. There’s a camera icon for adding photos. Later, I got a message saying that thousands of people found my dermatology review helpful. Wow! 

 

 

CUSTOMIZABLE PHONE REMINDS ME OF BLACKBERRY

If I were buying a cell phone today, I might get the new Titan Pocket because of its Blackberry-style keyboard.

Remember the old Blackberry phone? Its physical keyboard was much-loved. Then the iPhone swooped in with a gazillion apps, temporarily crashing the networks, which weren’t prepared for the onslaught. Google, which had been working on a clone of the Blackberry system, switched to an iPhone clone so it could also offer apps.

Now you can have the best of both worlds: a physical keyboard and as many apps as your phone can hold. In the case of the Titan Pocket, what you sacrifice is screen size. Its square screen is only 3.1 inches, which may be too small for people who like to play games. Otherwise, this phone from Unihertz has all the bells and whistles one could wish for, including Android 11, a fingerprint reader which doubles as a home button, an eight megapixel front camera, a 16 megapixel back camera, expandable memory, two SIM cards, an infrared blaster for controlling other devices and near-total customization.

You can use the keyboard as a scroll wheel. You can dedicate a key as a shortcut. For instance, you might want to get a flashlight whenever you long press the power button. Or you might want to double-tap it to get Google Assistant. Or assign a single letter such as “M” to take you right to Google Maps.

The phone is rugged. You can drop it without breaking anything. It doesn’t need a case. Its battery is 4000 mAh, which should last for days. It compares favorably with the 3000 mAh battery in my Pixel 3a, though it’s not as good as the Motorola Moto G Power, which has a 5000 mAh battery.

Unihertz raised the $50,000 they needed for the launch of their new phone in the first seven minutes on Kickstarter.com. They went on to raise over $700,000. You can preorder it for $219, with delivery in September.

Blue Light Filter

Recently, I mentioned that blue light filters don’t offer any benefits for your eyes, according to ophthalmologists. A reader begs to differ: “It is difficult for me to go against ophthalmologists,” he writes. “But when I do not use my blue-light glasses bought off the shelf at Dillard’s, I have a more difficult time going to sleep.”

Turns out he’s right on that. Though most of our blue light exposure comes from the sun during bright daylight, as opposed to the reddish tones of sunset, our gadgets do give off blue light. Though pooh-poohing blue light filters on glasses, ophthalmologists agree that too much of it at night can interfere with sleep. If you look up “what is blue light and how does it affect our eyes,” you’ll find an article on healthline.com with tips for limiting exposure. They suggest using the “night shift” setting on your computer. In Windows 10, type “night light” into the search box in the lower left corner of your screen. On a Mac, click the Apple menu, choose “System Preferences,” then “Displays,” and “Night Shift.” You can also find a night shift or night light setting on your phone. Tap “Settings” then look for “Display.”

Getting a Better Display

You may have heard that graphics card prices went through the roof as Bitcoin mining took off. But the good news is, they’re not expensive for less-demanding chores.

A retired mechanic wrote to describe why he decided to swap out the graphics card he was using in his Windows desktop. His first clue was the funny noise he heard on startup, which sounded like the card’s cooling fan was ratcheting on something. His second clue was an incomplete picture on some websites. For example, on the National Weather Service site, the basic map was there, but the overlay showing precipitation was no longer available.

Fortunately, after installing a Zotac GeForce GT 1030, $140 from Amazon, he no longer experiences those problems. What’s more, the new card turned out to have benefits beyond the fix.

He tested it by running Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X, his most graphics-intense program, noticing a significant improvement immediately. “Now, the graphics are so much faster, the images change almost instantaneously,” he said. It’s a big improvement over the jerkiness he experienced with the old card, even when it was still new. After getting the Zotac, he changed a setting in his flight simulator to make the scenery as realistic as possible. The more complex the scenery is, the more graphics power you need.

“The whole job probably took less than half an hour, and seemed to be pretty much idiot-proof,” he said. But if you’ve never installed a graphics card before, he suggests looking up a how-to video on YouTube first.

Shoe Tips for the Blind

New devices that fit on each end of a pair of shoes emit a signal that will warn the visually impaired before they run into objects. They’re called “InnoMake.”

The user gets a vibration on the foot or a warning from their smartphone when an object is 13 feet away or less. That’s much more advance notice than they can get with a cane.

The CEO, who has been dealing with a 96-percent-loss-of-vision since birth, says these gadgets make it easy to get around in familiar surroundings without a cane. They’re $4,600 from tec-innovation.com.

