DROPPING THE PASSWORD

One of the most annoying features of Windows is the sign-in. This is the so-called “default” setting, which is to protect you from someone else using your computer. Of course, you may know that you’re the only person using that computer. But what if someone sneaks into your home in the middle of the night, just so they can watch movie trailers from Netflix?  Ah ha! 

Fortunately, we can save you. To remove the sign-in, go to the search bar in the lower left of your Windows screen, and type the letters “netplwiz” without the quotes. We know that doesn’t make sense but just do it. When it comes up, uncheck the box next to “Users must enter a username and password”and click “apply.” They’ll ask you for the user name and password for your Microsoft account. Enter it, then click “OK.”  Now you won’t have to sign in when you reboot your computer.

To avoid having to sign in when you’ve just been away from your machine for a little while, click the start button, then “Settings,” “Accounts,” and “sign-in options.” Choose “Never,” under the heading “Require sign-in.”

Revisiting the Clipboard

A reader was bothered by the fact that all the items you save in your Windows clipboard disappear when you reboot. But this doesn’t have to happen. More on that in a minute.

The default setting in Windows 10 is not to give you a clipboard extender. After all, why would you ever want to copy more than one item? This reminds Bob of talking to a Microsoft programmer at a trade show years ago. The programmer pointed out that you could now right-click a word and a definition of that word would appear. And he smiled and threw back his shoulders. Bob said, “What if there’s a word in the definition you don’t know and you’d like to look that one up too?” The programmer looked at him in astonishment and said, “Why would anyone ever want to look up two words?” Why, indeed.

To set it up, type “clipboard” into the search bar at the lower left of your Windows 10 screen. When it pops up, click on “clipboard settings,” and click the button under “Clipboard History.” You only have to do this once. To retrieve a clip, hold down the Windows key (looks like a flag) and tap the “V” key on your keyboard. Click on the clip from a list of up to 24 of them. 

Getting back to the problem of items disappearing when you reboot, you can pin them to the clipboard wall, so to speak.  Click the three dots in the upper right corner of an item. Then choose “pin.”

Robot Ball

If we had one of the new robot balls, called a “Sphero Mini,” we’d be playing with it now.  But first, we’d have to borrow a kid.

The kit comes with tunnels, pins and cones you can set up as a maze, or you could just have the ball roll in and around your furniture. The ball is about the size of a golf ball, and has a gyroscope, motor encoders, and accelerometer sensors. 

The $80 “Sphero Activity Kit” also comes with templates in the form of 15  “Activity Cards.” So before branching out on your own, you can put together some tried-and-true mazes. When ready, push your finger on the app to launch the ball toward your target. To see a demo, look up “Sphero Activity Kit” on YouTube. 

A free app, called “Sphero Play,” encourages kids to use pre-set building blocks of code, eliminating the mistakes you get when typing an actual programming language. The other free app, “Sphero Edu” takes a kid all the way up to Javascript programming. This can get pretty advanced if you want to.

 Decal City

Joy is always misplacing her laptop, so Bob suggested a colorful decal. That way the black PC doesn’t blend in with our black couch, the black piano, the black chair and other stuff around the apartment.

The decal she chose from Decalrus is a close-up photo of a tiger’s face, so vivid, you’d think it stepped out of the pages of National Geographic. It’s all in black and white except for the tiger’s green eyes. It goes edge to edge on her laptop lid, and puts more tiger around the keyboard and trackpad area on the inside.

On Amazon, we saw decals for all kinds of laptops, such as Dell, Lenovo, Chromebook and HP. Other than the tiger, we could have chosen Van Gogh’s starry night, a galaxy, flowers and many other scenes, for $23 to $29. If you want, you can upload your own photo or design.

Internuts

  • Take10.tv has free videos.  When we tuned in, we saw a guy playing 100 really quick electric guitar riffs from Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and others. If it wasn’t on Take10.tv when you visited, search on “100 riffs” to find it on YouTube. Click the Take10.tv home icon on the right to see channels, such as Science, Drama, Extreme Sports, etc. 
  • Seventy Five Scientific Research Projects You Can Contribute to Online.” Search on that phrase to find all of them, such as helping Berkeley researchers identify butterflies.  Others have to do with conservation.
  • SkyscraperCenter.com. Ever wonder how tall a building is? Enter the name of it and its location and they’ll tell you. We put in our own apartment building and they had it.

 

PLAYING WITH FIRE

Several readers followed up on our review of the Amazon Fire tablet. Their comments led us to discover some features we didn’t know about.

One reader was confused when he first tapped the “Books” tab on the home screen of his Fire. It looked like he had to join “Kindle Unlimited” to get books. But you don’t.

It’s free for 30 days, then it’s $10 a month.

Kindle Unlimited gives you a rotating library of ten books, audio books, magazines or some combination of all three. We noticed they have the Economist magazine, which is normally $189 a year. If we let our subscription drop, we could get it for $120 a year plus nine other magazines or books.You can keep each item as long as you want, but if you go over ten of them, you have to return one. 

One reader described the “Unlimited” book offerings as “a hodgepodge.” He’s right. The  majority are self-published books. Publishing on Amazon is free and open to anyone, though they take 30 percent of the sale price on most books, and more for large ones. However, Kindle Unlimited does include some best-sellers, such as the Harry Potter series. Search on “top-rated Kindle Unlimited books” to find more.

Here’s another tip we just discovered: If you buy an electronic book you don’t like, you have one week to return it. Go to Amazon.com, click on “Returns and Orders” and find the return link. 

