NON-FUNGIBLE IS ALL THE RAGE

Did you hear about the New York Times article, still online, that sold for $560,000? How about the digital cat in a pop tart? It sold for $590,000. Or the 5,000 online images that sold for $69 million? They’re part of the brave new world of “Non-Fungible Tokens.”

 “Non-fungible” means “can’t be copied, unique,” much like the items on Antiques Roadshow. In the digital world, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are sold in online auctions. If you buy a token, you own a link to a unique piece of digital art, music, video clip or what-have-you. Recently, a video clip of  LeBron James’s basketball dunk was tokenized. The buyer paid over $200,000.

Before NFTs, digital files weren’t considered unique because they’re so easy to copy: Just send your friends the link. By using the blockchain, a kind of online ledger, each file gets a stamp of authenticity, which can be traded. 

I’ve just been pitched on an NFT for a novel, “Catch 42,” by Feliz Holzapfel, who once sold a digital marketing agency to a big firm. The auction for Catch 42 and its artwork is going on now as you read this.  

I read an advance copy of the book. The hero is an ordinary guy, scrambling to make a living, when a mysterious voice from the future asks for his help. It’s an exciting story, with lots of helpful explanations of concepts like quantum mechanics, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Links to TED.com talks on artificial intelligence, biotech and other new frontiers come at the end of many chapters. 

Holzapfel considers his NFT an experiment, a way to teach people about a new phenomenon. The auction will include original artwork in high resolution. All profits go to the artist in the first round, later to charity. You can read all about it at Catch-42.com. It goes on sale in the regular channels May 13.

Though in its infancy, NFTs are a way for artists, writers and musicians to benefit from royalties on their works, since the value of tokens on resale can go up in value as the artist gains fame. Recently, however, prices are down 70 percent from their peak, according to Bloomberg. The average token’s price is now $1400. But the idea behind NFTs is still sound.

Search on “NFT writer on the side” to find a podcast about turning your own book into an NFT. Check out some of the art that sold for $69 million at beeple-collect.com. But beware. One guy spent $500 on a broken link. The art he bought was taken down after the website hosts found out it was fake.

New App From Google

Take a picture of a receipt, your driver’s license or some important document and a new Android app from Google called “Stack,” will automatically categorize it, making it easy to find in the app.

After installing Stack, I opened it and tapped the plus sign to add a document. When it asked me for the source, I chose “camera” to take a picture of a grocery store receipt. It was automatically categorized. Even the name of the store was slotted in.My driver’s license was automatically stored under “IDs.” What’s more, I can search on text within any image or PDF. I typed “baguette” and a grocery store receipt popped up.

For more info, see Stack.Area120.com. “Area 120” refers to Google’s tech incubator, where engineers try out new ideas. 

 Fleeced

Have you been fleeced? “Fleeceware” is another name for an app that lures you into downloading it for a short free trial before hitting you with a high subscription fee.

Avast, the antivirus company, found 204 fleeceware apps, with expected revenues of $403 million. The Apple App Store had more of them than the Google Play Store — 134 compared to 70. All together, these apps were downloaded one billion times. According to a ZDnet article, some apps charge more than $3000 a year.

The most popular fleeceware are in categories like astrology, photo editing, music lessons, cartoon creation, video editing, and QR code scanners. Most offer a three-day free trial. After that, if you forget to cancel, it can cost you from $4 a month to $66 a week. 

To cancel an Android app, open the Play Store, tap the hamburger icon (looks like three stacked lines), and choose “Subscriptions.” Click on an app, then “Cancel Subscription” at the bottom of the page. It’s a good idea to cancel in advance so you don’t forget. You’ll still get your free trial.

Virtual Hug

Now that so many have been vaccinated, there’s less need for Alexa’s virtual hug. But it still might be nice to say, “Alexa, send a hug.” She’ll ask you who you want to send it to. The recipient will see their Echo smart speaker light up in yellow. When I tried it, Alexa said: “Joy is sending you a hug.”

Internuts

  •  StillTasty.com tells you if you should keep or toss something from the fridge or pantry. For example, salsa can last a month after being opened. Olive oil lasts 18 months to two years.
  • Wolfram Summer School.” Search on those words to find a summer school for grad students, undergrads, professionals and professors.The topics include physics, science, technology and educational motivation. It all takes place online from June 28 to July 16. Wolfram is the creator of the well-known “Mathmatica” software.

 

BUYING A RENEWED PC

After 11 years, my friend’s computer conked out, due to a hard drive failure. I tried to talk her into replacing it with a refurbished PC. No dice.

Her first thought was taking it to a repair shop. Angie’s List said it would cost $300 for the drive and installation.  Not only did that sound like too much, but an 11 year-old all-in-one PC with a bad hard drive is likely to have other problems. So she got an HP Elitedesk 800 G1 desktop, which came with a monitor and mouse for $324 from Walmart. I was glad to see it had eight gigabytes of RAM and an Intel i5 processor. (You can compare processors at CPUboss.com.)

Unfortunately, the Elitedesk has an ordinary hard drive. I was hoping my friend would get one with a solid state drive, which is both faster and more reliable. But PCs with SSDs cost around $750 or more if you don’t buy a refurbished model. She could have gotten a great desktop with an SSD for $207 if she’d gone that route.

