DOES DONALD TRUMP KNOW ABOUT THIS?

Earn.com lets you make money giving out your email address. You decide how much it’s worth. If you’re a big shot, or you think you are, you could charge $100 per message.

That’s what Ben Horowitz does. As of last January, he’d made over $8,000, which he donated to a charity called “Black Girls Code.” He’s one half of the consulting firm Andreessen/Horowitz. Marc Andreeson founded Netscape, the first web browser, and is otherwise a general hot shot. We’re not sure what Horowitz does. (Just kidding. Horowitz sold a software company to Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion, and was a major investor in Skype before it was sold to Microsoft. He consults.)

After signing up at Earn.com, we wondered if this would be a good way for would-be authors to find publishers without going through an agent. We typed in “Penguin Group” and got an associate editor at Penguin Random House. We contacted him for $1, though he has yet to reply. (The contract gives him seven days, then it’s kaput.)  We only have to pay if he responds. He’s looking for interesting people to write books about business challenges.

The site makes suggestions on whom to contact, such as Deloitte Corp. or Google. So we contacted Sean Melis, a consultant in Deloitte’s Australian office, for $1. He lists himself as knowledgeable about artificial intelligence and the so-called “blockchain” undergirding the Bitcoin crypto currency. We asked him about that. We’re the first to pay him to answer a question, but he sounds smart. He said the most exciting thing about the blockchain is “the decentralized future it paints.”

It’s all done in Bitcoin, which can be translated back and forth with dollars. We got 84 cents just for signing up and completing a profile; it’s stored in Bitcoin. If Bitcoin shoots to the moon, it may be worth $8 someday. Wow, party time. We decided not to keep the money we earn, and chose “Folding at Home” as the recipient, one of five choices; they do disease research.

Businesses are using Earn.com to send paid surveys to senior engineers, executives and other presumably smart people who otherwise couldn’t be bothered to reply. For example, we could send a mass email to 50 Stanford students and professors for $10 per reply.  The recipient gets a note like: “Complete this survey and get $10.”

We looked over their lists to get other ideas. A venture capitalist list lets you send a mass email for $50 per reply. It includes over 20 firms with over $25 billion in investable capital. The “Angel Investor” list lets you get replies from 50 angel investors who have written checks for at least $10,000 within the last two years. There are other lists for startup founders, “blockchain personalities” and others. This could go on and on, and probably will.

Pesky Email

A reader asks: “How do you know if someone has opened your email?” A question that has occurred to all of us.

If you use Microsoft Outlook or the premium version of Gmail, which is part of the $5-a-month “G-Suite,” you get an option to ask for a receipt. For the rest of us, there’s a free extension called “Boomerang for Gmail,” from BoomerangGmail.com. It’s boomerang time!

With Boomerang, you can have your email sent again automatically, if the person hasn’t opened it within two days, or whatever time period you choose.  Even better, you can put off looking at email you know you have to look at eventually.

Suppose a bill comes in. It isn’t due now but you don’t want to forget about it. Tap the boomerang icon in your Gmail window and it won’t reappear until the time and date you chose.

Apps for Going Vegan

Joy hasn’t given up her leather jacket, but she’s a certified friend of the furry and a vegan.  Here are some vegan apps we just learned about.

  • Forks Over Knives” is a $5 recipe app for Android and iPhone. The recipes we’ve tried so far have been great, and they make it easy to add ingredients to a shopping list. The app includes soups, side dishes, salads, decadent desserts and more. There are free recipes at ForksOverKnives.com
  • VeganXPress, $2 for iPhone, tells you what’s vegan at chain restaurants and fast food places.
  • Bunny Free from PETA.org tells you if a product is cruelty free. In other words, it didn’t make some bunny go blind for being used to test cosmetics.

Why go vegan? See NutritionFacts.org and FreeFromHarm.org.

Sneaky Apps

Joy’s friend Frieda commented one day that Joy was getting a lot of text messages. She wasn’t. Every half block or so, her phone would tootle. But it wasn’t text messages, the sounds were from dozens of apps that sound off every time something new comes in. Don’t let this happen to you!

Go to settings on your phone and find the “Notifications” area. There’s a setting for each app to allow only silent notifications. In the new “Oreo” version of Android, there’s a setting to “allow notification dots.” Each app has a dot in the little picture of it on your screen; you see it if there’s something new to report.

Cheapest Day to Fly

According to Kayak.com, a travel site, the cheapest day of the week to fly out somewhere is Friday; Monday is the most expensive. Friday travelers average a $100 savings, whether they’re flying in the U.S. or abroad. Monday is the cheapest day to come back and Thursday is the most expensive. The odd thing is, this pretty much holds no matter whether you’re coming or going.

 

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT

We just played “Animal Trivia,” “World Foods Trivia” and “What’s Your Nickname” without touching a phone, computer or board game. We used Google Home, the digital assistant. We paid $130 when it first came out but now there’s a new version called the “Mini,” which you can get for $49. This matches the price for Amazon’s “Alexa.”

Holiday shopping is on the horizon and people are going to be making decisions and price is often the deciding factor. So are there differences? You bet. Most would consider them slight, Bob thinks they’re enormous. Bob prefers Google. Joy on the other hand, thinks Alexa has lots of advantages. Whaddaya gonna do?

She particularly likes an Alexa game called “Yes, Sire,” in which you try to rise in the King’s estimation. Don’t rise too far or too quickly, however, or he’ll start to worry and have you executed, too many wrong decisions and you’ll be exiled. This is pretty much like real life. Perhaps you’re not really cut out for the King’s court.

Alexa is the market leader right now. Most reviewers have gone on record as preferring it, which makes Bob suspicious that advertising revenue might be influencing some decisions. They say this Amazon device is the cat’s meow, or maybe its pajamas. This baffles Bob. He feels Google wins in a walk. The main advantage — and it’s a big one — is that Google Home can access YouTube, which Google owns. So you get to hear whole pieces in classical music and whole albums of musicals and Broadway shows, even choosing between performers. Alexa gives you pieces in pieces.

