ON THE CLOCK

TikTok is the hot application right now. It allows you to post 15-second videos or see what other people have posted. There’s soon to be a similar app for Instagram, called “Reels.”

Both the free app and TikTok.com remind us of the show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” When we tuned in, we saw the back half of a large car going down the highway. It was an illusion. Then we watched a girl vault a basketball over her head backwards. It knocked over a nearby jogger. 

TikTok is more than just silly stuff. Our favorite podcast, PlanetMoney, (put out by National Public Radio),  is there along with many others. One of their videos describes the thuggishness of medieval knights. Another goes into the similarity between central planning and a badly-played guitar. A third describes IBM’s invention of the magnetic strip on your credit card. (The airlines asked IBM to come up with a way to check a person’s credit rating without having to get on the phone every time.)

To find other educational stuff, tap “Discover” and type in a word like “physics,” “history” or “how to.” Then tap “hashtags” in the upper right to see lots of videos in that category.  We tapped the hashtag “quantumphysics.” It explained a Stephen Hawking theory on the origin of the Universe in 15 seconds. Originally, he theorized, a massive black hole couldn’t take on any more matter and reversed itself, spewing out what became our Universe.

Though TikTok videos are only 15 seconds long, you can string four of them together to make a 60-second series. To add one of your own, tap the word “Me” in the lower right. Then tap the plus sign to upload it. 

To avoid seeing any videos with foul language or crudity, turn on “Restricted Mode.” Find it by tapping “Me” in the lower right corner of the app. Then tap the three dots in the upper right corner. Choose “Digital Wellbeing,” and “Restricted Mode.” 

Password Dilemma

A reader wrote: “I save my passwords in an email so I have access any time. How safe is this?”

It’s handy to send yourself an email with all your passwords on it, so you’ll have access to them whatever computer or device you use. We’ve done it too. It’s fine if you’re using Gmail to send the passwords to yourself.  Gmail encrypts your mail with “Transport Layer Security.”  Of course, it  only works if the recipient’s email uses it too, but in this case, you are the recipient. So you’re fine. Yahoo, Outlook and other services use the same system. 

You can find out if any of the passwords stored on your computer have been compromised by going to passwords.Google.com, if you use Google Chrome to save them. Firefox users can check at monitor.Firefox.com. Safari will soon be able to tell you if your passwords have been breached. It’s part of the next operating system for the Mac, dubbed “Big Sur.”

Google Lens

A reader told us he uses the free app “Google Lens” to send text from his Android phone to his two computers. We’d never thought of that, or of most of the other things Lens does. Here are a few of them.

If you’re out and about, you can point the app at foreign words and get a translation rather than having to look it up. If you see an event listing, point the app at it and it will add itself to your calendar. We pointed it at a Panera Bread’s salad menu online, and got instant recipes for many of them.  You can also use it to identify animals. We pointed the app at an unidentified dog on the web and it came back “Scottish terrier.” It wasn’t so good at plants. It knew we had a bonsai, but got the kind wrong.

Making Calls on a Smart Speaker

Did you know you can make calls through your Echo Dot or Google Home smart speaker? If you don’t have a smart speaker, you can ask the Google Assistant app or Alexa app on your phone, but you’ll have to unlock it first.  For Google Home, say “Hey Google, call Joe Doe,” or whoever you want. If you have an Amazon Echo, say “Alexa, call Poopsy,” or whatever you call your favorite contact.

This is especially handy if you’ve fallen on the floor and can’t reach your phone, or have forgotten where you put it. But it’s best to practice first. We noticed that Alexa had three listings for Bob, and none of them included the home number. Only the info under “Robert” had the home phone. We tried to edit the Bob list by going into the Alexa app. But Alexa wouldn’t let us alter the ones for Bob, because they were automatically imported by Skype. If Joy wants to call Bob using Alexa, she’ll have to remember to ask for Robert. 

We find Google contacts easier to edit than those that Alexa uses. Google Contacts can be edited by tapping the “Contacts” app on an Android phone or by going to Contacts.Google.com. 