POWER PLATE EXERCISE SHAKES UP ROUTINE

It’s hard to resist exercise tech. I’m talking about a $1,495 vibrating machine called “Power Plate.” My sister uses one with her personal trainer to help reverse her osteoporosis.

It’s become my personal go-go-dancing platform and a fun way to exercise. The app offers a ton of workout videos and so does YouTube. But it’s so powerful, you’re not supposed to  use it more than three times a week. 

The first time I stepped onto it, my whole body vibrated, even my head. To avoid head vibration, I now keep my knees bent. It’s a lot more powerful than the vintage vibrating belt my aunt used. Back in the day, my sister and I cracked up when the belt vibrated her derrière. But Aunt Dee may have been on to something.

According to Joel Furhman, M.D., a 67 year-old best-selling author and board-certified physician, Power Plate helped him regain the strength he had in his 20s. He was the third best Olympic figure skating champion in the world and wanted to regain a similar fitness. Before he started using it a decade ago, he says, he’d be sore after a day of skiing and was bothered by high altitudes. Not now. He claims it also improved his tennis. 

Furhman uses a Power Plate with his older patients, because so many have osteoporosis or joint pain. He says the device leads to better bone density scans without medication. A study in the Baltimore journal Medicine backs that up.

He also says that even small side-to-side steps on the machine can strengthen you if you’re weak, making it less likely you’ll land on your hip when you fall. It also regenerates the muscle, bone and cartilage you lose during surgery, and stimulates growth hormones, collagen production and stem cells, as well as improving your blood pressure, he says. There’s a 15-percent-off link on drfuhrman.com after you click “learn more.” Check with your doctor first. 

Note: Some readers have asked which version did I buy. I got the cheapest one, the Power Plate Personal.

Logging into Fake Accounts

Look out when you Google something. Some of the results are fake. They might lure you into giving away valuable info.

For example, consider Venmo, the popular app for paying what you owe to friends, relatives and small businesses. If you search on “Venmo login” and skip past the first result, you’ll get to #2 and #3 in the list, which are fake. Logging onto those could mean sending your money to a hacker.

 Speaking of phony links, I just learned a neat trick from Keatron Evans, the principal security researcher for the Infosec Institute, which offers training for IT professionals. He right-clicked one of the phony links and chose “copy.” Then he went to VirusTotal.com, clicked “URL” and pasted it in. Sure enough, it was malware. Good tip! The next time I see a suspicious link or attachment, I’ll check it out at VirusTotal. It checks files and links.

Bye Bye 3G

Flip phones that are still on the 3G network will be shut down by the major networks next year, starting with AT&T in February and ending with Verizon in December 2022.  

Even some smartphones on 4G will be shut down, if the phone doesn’t use the VoLTE (Voice over LTE) system. Get more details from TheVerge.com in an article titled “Check if your Verizon or AT&T phone will keep working after the networks’ 3G shutdowns.” It also mentions other carriers, such as T-Mobile. But I have a feeling your carrier will send you a notice before shutting down your phone. They’d love to sell you a new one.

Grabbing a Profile Picture

The other day, my sister said she wished she had the profile picture I use on Instagram, which shows the two of us in kayaks. I just discovered that anyone can get anyone else’s profile picture by going to Instadp.com.

When you get to the site, type in the user name for the picture you want. Click on “download” to save it to your device.

New to Spotify

I love Spotify online radio because they have millions of tunes. Looking for “The Bird is the Word?” They have it. But you may prefer to see the Trashmen perform it on YouTube, where the singer wings it so much, I thought he would take off.

New to Spotify are classic audible books read by prominent actors. They have books by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and more. It’s free if you don’t mind ads. Otherwise, it’s $10 a month.

App Happy

UVLens,” a free app for iPhone and Android, tells you how strong the suns rays are today and tomorrow. Tap the “My Skin” tab to find out how likely you are to get sunburned. It will prompt you for data such as skin color.

Internuts

  • SteveSpanglerScience.com/lab/experiments has some great science experiments. They even had the one my sister did decades ago with balancing utensils. The tines of a fork lock onto a spoon. The interlocking pair balance on a toothpick over a glass. You can burn the toothpick right down to the edge and the utensils are still aloft!
  • GiveWipes.com has given away 70 million antiseptic wipes to families, communities, organizations and basically anyone who asks for them. They still have 330 million to give out! Order a box, a pallet or even a full semi-truck worth. They charge for shipping. A box of 1,800 wipes cost $7.76 to ship.

 

GOOGLE MAPS LETS YOUR FRIENDS SEE INSIDE THE BUILDINGS YOU’RE IN

You probably know about “Street View” in Google Maps. But did you know that you can see inside the buildings your friends are in, if they’ve turned on “Location Sharing?” 