Just for a random test of their capabilities Bob recently asked Google Home to play some Kurdish folk music, referring to the tribe which occupies parts of Iraq and Turkey. He figured that would be pretty obscure but Google Home started right up with a bunch. Alexa said “Sorry, I couldn’t find any.” In previous “conversations” or whatever you want to call these interchanges, we found that in questions about the number of deaths by various causes, the number of  highway miles or forests and a host of other obscure but possibly interesting information, Google Home came up with answers, but Alexa did not. It’s early days of course, and we’re sure Amazon will have an explanation that boils down to saying “it’s early days.” We’re not anti-Amazon, by the way, we use it all the time; we’re just pointing out strengths and weaknesses here.

A really significant difference is that Google Home can cast YouTube programs to your TV. You need one of the smart TVs and a $35 Chromecast for that. Tell Google what you want and you can watch a lecture, TED talk, college course, and even a movie if it’s in the YouTube selection list. We’ve done this and you just have to ask: “Hey Google, play a chemistry lecture on our TV.” If this is too exciting, you might prefer astrophysics.

There are some personality differences. When we ask for a specific game to play, Google often says “I don’t understand.” It works better to say “Hey Google,  play a game,” and then choose one of the suggestions. This is fun for kids and educational for grownups. In playing “Animal Trivia,” we learned that goldfish can remember stuff for three months, gorillas have unique nose prints and the hair of a Yorkshire terrier never stops growing. Who knew? In “World Food Trivia,” we learned that slurping down noodles in Japan is not rude but shows you enjoyed the meal.

Recently, Google rolled out 50 new activities for kids, including lots of stories. You can say “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” or just “tell me a story.” We listened to “The Tired Alien” and “The Chef Who Loved Potatoes.” Say “Flip a coin”  to solve a dispute.  Google Home can also play soothing bedtime sounds such as babbling brook, thunderstorm or country night.

You can get much of the benefit of Google Home, however, by installing “Google Assistant” on your iPhone or older Android phone. It already comes on later model Android phones.

“And,” as Kurt Vonnegut liked to say, “so it goes.”

 Internuts

  • YouTube BBC Teach” Search on that phrase to find YouTube videos aimed at high school and elementary school students. We learned about Mary Anning, a paleontologist who made some new discoveries in the Jurassic fossil beds along the English channel.
  • This is very commercial but we’ll pass it on anyway: Meggalife.com lets you earn points for your retirement account at E.F. Hutton every time you use the site to do anything online, such as browsing the Internet or sharing photos. Partial revenues generated from their ads are deposited into a trust fund managed by Hutton and redeemable at age 68.

App Happy

  • Noisli” is a $2 app for Android and iPhone that offers background sounds for relaxation or productivity. Go to Noisli.com to try them out or listen for free. We like the thunderstorm best.
  •  Canva” is a free app for making online greeting cards and Facebook posts. The art is out of this world. Change the wording on a template to make it your own.
  • “Amazon Music App,” free for Android and iPhone, strikes up the band. Tap the word “Alexa” within the app and tell her to play music for sleeping, music for cooking, music from the 1940s or your favorite decade, or a specific song. To get the app, search on  “Amazon Music for Windows” or “Amazon Music for Mac.”
  • Infiltr” is a free app for iPhone/iPad that gives your photos intense colors. It’s similar to the popular 99-cent app “Color Splash,” but you don’t have to draw a mask around the image, which can be a lot of work. You can see how it works on YouTube. It also changed the depth of field but we weren’t awed.

 

SEE IT LATER

Pressed for time or feeling sleepy? “Pocket” is a free app for saving articles and pictures to look at later. The app is available for Windows, Macs, phones and tablets. That’s everything but billboards.

To get started on your computer, go to GetPocket.com and install it. If you use Firefox as your browser, it comes with it. Once installed, you can click the tiny picture of a pocket in the upper right of your screen any time you want to save an item for later viewing. To find the stuff you’ve saved, click on the pocket and “view list.” It might also save whatever you’re looking at right at that moment at the same time, but live with it.

So the app starts with an empty list of things to read. If you don’t have anything saved yet, click the “recommended” list for some pre-selected articles. There was one from The Guardian titled “Owning a Car will Soon be a Thing of the Past,” and another from the NY Times on “Why I Almost Fired My Doctor.” (Bob feels the same way about his doctor.) Lots of stuff there. All in all, it’s a handy thingy.

Does Capitalization in Email Matter?

A reader writes that an email bounced back to him as undeliverable. He immediately wondered if he should have capitalized the “A” in the address. We wondered too.

In Gmail and nearly all other email providers, capitalization makes no difference. You can send a test message to yourself to prove it: try typing your name in the address in all caps (capitals). Viola,  as they say in fractured French. It goes. If you don’t use Gmail or one of the common providers, however, it could make a difference. Whatever you put before the “@” sign, such as JoeDoe@whoopi.com might matter. But anything you put after the “@” sign doesn’t. You could write it WhOOpi.com if you wish. If you’re in doubt about what or when, don’t capitalize anything.

We tried to find out why our reader couldn’t make contact with the person he was writing. After a little digging (so to speak) we found out the recipient was dead. At least there was an obituary for him; so that was kind of an indicator. (As film director Carl Reiner commented in an interview recently: “Check the obits every morning. If you’re not there, have breakfast.)

 High Demand Jobs

Freelancer.com checked almost half a million job postings on its site to find the ones most in demand.

Number one was for people familiar with Adobe‘s “InDesignprogram. This is used to create layouts for magazines, newsletters, books, brochures and posters. Next in demand were people who knew how to use “3D Design,” “Creative Design” and “HTML5.” Jobs in 3D Design are up 29 percent, and many are in education. Jobs for people who know grammar were 12th in demand. We’ve noticed that.

There are also a lot of jobs for those who know how to program the Arduino board. This is a cheap (like $35) pocket size computer invented in Italy and Bob recently bought one for Joy. In September, the World Maker Faire brought over 90,000 Arduino enthusiasts from 45 countries to the New York Hall of Science. (We weren’t there.)

Demand for jobs in HTML programming is growing because it’s the replacement for Adobe Flash, which Adobe is killing once and for all in 2020. (Steve Jobs hated it.) HTML jobs surged 22 percent to 9,980.