The Fire tablet ranges from $50 for a 7-inch version to $150; the cheapest iPad is $329.  One reader agreed with us that reviewers who downplay the Fire tablet are “computer snobs,” looking at specs the average person could care less about.

A Full View

“Matterport Capture” from Matterport.com is a free iPhone/iPad app for interior decorators, contractors, real estate agents, or anyone who wants to show off their home. As you stand in the center of a room and turn with your iPhone or iPad, the program will make a 3D panorama of your surroundings.  

The chief marketing officer who gave us a demo online showed how he created an escape room for his son to play with. The app lets you create tags all around the room, which in this case, were clues on how to escape.  It can also provide a “dollhouse view” letting you see a room from above.

If you go to Matterport.com, you can see digital twins of  sites all over the world, like the inside of Rosa Park’s bus, an historic Ford plant in Detroit, and Taliesin West, the retreat of Frank Lloyd Wright, among others. 

Reader Tip

What if you caught a big fish and wanted a caption on your photo of it? A reader asked us how to do it on the iPhone, then figured it out himself. 

He thought it would be great to have his wife’s emergency information on his fish photo, then save it to his phone’s lock screen. That way, if he were in an accident, a responder could look at his phone and call his wife, without having to unlock it. His wife followed suit, adding his information on hers. Here’s what they did:

Tap the icon for the Photos app and choose a photo. In the upper right corner, tap “Edit.” Then tap the three small dots. Select “markup.” Tap the plus sign. Tap “text.” Type in your information. Tap “done.” Then tap the “share” icon, which looks like a piece of paper with an up arrow. Scroll up until and tap “wallpaper” to save it on your home screen or make it your lock screen. For more detailed instructions, go to YouTube and search on “How to add text to photos in photos app iOs13.”

On an Android phone, tap the Photos app, choose a photo, tap the icon at the bottom with three barbed lines. Tap the squiggly icon and then the capital T for text.  Type in your text. Tap “done” and “save a copy.” To save it as a lockscreen, tap the “Gallery” app and choose your photo. Tap the three vertical dots or three lines and choose “use as” and then tap “Gallery Go” and/or “set as lock screen and wallpaper.”

Lost in Translation

Facebook announced that it’s getting close to being able to translate one computer language to another. This is a biggie. 

It cost a bank in Australia $750 million to translate its COBOL code to Java, and it took five years, according to ZMEScience.com. It was important because the number of  programmers who know COBOL, which was developed over 50 years ago, is diminishing.  Over 95 percent of automatic teller machines run on COBOL, as well as 80 percent of in-person transactions.

Facebook’s artificially intelligent program, a kind of robot, learned  how to translate one language into another through trial and error, starting with 2.8 million open-source projects. Its best results came from translating from Java to C++ with about 92 percent accuracy. It translated from C++ to Python with about 67 percent accuracy and from C++ to Java with about 75 percent accuracy. It hasn’t tackled COBOL yet, but it’s getting there.

That’s Incredible

Researchers in Australia were able to download 1,000 high definition movies in one second, according to a report by the BBC. That’s a million times faster than the average Internet speed in the U.S.

A so-called “micro-comb” replaces about 80 lasers in modern fiber-optic equipment to reach speeds of 44.2 terabits per second. In other words, equipment we already have in the ground can be augmented to provide the systems of the future. Researchers see applications in self-driving cars, finance, education and medicine. We would guess you can add military to that.

 

A NEW SMART SPEAKER

After accidentally dumping a load of cinnamon on our Echo Dot, Alexa wouldn’t talk to us any more. No matter. We decided to get a better smart speaker: the Sonos One.

The Sonos One (Gen 2), for $200, lets you talk to either Alexa or Google Assistant when you want music or answers to questions. The sound is great but it didn’t exactly blow us away. Unless we’re talking literally. Joy upped the volume on George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” during the quiet part, then forgot about it. When we asked Alexa for the time the next morning, we were blasted out of bed.

Before buying the Sonos One, we looked at comparisons between it, the Amazon Echo Studio  and the Google Max. Nearly every reviewer favored the Sonos One. One said the Google Max is better but of course it’s $400 instead of $200. If you get two Sonos Ones, you’ve got the equivalent, they say.  For now, we’ll stick to one. 

The Sonos One, second generation, has a new app called Sonos S2. Here’s what’s new: If you have more than one Sonos One, and you’d like to hear a song continue as you go from room to room, you can group multiple rooms and save the setting. That way, you don’t have to set it up each time. But that’s pretty expensive. Joy remembers an intercom in her childhood home that did the same thing.

If you already have an Echo Dot or Google Home, you could plug in a speaker. But when we tried that with our other Echo Dot, Bob declared the results “muddy.” It couldn’t compare with the Sonos One. 

Years ago, we bought a couple of Altec Lansing VS2320 speakers that plug into our computer and they’re still selling for around $80. They blow Sonos away.  First we played the music we ripped from CDs. Later we played the music we found on YouTube. Excellent sound. Excellent deal. 

 iPad Trick

Joy gave away the complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary when we moved. Then we regretted it. So we bought the two-volume version, which crams every four pages into one. You can get it used for $70 on up. The original 20-volume set cost us $1,750  but we got free shipping. The type on the two-volume version seems about one point high, but somehow Joy can read it without glasses. Bob tried the iPad trick. Here’s how.