While at home on the East Coast, my friends could see inside my Chicago hotel room, alongside a map pinpointing my exact address.  They could even see my room’s wallpaper and pillows. When I moved to the other side of the room, they saw the couch. When I was at a Cubs game, they could see the seats. At an art museum, they could see the painting I was looking at. But they couldn’t see me in any of the pictures. These interior shots, like Google’s “street view,” were taken by the Google team at an earlier date. 

I have no problem sharing my location with family or close friends.  But others might not like it. A suspicious spouse could see if their partner was still at the office or if their teenager was really at the library. Location Sharing also lets you see if the other person’s phone battery is low or if it’s plugged in. 

To turn it off or on, or to see someone’s location– if you’re sharing yours– find “Location Sharing” at Google.com/maps by tapping the hamburger icon (three stacked lines). It’s right after “Covid-19 info.” But keep in mind, you can only see photos of your friends’ location by going to the Google Maps website. The phone app just shows you a pinpoint on a map. 

Car Play

In a Lyft the other day, I noticed that the driver’s screen had lots of interesting apps. But he wasn’t using Apple’s CarPlay. It was a system that came with his car. I was curious because a reader recently mentioned CarPlay, which also puts apps on your car screen.

“So what’s new with CarPlay in the new automobiles?” the reader asked. Well, here’s one thing: You can unlock your 2021 car by touching your iPhone to the handle. You can even give virtual keys to others so they can use their phones on your car.

 If you don’t have a 2021 car, but you do have the iOS 14 operating system on your phone, you get other neat CarPlay stuff. For example, you can ask Siri to send a friend or contact your estimated time of arrival. Or ask her to send a voice message instead of texting or calling someone.

The iOS 14 operating system also brings new CarPlay categories, including one for parking, one for electric vehicle charging stations, and one for food ordering. There’s also one-tap access for chosen destinations, with detailed information about what to do when you get there. CarPlay’s new wallpapers jazz up the background on your car screen. 

CarPlay is found under “Settings.” To use it, all you need is a data plan and an iPhone 5 or newer, as well as a car built in 2014 or later. You can use a wireless or wired connection to the phone. Watch a YouTube video titled “Everything New with Carplay in iOS 14” to see its features in action. 

For Android users, there’s Android Auto. Like CarPlay, it lets you use your car’s screen to communicate, navigate, entertain and get answers. It works with Android 6 or newer and a data plan. More cars have CarPlay than Android Auto, but Porsche recently announced that it will offer it in new cars or the first time and the list of Android Auto-compatible cars is growing all the time.  

Alexa, Remind Me!

Alexa is great at reminders. As I typed this, she piped up and said, “I’m reminding you, Women’s Club Tea.”

To set it up, I told Alexa, “Alexa, remind me at 2:45 pm tomorrow.” “What should I remind you?” she asked. “Women’s Club Tea,” I said. 

In her earlier days, when I asked for a reminder, she failed badly. When the time came, she’d say: “you have a reminder,” without telling me what it was. Now Alexa is right on the money.

Watching Netflix Away From Home

Unless you have unlimited data, watching Netflix on a train or away from home can get expensive. The default setting uses three gigabytes an hour at high definition and seven gigabytes an hour for ultra HD. Choose the “low” setting and you’ll only use three-tenths of a gigabyte an hour. 

Here’s how: Open Netflix in a browser such as Chrome or Edge. Click the arrow next to the icon representing you and click your account. Under “Playback Settings,” you’ll find the low setting. 

Internuts

I’ll never play a PG movie for a child again without checking online to make sure it’s appropriate. Even if the child says their parents let them watch anything PG 13, it can be a big mistake.   

According to a UCLA analysis, movies labeled PG-13 in 2007 would have been rated R in 1997. It’s probably worse now. So what’s a parent, relative or babysitter to do?

Commonsensemedia is the best guide I’ve found. They list every questionable scene and let you decide. It’s $30 a year after your first three free reviews.

Kids-in-Mind, a free site, also analyzes movies. But it’s not nearly as good as CommonSense.

 

HEY DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR?

I’m horrible at finding a car after I’ve parked it. But one of my friends is even worse. Once, when we couldn’t find hers, we walked all the way back to my place, got in my car, and drove around in circles till we found it.

Thankfully, phone apps can help. My favorite is Google Maps. After you park, open the app and tap the blue dot in the middle. You’ll see the option, “save your parking location.” After saving it, you’ll see a red marker and the words: “You parked here.”  When you’re ready to find it, tap the red marker to get directions.