Bitcoin topped Freelancer’s “Fast 50” report on emerging skills, up 82 percent. Cryptography is up 59 percent. Microsoft jobs are down 41 percent. Pinterest jobs are down 35 percent, Twitter jobs are down 27 percent. Google Plus jobs are down 35 percent.

Website management and business card creation are in the top ten. Demand for jobs in Arabic is up 11 percent. For more info, Google “Freelancers 50 Fastest Moving Jobs.”

The Best Way to Unlock Your Phone

We sign in to our Android phone by tracing a pattern. Like most people, we chose something simple.

The person next to us at the grocery store could probably guess our pattern with a quick glance over the shoulder. According to a study by the US Naval Academy and the University of Maryland, 64 percent of participants could guess it on the first try with barely a glance. Eighty percent could guess it if they got two chances. By contrast, a personal identification number (PIN) was guessed by only 10 percent on the first try, and 25 percent after many tries.

You could use your fingerprint. Joy eagerly registered her fingerprint when she first got her Android phone. It worked great at first, but later was hit or miss. The key is to register more than one finger. After re-registering all five fingers, they were all usable for unlocking the phone — most of the time.

Take A Deep Breath

Plume Air Report is a free app for Android and iPhone from PlumeLabs.com. It provides a daily, monthly and yearly rating on the pollution level in 430 cities.

Beijing has a 208 number and the comment “extreme pollution.” Worcester, Mass., gets a seven. Little Rock, Ark., is 33; Los Angeles, 37; Phoenix, 53; Orlando 37; Mexico City, 113 — on the day we checked around. These numbers fluctuate day to day. Winter is often higher because the cold air just sits there. You can get government reports from EPA.gov/outdoor-air-quality-data.

If you want to walk around the neighborhood and examine pollution street by street, they sell a device for that, called the “Flow.” They’re taking pre-orders now, with deliveries expected next summer.

The Numbers Report

Drivers use their cell phones in 88 percent of trips, according to ZenDrive, a San Francisco start-up. That doesn’t count cell phones mounted on the dashboard or built in to the car, so the figure is likely well over 90 percent. Traffic deaths nationally were on average 102 per day last year; 37,461 for the whole year.

SMILE

What? As if 900 crypto-currencies were not enough, we now have “Dentacoin.”

You guessed it, Dentacoin is for paying dentists. At the moment, you can only pay two dentists with this digital currency, one in Bulgaria and the other in London, but the wheel, and the planet, turns.

These digital currencies, also called “crypto” or “e-cash” are a way of getting out from under bank fees, inflation, security risks and of course government control. Eeek, as they say in the treasury. We are fast approaching a thousand varieties and there’s no reason to expect it to stop there. Shades of early America, when banks in all the states used to issue their own currency. Except they could keep printing money. Bitcoin tops out at 21 million coins.

The rise of these alternate currencies was predicted in 1999 by Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman: “I think the Internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that’s missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable ‘e-cash.'”

Well, with Bitcoin transactions and other currencies like it, there are no intermediaries, and computer encryption software can keep it more secure than any other kind of transaction. Joy says these are secure, but Bob notes that Bitcoins have been stolen out of “secure” Bitcoin wallets before. If you buy at Coinbase.com, you’re given a special code. Don’t lose it or share it.

Though dozens of stores now accept Bitcoin, it doesn’t make much sense to buy it only to purchase goods in the U.S. Here it is often bought as a speculation. (Can you short it?) In other parts of the world, it can help people avoid confiscation of their property by dictators, and can establish property titles. (Seventy percent of the people in the world who own land have a tenuous title to it.)  It does this by creating so-called “smart contracts” which are generated by transactions automatically.

Dentacoin is a start-up in the Netherlands, and is finishing  its first “initial coin offering” on November 1. It’s currently used by a clinic in Varna, Bulgaria and another  clinic in London. There have been so many of these rival currencies that Forbes magazine did a cover story and called it “The Emperor’s New Coins.” In the meantime, prices keep going up.

The CEO of  CruisAIDer, a German company, which makes  dental power carts, says Dentacoin makes his supplies cheaper. “Up until now we were stuck having to change between currencies to source the materials we need to manufacture our Powercart.”

Joy invested a small amount in Bitcoin but Bob did not. As for the rival coins, it seems a bit scary just yet, though investing in the Blockchain, through Ethereum, might make sense.  As with most things in life, buyer beware.

Internuts

  • A Wonderfully Satisfying Compilation of Handmade Pop-Up Cards.” Search on that phrase to see an amazing display of pop-ups. Skyscrapers, carnivals, animals and more rise off the flat page. See also PeterDahmen.com.
  • SADD.org is the website for “Students Against Destructive Decisions.” It has thousands of chapters nationwide and tips like: When teens are in a dangerous situation, they should have a special code, like “222.” Sending a 222 by text to a parent could mean: “Please pick me up now.” A Liberty Mutual study sponsored by the organization showed that one third of students and 27 percent of parents think it’s legal to drive under the influence of marijuana if marijuana is legal in that state. It isn’t.

Artificial Intelligence No Longer Needs Us

The game of “Go” has been around for at least 2500 years. It is complex and difficult. How complex? Well, the number of possible moves is 10 to the 761st power. which is 10 followed by 760 zeroes. To put that into some kind of perspective, the number of moves in chess is 10 to the 120th power, and the number of atoms in the Universe is estimated at 10 to the 80th.

In 2016 a Google computer program, “AlphaGo,” used artificial intelligence to defeat a human player for the first time. In May of this year it defeated a world champion player in Korea. Recently, an improved version, AlphaGo Zero, defeated the previous AI program.

There is a remarkable difference between the two programs. The earlier one learned to play by watching and improving on the 30 million moves made by players in thousands of games. The improved version had no information, it learned by trial and error. On the first day it lost every game. After three days it won most of the time. After 21 days it defeated its own earlier program. After 40 days it won all the time.

The implications of such an artificial intelligence program are deep and profound.

The Inventor’s Computer

The “Pi-Top” computer is for inventors and programmers. It has a slide-out keyboard with a treasure trove of electronic components in a compartment underneath. They’re  kept in place by magnets. An earlier version is used in 1500 schools.