Take a photo with your iPad or any other kind of tablet. Find it in your photos app. Then use your fingers to expand it. If the screen orientation on an iPad keeps flipping on you, from portrait to landscape, keep it on a flat surface. Alternatively, lock it  in place using the “Control Center.” Here’s how: Swipe your finger down from the top right to see a lock pop up. This didn’t work for us but you may have a better finger.

Quick Clean

You can speed up your computer by cleaning up software debris. We recommend the free “Ccleaner,” which you can download from Ccleaner.com.

CCleaner- both the free and the paid versions- gets rid of junk that can slow you down. But the paid version, for $25 a year, goes beyond that, adding privacy features, file recovery and more. When we ran it the first time, it removed 3,139 trackers, including 2,999 from Google Chrome as well as 1,588 megabytes worth of junk in the form of temporary files. Both versions also delete cookies, which are small text files that are stored on your computer to make websites load faster. They can slow you down if they build up. Unfortunately, some people rely on cookies to store their passwords. If you do that, you’ll have to re-enter the password the first time you go to a site after the cookies are deleted. We use the built-in password manager in Google Chrome, so we were glad to see the cookies go. Other browsers have these too, or you can use a program like Roboform or Dashlane.

Ccleaner comes with a registry cleaner, but you can ignore it. Twenty or 30 years ago, extra files in the registry could slow down your computer. But that’s not the case now. These days, registry cleaning can do more harm than good, unless you’re recovering from a virus on your machine and need to remove all traces of it. 

When you download the free Ccleaner program, choose the custom installation. That way, you’ll have a chance to decline offers of extra programs instead of having them automatically installed. That’s how the company earns money on the free version; by getting you to download other free stuff they hope you’ll upgrade later.

Internuts

  • Passwords.Google.com has all the passwords you use to get into various websites, if you’ve saved them when prompted by Google. Click on one of the sites in the list, such as Facebook, then click the eye with a line through it to see what the password is. Sometimes we’re just tired of resetting our passwords, so we take a peek here.
  • OsherFoundation.org. Joy is in a creative writing group sponsored by Osher Learning Institute, nicknamed “OLLI.” For the past several months and into the foreseeable future, they’re using Zoom video conferencing instead of meeting in person. Besides writing, they have current affairs groups, literary groups, science discussions and more. From the website, click on “Learning Institutes” to find one in your area. All are affiliated with nearby universities. 

 

KABLOOEY

Tech support from HelpHelpNow.com.

Bob’s three-year-old Windows 10 computer went kablooey. Joy attempted to bring it back and made it worse. So we turned to our master fixer, Kenny.

Kenny has never failed us. If the problem is easy for him, there’s often no charge. You can find him on the web at HelpHelpNow.com.

Here’s what happened before we thought to call. Joy tried a “system restore,” and it failed twice, with the two available restore points. Next she tried “Windows Recovery,” choosing the option to back up files first. It failed too. So she tried it a second time. This time, it erased all the files and still didn’t work.

Kenny told us to hold down the power button while Windows 10 was starting up, for at least four seconds, and to repeat this if Windows didn’t launch into the “Automatic Repair” mode. After two tries, we got that and a “reset” option which offers the ability to keep all your files. It was too late for that though, because Joy had already erased them. Everything worked this time. Kenny is knowledgeable, gentle and seems to have all the patience in the world. He said there’d be no charge, but we don’t work that way. So we paid him.

Back from the Dead

On coming back from the dead, Bob’s computer was missing everything he’d previously installed, including Bullguard Internet Security, his antivirus program. He decided to join Joy and  go with the solution  she uses: the free Windows Defender, which is built into Windows 10 and Malwarebytes Premium, which is $40 a year.

The major difference between the premium version and the free version of Malwarebytes is that the paid version prevents bad things from happening and the free one does repairs after they’ve happened. What are those bad things: Identity theft, loss of privacy, malware and “ransomware” to name four. Identity theft is just awful. Malware can slow down your computer. Ransomware is when a hacker locks your files away until you pay. We decided to protect against those things in advance.

Shortcuts

A reader sent in an article about recording the police. If you’re pulled over by the cops, and you have the “Police” shortcut activated on your iPhone, just say “Hey Siri, “I’m getting pulled over.” That will trigger a video recording of the whole encounter and a text message sent to your favorite contact.

But look out, said the reader. It’s illegal to secretly record anyone without their consent in many states, such as Massachusetts. If you Google it, you’ll find 12 such states where the law says that they have a two-party system: Both have to agree to the recording. We wondered about that, so we put that question to Quora.com, the question-and-answer site. An expert pointed out that even in those 12 states, the courts have ruled that it’s OK to record the police.

To find the iPhone shortcut, we searched on “Police Shortcut for iOS.” We didn’t install it because we got a warning from Apple about third-party apps. Some reviewers say you can ignore those, but we don’t need the app anyway, knock on wood. Except for a minor fender bender that wasn’t our fault, we haven’t encountered the police in many years.

The Police shortcut led us to wonder about the other shortcuts, the ones built into the iPhone and iPad. You can find them by tapping the “shortcuts” icon on your iPhone or iPad screen. Tap “Gallery” and click the plus sign on any that look good to you, then “add shortcut.”

We like one called “hand washing music.” It plays music for 20 seconds to keep you scrubbing. To activate it after you add it to your list, say “Hey Siri, hand washing music.”  When we tried it out, we got the Economist magazine as our hand washing audio. Didn’t have much of a tune. When we switched to Spotify, we got music. The shortcut will play from whatever source you’ve recently been listening to. There are many other shortcuts in the “Shortcut Gallery” in the Shortcut app, but we found them to be more trouble than they’re worth. If in doubt, look up how to create your own.