Typically, refurbished products are stuff that customers returned unused; they’re essentially new. Or they may be defective products returned under warranty which are resold after being repaired. Amazon’s “Renewed” devices, another name for “refurbished,” must show proof they’ve passed various inspections. Amazon guarantees that the battery on any renewed device has at least 80 percent of its original capacity. You also get 90 days to return it. Apple offers deals on refurbished equipment too. They thoroughly test each phone, computer or tablet and swap out any malfunctioning parts. 

Pretty in Pictures

The first thing I did for my friend with the new computer was download the free “Bing Desktop.” It gives you a different background picture each day, called “wallpaper.” Most are spectacular. You’ll find it if you search on “Bing Desktop.”

You can also get a daily wallpaper for your Chromebook, by right-clicking the desktop. Just tap two fingers on the trackpad and choose “Set wallpaper.” Whichever one you choose, click “Daily refresh.” Right now, I have beautiful mountains and tulips.

 On a Mac, open “System Preferences.” Then click “Desktop & Screen Saver.” If you choose “Desktop,” you can use a folder from your photos library and set how often you want the picture to change.

Fastest Phone Charger

Anker sent me their “PowerPort PD 2” charger for iPhone and Android, $21 from Amazon. It’s neat if you have a phone that handles wireless charging, and it charges two devices at once. It’s three times faster than the charger your iPhone came with. But you can go cheaper and faster than that.

The “3-Pack Quick Charge 3.0 Fonken 18W 3A USB Wall Charger” is four times faster than a traditional charger. It works with iPhone or Android. The three-pack costs $18, so you pay less for three of them than you would for one Anker.

Blocking Ads

A reader writes that Google Chrome removed the ad blocker he was using on his Chromebook. When he couldn’t find a replacement, he said: “Whom the gods would drive mad, they first give computers.” 

I found the ad blocker he wanted from AdBlockPlus.org. It’s free for Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Opera and Android. It’s great on sites like Arcamax, which has free comics. Arcamax doesn’t ask you to disable your ad blocker, the way others do.

Using Multiple Accounts on Gmail

A reader wondered how he could check his Gmail from five different accounts by quickly switching from one to another. It’s a snap once you set it up  — which is easy too.

Having extra accounts is handy. That way you don’t have to give out your personal email address to businesses. To rotate between them in Gmail, start by clicking your profile picture. Click “Add account.” Or if you already have multiple accounts, click “manage account” and then “add account.” Keep adding accounts by signing into them.  From there, you can switch from one to another, by clicking your profile picture and choosing one.

It works great with the free Gmail app on a phone too. I added a Yahoo account by signing into it. I was then asked if I wanted to “Gmail-ify” it — a great idea. That allows Gmail to help keep the spam out of Yahoo mail.

Avoiding Cable TV

I signed up for Fox Nation’s streaming service, since I no longer get cable TV, so I could see my friend Cori Munro in her first starring episode on “America’s Most Wanted.”

They charge a dollar for the first month.  If I want to keep it after that, I’d pay  $4.12 a month if I go for two years at a time, or $6 month-to-month. CBS’s streaming service, from ParamountPlus.com, is also $6 a month for the pay-as-you-go month-to-month plan. Kanopy.com offers free TV and movies if you have a library card. There’s also free flicks and television from NBC at PeacockTV.com. I noticed that Peacock has some free Harry Potter movies as well as classics like “Pride and Prejudice.”  Unfortunately, on a Chromebook, the title stuck to every scene of both films I looked at. But it was fine in Windows.

Internut

SowellFilm.com traces the journey of economist Thomas Sowell, considered by some as one of the greatest minds of the past half-century. Here’s one of his sayings:  “Many people, in trying to insulate young people from adversity, insulate them from the things that give them strength.”

 

NEW PORTABLE POWER BANK SAVES THE DAY

On a recent plane trip, I watched in dismay as the power drained from my phone. By the time I got from Chicago to New Hampshire with a stop in Philly, it was circling the drain. 

A portable power bank is the answer. Here are two questions: How fast can it restore a phone to full charge? Does it lose power when not in use? In the past, on the rare occasions when I’ve thought to bring a power bank with me, it turned out it wasn’t charged and I didn’t have time to mess with it.

Power banks with lithium ion batteries should retain their power months after they’ve been charged. But some products that claim to have lithium batteries don’t. A friend of mine has a “lithium” lantern. But it drains quickly.

Having just tested the new NitroCharge 30, $80 from myExcitrus.com, I’ll never go far from home without it. It’s around the size of a thick smartphone, but is only around an ounce heavier than my Google Pixel 3a in its case, around eight ounces. It took my phone from 30 percent power to 100 percent in an hour and ten minutes. If I were starting from zero, I could still get two full charges out of a fully charged bank. It did great on my laptop too, going from 43 percent to 95 percent in an hour. In either case, I could have continued to use my devices while they were charging. 

The company name is “Excitrus,” which sounds to me like “Excite-R-Us.” It’s exciting to think I might never be out with a dead phone again.

App Happy Flight

As my plane touched down in Philadelphia, I went to the American Airlines website on my phone to get my boarding pass for a flight to Boston. I couldn’t find it, so I asked the passenger next to me. Duh. She used the American Airlines app.

As soon as I had installed it and signed into the app, I saw my boarding pass. I’d had the AA app on a previous phone, but hadn’t thought to install it on the new one. Oops.

How Much Memory?

You probably don’t want to buy a computer with less memory than your current one has, since it can slow down your web experience. 