Apple fans might prefer the built-in Apple Maps. Just as with Google Maps, tap the blue dot showing your location and choose “save my parking.”

How about when you need a map but can’t get a good signal? Before you head out, download the free app “Maps.me.” It’s been downloaded over 50 million times, and has 150 million points of interest, including restaurants and museums. The first time you tap it, it will automatically download a map for your location.

Mini Washing Machine for your Earbuds

Now I’ve seen everything. How about a mini washing machine for your wireless earbuds?

To use the “Air Pods Washer–” which also works with other wireless earbuds– put a bit of cleaning solution in the dispenser, drop your earbuds in, press a button and watch them go around and around in the mini-machine. The washer is about the length of your finger. It cleans every corner of your buds in two minutes. I never thought of washing earbuds before, but it’s a good idea if you sweat a lot or if you notice earwax, dust, sticky fingerprints or sweat on the buds.

The Air Pods Washer is $39 if you snatch one of the few remaining early bird specials, which were still there at press time on Kickstarter.com. Of course, with Kickstarter projects, you’re never sure when a product will ship. But this one has already received $190,372 in backing. That’s 38 times the amount they hoped to bring in.

Stock Market App

Snapchat has a new app within an app. It’s called “Invstr StockStars.” You get a pretend-portfolio with a million dollars of play money.

To find StockStars, install the Snapchat app, then do a search by tapping the magnifying glass inside Snapchat and typing “StockStars.”

Of course, you may not want to bother with another photo sharing app like Snapchat. I don’t. But I was surprised to learn that almost half of internet users in the US aged 15 to 25 use it, according to Mashable.com. Instead, you could  try its non-photo equivalent from Invstr.com. Their free app “Fantasy Finance” lets you compete for prizes.

To start, choose one of three portfolios, “Tech junkie,” “Sports Star,”  or “Brand Swag.”  You get $900,000 in play money to invest, as well as a $100,000 cash reserve, which is also play money.  I chose the tech portfolio. The app immediately showed me that Bitcoin was going down. It then gave me an opportunity to cut my losses by selling it, which I did. Normally I’m a buy-and-hold gal. This is a great way to try out different approaches, cost-free.

Next Door Neighbors

I always thought NextDoor.com was just for finding a good plumber, babysitter and other services. Turns out, it’s much more.

My nephew says his wife gets amazing freebies from the “For Sale and Free” section. There are also many other areas of interest. From the categories on the left, I found book groups, walking groups, yoga groups, hiking groups, and so on. In my neighborhood, the “Crypto Club” has only two members, but “Squirrel Patrol” has 35 and the “Whole Foods Plant-Based Cooking Workshops” has 121.

I began my quest after reading that NextDoor has become a primary source for local news. Somehow I doubt it. I found links to a couple of interesting articles from newspapers the first time I went on the site. Since then, I haven’t seen anything.

Solar Watch

“Who wears a watch these days,” a woman said to me the other day. She felt that old-fashioned analog watches are a thing of the past. But I discovered something modern and old-fashioned at the same time: a solar watch. She oohed and aahed over mine when she saw it.

I hadn’t worn a watch in years when I got my solar Seiko. But I had missed being able to look at my wrist to see what time it is. I like fitness wearables, but my Amazon Halo doesn’t show the time. Besides, it’s been dead ever since it fell into a hot bath. I stopped wearing analog watches years ago because they always seemed to need a new battery, which I got tired of buying. A techy friend told me about solar watches.

So a few months ago, I bought the Seiko “Analogue Solar Powered Watch for Women.” It has a gold-colored frame around the face and a brown leather band. It keeps excellent time and doesn’t have to be out in the sun to get charged. Just put it under artificial light once to recharge the battery for another year. My Seiko cost $120. It’s  currently unavailable on Amazon, but they have the same watch with a silver frame. Amazon, Kohl’s and Macy’s also have solar watches for men and women.

 

PURE WATER

Getting pure water is a bear. I’ve tried everything. Recently, a company sent me a new reverse osmosis system that sits in a small space on my counter. It’s called “Aquibear.”

Before Aquibear, I tried water pitchers with replaceable filters, such as Brita and ZeroWater. My new condo has an LG refrigerator with a filter built in. But none of these things were as good as Aquibear is so far. I know because I tested them. I bought a $15 “HoneForest” water-quality testing stick on Amazon. All I had to do was put the stick in each glass of water I tested and check the digital read-out.