The Power of the Crowd

At the dawn of computer life, when the first emails were getting cranked out, Bob had a vision. The Internet would one day help people help each other all over the world. That turns out to be especially true for users of the “World Community Grid,” launched in 2004 and still going strong with over half a million users.

If you go to WorldCommunityGrid.org, you can get in on the action by downloading their free program; it’s sponsored by IBM and uses their security system. The program allows scientists to use your computer’s power when it’s idle, to analyze cancers, tuberculosis, pandemics and other concerns. The grid has partnerships with 460 organizations and 784,000 individuals. If a single computer had been used to handle the projects they’ve finished so far, it would have taken over 1.5 million years. As we type, it’s working on “Mapping Cancer Markers.” When it finishes that, it’s on to COVID-19. It’ll get to that by tonight.

 

A CAMERA FOR KIDS

We recently babysat our neighbors’ kids, ages 9 and 6, and had as much fun as they did with a camera that prints black and white photos. It’s called “My First Camera Insta 2” and is $100 on Shop.Oaxis.com.

We were impressed by how quickly the girls got the hang of this thing. We only had to show the oldest how to do it once, and she taught the youngest, who got it just as quickly. Take a photo, press the gallery mode button, then the print button. If the paper jams, just give it a little tug. This only happened once in our tests.

This is not a Polaroid-type camera. The prints you get come out on a roll of thin paper much like the receipt you get from a grocery store. The paper is coated with a light-sensitive chemical. There are many such but we would guess this one is silver nitrate, which produces images only in black and white. It uses no ink and comes with extra paper rolls, enough for 240 photos.

The kids loved the look of it and said it was so much more satisfying than taking photos on a cell phone. The camera we received is in pink, just right for the two girls. It also comes in blue. You can add a 32-gigabyte microSD card for virtually unlimited photo taking. These sell for less than $10 but you don’t have to have this.

MyFirst Camera has a selfie mode and a video mode, with various filters and templates for framing your photos. If your little ones want to make a scrapbook, they can add some tiny stickers it comes with. Though aimed at 4 to 11 year-olds, the camera is also used by toddlers. We read about some who enjoy using the printed pictures as tickets or pretend money. All in all, this is a camera designed for children. We found that they love it.

If $100 sounds like too much to pay for a kid’s camera, we found something similar on Amazon for $60. It’s called the “Dragon Touch InstantFun Instant Print Camera for Kids.”

A Bigger, Better Clipboard

The worst part of upgrading to Windows 10 was that some of our favorite programs stopped working. One of them was a clipboard extender that makes it easy to copy scads of items to paste in later. Now we’ve discovered that Windows 10 has a built-in extender.

Clipboard extenders allow you to copy a bunch of items into your computer memory and choose them from a menu when you’re ready. Without an extender, you’re limited to copying one and pasting one. Sometimes, when you’re on a roll, you’d much rather copy a bunch, usually from various websites. You would think that this is so useful that it would be the default operating position for the clipboard. But no, it’s Microsoft, so you have to hunt for it.

Type the word “clipboard” into the search bar at the lower left corner of your screen. When it pops up, click on “Clipboard Settings,” and click the button under “Clipboard History” to turn it on. You can hold up to 24 clips, including images. There’s no stated limit on the size of the clip. To retrieve a clip, hold down the Windows key (looks like a flag) and tap the “V” key on your keyboard. You’ll see a list of all the items you’ve copied lately. Click one to paste it into Word, an email, or whatever application you have open.

Dead Phones

We can’t count the number of times we’ve been out with a dead battery on our phone. So we were pleased when Anker, maker of one of the leading portable battery chargers, sent us their latest unit, the “PowerCore 10K Wireless,” $36 on Amazon.

Here’s what’s new about it: It can charge three phones at once. If we’re out with friends with dead batteries, we could let two other people charge their phones at the same time we’re charging ours, but we’d better like them. To use its wireless charging feature, you need a phone that’s compatible with “Qi,” a wireless charging technology. Or you could use an adapter, like the “Nillkin Magic Tag Qi Wireless Charger Receiver,” for $13.

What we like best is its ability to charge a phone three or four times before needing to be recharged itself. That makes it useful to carry around. It weighs only 7.4 ounces and about the size of a cell phone.

Maxed Out

We signed up for the new HBO Max’s seven-day free trial, which we initially thought was free for all AT&T customers. We tried a few shows, but found them lacking.

So we turned to Netflix to watch the much-touted original comedy series, “Space Force” starring Steve Carell and John Malkovich. Looks like a rocket to the planet of low ratings.

Internuts

SpotSkinCancer.org has some helpful tips. The site is sponsored by the American Academy of Dermatology.

5 Best Logo Design Software Apps Reviewed.” Search on that phrase to find an interesting list from dailylogochallenge.com. Sites like Hatchful.com and Looka offer lots of logos you can customize for free.

WhereisRoadster.com. Remember when Elon Musk put a Tesla in space? This site monitors its location and offers fun facts. For example, it’s orbited the sun 1.5 times since its launch. It has exceeded its 36,000 mile warranty 31,803 times. We also like the YouTube video “Spaceman Star X- Elon Musk Put a Car in Space“ which points out that Musk’s reusable space rocket, the Falcon Heavy, which just started being used by NASA, cuts the cost of space flight by about one thousand times. He obviously doesn’t understand bureaucracy.

A LOT OF HOW-TOs

Capturing Video Highlights

One of our friends is writing her memoir about growing up in Iran. Since she reads it aloud to other writers through Zoom, the free video conferencing software, she was grateful that we could capture her part of the session in its own video clip.