To find out how much you have in your Windows computer, bring up the Task Manager by right-clicking the taskbar and choosing it from the pop-up menu. Choose “Details” to see the “Processes,” “Performance,” and “Startup” tabs. Click the “Performance” tab and “Memory,” then look for “Speeds and Slots.” Slots will tell you if you have any space to add RAM. “Speeds” gives you your operating speed. Click “Processes” to find the memory hogs. Click “Startups” to disable programs you rarely use. That way they won’t start up when the computer starts, just when you want them to. 

Or you can use the free CCleaner by clicking “Tools.” Their startup utility is better at labeling the processes you may want to disable. I thought I’d disabled my Hallmark greeting card program’s event planner from starting up, but it turned out to have two instances. Windows had named one  “program.”  Only CCleaner showed it to be another Hallmark process I’d missed.

An Edge to Edge?

Recipe “Collections” in Edge

I’m partial to Google Chrome when I go on the web. But Microsoft Edge has an edge when it comes to recipes.

Search for “salad recipes,” for example and you’ll  see your results in the main part of the page. I clicked on “Tasty Salad,” and saw the recipe fill the right side of the screen, with the search results still in the middle. Now if I decide Tasty Salad is not tasty enough, I can go back over the list in the main part of the screen and choose a different one without having to use the back button.

You can save your recipes to an Edge “Collection” to make them easier to find next time. When you start up Edge, click the three vertical dots in the upper corner. Click “Collections,” then “Start New Collection.” Now browse to a page you want to save and click “add current page.” You can have as many collections as you have interests.

Internuts

  • Call2Recycle.org gives you drop-off locations for old batteries and phones. 
  •  SecureTheCall.org sends emergency phones to seniors. They’ll pay postage on any you want to donate.
  • Earth911.org has info about recycling and earth-friendly practices, such as planting a garden the birds will like or charging your electric vehicle at home and on the go. Here’s an interesting statistic: In 2019, the U.S. threw away seven-and-a-half billion dollars worth of  raw materials found in e-waste.

Starting From Scratch

My neighbors’ children are already learning how to program at school. So why should they get the new book by Al Sweigart: “Scratch Programming Playground?”

Any kid who can master Minecraft might want to try his hand at making his own games using this as a guideline ($25 from NoStarch). There’s an animated art project, a maze runner, a new version of “Fruit Ninja,” “Asteroids,” and more. Adults who remember the classic “Little Brick Out,” the game that inspired Steve Wozniak to build the Apple II computer, might want to try turning a brick-breaking game into a version with extra animation. Free preview at NoStarch.com.

 

GETTING TAX PREP HELP

I’ve never done my own taxes. I was always afraid I’d mess up.

Yet I’ve known about tax software for years. I met my late husband, Bob Schwabach, when I was in public relations, trying to get him to write about it.  He never did review my rinky-dink client. Having been among the first to write about Intuit, he knew it was best.

I’m a convert now. Intuit’s TurboTax website makes it so easy. I went there and clicked  “connect with an expert.” I got a phone call from a folksy guy who drives a school bus. He explained how I could do the taxes myself, paying anywhere from nothing to $170, the filing fee for complex returns. TurboTax reviews all filings. 

If you file your taxes by March 27 and have an adjusted gross income of less than $39,000, TurboTax will assign a tax expert to help you for free. They have many other options as well, such as paying $50 for maximum audit protection. Alternatively, you could do a web search on “IRS Free File,” and choose one of the five websites they recommend. That’s for anyone who makes $72,000 or less. I started there, but stopped when I saw that I’d have to enter 555 stock trades manually. Bob was a day trader.

I went with TurboTax because of their “do my taxes for me” button. Next year I’ll try it on my own. With our Fidelity account, TurboTax automatically filled in all the details. Same with eTrade. But there were some points in the process where my eyes glazed over and I got confused. Fortunately, the folksy guy I talked to said if TurboTax did the whole thing for me, my total bill would be around $300. That’s a lot less than we paid an accounting firm last year. 

Online Meetings – Party-Style

Staring at a wall of faces in a Google Meet or Zoom meeting can be tiring. That’s not how you would interact at a party. You’d go from small group to small group. “Toucan” makes this possible.

On their website, Toucan.events, click on a demo to see it in action. You’ll see your face in its own circle, and other circles to click on. I hovered over one showing a young man and woman and clicked “join.” Instantly, they started talking to me.Though this is a canned demo, it’s quite realistic. I felt like I was really participating. It would be great at an online wedding or big event. Friends could find friends, kids could find kids, and private one-on-one chats could take place with video, not just text.

Free Trial Tip

To avoid getting dinged when a free trial is up, cancel the same day you sign up. I do it all the time. Only once did the free trial cut off prematurely.

On an iPhone, cancel a subscription by tapping “Settings,” then your name, then “Subscriptions,” and finally the service you want to cancel. On Android, open the Play Store app, tap the hamburger icon, (looks like three stacked lines), then “Subscriptions,” and choose the one you want to cancel. Or you can go to the company’s website. Find your account by clicking the hamburger icon.

NOT FAKING IT

Recently, I wrote about the business of fake reviews on Amazon. A modest form of fakery is writing a review to get a free product. But such reviews are not always fake.

“I do quite a few reviews, particularly if I like the product,” a reader wrote. “Being in business myself, I don’t usually give negative ones. If one of my customers has a bad experience with my product or service, I want the opportunity to make it right, and I give online sellers the same consideration.

“I’ve taken advantage of refunds in exchange for positive reviews,” he continued, adding that he’d never write something favorable just to get a free product. After reviewing a power washer he loved, for example, he got a message from the seller. They offered  him a  refund on the new version if he gave it five stars. Or, he could return it and get his money back. He thought the new power washer was worth the stars, so he bought it. They promptly refunded him the full amount through PayPal.