A high score means lots of pesticides, parasites, arsenic, lead, microplastics, virus nitrates, bacteria and other gunk. Anything under 500 parts per million worth of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is considered “acceptable,” by the Environmental Protection Agency. But ideal drinking water has a range from zero to 50 TDS. Carbon filters are supposed to give you a range of 50 to 100. My ZeroWater pitcher with a new filter gave me scores in the 135 range. The Brita pitcher, with a new filter averaged about 154. My fridge with a new filter is about the same as the Brita. Aquibear was much better. Its scores have ranged from one to 94. The company says I only have to change the filter every three years. If that’s true, the convenience is great.

To use it, keep it plugged in and fill the tank when it gets low. Tap the picture of a lock to unlock it, and tap the picture of a cup to have water flow into your glass. You can choose eight ounces or 12. Tap the symbol for hot water if you want to make tea. The heating element is metal, so you don’t have to worry about plastic residue. The space it takes up on the counter is about six inches by 11 inches– less than an ordinary sheet of paper. A double-lock system prevents someone from accidentally turning on hot water. The only installation involved is flushing water through a few times to start.

Aquibear is not on the market yet. But you can sign up for notifications at Aquibear.com. The price is expected to be in the $300 range, about $100 less than competitors like AquaTru.

Writing Help

Writer.com offers an extension for Google Chrome that will check your grammar, spelling and style in Gmail and Google Docs. I don’t always agree with it. In Gmail, it highlighted the word “gentleman,” saying I should “avoid unnecessarily gendered language” and aim for “inclusivity.” It also dinged me for too many commas—a bad habit of mine. But it missed many obvious mistakes. I’m testing the 30-day-free trial, which doesn’t require a credit card. After that, it’s $11 a month.

New Translation Tool

A little girl I babysit was astounded to learn there are roughly 6,500 languages in the world. She thought there were about 50. Of course, some of those are in danger of being forgotten. So Google came out with a new artificial intelligence tool called “Woolaroo.”

Woolaroo can translate a photo into another language in real time, starting with Yugambeh, spoken by 100,000 people in South Queensland, Australia. You can try it on your phone or tablet by going to g.co/woolaroo. I tried translating “phone” by taking a picture of my landline. According to TechXplore, the Yugambehs don’t have a word for “phone,” so they use the Yugambeh for “voice thrower.” But when I tried it, they’d already invented a new phrase meaning telephony: “gulgunbiralnyum baleh.” Languages keep evolving.

Measuring Sleep

Sleep Cycle” is a free app that shows you how well you sleep. I signed up for the seven-day free trial of the pro version so I could get the nitty gritty.

I got a rough idea of how long I was in deep sleep, light sleep and wakefulness. My score beat the average every day but one. On that day, it said I was in bed for 38 hours. Maybe my phone was laying around with the app open. Most of the time, however, it seemed accurate. It uses your phone’s microphone and accelerometer, which picks up sounds and movements as you sleep. It said I didn’t snore once in a seven-day period. The average American snores 24 minutes a night.

Speaking of sleep, a recent study by Brigham Young University showed that “Dark Mode” on Android phones and tablets or “Night Shift” on an iPhone/iPad, don’t help you sleep. Blue light filters are bunk too. Ophthalmologists don’t recommend them. Obviously, I wasted money getting a blue light filter on my glasses.

Internut

Chess.com gave my nephew renewed appreciation for the internet. He just beat someone from Vatican City, the smallest country in the world. But what he really likes is how much a computer can vary the game.

Not only can you choose a quick version, where each move must be made in a minute, but there are all kinds of other time challenges. In one, you get a three second bonus after each move. If you don’t use the whole three seconds, you get the time back. Theoretically, you could play forever.

People have gone wild for chess during Covid, and the mania continues. It was partly spurred by the Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit.”

FOR COMPLICATED TAXES, GET A HUMAN

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

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

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

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

To VPN or Not to VPN

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

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

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

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

App Happy

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

Slow iPhone?

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

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

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

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

Free Microsoft Office 365

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

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

How to Spot a Scam

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

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

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

Email Tip

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

 

I LEARN TO FLY A MINI DRONE


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Creative

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

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

Learning to Code

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

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

Zoom’s Footprint

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

Offering Help

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

Internuts

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAVE YOU BEEN ‘FLoCed?’

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

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

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

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

Google Play Books

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Your Stuff

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

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

App Happy Trivia

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

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

Password Tip

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

Drones in the Classroom

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

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

Internuts

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

Windows Updates

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

 

SPRING CLEANING

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Breach

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

Porn on the Lock Screen

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

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

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

Wild About Chromebooks

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

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

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

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

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

Sending Sensitive Email

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

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