We could have downloaded a program to cut out her slice of the two-hour meeting, but there was no need. A free screen capture program is built into Windows 10. It’s called “Game Bar.” Though it’s meant for saving your game highlights, it can capture anything you have in motion.

Once you have a video playing, bring up Game Bar by holding down the Windows key (looks like a flag) and tapping the letter “G.” Then click the red dot to start a new recording. Click the stop icon when you’re finished. Your capture is automatically saved in your video folder. To find it, type “File Explorer” in the search box on the bottom left of your screen, then double-click to open the video folder.

 The most amazing thing about the session we captured is the lack of background noise.  At the time of our recording, the construction noise going on in the apartment next door was so loud we couldn’t hear the video. But Game Bar recorded it perfectly. If you want to add a voice over, or allow background sounds, click the microphone icon. 

If you have a Mac, open QuickTime and choose “New Screen Recording” from the “File” menu. You can capture the whole video, or click and drag your cursor to capture just a small piece of it.

If any of this sounds too much trouble, don’t despair. A company at Grain.co says they’re rolling out an easy way to get video highlights from Zoom. Basically, you put a smiley face on the part you highlighted and it’s captured. Price unknown as yet.

Emailing Large Files

One drawback to screen capturing your Zoom meetings or other videos is the size of the file. Our eight-minute video capture took up almost a gigabyte. 

On the other hand, emailing a large file is easy these days. If you have a Google account, which everyone who uses Gmail does, you’ll get a prompt when you try to email a file that’s over 25 megabytes. Gmail will automatically upload it to your private space on Google Drive, even if you’ve never used the Drive before. Gmail also adds a link to it inside your email. 

If you use Yahoo, Outlook, Thunderbird or some other service, get an online storage account if you don’t already have one, upload your video, and click the “share” icon next to the file name to email it. Popular choices include Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, and Box.com.

Fun with Landscapes

We’ve been playing with the free trial of “Landscape Pro,” from anthropics.com. It lets you turn dull landscape photos into something breathtaking.

Sometimes all a photo needs is a less boring sky. In some night-time shots, a reflective light from the moon on the water would add drama. In Landscape Pro, you can change things up by dragging labels into place, for “sky,” “ground,” “tree,” “building” and “object,” among others. The program will give each of these regions its own temporary colored coating. If it didn’t get it quite right, you can drag the coating over the bald spots. Then choose from a menu to replace the sky, remove an object or achieve other effects.

In our tests, Landscape Pro worked great with their sample photos, because they’re simple. We found that it was harder to get the regions clearly identified in our own photos. So Instead of using the labeling system, we got much better results with their presets. We clicked one, and the picture went from calm to dramatic. The price of hte program is $40 from anthropics.com.

Turn Alexa Off

Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s Echo or Echo Dot, was overwhelming us with notifications. When flash flood warnings were in effect for several days, she never stopped telling us about it. She’d remind us of flash floods if we asked for the temperature. If we asked her if she had any notifications, she’d tell us about flash floods again.

The answer was to turn off notifications in the Alexa app. When you tap the app on your phone, then tap “Notifications,” you see lots of choices. After turning off the weather alerts, we tapped the shopping category. These might be a good thing: If you turn on notifications there, Alexa will tell you when your package has arrived. Set up “do not disturb” if you don’t want the notifications to come at night or in early morning. She lets you choose the schedule. She’ll also tell you when an event on your calendar is about to occur. Somehow, we turned on too many notifications, choosing “fanfare” as our alert signal, and got drowned in sound several times a day until we fixed it.

The Price Isn’t Right

We recently wrote about a Logitech webcam BestBuy was selling for $40; Amazon sold it to us for $240. A reader said he bought a Logitech webcam in February for $17. It was recently selling for $98 on Amazon. Of course demand soared during Covid 19 lockdowns, but that’s still quite a mark-up. It’s mostly third-party sellers who price gouge, he said. 

 

FUN WITH WINDOWS

How do tech writers spend their stimulus check? They buy software.

For $30, we got a bundle of 14 Windows programs from Stardock.com, called “Object Desktop.” One program Joy really likes is “CursorFX” which gives you a choice of 23 cursors. She chose the hand, which has gestures, like tapping its fingers when it has to wait for a program to load. Here are some other parts of the bundle we’re having fun with: 

  • “Deskscapes” gives you animated wallpapers for your Windows computer. Right now, we’re enjoying one that shows a vintage diner, motorcycles and a blonde talking to a guy in what looks like a 1950’s Ford Fairlane. Her skirt blows slightly in the breeze.
  • “Fences” lets you corral your desktop icons into clutter-free groups, such as your most frequently-used programs or your recent documents. You can also make them disappear, except for the title of the group, by double-clicking or dragging them to the edge of your screen. Get the icons back with a click. That way they don’t clutter up the magnificent wallpaper you’ve chosen to fill your screen.
  • ““Multiplicity” lets you control two PCs with one keyboard and mouse.
  • “Start 10” gives you the familiar Start Menu of Windows 7 in Windows 10.

Bitcoin Revisited

Bitcoin, the digital currency, was in the news recently when miners got the announcement that they could only produce half as much, as happens every four years. A digital currency exists on a computer memory bank; there is no physical coin. There are 3,000 varieties. Another popular one is Ethereum. 

Today, there are just three million Bitcoins left to be mined. By 2040, Bitcoin miners won’t be able to make any new currency. By then, the world will have reached the 21-million-coin limit, established by the shadowy founder Satoshi Nakamodo.