App Hogs

I had no idea that my phone apps might be automatically connecting with mobile data, rather than waiting till I’m in range of WiFi. That can get expensive.

On an Android phone, go to “Settings,” tap “Apps and Notifications,” and “see all apps.” Turn off data on any big data hog. On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then tap “Cellular.” Tap the switch next to any app to turn it off.  

Alternatively, you can turn off mobile data for every app in one fell swoop. Android systems vary, but on mine, I tap “Settings,” then “Network & Internet,” then “Mobile network,” and toggle the “Mobile Data” switch to the off position. On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then “Mobile Data,” and turn off automatic use. Turn it back on if you’re away from free WiFi and need to connect. 

Internut

Every Alexa command you can give to your Amazon Echo.” Search on that phrase to see CNET’s complete list. For instance, say, “Alexa, what’s the latest on the coronavirus?” Or:  “Alexa, help me wash my hands.” She’ll sing a rap song to keep you scrubbing for 20 seconds.

 

 

GOOGLE RELIC PICASA IS GREAT AT PHOTO ORGANIZING

Many readers have told me they miss “Picasa,” which Google discontinued years ago. It was great at organizing photos.

One reader writes: “I have tried 22 other apps. The main source of frustration is their concentration on manipulating photos, with no attention at all — or very little — to importing, storing and organizing.” In Picasa, for example, he could save an entire set of photos to a single file. A descriptive name told him all he needed to know.

Fortunately, I found the old Picasa. Go to https://archive.org/details/picasa_27 to find the most stable version. To download it, click on the “Windows Executable” file in the upper right. It posed no security threats when I ran it.

With it, the reader said he was able to bring in all the photos on his system, which he found “very useful.” He’s also enjoying the “export” feature, which I also love. I exported my special photos to their own folder, making them easy to find and email. My relatives adore seeing themselves or loved ones in an occasional blast-from-the-past note. I also love the way Picasa shows so many thumbnail photos at a glance, with the file and folder names from Windows off to one side.

On the downside, the reader notes: “All of 16 years worth of incrementally collected albums are gone. That’s too bad, but recoverable.” In addition, “an import from either the camera or SD card does not work at all, it crashes the app.” (That’s funny, it worked for me.)  But “net-net,” he says, “Picasa 2 is very useful to me. Nothing else I have found comes as close to being convenient for opening an existing file, looking at individual photos, deleting them, exporting them, adding captions, and so on. I now have to see if I can in one ‘swell foop’ export all of the photo files, directories and contents to cloud storage.”  He concluded:  “Your help has been angelic, that is, sent by the gods.” My favorite part of the column is helping readers.

Let’s Make a Movie 

My favorite 10 year-old showed me the movie trailers for a murder mystery she made using Apple’s free “iMovie.” They were incredible!  I had to try it myself.

Apple’s free iMovie for iPhone or iPad gives you 14 templates, which makes creating a trailer as easy as filling out a form and tapping on the photos and videos you want to use. The template adds jazzy music, Ken Burns-style transitions, and titles for each scene. My young friend played the bad guy in her trailer. Her sly expression has a movie-actor quality.

Here’s how you can make a trailer on an iPhone or iPad. Tap to open the iMovie program, then select “create project,” and tap on “Trailer.” Now choose a template. You can tap the play button to see if it’s one you want. I like “Retro,” which is James Bond-y. Then there’s “Fairy Tale,” which reminds me of the movie “The Princess Bride,” and “Coming of Age,” which fits a lot of photo sequences. In fact, these are so good, who needs to make a movie? Just make a trailer.

I chose “Retro” for my nephew’s trailer, which opens up to the “Outline” page. Here I changed  the name of the film company from “High Def Productions” to “Aunt Joy Productions” I then typed over the suggested movie title with one of my own, and put in the cast, which in this case was my nephew. Next I tapped the “Storyboard” tab. Here, I could insert photos by clicking blank squares. Each square was labeled with the type of photo or video suggested, such as “action” or “closeup.” Voila, done in five minutes!

Deep Nostalgia

I just saw my two-year-old self come alive in a video, as well as my sister at 3 and my dad at 41.  It was astonishing, thanks to a new “Deep Nostalgia” tool from the family tree site, MyHeritage.com.

All I had to do was upload a photo, and they did the rest. Clicking on my dad, I saw his 41 year-old self come alive. Then I clicked on my sister and myself. You’d think it might be creepy, but it wasn’t for me. The site lets you download each animated person to share with others. My sister said: “Daddy looks so young!”

To try it out, I had to enroll in the two-week free trial. After that, it gets expensive, though a basic membership is free. Sign in and click on “my purchases,” then “details” to cancel the Premium version. So far, I’m happy with it. Just by entering the birth and death dates for my dad’s parents, I found out who my great great grandparents were, as well as scores of uncles and aunts. In addition, the site allows you to upload your raw DNA data from 23andme or Ancestry.com. 

Going Faster on the Internet

A reader said that after turning the router on and off, his Internet speed rose from less than one megabit per second to around four on average — better, but hardly great. So he called his Internet Service Provider (ISP), which replaced the router with a new state-of-the-art model. “Amazingly,” he said, “where my top internet speed was 5 Mbps, it’s now 20 Mbps.” Best of all, the ISP gave him the new one for free. AT&T has always done that for me when things weren’t working, but I never realized how much it affected the speed.