The “Pi” in the name refers to “Raspberry Pi,” a credit card size computer that can be attached to a monitor or TV and accept input from a keyboard and mouse. People can use it to learn how to program. It made a splash when it came out a few years ago for $25, and the latest version, Raspberry Pi 3 is $35. Some use it to play old Nintendo games, or for network-attached storage.

But it takes a bit of tech know-how to conquer Raspberry Pi, or a lot of tutorial-watching on YouTube. The Pi-Top modular laptop makes it a bit easier by bringing together all the components you need and then some, such as the inventor’s kit. It’s not cheap at $320, but for a laptop, it’s not bad. The display is 14 inches, and it comes with its own software bundle for web browsing and creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

The Pi-Top website mentions possible projects. Make a music synthesizer, with your own beats and rhythms. Make your own Space Race game, using LEDs, resistors, copper wire and programming code. Or invent a robot that interacts with you. Use LEDs, proximity sensors, and a microphone to create an Android friend.

The Pi-Top.com website makes it sound easy. But take a look at the user forums before taking the plunge. There you’ll learn of frustrations and triumphs.

 

 

 

MACHINE LEARNING

All right, we know that someday the robots are going to take over. So you might as well get with the program. Make it a partnership. We don’t mean robots like you see in sci-fi movies, walking around with shiny metal limbs. Anything that’s controlled by a program is a robot. So most robots aren’t visible in the ordinary sense of the word, they’re just part of the system.

A machine can respond to body movements, facial gestures, or just leaving the scene. The very fact that you’re not there can be an instruction. Bob recalls talking to an engineer who had just come from an automated factory in Kentucky. It made small electric motors, like the kind in vacuum cleaners and sewing machines. The factory floor was all dark. You could just see red and blue tiny lights blinking. After all, the machines didn’t need light, why waste money on lighting?

This kind of thing is increasing and there’s a joke about it that goes like this: The factory of the future will only need two attendants: a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to bark when the man falls asleep.

So Google is going to teach us how to operate machinery without even going to the factory. The dog will be out of a job. Go to TeachableMachine.withGoogle.com. They’ll teach you how to do it. No charge. It’s a great introduction to “machine learning,” which is already a hot career field.

Machine learning powers supercomputers such as IBM’s Watson. It’s used in facial recognition software and you see it in photo apps. Other areas include robotics and medicine. Then there’s Siri, Alexa and Google Home, or any system that uses voice recognition. It’s all machine learning.

To create your own machine learning demo, you don’t need to install anything. Just go to “Google’s Teachable Machine” and start. You will need a computer that has a built-in camera, which most do now, or you can buy a clip-on camera for older machines; they’re cheap.

In less than a minute, we trained Google’s website to show a photo, play a sound, or talk to us. When Joy moved her arm across her computer screen, she got a white cat waving its paws. When she was still, she got a fluffy Pomeranian dog. When she pulled her bangs back, a rabbit appeared. We played the air guitar to get a music clip, drummed on the desk to do a drum solo and put a thumb to our lips to get a trombone.

Now all of these results are pretty useless, but their point is they could just as easily be a result that produced some other action or even many actions. But we had to “train” the machine first. That meant holding down the “train” button on the website while waving our arms or whatever gesture we wanted to associate with a photo, a music clip or a voice. We made the voice say “Way to Go!” when we flexed our muscles.

As an aside here, it struck Bob that this could be an immediate response to danger. When they bad guys come in pointing a gun at you, just throw up your hands in surrender and that action will immediately call the police, seal the doors, release the sleeping gas or whatever.

If you want to go further, there’s Wekinator.org. They offer a free online course, “Machine Learning for Musicians and Artists,” from Goldsmith University in London. (It’s $20 a month if you want college credit.) It’s quite techie, but it might just launch a new career. They say it’s the only such class oriented towards art and music.

Internuts

Photographing the Unseen: Winners of the Nikon Small World 2017.” It’s astonishing to see what the hologram on a credit card looks like when you bend the card, and the eye of a Daddy Long Legs, the skin of a sea cucumber, a bit of mold on a tomato. The world of the small is magical and beautiful, in most cases.

NextDoor.com allows people in your neighborhood to post items for sale, small jobs, and so on. For instance, when we looked, someone was looking for a driver to take their car to Arizona — a nice way to avoid rental cars on vacation.

The Numbers Report

Healthline.com claims there are 156,000 apps dealing with health and wellness. Start now and you may live long enough to check them all. The Food and Drug Administration regulates around 200 health sites. This reminds Bob that they also annually check about the same number of possibly dangerous chemicals in everyday use. There are roughly 81,000 of those, so it may take a while.

Given the situation, it’s really going to be up to your own judgment. Fox News reported that developers of three wellness apps, including the popular Runtastic, created by an Adidas subsidiary, as well as MIT’s spinoff “Cardiio(sic) and “My Baby’s Beat,” by Matis, paid combined fines of $30,00 for overstating their claims.

BMC Medicine, a medical journal, reported that apps claiming to determine the right insulin doses for diabetics provide no protection against, and may even contribute to, errors. Remember: Doctors don’t know everything, and neither does the web.

Oreo Cookies

The new Android system, called Oreo, is rolling out to phones over the next several months. Nexus and Pixel phones get it first. Is there anything worth getting excited about? Techlicious.com has a great article on this, with all the details. Here are the highlights we think worth mentioning.

“Dots.” In the corner of each app icon, such as the Facebook logo, you’ll see a dot if there are notifications for you. If you’re tired of seeing the same notification when you swipe down from the top of the screen, you can snooze it for 15 minutes or longer. You also get more control of how you’re notified. You might want Facebook alerts to vibrate, rather than show on the so-called “lock screen” of your phone, the screen you see when the phone has been idle for awhile. Or your app might ping you. Or you can just tell it to shut-up.

Set the Wi-Fi Assistant to automatically connect to the highest quality and safest Wi-Fi networks. Suspect Wi-Fi areas, such as airports, won’t connect automatically.

Wherever you connect, your data is protected because its transmitted through a Google-operated virtual private network. To enable this feature once your Oreo update has arrived, go to “Settings,” then “Google,” then “Networking,” then “Wi-Fi Assistant.”