Joy invested in Bitcoin three years ago and lost money on it by continuing to buy it as the price went up and selling it after it crashed. We can’t say whether it’s a good deal now. It rose from around $3,400 per coin in February 2019 to $10,000 on May 7. (Note: You can buy partial coins.) 

We read about a guy who gave away the computer where he’d stored his Bitcoin super password, called a key. Without it, he lost access to his account. His 7.5 million Bitcoins, bought for less than a penny each, would now be worth over $71 billion. So remember this: If you buy Bitcoin, write down the key and store it in a safe place. Joy put hers in a book but then gave away the book. However, Coinbase, the site where Joy bought her Bitcoin, lets you regenerate it if you lose it.

Five years ago, Ben Horowitz, of the venture capital firm Andreesson/Horowitz, bet an NPR reporter that by now, ten percent of Americans would be using Bitcoin to buy stuff. Instead, according to surveys, it’s only three percent. Even that number is fishy, because many of those surveyed used Bitcoin only to buy other cryptocurrencies. Or they claimed they used it at stores that in reality don’t accept it, so perhaps they traded it in for dollars first. Its value is too volatile; most people buy it as an investment.

Horowtiz’s bet against the NPR reporter was relaunched for 2025, with a twist. He is now banking on increased global demand. More specifically, he’s betting that the use of some cryptocurrency will rise to 10 percent of purchases in Mexico. His firm has a $300 million investment in crypto-related firms. 

Recently China introduced a digital currency and is giving it a trial run. It’s called the “e-RMB,” and will be the first digital currency issued by a major economy. 

The Numbers Report

Microsoft’s Edge web browser moved up to second place, with 7.6 percent of the market. But Google Chrome is still far the most popular with 68.5 percent, according to data from NetMarketShare. Edge grew more popular after getting redesigned. Now it’s built on the same Chromium system that Chrome is. 

And Now, For Something Completely Different

A less well-known browser is Vivaldi. The new version has built-in ad blocking and tracker blocking. Download it for free from Vivaldi.com. We tried out the new version on our Android phone. It has a nice “speed dial” to take you to common sites, like Amazon or YouTube. When you hit the speed dial again, and add a site, you can switch back and forth between sites you have open. 

We like the Windows version even better than the Android, and there’s also one for the Mac. When you first install it, you’re led by the hand to customize it, choosing a theme like “Dark Mode” or another background, as well as many other features like note-taking and customized tabs. You tell it whether you want to block both ads and trackers or neither. It has quick commands for activities such as going to your notes page, looking at sites you’ve recently visited, and more. 

 Internuts

  • NewDayNewChef.com has plant-based recipes from Amazon Prime’s new cooking show, “New Day, New Chef.” The show features an Olympic athlete, a rock star and an actress.
  • SimonandSchuster.com. If you go to the website and sign up for a free electronic book, they’ll let you choose  a new one every week, from a choice of ten of them, including several from best-selling authors. They’re all free.

 

 

THE WALKMAN LIVES

Image courtesy of TheVerge.com

The first portable electronics gadget we ever had was a tape recorder, though we both remember the portable record player in a suitcase. Later, we both had Sony Walkmans. Did you know they’re still popular?

Over 400 million Walkmans as of 2014– mainly used for listening to music on the fly — have been sold, according to TheVerge.com. In the 41 years since the first one, they’ve gone from cassette players to CD to Mini-Disc to MP3 to streaming music.

Recently, we wondered why people still buy Walkmans, instead of listening to music on their phones. A reader told us the Walkman is superior. For one thing, you can store music in the “wav” file format, which takes up more storage space but sounds better. “Why listen to a lesser-quality format with a device as terrific as the Walkman?” he wrote. “Plus it holds nearly my entire CD collection, while the phone is severely limited. Even with the MP3 format, there’s no way can I get the bulk of it on a 32 gig micro SD card, which is the largest capacity card my phone will take.” He bought a Walkman NW-A55, which came out in 2017, on Amazon for $219. It’s smaller than his phone.

“Single-purpose devices,’ he adds, “usually do a better job than those Jack-of-all-trades units.” We agree. “This is one of those things where you have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the difference,” he adds. “I can tell you what it’s like, but hearing is believing.”

Filter It

Now that everyone’s home, they’re all emailing us. Personal notes are great, but what about all those newsletters that come in? We say, “Filter it.”

Joy had to get her email from a site without filters recently. The difference was dramatic. Instead of 30 new messages there were 254.

Joy has 218 filters on her Gmail, all of which direct the mail to skip the inbox and go straight to the trash. Examples include realtor.com, truewellth and urbankayaks. We literally don’t know what Joy is missing. What is the wellspring of all these promotional messages? They’re free.

To set up a filter in Gmail, click on the message you’re tired of. Then click the three vertical dots. Choose “Filter messages like this,” then check off the box next to “Delete it” and then click “create filter.” If you just click “block,” they’ll keep coming back. Only filtering works. If you don’t use Gmail, look up the name of your email program along with the word filter.  For example, type “Yahoo mail filter.”

Internuts

Phrases.org.UK Ever since we gave away the complete Oxford English Dictionary, we’ve been wanting a site like this. Here we learned that “happy as a clam” was originally “happy as a clam at high tide,” a favorite phrase of President Ulysses S. Grant. “The cat’s pajamas” had its origins before the 1920s when all kinds of whimsical phrases came into use, such as “the bee’s knees,” “the kipper’s knickers” and “the monkey’s eyebrows.” “Cat” originally referred to a stylish woman but was later expanded to include men, as in “cool cat” or “hep cat.”