 

 

 

WHICH AMAZON REVIEWS ARE FAKE?

You can buy a thousand positive reviews on Amazon for $10,900. That’s less than $11 each. So how do you know which reviews to trust?

I looked at an ArsTechnica article, “Posing as an Amazon Seller” to find out. One commenter said he rented a dreadful movie that had 4.5 out of five stars and over 10,000 positive reviews. Now he avoids anything with reviews in the thousands. A reader told me he only looks at the most recent ones. A third commenter observed that some reviewers get $20 per review. He says he’s in the wrong business.

A United Kingdom consumer group found 702,000 product reviewers from just five companies. All were in the review-manipulation biz. Besides offering positive reviews, they sell fake contact and social media accounts to make the reviews seem more credible. In addition, bogus reviewers get refunds on the products they buy and write about. That way their reviews get the “verified shopper” label. Amazon is struggling to deal with the sheer volume of this fraud. They file lawsuits against those who break the rules, but it’s tough to ferret out all the bad guys. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, some Amazon workers took bribes to bring back sellers who had been banned, allowing those sellers to rake in over $100 million. The case is still pending.

The Ultimate Gesture

Until recently, I was anti-gesture. Gestures on a Macbook Air whisked me off to places I never intended to go, so I disabled them in settings. But Android gestures brought me back. 

I started with the “back” gesture on my Pixel 3a phone with Android 11. I started there because it’s the one gesture the iPhone doesn’t have. If I swipe to the left on any screen, I go back to where I was before. Works great. To check if it’s on your Android phone, go to “Settings,” then  “System,” then “Gestures.” If instead you have an iPad or iPhone, swipe up to go back to the home screen. There isn’t a “go-back” gesture for Apple devices.

Another Android gesture allows you to turn on “Do Not Disturb” by putting the phone face down on a flat surface. It’s called “Flip to Shhh.” Too bad it didn’t work for me. But I can swipe down from the top of the screen, then choose it.  On an iPhone X or later,  swipe down from the upper right corner to get to the Control Center. On older iPhones swipe up from the bottom instead.

Here are a few other gestures I like. On an Android phone, tap the power button twice to enter camera mode.  Use the fingerprint reader when you’re on the home screen to quickly check notifications. Hold the Power button for a couples of seconds when you want to get to Google Pay in a hurry. Swipe up from the bottom of any screen to return to the home screen, or swipe up and hold it to flip between the apps you have open. If you squeeze the phone below its midsection, you get Google Assistant. 

Internuts

  • Fake car commercial battery powered.” Search on that phrase to find a funny YouTube video starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus peddling a Mercedes powered by double-A batteries.
  • Insane Battery Hack.” Search on those terms to find an even funnier YouTube video showing you how to hack a car battery.
  • Crowd.loc.gov/campaigns brings you entertaining history stories from the Library of Commerce. I looked at one of Teddy Roosevelt’s letters and was surprised to see him lament: “I am fifty-six years of age, no home. Not a dollar of my own. And no hope for anything better. Unless I find someone able to help me.”

App Happy

Daily Yoga” has free beginner poses to try out. I found them easy to follow. Each short video repeats automatically, so you can practice till you get good. 

What Record Player Should You Buy?

OnBuy.com has an article “The Best Bluetooth Record Players for 2021.” Up till now, I didn’t know you could buy a Bluetooth record player. That way you don’t have to mess with cables.

If you want to send the music to external speakers, get one with “Bluetooth Out.” You’ll also want the “Bluetooth In” feature if you want to play your digital music collection, rather than just records, through the player’s integrated speakers. If you look up “Sony Bluetooth Turntable” you’ll see some nice ones.

Photo Storage

You’ll have to watch your video and photo storage in your Google account starting in June of this year. That’s when they’ll start counting anything stored in high quality or express quality toward your free 15 gigabytes of storage space. You can always put some of your stuff in Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Amazon Photos, or other solutions out there. I just put the Amazon Photos app on my phone. Works great and offers free unlimited storage for Prime members.

Cookies Crumble

Firefox, a web browser that competes with Google Chrome, among others, is crumbling cookies like mad. We’re talking web cookies, the ones that track you from site to site. Now, with Firefox’s “Total Cookie Protection,” every website gets its own cookie jar, so to speak. That way, each cookie will stay contained and can’t follow you. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

 

 

 

FOR NEW STYLE FUN, CHECK OUT INTO THE MIST

A friend invited me to a live concert, complete with mystery mansion, at IntoTheMist.net. At first it seemed like a video game, but there was more.

The setting was the Roaring ‘20s, with jazz bands, bootleggers and flappers. I headed upstairs to the “high roller” area. Suddenly I was in the midst of a Zoom meeting. The chips were flying and the bettors looked attractive. But I ducked out. I prefer family poker.

I followed arrows on a dark hallway, stumbling around till I accidentally found myself outside on the virtual street. It was a bit spooky, so I quickly re-entered and found a room with a live actor playing the poet Langston Hughes. He introduced himself and asked my name. The poetry was great, the biographical detail charming. Others soon joined us.

The joint was jumping by the time the live concert began, with 143 people watching the Chicago Cellar Boys play jazz-age tunes. The female singer wore her hair short with “shiny bangs,” as one participant described them. The texts never stopped flying, mostly from the U.S., but also from Hong Kong. We could see each other, unless the other person had clicked off their webcam. I turned mine off so I could dance. 