ANTI-VIRUS REVISITED

We bow to the mounting evidence and can no longer recommend the free anti-virus program: “Avast.” Too many complaints. And yet, cyber attacks as they’re called, are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated.

Choosing an alternative is tricky. For years, PC World, PC Magazine and other reviewers gave their highest marks to the Russian-owned Kaspersky anti-virus. Then came the accusation that Russian hackers may be using it to conduct espionage against the U.S.; some readers dropped it like a hot potato. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security ordered federal agencies to remove it from their systems.

Avast is based in the Czech Republic, and there’s been some strange behavior recently.  One of our readers said the people who answer the phone sound like scammers who pretend they are from Microsoft and want to charge you an arm and a leg to fix your computer.

“I asked my question and the guy told me Avast was good for three machines,” a reader wrote. “He immediately insisted on helping me pay for the product.  When I told him that I wanted to buy it online he was even more insistent.  I finally hung up to get rid of him. It felt like my call was diverted from Avast support to something else.”

That’s similar to an experience another reader had. He went to Avast.com for tech support and a link on their site diverted him to the company “Nanoheal.” It charged him $119 for installing a free program.  (We called and verified that Nanoheal is in fact part of Avast.) The Nanoheal tech installed the MalwareBytes program, “AdwCleaner,” which stands for “adware cleaner.”

You can get this for free at MalwareBytes.com/AdwCleaner. MalwareBytes has a great reputation and we’ve used their other free products. Some months ago we installed AdwCleaner on one of our computers. The first time it fixed 54 “threats,” all of which were cleaned automatically. Five months later, we tried it again, and it found none. That’s probably because we switched from Avast to Norton Internet Security.

How does all this shifting go on? It’s a volatile business. Companies that we knew about only a year or two ago, get new owners. This can happen so often that they’re not even in the same country anymore. Or they have the same owners but new programmers. Or the same programmers but new testing procedures. It goes on constantly and even the people in Silicon Valley get confused.

Our new recommendation to get Norton Antivirus is a surprise even to us. This used to be one of the worst programs we ever installed; so watch yourself if you try to save some money by buying old versions on eBay. This thing was so bad that they used to send us free versions every year and we finally told a representative to cut it out because it slowed out computers to a crawl. We never heard from them again. That was 20 years ago.

Well, something finally changed. The new Norton is fast and easy on the system. Whoever did it should have their salary doubled. It tells us if a program is using too many resources. (Usually, it’s Google Chrome, so we use Chrome’s free extension “OneTab” to collapse ten open tabs into one.)

Norton’s basic new version is $30, which includes unlimited tech support by phone. The standard version is $40 and adds safeguards for your personal identity info and online transactions. It also comes with a money-back guarantee that your computer will be virus-free. The deluxe version is $50, and can be installed on three devices, including smartphones.

The New Google Phone

Joy loves her Google Nexus phone, even though Bob crushed it while closing the car door and cracked the screen. (Come on, it was an accident; it still works.) But we’re both intrigued by the latest Google phone, the Pixel 2, supposed to be on the market this month.

Two features really got us: One is the squeezable sides. To activate any feature — like taking a picture, just point the phone and squeeze the sides. (Not real hard!) You decide what feature will be triggered by the squeeze. The default squeeze lets you  speak a question.

The other is the catalog. Point the Pixel 2 camera at your books, records, business cards, whatever, and it automatically creates a catalog of your titles. This was previously such a royal pain that we never did it. It will also identify landmarks for you. We hope this actually works. We used to have a star-gazing program that was supposed to identify whatever star or constellation you were looking at. But no matter what we pointed it at the program told us it was the moon.

There’s no headphone jack. If you want headphones, you have to get the wireless kind. If you get the “Pixel Buds,” you can tap your right ear and it will translate a foreign language speaker for you in real time out loud and by displaying the text on your Pixel 2.

One of the Pixel 2’s best features is only available to “Project Fi” subscribers, a service we use. The service plan combines T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Sprint into a virtual network. For $20 a month, you get unlimited talk and text and pay $10 for each gigabyte of data you use, with money back for any part of a gigabyte you don’t use. Extra cool feature: “Look Ma, no SIM card.” Project Fi users can take advantage of an “eSIM” technology that eliminates the need for a physical card. If you don’t use Project Fi, the Pixel 2 uses Verizon.

We’re cheap, so we may not spring for the new Pixel 2 phone just yet. However, the price for either of the two versions — big screen or regular — is going to be about $200 less than the new Apple phones. On pre-orders, the Pixel 2 is $649 and the Pixel 2 XL is $849.

Internuts

  • Netlingo.com  Click on “largest list of chat acronyms.” There are 11 just for “stupid,” such as “ISWAC” (if stupid were a crime), or “DWS” (driving while stupid.) Some are quite helpful, like “JDMJ” (just doing my job). Our favorite so far is “LOL WUSS, which stands for “Laugh out loud, with unintentional snort sounds.”
  • Unusualplaces.org Search on “Zalipie” on this site to see the most decorative village in Poland, perhaps the world. Even the dog houses are painted with flowers.

 

 

A BIT OF BITCOIN

Ever adventurous, Joy decided the only way to really get an idea of what Bitcoin was about, was to buy some. So she bought a bit.

At $4,000-plus per coin, she only bought a little bit of a Bitcoin. She bought $75 worth, which was a little less than two percent. With that little bit she bought a sweater from Overstock.com. It was $19.74. That left $54 worth of Bitcoin. She can go wild later.

So what is this all about? James Dimon, head of J.P. Morgan and Co., the largest bank in the U.S., says “It’s a fraud, a scam.” Well, Mr. Dimon is always worth listening to, but in this situation, he may be talking his book (his own interests), as they say in the investment biz. But the sweater is real and so was the transaction, so that wasn’t a scam. How did we get there?

The first question might be where would you buy a Bitcoin? The other first question is what is it? There are several other first questions, which we will try to get to in the order in which they were perceived. So the first one is she bought her Bitcoin at Coinbase.com. (There are no actual coins involved. Though we sometimes see pictures of coins with a big “B” stamped on the surface, these are artists’ renderings of what such a coin might look like if it actually existed.)