Meeting Virtually

Meetup.com brings people together for outings, projects and learning experiences. Now that the virus has us meeting online, it’s easier to safely try out some of these experiences.

If you’re learning a new language, go to Meetup.com and search on “French” or “Spanish” or whatever you’re learning. We tried French and noticed a lot of fun-sounding virtual get-togethers with games.  

 

 

BACK TO THE PAST

Linus Torvalds

Have you heard of Linux? It’s a version of Unix developed by a Finn, Linus Torvalds. But what is Unix? It’s a computer operating system developed by Bell Labs in the 1960s. What was Bell Labs? It was the research arm of Bell Telephone. Bob’s been to the original one in New Jersey. All this is gone now. But we still have Unix.

Unix lives on and we all use it just about every day. Every time we put a dot (a period) inside something we type on the computer, like a .com, .org, or .gov, it is a Unix command to go to that location in its memory banks and find what came before the dot. Unix ran the big mainframes computers that used to fill large rooms; they had to be specially air-conditioned because of the heat generated by these massive machines. So one day Linus Torvalds wanted a free version of the system, and rewrote it. We use his name and call it Linux.

Now we get to the important point. Linux can run on just about anything. Got an old PC or Mac gathering dust at the back of the closet? You can load Linux into it and it will live again. It’s relatively trouble-free and comes in 20 flavors, each with a slightly different look. The most common popular is called Ubuntu, the latest flavor of which is named after a cat in Madagascar. But a reader wrote to say that he favors Linux Mint because it’s similar to the Mac operating system. He installs it for schools and nonprofit organizations for $5 per machine. If you’re interested, contact him at bmccleskey@sbcglobal.net.

You can run Linux and keep your old operating system at the same time in one of two ways: Create a partition on your Windows PC and get an option to startup in either Windows or Linux. Linux will usually set this up automatically. The other way is to load Linux on a thumb drive and plug it in.

We recently advised a reader not to get a product, the “X-tra PC Pro,” heavily advertised on Facebook. It claims to “completely restore and update an old computer,” and comes on a thumb drive with Linux for $47. It gets lots of complaints, some because it didn’t work. You can buy a thumb drive for $6 and download Linux for free at Linux.org. This is all kind of techie. Linux.org has tutorials or you can hire someone to do the conversion for you at freelancer.com.

Internut

“Colette,” a free movie on Kanopy

Kanopy.com offers unlimited movies for kids, unlimited videos for adults from “The Great Courses” series and three free feature films or documentaries a month. We remember when The Great Courses cost about a hundred bucks each many decades ago. At Kanopy, the courses include just about any topic you can think of including drama, law, medicine, history and science fiction. We liked “Thinking Like a ScreenWriter,” taught by a professor who has worked with Academy Award-winning directors. To check out a film, use your library card or student ID.

 Taking it All Back

We use Ashampoo’s free “Uninstaller” from Ashampoo.com when we want to get rid of something.

We made a mistake recently, trying out a new version of an old program, Real Player. It claims to download any video from the web for offline viewing. Our test computer bogged down right afterwards.

Instead of uninstalling it using Windows “Add/Remove” programs, however, we turned to Uninstaller. Uninstaller starts with the normal uninstalling routine, then moves into high gear to remove those extra bits that can slow a computer down. It removed 283 objects with deep cleaning and performed 17 additional actions to get our computer back to how it was before we added junk to it. It’s sort of like a mob hit. Think of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago.

Who Did It?

If you see an image on the screen and want to know more about it, you can get it. Go to Images.Google.com. Click on the little picture of a camera next to the search bar. There, you’ll be prompted to upload an image or paste in its web address. We uploaded a painting of an 18th century coffee house in Boston, probably the Green Dragon where the Revolution sort of started. Google told us the picture was done by Thomas Rowlandson.

Done in by a Demo

We tuned into an online demo of new products. One was a pen that spewed out a plastic-like substance that can be made into simple toys. At least that was the pitch.

So we got a copy of Polaroid’s new plastic-squirting device, the $40 “Play 3D Pen,” available at Joann.com. Bob knew it was a dud the moment he read the box.