My friend found a lot more to explore than I did. She went beyond the blackjack table and Langston Hughes rooms to find a magic area, an actor portraying Dorothy Parker and another impersonating Ernest Hemingway, as well as a 1920s’ quiz, which she won. Then she watched a contortionist in a hidden room, visited a speakeasy, and saw some “face acting.” Tickets cost $16. 

Alternatively, ZoomTheater.com offers free, live events for over 2,000 people per audience.  Right now they’re showing Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Turn your microphone on so they can hear you applaud. 

Reaching out With Avatars

I bought a condo from a broker I found online two years ago. How did I remember his name after all this time? He used a free app called “Bitmoji” to send me a text a few times a year.

Bitmoji, for Android and iPhone, creates a free caricature for use in email or texts. Just snap a selfie and they do the rest. It’s quite flattering. Even if you’re having a bad day, it will make you look younger and more appealing. I chose a girl in glasses with a ponytail and a heart on her T-shirt. I can pop it into a regular text message, or into Gmail, WhatsApp, Instagram and others. I can add words such as “Great!” or “Congratulations!” If I just want to acknowledge receipt of a text, a green check mark can appear with my cartoon. Bitmoji has a stunning variety of options.

If you want to do more, consider these tips from the CEO of Ripl.com, which offers customizable templates for $15 a month. He says:

  • Send your customers a “love note” by direct message through your social media business profiles. Call them by name, and mention a specific purchase or chat. 
  • Share your customers’ stories and testimonials. 
  • Celebrate your customers’ milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries and big purchases. 

Free WiFi

After reading about a bill in Congress to stop cities from offering free WiFi, I wondered which municipalities offer it. There’s a free app for that. It’s called “WeFi.”

WeFi finds only the safe kinds of free WiFi. What’s more, it keeps WiFi turned on in places like home or work. It’s off when WiFi is not available.That keeps your phone from heating up as it searches for a signal.Years ago, I couldn’t figure out why my phone felt like a piece of hot coal in my pocket. It was searching for a connection. When I launched WeFi, it showed me a map with dozens of free WiFi hotspots. And it automatically connected. For example, I entered Target today and was instantly connected to their WiFi.

But perhaps you won’t have the WeFi app installed when you need it most. In that case, go to a major chain, such as McDonald’s, Walmart or Home Depot. Then tap “settings” on your phone, tap internet settings, and look for the company’s name. Most big stores and restaurants have free WiFi.

Reader Warning

After installing the latest Windows updates, a reader writes: “My icons were larger and half hidden. The start button and taskbar were also hidden. I blindly got into settings and changed the display resolution from 1980 by 1080 (which is recommended) to 1600 by 1200, and the screen came back to a workable size. However, I lost two folders of folders and videos. I immediately did a (Windows) recovery and am back to normal again.” His lesson: “Think twice before downloading this update.”

Wise words indeed. If you’re unsure, you can pause automatic updates until Windows gets its act together. Type “Windows Update Settings” in the search bar in the lower left of your computer screen. Click “advanced options.” Choose “pause updates” and select a date when you want the updates back. As the New Yorker cartoon goes, “How about ‘Never.’ Is ‘Never’ good for you?”

Turn Off the Router

A reader noticed that his Gmail wasn’t always alerting him with a ding when an important message came in, or it arrived late. Rebooting the router was all he needed to do. 

CNET quotes a WiFi expert as saying that turning the router off and on again solves 90 percent of problems. That’s because the router drivers get “discombobulated,” (a scientific term apparently). 

 

PASSWORD PROBLEMS

A reader asked me to name the best password manager. That’s tough. I’ve had bad luck with nearly all of them.

I’ll never forget the time I lost the master password to a Dashlane account, waving goodbye to dozens of passwords I’d updated because Dashlane told me to. I bombed out with LastPass too. It suffered a bad breach in 2015, compromising tons of email addresses.  The company had a couple more incidents in 2017 and 2019. Recently, I took “1Password” for a spin.

Nearly every blogger recommends 1Password. Even the New York Times does. I found it confusing, as did the users who griped about it on Reddit.com. I’d rather use a freebie. Google, Firefox, Edge and Safari all have built-in password managers. Google’s, for the Chrome web browser, is my favorite.

The latest version of Chrome, which updates automatically, has an improved “Password Checkup” function. To find it, go to Passwords.Google.com and click on “Password Check-up.” There I discovered that over 100 of my 407 passwords have been compromised. Fortunately, there’s still time to panic, because only one or two of those sites have my credit or banking information. But changing them is an ongoing headache. I’ve now whittled the list down to 74 baddies. 

Google recently made it easier to change bad passwords, by adding a “change password” link in Password Checkup, which takes you to each website’s home page. Just  click “forgot password” on the sign-in screen and let them send you a password-reset link. It’s also a good idea to set up two-factor authentication so that no one can break into your Google account and see your list. 

Because of the new password-checkup system, there’s been a 37 percent reduction in compromised credentials stored in Chrome. It’s been used 14 million times so far. 

A Revised Opinion

When I first wrote about my Sonos One (Generation 2) smart speaker, I thought it was pretty dumb. The sound quality was no better than the Altec Lansing VS 2320 speakers I use with my computer. Yet the Sonos cost $200 and the Altec Lansing is only $65, or $25 on eBay. 

The other dumb thing, I discovered later, was how the Sonos with Alexa inside was a bit of a Nazi, compared to the Alexa inside my Echo Dot. I used to have the Sonos in the bedroom. But if I asked the Echo Dot in the living room a question, the Sonos answered from the bedroom and I couldn’t possibly hear her. The Sonos is now in the living room, where so far she is behaving herself.