Another first question is: If it doesn’t really exist, what is it? To which we might add — and so we will — “what does this have to do with a column on computers and high tech?” Well … computers create the coins. They do this by solving problems involving blockchain transactions, and solving them first. Does this seem to be getting complicated? That’s only an appearance, like everything else involving money.

The person who solves a problem first gets some coins, 12.5 these days. Who gives them the coins? The web. That is, by an interlocking web of computers that acknowledges that someone has solved the problem first. Boom. A lot of computing power is involved.

Using the program that initially established Bitcoins — which are frequently called a cryptocurrency, meaning they’re encrypted currency — a limit of 21 million Bitcoins can be produced. That limit is expected to be reached in 2040, only 23 years from now. Looked at through the lens of classical economics, that would mean the price has to go up. But of course only if the currency is accepted. This seems to be happening: The coins are currently valued at more than $4000 apiece, up from around $600 this time last year.

So who accepts these coins as currency? So far: Whole Foods, Subway, Expedia (travel), New Egg (electronics discounter), Microsoft, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Airlines, DISH network, Intuit, Etsy, Steam (computer games), Bloomberg.com, etc. In all, nearly one hundred companies currently accept Bitcoins as payments. The number keeps growing.

Coinbase.com seems to be the most common source for buying and selling Bitcoins, though there are many others. The transaction fee is commonly about four percent. This may seem high but is only slightly more than the fees charged by credit card companies.

In a real life case, from a TED talk on the topic, a housekeeper in Toronto regularly sends money through Bitcoin to her mother in the Philippines. Before using the digital method, she paid a ten percent fee, and her mother waited 47 days to get the money. With Bitcoin, the money was transferred in minutes, and the fee was two percent. An app on her phone called Abra lets her choose the service with the highest rating. She used to spend five hours a week just doing the paperwork for transferring money but now does it in minutes.

Bitcoin transactions of course are outside government control and ignore national boundaries. Many countries have currency controls, limiting how much money can be taken out at any one time; the limits often being quite small. In the book “The Age of Cryptocurrency,” by two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters, one of the authors describes how he could not have sold his condo in Buenos Aires without ceding most of the profit to the government. He was advised by a friend to use Bitcoin instead. So he went to an unmarked building, nervously agreed to the transaction, and went away without even a paper receipt. When he got home to the U.S., a couple hundred thousand dollars had been transferred to his bank account.

Underlying Bitcoin is the so-called “blockchain technology.” Companies like Wells Fargo, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel, and JPMorgan Chase have invested in it through the “Hyperledger” project. Barclays, Britain’s largest bank, is already using it. To Bob, whose memory goes back a long way in technology, blockchain seems very similar to the Unix operating system developed for mainframe computers in the early days. In Unix, everything is a file, just as in blockchain everything is a block. It worked well and was hard to crack. We still see its remnants every day in the “dot” used in Internet addresses. The dot is an old Unix command to look through the Internet’s files and find the corresponding “block.”

This is all very sci-fi. What is a national currency worth, many have asked? Only what people think it is worth, is the answer that often comes back.

Internuts

  • How the Blockchain is Changing Money and Business.” Google those words for a fascinating TED talk by Don Tapscott, a Harvard professor. He explains why Bitcoin will bring about more social equality than anything we’ve tried yet. For example, in developing countries where people can’t sell their land because they have no title to it, blockchain could make that happen.
  • How Does Bitcoin Work and Who Actually Pays for the Mining?” Google that phrase to find an explanation on Quora that tells all. It has an error, stating that the number of coins will top out in 2140; it should say 2040.
  • 19 Industries the Blockchain will Disrupt.” Search on those words to find a YouTube video that explains how the technology underlying Bitcoin is changing business everywhere.
  • BitcoinBlockHalf.com is about the rewards of mining. The reward was chopped in half in 2016, and is programmed to halve again. This site estimates when that will happen and gives other statistics.

 

BUYING HIGH AND LOW

We haven’t seen all the features of Apple’s new iPhone, but even without seeing them we’re  impressed by the price. Apparently, a thousand dollars isn’t what it used to be. But what is? Apple has always had high prices but this may be getting ridiculous. So we bought an elderly friend a smartphone for $17. That would be a cost ratio of about sixty to one.

She impressed a fellow resident at her retirement home by whipping out her new phone to call an Uber cab. When she said it was a cheap phone, he figured she meant around  $200, a bargain these days. But the “Alcatel One Touch” cost us $17 from Walmart, and her monthly service cost is just $7 from TracFone. There’s just one problem:  It has very little storage space; add two or three apps and it’s full.

You see these phones in drugstores and supermarkets. There are racks of them. Prices range from the $17 we paid online from Walmart to around $35 at an actual drugstore. There’s nothing fixed about this; there are always sales and prices jump around. For the sake of having a reference point, we figure around $20 will do it.

Memory is insufficient. The iPhone will knock these cheap phones flat. What’s a mother to do? Well you can add a memory card and kick it up nicely.  We bought her a 32 gigabyte memory card from SanDisk, the people who invented them, and that set us back another $12.

So then, for $29 we were up to the level of many smartphones out there. But  there was a problem: It was easy to jump up the memory on this cheap smartphone, you can watch it done on videos on YouTube, but many of them are wrong. Some of these tell you how to “root” your phone, which can turn it into a “brick,” they warn, and expose you to hackers. Ignore all that. No need to root it these days. Just take off the back, remove  the battery, and  insert the card into the only slot available. The phone will immediately recognize the extra memory.  Boom, done.

With all this memory, she could get back her Scrabble game, her driving navigation,  and add all kinds of other apps as well. But loading the apps was kind of slow. Well, while you’re waiting, use the time to count up your thousand dollar savings.

If we had thought about the speed problem in advance, we would have bought SanDisk’s fastest card for $19. But we didn’t think of it. The “SanDisk Ultra” card, for around $12, claims speeds up to 80 gigabits per second. That’s extremely fast, but its average speed according to Techfunology.com is only 25 megabits per second. The SanDisk “Extreme” (around $19 on Amazon for the 32 gigabyte version but selling for about $70 elsewhere) is far better; its real average speed is around 90 gigabits.