12 Board Games You Can Play with Friends from Afar” Search on that phrase to find an article from SmithsonianMag.com. Examples include Monopoly, “Ticket to Ride,” a virtual train game favored by our adult nephews, and “Settlers of Catan,” a race to settle an island with few resources.

BritishMuseum.org/collection gives you access to 1.9 million images. All are free to download, adapt and use for non-commercial purposes. Some, such as the Rosetta Stone, show more detail digitally than can be seen with the naked eye.

Apps on the Kindle Fire

A reader complained that his Kindle Fire is too heavy on Amazon stuff. That’s true, but you can add thousands of other apps.

Tap “App Store” on your Kindle Fire to search. Or, on a computer, start by doing a web search on “Amazon apps.” Once you’re on the page, tap the four stars off to the left to see the apps with the best reviews. Tap “Free” to see only the free ones. When you see one you might like, click it to get a description, then click “Get app.” It will be automatically delivered to your Fire.

To remove an app you’ve changed your mind about, tap “Games & Apps” at the top of your Kindle Fire screen. Hold your finger down on the app you want to remove till you see “remove from device.” Then tap it. The other option is “remove from home page.”

Speaking of Amazon, a reader wrote that he bumped up against a storage limit when uploading photos and videos. Didn’t we say that storage space was unlimited? Not for videos. We said it was for photos. You only get five gigabytes of free storage for videos. Go to amazon.com/clouddrive to see what you’ve uploaded and delete anything you don’t want.

Getting Faster

A reader wrote: “Having trouble with my internet speed dropping. Is there a way of checking the speed?” Sure there is.

Go to Fast.com. They’ll tell what your speed is. A good Internet speed is 10 megabits per second for download and five megabits per second for upload.

To speed things up a bit, try putting your router in a central location. When the AT&T guy did this for us in our new apartment, identical to the old one but on a higher floor, we started getting a good signal in the bedroom for the first time. The oft-touted mesh system by Google, which we thought helped at first, wasn’t nearly good enough. We dumped it. Also, take a look at “15 Tips for Faster Wi-Fi” from Techlicious.com.

ALEXA, TAKE A NOTE

We sometimes have a good idea late at night that we can’t remember the next day. Alexa, the voice inside the free Alexa app or the Amazon Echo smart speaker will remember it for us.

We say, “Alexa, take a note,” and she’ll say: “All right, what’s the note?” Recently, we said “Guy from Ipanema.” That’s because Joy thought it would be funny if her woman’s club’s musical revue did a “Guy from Ipanema” song instead of the original “Girl from Ipanema.” When we said, “Alexa, what’s the note?” she told us. That led Bob to wonder how long a note she could handle. Joy said: “I’m going to the drugstore later to get root beer, toilet paper and face masks.” Alexa was able to repeat it later, sort of, and asked us if she got it right. Bob said “Roughly.” She said, “Do you want me to take a note that says “Roughly?” “No,” Bob said. “Do you want me to take a note that says “no?” “No!” “I’m having trouble understanding,” she said. No kidding.

Fun with Photos

A reader wrote: “PLEASE… Can you recommend a good photo stick?? So many are advertised.”

Photo sticks, including the heavily advertised “The Photo Stick,” $54 on Amazon, are nothing but flash drives with software that copies the photos already on your computer. We looked at Amazon reviews for The Photo Stick, most of which are positive. But 29 percent said it stopped working or they had trouble with it. That’s huge. Fakespot.com gave the reviews a “B” rating for reliability.

You can do the same thing with any flash drive, some of which sell for as little as $8.

In Windows 10, find your photos by typing “photos” in the search box in Windows, then click on the photo app. Or click the start button and choose “File Explorer.” Then look for your picture folders or search for all jpg photos by typing *jpg in the search box in File Explorer. If you open File Explorer a second time, you can drag and drop them onto a flash drive. It’s even easier on a Mac. On the web, search on the phrase, “Transfer Mac photos to a thumb drive.”

Meet Google Meet

Everybody’s still meeting virtually. It turns out to be such a good business, that the leader Zoom has competitors galore.

Google, which already has one called “Meet,” is now rolling it out for free. Meetings can be any length for now, but in September there will be a 60-Minute limit on the freebies. Facebook is doing something similar but has yet to leave the starting gate.

We tried Google Meet and can’t recommend it. Take screen sharing, for example. It’s an easy thing to do in Zoom and is great for sharing a slideshow. When Joy tried it in Google Meet, however, she couldn’t figure out how to stop sharing and get back to the meeting. No wonder the son of Google’s Business Chief interrupted his dad’s session to say how much he and his friends liked Zoom.

If you want to try it for yourself, wait till it’s rolled out for everyone. Don’t do what Joy did. She signed up for a free trial of the business service Google G-Suite, which includes Meet. That spelled disaster. G-Suite asked her to link her account with the company that hosts our website. As a result, Joy stopped getting her email. Even after canceling G-Suite, she received nothing. A tech guy at Google’s Premium Support couldn’t solve the problem, though we noticed many web accounts of people tearing their hair out over the same issue. One guy tried re-signing up for G-Suite after canceling but that didn’t work either. Finally, we turned to our web hosting company, Ionos. After over an hour on the phone, they got it going.