I like her better now. I no longer have any CDs, having given them away after turning them into digital files on my computer. But I’ve discovered I can “cast” the tunes to the Sonos. To do this yourself, highlight a bunch of songs in Windows Media Player and then right-click the list, choosing “cast.” Once my TV showed up as a place I could cast to, but I haven’t seen it since. The beat goes on.

The Best Headset for Calls

I’m using a headset for phone calls for two reasons. First, it can be hard for someone to hear me. Second, I’d rather not blast cell phone radiation into my brain for an hour at a time, though it’s probably harmless.

First I tried a Bluetooth headset. But a call would come in when I wasn’t ready. I’d have to go into Bluetooth settings on my phone and re-pair the device.  Instead, I switched to the kind that plugs into the phone. Mine has a boom-type microphone. That’s convenient because it doesn’t rub against me and create its own noise. 

The “Cell Phone Headset with Mic Noise Cancelling & Call Controls,” for Android, iPhone and PC is comfortable and works great. It has its own volume control and is considered a call-center headset, so it’s high quality. Yet it’s only $33 from Arama on Amazon. I’m going to use it for Zoom calls too.

Internuts

  • GadgetGameShow.com:  The show on this website is called “What the Heck is That’?” and is like the old “What’s My Line?” It’s hosted by NBC Today Show Gadget Guy Steve Greenberg. When I tuned in, they were trying to guess a techy suntan lotion dispenser.
  • Going to Space to Benefit Earth’‘ is the name of a remarkable talk on YouTube by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. He describes the space colonies he’ll help build. Shifting industrial processes to space where they can’t pollute Earth may be the answer to our current environmental woes, he says.

  • In2013dollars.com: Despite the “2013” in the name of this website, it tells you how a dollar from any year up to 2021 compares with a dollar today. If you spent $40 on a fancy meal for four in 1975, for example, that’s the equivalent of spending $194.48 today. A similar site is measuringworth.com.

 Numbers Report

Electric vehicles with batteries are expected to be competitive with cars in four years.That’s because the price of a lithium-ion battery pack is expected to drop to $100 per kilowatt hour by 2025. The price already dropped from $1,191 in 2010 to $137 per kilowatt hour in 2020, in real-inflation adjusted dollars, according to BloombergNEF.

That’s good news for windmills and solar panels too. With prices dropping, companies will use batteries to smooth out intermittent power. And as the world uses more clean energy solutions, the higher volume will drive prices even lower.

 

 

 

 

 

SMARTER EYES

My mom used to swear by eye exercises. She said they would correct nearsightedness. Science may be proving her right.

Kubota smart glasses can fix your eyesight, if you wear them 60 to 90 minutes a day, according to a report in ZME Science. They work by shortening the distance from the cornea to the retina using augmented reality and virtual reality. Fortunately, you don’t have to wear them for hours at a stretch. They’re a bit odd-looking. At a distance, the lenses look like windshields after rocks have shot through them.

The smart glasses were developed by Kubota Pharmaceutical Holdings of Japan. In Japan, 95 percent of those under age 20 are myopic. In South Korea, it’s 96 percent, a bit less in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Tests are now being conducted on 25 people in the U.S., though the first glasses will be sold in Asia 

Too much staring at close-up screens or books trains the eyes to see much better close up than at a distance. Kubota glasses stimulate the retina, using defocused virtual images to reverse myopia. I’d like to try them. Close-up vision is my superpower, but I’m no good at anything more than a foot away– unless I have my glasses on. For evidence that eye exercises help, see 8-best-eye-exercises-to-treat-astigmatism at Insight Vision Center.

 Holographic Visits

Talk about lowering your carbon footprint. Companies are transporting holograms of top executives and celebrities around the world, making them show up together on a virtual stage. 

The idea has been around a while. In 2012, a dead rapper called “2Pac” arrived in three dimensions at a music festival in Coachella, California. I looked at something similar at arhtmedia.com. Actor Colin Firth materialized out of nowhere to talk on stage. It looked like teleportation. Wow!

A techy friend is skeptical. “It’s obvious that the images are flat and not 3D,” he said. I decided to ask around, and went to Quora.com, the question-and-answer site. A gravitational wave researcher from the University of Glasgow told me that ARHT Media and others use the word “hologram” loosely. A hologram uses light that either starts from behind an image and passes through it. Or it starts in front of the image and never comes near it.  ARHT seems to be using the second kind, he said, creating a 2D version of a person instead of 3D. “They mostly give shots from the front where it looks perfect. Good luck to them; it’s probably good enough to be useful. But there’s one or two brief diagonal shots where it looks like a photo on glass.” Prices range from $15,000 to $40,000. 

For less ambitious business theater, the kind where you can see a product in 3D and explore its parts just by waving your hands, the $2,200 “Solo” from Hypervsn.com looks like a better bet. The company has sold holograms to BBC, CNN, Financial Times and USA Today. Their basic kit includes software, 3D content and hardware. They also have kits you can rent. 

Killing Spam Calls

Beware of Robokiller, a popular app for blocking telemarketers and spam calls.  Some users say it blocks their friends and paves the way for spammers. What’s worse, they can’t get rid of it. If this happens to you, go to deactivatemyphone.com to have Robocaller or one of the other Nazi programs removed. I’ve had pretty good results with the app “TrueCaller,” but am glad I now use an Android phone with automatic call screening.  Call screening is available on Google Pixel, Motorola and Nokia phones.