The Pen squirts out a ribbon of biodegradable material in various colors. We got a template for a little toy house from the Polaroid website. Using the melted goop, Joy put it together, sort of. But it took an hour and Bob said it looked awful. (She didn’t think it looked that bad.) It would have been easier and cleaner to make one out of cardboard and paint it. The little house was only about two inches high and used an astonishing amount of the supplies. There was no replacement goop offered at Joann.com, the only supplier of the pen.

GOING PRIVATE

Until recently, we thought that the only time you need a Virtual Private Network or VPN is when you are using a Wi-Fi connection away from home. The idea is to prevent hackers from breaking in. But you might want that protection at home too.

Though hackers likely can’t get in when you’re on your home Wi-Fi, a VPN prevents anyone from seeing the data you transmit over the Internet. That includes your Internet Service Provider, which most likely sells your information to advertisers.

When we searched on the phrase: “Does AT&T sell my info?” we got an AT&T form titled “Do Not Sell My Information.” Filling it out would stop the practice. They say they sell it so we can get great offers, from companies like HBO. Personally, we don’t mind if they sell our info but we’re still not buying HBO.

Here’s another reason for getting VPN software in the home: greater video selection. Some shows are only available in the U.S. for an extra cost but can be had for free on Netflix if you live elsewhere. Star Trek is one example. A VPN hides your location, making it possible to get virtually any shows you want. However, some VPNs won’t work if you beam your movie from your computer to your TV. We use Chromecast to do this and newer sets usually have it built in. TomsGuide.com recommends “Express VPN,” for about $91 a year. Techlicious.com recommends the free Windscribe.

Here’s the difference between free VPNs and the paid kind, according to Nord VPN, one of the leading brands. The free kind means slower speeds, data transfer limits and connection drops. The paid version is faster because it uses more servers. Also, a free VPN is under no legal obligation to protect your identity and may store information about you. To make money, a free VPN might show ads or sell your data to third parties, so it’s mainly useful in public situations, such as airports, libraries, and coffee shops. Nord VPN says they store no logs and protect your data with military-grade encryption.

Sifting Through the Email

Several readers wrote to say they’re confused by the steps involved in blocking unwanted email in Gmail. Here’s another stab at it.

Click an email to open it. Then look at the three stacked dots in the upper right. Click “Filter messages like this.” Then look at the section that says “has these words.” Gmail fills in the sender’s email address.

That only works for a time. Clever senders use a variety of email addresses, perhaps a new one every time. So add a word or two unique to the email you’re banning. For example, if you don’t want to hear from LifeExtension, type “LifeExtension.” Then check the box next to “Delete.” That way, any email with the word “LifeExtension” will skip the inbox and go straight to trash. Over time, Joy set up hundreds of these filters on her computer, cutting the email load to around 50 a day.

Clipboard for the Mac

We told you how to use the built-in clipboard for Windows 10, but we didn’t mention the Mac.

There’s a hidden secondary clipboard in Macs that you can access by using “Control” or “Ctrl” and the letter K to cut, and “Control Y to paste. But it only works with text. What’s worse, though it doesn’t displace an item in the main clipboard, there’s no way to build up a long list. A good alternative is the free app “ClipMenu” from clipmenu.com.

A reader said he’d rather save all his items on a page in “TextEdit,” which is built into the Mac and is found in the Applications folder. (Alternatively, he could have used Microsoft Word or any text editor.) He saves passwords there without the website name they’re good for, in case someone steals his computer. He says he tweets a lot about wine, so he also uses an “e” with an accent aigu for French names. You can get an accented letter in Microsoft Word by choosing “Insert” at the top of the screen and then “Symbol” over to the right. Or you can copy it from some word on the web, paste it into editpad.org to remove the formatting, and then copy and paste it into the right spot in your document.

 Internuts: Free Books

Free Kindle Classics.” Search on that phrase to find 400 pages of freebies. Many are developer’s guides or books in Arabic, but you can find gems among the rough. You don’t need a Kindle or a Fire HD to read them, just the free Kindle app on your phone, iPad or other tablet.