So what’s to be said in favor of Google Meet? Besides the extra security layer, it makes it easy to kick out any participant who’s being obnoxious. But this isn’t worth much to us. So far, we’ve had no hassles with Zoom, except for the time Joy didn’t let her book club leader into a meeting because she didn’t notice she was waiting to enter and needed the host’s permission. She forgot to check off the option that lets everyone in automatically. Joy’s new name is Mud.

Dark Mode

Bob finds the bright white computer screen hard on his eyes, and studies back him up. So what he wants is a black background. The simplest way to do this in Windows is to   tap the Windows key and the “plus” keys together which activates the Magnifier. Once, that’s activated, if you hit the “Ctrl,” “Alt” and “i” keys, you toggle back and forth between a black screen and a white screen. But if there are any pictures in what you’ve called up, the Magnifier reverses those colors too. Your chance of recognizing the picture is nil. On a Mac, click the Apple icon in the upper left corner of your screen. Choose “System Preferences,” then “Accessibility.” From there, click “Display,” then choose “Invert Colors.” “Viola,” as we say in fractured French, you have white text on a black background, with pictures intact.

An alternative is “Dark Mode,” a free extension for the Google Chrome browser which you can find in the Google Chrome web store online. It puts a marker in the upper right hand corner in your screen; click on that to toggle between black screen and normal screen. The nice thing about Dark Mode is that any pictures you’re looking at remain normal pictures.

JUST GOOGLE IT

More often than not, the best way to solve a problem is to Google it in the same words you would use when describing the issue to your techiest friend.

Recently we were trying to digitize our CDs so we could play them on our computer, but Windows Media Player couldn’t identify any of the tracks. We were stuck with “Unknown Album” and “Track 1,” “Track 2,” etc.  Windows Media player is supposed to name your tracks automatically, but it didn’t.

The Windows Troubleshooter popped up to tell us that our media player was corrupted but offered no solution. It dumped us out on a general Microsoft page where we could search vast reams of info from other users. So we searched the web on the phrase “fix corrupt Windows Media Player.”  The first website we went to told us which files in the Windows Media Player folder to delete, and then told us to reboot the computer. That’s a trick we’ve noticed many times. If you delete something that’s not working, it gets reinstalled the next time you reboot if it’s part of the operating system.

App Happy

Coming up are tracking systems from Google, Apple and M.I.T. to tell whether you’ve encountered someone who tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.

Of course, in order for this thing to work, you have to have tested a lot of people. In the first quarter of this year, approximately one million people were tested in the U.S. Since there are about 320 million people, 320 quarter periods would take 80 years at the same rate of testing. One begins to see the nature of the problem.

At the heart of this is an effort to create a kind of national health database. This seems like a really good idea, though the people who worry about their privacy will no doubt protest. The problem is so large and difficult, it may never happen.

A Virtual Tech Show

We recently video-conferenced with the founders of  tech companies who were showing off their latest products. Here are a few products that caught our eye. You can get more details at Showstoppers.com.

  • The “Envoy Pro EX” is a new four-terabyte solid state drive (SSD) from OWC That’s a tremendous amount of storage you can slip into your pocket and plug into your computer when you’re ready. It can hold 800,000 photos, 166 hours of video footage in 4K resolution or 1,437 hours of videos in standard resolution. Cost is $1,129. If you don’t need that much storage, you could get a flash drive from Sandisk with 128 gigabytes for around $19. Because solid state drives have no moving parts, data transfers from an SSD are almost instantaneous.
  • The $25 “Mountie” is a clip from TenOneDesign.com. It allows you to expand your computer’s screen size by connecting your iPad, Android tablet or phone to your computer screen so that you get an extra wide side-by-side display. Or you might want three screens, by using a clip on both sides. If you have a larger tablet, such as the iPad Pro, you’ll need the Mountie+, for  $35. This lets you watch the stock market, a sporting event or your favorite show while doing your work.
  • The new “Evolve2” headphones from Jabra.com let you work at home without worrying about disturbance from your dog or kid while you’re on an important call. They have three built-in microphones to make your voice heard over any background noise, and they make it easier to hear the person on the other end. What’s more, their software lets the company’s IT department monitor how good the sound quality was during your call. The Evolve2 40 is $139 for the stereo version. The Evolve2 65, a wireless version with stereo, is $299.

Crossovers

We came across a noise-cancelling headset with a microphone, the Rifleman Bluetooth Communication Hearing Protection, for $41 on Amazon. Joy put some Rachmaninoff music on real loud and then called Bob. The music was dampened to a whisper while the headset was on. It was easy to hear each other. This was initially designed and intended for hunters. This kind of cross-matching of technology is interesting. Several years ago, Bob noticed that hearing-enhancers for hunters, allowing them to track game, cost less than hearing aids. A national testing service rated them as almost equal to hearing aids. Some users say they like them better than hearing aids. We saw “Walker’s Game Ear” on Amazon for $144. But of course Medicare probably wouldn’t cover it.

Internuts

  • How to Make a Mask with a T-shirt.” Search on that phrase to get some clever suggestions. Joy had the idea of putting advertising on the face masks. For instance: “”Back off Buster,” “Hi, I’m Single,” or “Joe’s Pizza.”
  • View from Missoula, Montana

    View from My Window.” Type those words into the Facebook search box for some remarkable photos. People from all over the world are sharing what it looks like from the inside looking out and adding comments, during this Covid-19 crisis when we’re all staying home. We just looked at the view in Calarca, Columbia. Pretty nice.

  • Scullinsteel.com/apple2 has a virtual version of the old Apple II machine, which was sold new until 1993. You can try programming it in BASIC. It reminded Joy of why she decided she’d never be a programmer.