Internut

 Terrafugia.com is the website of a flying car maker. The site has a YouTube video showing it take off and land. This isn’t one of the awkward car-planes you may have seen before. This thing is smooth. Volkswagen also has one called the Hover Car. A YouTube video shows it in China.

App Happy 

LetsRoam.com offers an app to take you on scavenger hunts in 400 cities worldwide, such as Worcester, Massachusetts. They’re done on foot and usually last 90 minutes to two hours. As they say on their site: “It takes a courageous city to own a nickname like Wormtown but it will take even more courage to conquer the Wormtown scavenger hunt. What turned the soulful Palladium towards heavy bands like ‘Hatebreed’? Which fountain’s heating up the Worcester Common?” Find out if you can. The cost is $12 per player or you can get an annual pass with unlimited scavenger hunts for $63. 

 Learn Computer Graphics

How do you make the graphics in popular video games like Fortnite or Call of Duty? Or create animations like Toy Story or  Frozen?

Gabriel Gambetta, the author of a new book, “Computer Graphics from Scratch,” from NoStarch Press, says anyone who is familiar with high school math can do it. But it’s not a quick study. There’s enough info in his new book for a university course. In fact, the book is based on the course Gambetta taught, before he became a senior engineer at Google. Previously, he founded the game company Mystery Studio and helped get “Improbable Games” off the ground when it had just 30 employees; it now has over 500. His website, gabrielgambetta.com, includes his email if you want to get in touch with him.

 

 

WHAT’S APP WITH THAT?

A couple of months ago I started using the free app “WhatsApp” for sharing pictures and making free phone calls. Now millions are angry with the app, turning instead  to “Signal” or “Telegram.”

Switching from WhatsApp to Telegram is like switching from sugar to corn syrup. Telegram has had problems with foreign terrorists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It was recently used for hacking into Facebook accounts. And it’s not that private. Telegram allows businesses to collect data on you so they can send you ads.

But what’s so bad about WhatsApp, anyway?  I don’t care that it’s owned by Facebook. Starting in May, businesses will be able to collect data on you so they can send you messages. But that’s OK with me. That’s how WhatsApp can sustain itself and develop new features without charging me. I don’t expect people to work for me for free.

WhatsApp may have features you have not explored yet. For instance, it allows you to email your text conversations, along with any pictures or videos involved. Just tap the three dots in the upper right corner, choose “more” and  “export chat.” I read on the web that this is also available in Signal, but it didn’t work for me. As with Signal, WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted, so no one can read them but you.

An alternative is “Beeper,” for $10 a month. It  merges 15 chat apps into one, so you don’t have to sign in to each separately. These include WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Slack, Twitter, Discord, Instagram and Facebook Messenger, among others.  Apple’s iMessage is officially for iPhone/iPad only. But if you’re techy, you can use a free app called AirMessage to get iMessages on your Android phone. But it only works if you use a Mac as a server.

A Toy for the Switch

Photo courtesy of Polygon.com

I could hardly wait for my ten year-old friend to arrive so I could show her my new Nintendo Switch gaming machine. But she prefers talking about the olden days while we watch old movies together. Is the new generation sick of video games or is she just a well-brought up child?

I thought she’d change her mind when she saw the “Ring Fit Adventure” game, but we never got past the setup screens before she was bored to tears. I’ll have to wait for a visit from one of my nieces and nephews.

If I take my Switch on the road, it would be handy to have the $39 Genki “ShadowCast,” coming out in April. ShadowCast works with a Switch or a Playstation 5  to display your game on a TV, desktop computer or laptop. That way you don’t have to lug around a bulky docking station. The ShadowCast is about the size of a thumb drive. It records your games and streams them out for others to watch. You could go pro and sell tickets.

Unfortunately, ShadowCast is still a project on the crowd-funding site, Kickstarter. But it has raised nearly two million dollars, after only requesting $30,000. If you don’t want to wait, previous models are available from the company. But some, such as the “Covert Dock,” for $69 from genkithings.com, are currently out of stock.

Ripping CDs

I’m moving to a condo a few blocks away– my first-ever real estate purchase. It’s a bit smaller than my current digs, so I’m transferring CDs to digital files to save space.  Here’s my recent discovery:  Windows Media Player stinks compared to Ashampoo Burning Studio.

For some unknown reason, Windows Media Player keeps getting stuck before it finishes ripping the songs off a CD. I thought at first the drive had overheated, but even after cooling off, it gets stuck again. Ashampoo’s Burning Studio works like a charm and has loads of extra features. For example, I can continue working on something else and watch the progress meter in my taskbar so I know when it’s time to insert another CD. There’s a ten day-free trial, or you can use the free version, “Ashampoo Burning Studio Free.”

I gave away my vinyl collection because my record player bit the dust. But I saved “The Best of Pete Fountain, Vol. 2.”  I can’t find it on CD or streaming services. So I’m going to use recordrescuers.com/ which charges $35 an album to digitize, using an $800 needle. The owner says customers can’t believe how good their vinyl records sound when he’s done with them.

App Happy

  • GolfNow is a free app for iPhone or Android that makes it easy to reserve a golf course. My brother-in-law swears by it. Courses that were previously impossible to reserve are child’s play with the app. You can arrange to split the cost of a round with friends before arriving at the course. Or just book yourself. If you prefer, skip the app and book a course on their website, golfnow.com.
  • AfterPay is a free app for Android and iPhone that lets you buy something in four installments with no interest charges or fees. You get a choice of 48,000 retailers.