Though we didn’t get the fastest, the SanDisk Ultra worked fine in our friend’s phone. She was able to add Uber’s rival “Lyft,” for cab service, and many games. Be sure to look up the storage capacity of your phone before buying one. The Alcatel One Touch can only handle 32 gigabytes of storage space, but that’s more than enough for practically anyone.

Finally, there is a distinct difference in the quality of the Alcatel One Touch phone’s camera. The expensive phones take sharper pictures. They also have larger screens, higher-resolution video and a lot of other features you may or may not need. Our elderly friend (98 years-old) thought she had to buy an iPhone just for her favorite apps. Not so.

A Treasure Trove of Freebies

Search on the phrase “Chrome Web Store” to find games, word processors, productivity tools and more – all free for use with the Google Chrome web browser. Bob found one of his favorite programs there, called “Writer.” It gives you a black screen and green text, like the old days of using DOS and remote terminals; very easy on the eyes. The editing commands are the same as in Microsoft Word.

When you find an app (short for “application”) you like, launch it, and make it easy to find again by clicking the three dots in the upper right of your Chrome web browser. Choose “more tools” and then “save to desktop.” You’ll have an icon for the program right where you can find it easily. If you’re using a Chromebook, all apps are available from the start menu.

Restaurant Bill Blues

Once a month, Joy has lunch with five other ladies. Splitting up the bill seems to be beyond them and there’s always claims and counter claims. Just to get it over with, Joy ends up paying more than her fair share.

An alternative solution: there’s a free app for Android and iPhone called “Tip N Split.” Put in the number of people, the total, and the tip you want (15 percent, 20 percent, etc.). It tells you what each person owes — with one problem.

The problem, as you well know, is that people order different stuff. (We’ll never forget the time we dined with a couple who ordered over $100 worth of wine, appetizers and other courses and then split the bill down the middle, though Bob  ordered only soup.) To get around this, use the app to lump two or three together if their bills are similar. Handle the Big Spenders separately. In fact, you can handle them all separately. Go around the table and announce each person’s share of the bill after keying in the total amount they ordered, including their share of the tax and whatever tip they want to give. Since it’s done by a computer program, that shuts everybody up. Anyone who objects is thrown out of the group.

 

 

 

 

GMAIL TIPS

Gmail is the most common email service on the planet. We thought we were experts, but a PC Magazine article alerted us to a few features we either forgot or missed in the general flotsam of digital overload.

You can send money to a Gmail recipient, and also request it, similar to PayPal. Just before you hit “send,” look for the dollar sign along the bottom of the email window. They’ll ask for your credit card number if it isn’t already associated with your account. The maximum amount you can transfer is $9,999. Alternatively, there’s an app for that, called “Google Wallet.”

  • Our favorite Gmail feature is “undo send.” If you see an error in your message, and we frequently do, or regret calling someone a something so-and-so, click “undo send.” To activate this feature, click the little gear in the upper right of your Gmail window. Then click “settings” and “enable undo send.” Choose 30 seconds to give yourself the maximum amount of time to think about it. This could have done wonders for some politicians.
  • We also like Gmail shortcuts. To use them, first click on the gear image, then “settings” then “Keyboard Shortcuts on.” Our favorites include tapping the “c” key to write an email and “r” to reply to one. Tap “e” to archive a message. When you want to find it again, tap the  forward slash (/) to put your cursor in the Gmail search box. Tap “f” to forward a message to someone else. For more shortcuts, search on the phrase “Gmail shortcuts,” or “minimalist Gmail cheat sheet.”
  • If you want any other email messages to appear in Gmail, click the gear icon, then “settings,” then “Accounts and import,” and tell Google to “add email from another address.”
  • To block a specific person, or any other sender — like the New York Times — click the little downward facing triangle next to the “reply arrow.” This sounds more confusing than it really is, it’s all to the right of the sender’s name. When you click on the little triangle, you get a drop-down menu. Among the choices is one to block further messages from that sender.

For even more Gmail features, search on the phrase “42 Gmail Features.” It’s a digital jungle out there.

Home Design

Bob used to have every issue of Fine Home Building Magazine, and nearly accepted a job there once. Instead of a washer/dryer in our apartment, he has tools filling two closets. Home design software is a big interest.

With that in mind, he turned to the new “Home Designer Pro 4,” from Ashampoo, a German company. Why is the company called “Ashampoo?” Their original product was so good at cleaning the bugs out of Windows software clean that a user said it was like shampoo.

The new version of Home Designer lets you bring in objects from 3D programs such as Sketchup and Collada. It lets you plan out solar installations. It has 380 new symbols for electrical, gas, water and security appliances. And you can preview your new home in 3D with furniture, light and surroundings. Rearrange the furniture and take a virtual tour. The product is $20 from Ashampoo.com.

 Internuts

  • AmericasLibrary.gov is from the Library of Congress. It’s aimed at kids, but adults may enjoy features like “Meet Amazing Americans,” “jump back in time,” and “join America at play.” We watched one of Thomas Edison’s first ever films from 1898, called “Street Arab.” It shows a man doing break-dancing. Back then, “Street Arab” was simply slang for any street performer and did not refer to actual Arabs.
  • How the Alcohol Industry Lies to You.” Google those words to find an article in ZME Science. Just as tobacco companies deliberately misled us about the effect of cigarettes (Bob used to smoke four packs a day), so the booze industry does it about booze. According to the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, where drinking alcohol is a national pastime, 92 percent of the alcohol industry’s websites surveyed had misleading info on alcohol-related cancer risk. (Sweden, by the way, is the only country we’ve come across that offers a weekend booze cruise. As soon as the ship is sufficiently offshore, the tax no longer applies and booze is cheap.)

TVs Revisited

A reader disagreed with our negative review of 4K TVs. We said they weren’t worth getting until there are more shows available in 4K resolution, or unless you have to buy a new TV anyway.

This guy, by the way, is something of a TV addict. He owns a dozen sets and gave us more information than the Pentagon has about Russia. Incidentally, “4K” refers to a dazzling level of detail, due to the large number of pixels and other wizardry. Among the TVs our reader owns is a 4K TV from Vizio, a 4K HDR (high dynamic range) TV from LG, a plasma TV from Pioneer, and many more. Even without many 4K shows available, you can see fantastic colors and details, he says.