Gutenberg.org has thousands of free books. We looked at the “recently added” section and found a charming book for children called “Stories Pictures Tell,” from 1918. They show old photos, such as Dutch girls in a classroom, and tell you what’s going on.


HooplaDigital.com has free books from your local library. All you need is a library card to download them to a phone or tablet or read them on your computer.






KEEPING TRACK

Sometimes we forget to write about programs we’ve known about forever. Here they are now.

Our friend Olga is using a notebook to keep track of her day trading. Now she’s more organized than we are. Which isn’t hard to do. But there are programs that make organization easier.

Our favorite is Evernote, a free app for your computer, phone, or tablet. It’s been around for 20 years, but gets easier and easier to use. It gives you as many notebooks as you have ideas. They’re displayed  in a master index.

Joy has an Evernote notebook called “Favorite Recipes.”  Though she could use Microsoft Word, Evernote makes it easy to flip through her whole collection, as though it were a magazine, even if some items are Word documents, others are PDFs, and some is just stuff copied from websites.  

We also like Evernote’s tags. Joy added the tag “mint” to her favorite smoothie recipe.  If  later she clicks the “mint” tag, she can see all the recipes with that ingredient. You can also add photos, voice notes and more.

Every time you make an entry, you have the option to share either it or the whole notebook. If you want to view notebooks others have shared with you, click the “shared with me” label. This might be a fun way to give someone a digital cookbook. 

For other ideas, see “38 Things You Should Save in Evernote.” For each item, there’s a template you can download. The meeting template, for example, has sections, such as who signed up for what. Evernote can record the meeting if you click the microphone icon in the formatting bar. 

Microsoft’s “OneNote” is another free app. When it first came out, it cost around $100. You can download it for free at onenote.com/download. Despite the introductory videos, however, Joy hated it.

Sticky Notes

“Sticky Notes” are the digital equivalent of 3M’s Post-It Notes. They even look the same.  It’s built into Windows. To find it, type “sticky” into the search bar on the lower left of your screen. Create as many as you want by clicking the plus sign on a note. The Mac has something similar called “Stickies.”

When a note pops up, you can type whatever you want into it and it stays there on your screen. If you don’t like it taking up screen space, and we don’t, you can push it to the edge of the screen so that only a little piece of yellow shows. Whatever you put on the sticky note can be copied and moved to a regular document. If you click the three dots, you can change it from yellow to some other color. 

Smart But Expensive

SmartDraw costs $10 a month. It was initially intended for creating organizational charts. But it can also do floor layouts, or calculate the length of a ramp to reach a certain height for handicap access, among a hundred other uses. It comes with over 4,500 templates and 34,000 symbols.

What caught Bob’s attention as a note-taking program is its empty boxes. You can call up a flow chart or what they call a “mind map” and each of these boxes can hold an unlimited amount of text, pictures and symbols. If you were writing a book, each box could be a chapter..

Scams

Email scams are getting cleverer. Bob was nearly fooled by one that claimed to be from Fidelity, a brokerage. Everything about it seemed real. But he is rightly suspicious of any “urgent request” or “verification requirement.” 

Joy’s come close to clicking on a bad link too. What we’ve both learned is to check the sender’s email address. Scammers never have it quite right. For instance, instead of ATT.com, they might use ATTbusiness.com. If in doubt, make a phone call and ask. IN general, banks and brokerage firms never ask for verification by email.

Your Signature Goes Here

Ever want to sign an email with your actual signature, instead of a typed version of it? It’s easy, but takes a bit of tweaking.

First, write your name on a piece of paper. Take a picture of it with your phone or digital camera. Email it to yourself. When Joy did it, however, her signature had a gray box around it. To get rid of it, she installed the free Photoshop Express. After opening the file in that program, she clicked on the three lines off to the left, which stand for “exposure.” She chose “Whites” and slid the slider all the way to the right. Presto! The box was gone. Only one problem: The signature was too big. So she opened the file in Paint, a free program that comes with your Windows computer. She clicked “resize” and chose “85” for the top number under “pixels.” Paint automatically chose the bottom number. It came out perfectly. If you’re on a Mac, Paintbrush is similar.

 

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.