“When I first turned on the Vizio 4K non-HDR, I was bowled over by the difference in picture quality,” he says, “even with regular content.” When he got a 4K TV with HDR, the difference was even more astounding.

He says his old plasma TV is still good compared to the kind we have, (LCD TV), but it doesn’t compete with the Vizio 4K. “Even better is an OLED TV from LG.” But both are “simply incredible.” He marvels that people are willing to spend almost a thousand bucks to upgrade a phone, but haven’t considered upgrading their TV. It’s not just the resolution in 4K TVs, it’s also the contrast.

So there you have it. You too can become an awesome consulting neighbor. But beware of 8K hyperbole, he adds. For those, you need a huge TV room, almost movie-theater size, to appreciate it. (By the way, we are among the few who know that the “LG” brand name stands for Lucky Gold Star. That’s because they contacted Bob thirty years ago when they first started. The name was meant to ward off evil spirits and welcome friendly ones. Guess it worked.)

 

POLITICAL DATING SITES

Lisdoonvarna, Ireland, home of the annual matchmaking festival.

Given the current divide in American politics, we decided to investigate dating sites that could eliminate arguments at the breakfast table (and beyond). Here goes:

— A new one for conservatives is TrumpSingles.com, a nicely designed site, with fewer offerings than big sites like Match.com, but more closely targeted. If you can’t figure out the target, it may not be for you.

ConservativesOnly.com is a bare-bones site that’s been around for years and is – how can we put it? – conservative.

— For liberals there are many sites (in fact, most) but for that international flavor they might like to try “Maple Match,” a free  app that “makes it easy for Americans to find Canadians.” (They’re just above us). This may be a good site for those looking for a quick and easy way to move to Canada and get away from it all.

LibertarianPassions.com is not sponsored by the Libertarian Party, which may not sponsor anything, actually, since it would sort of be contrary to their philosophy. Libertarians are conservative on economic issues, but liberal on social issues. Since Libertarians like to be left alone to do their thing, it’s a little surprising they have any dating site. But they like to be left alone together.

— For Socialists there’s BernieSingles.com, aimed straight for the hearts of fans of Bernie Sanders, former Presidential candidate and current senator from Vermont. (Also former college classmate of Bob, but they never knew each other.)

LiberalHearts.com not only lays it all out there but donates $1 to liberal organizations like Greenpeace, for each successful match. This would be good for sea-going Liberals.

For either side, those over 50 may want to peruse Stitch.net or OurTime.com. Anecdotally, we can say this works, since one of Joy’s best friends found true love on Stitch, and her brother has had two serious girlfriends from OurTime.

Another friend prefers Match.com, because it offers so many prospective dates. She’s also using LookBetterOnline.com for her best profile photo. The photo shoot took two and a half hours, involved two changes of clothes, and many poses in hundreds of photos. She had her hair and makeup professionally done. Still looks the same.

Stitch.net estimates there are about 11,000 dating sites around the world, which should be enough to keep anyone in the game. Most sites are free or charge little, like Stitch itself, which is $24 a month. You don’t necessarily get better results by paying more. “It’s Just Lunch” charged a thousand dollars for three months of their matchmaking services a few years ago. Reviews on Yelp had many unhappy campers, but reviews on ConsumerAffairs.com were quite positive.

There are specialized services, like “Linx,” “Selective Search,” “Samantha’s Table” and the “Millionaire Match” that charge $25,000 and up for introductions. Credentials and looks need to be verified.

New Features in Google Maps

Google Maps now gives walkers a sense of how steep their journey will be. This feature was already available for cyclists, but now walkers can have it too.

For instance, if you walk from the Ferry Building in San Francisco to the Botanical Garden, you’ll walk about 300 feet uphill. If you walked from Los Angeles to New York, you’d climb and descend 91,000 feet, reaching a maximum height of 11,663 feet in Colorado. They say it would take 912 hours. That’s if you go three miles an hour, non-stop. No rests allowed.

As always, when you get directions on Google Maps, you can click to send them to your phone. However, we’ve found the directions from the free Waze app are better.

Wood Covers

Joy’s iPad Mini now sports a wood veneer cover (very classy). It has three birds carved into the back, plus a phone number and brief message, should it get lost.

She got the cover from ToastMade.com. It’s mainly for decoration, though it will protect a phone or tablet from minor drops. If your gadget has a major drop, it really will be toast.

Price depends on the order. For an iPad, the basic cost is $39. Add $5 to have a design etched on it. Add another $5 to have words on it. A front panel costs an extra $15. That brought our price to $64. You can also get covers for laptops, phones, and other gadgets.

Internuts

  • Seven TED Talks that will make you Smarter and Happier.” Google those words to find some inspiring talks. The first one, five minutes long, is from a guy who was on the airliner Capt. Chesley Sullenberger landed in the Hudson River; he describes his thoughts on the way down. The phrase “Prepare for impact” got his full attention.
  • JenReviews.com has reviews on dozens of topics. We were interested in “modular kayaks” and drawing lessons. (The kayaks  come apart and  you throw the pieces in the back of your SUV or minivan.)

App Happy

Noise-Planet.org is calling all Android smart phone owners to help with a research project. The idea is to put noises on a map, to help local governments improve noise control. Start by downloading the free “NoiseCapture” app from the Google Play store. Then walk around your environment recording noise. The app sends in the results.

Climate Change: Call Home

If we ever go to the desert or to Alaska, we might get a “ClimateCase” to protect our phone. (Bob has gone both places, but didn’t have a phone. Don’t know how he stood it.)

Extreme cold and extreme heat can damage smart phones. It’s bad enough if your car won’t start, but what if your phone won’t start? Younger readers might go mad. If you refrigerate the ClimateCase for three hours, then put in your phone, it will be protected from Death Valley heat. For Eskimo weather, microwave the case for 25 seconds before putting the phone inside. If you don’t carry these appliances with you, don’t go. ClimateCase costs $35 from ClimateCase.com.