YOUR STUFF ON FACEBOOK

Did you ever want to see everything you ever posted on Facebook? You can download all that stuff and it comes in as folders. Double-click and they open up. A surprising bonus is the photos you posted and have long forgotten, are all still there.

Go to www.facebook.com/Settings. They’re you’ll see a message which reads: “To download your information, go to “Your Facebook Information.” Click on those words to go there, then click “view” next to the word “download your information.” From there you can either download everything or uncheck the boxes next to stuff you don’t care about.

We chose “download all,” and were pleasantly surprised at how organized it was. We first clicked the “Comment” folder and saw all the comments we’d ever made. Then we clicked the “Messages” folder. There we saw a list of everyone we’d ever texted in Facebook, though clicking on some names produced an error message, that the content was gone or had been moved. The “videos” folder had a few we didn’t remember posting. We also looked at the “Posts” folder, which included our own posts and “Other People’s Posts to Your Timeline,” which in our case were mostly birthday messages. The “likes” folder has all your likes.

This should be a powerful tool for TV detective shows: “Look, Sam. He said he couldn’t swim but there he is crossing the English Channel.”

A New Portrait

We have a friend who paid a thousand bucks for professional photos. But the kind of touching up professionals do can be done at your desk with the right software program. We’re impressed with “Portrait Pro,” now out in version 18.

Joy liked the previous version so much, she was tempted to carry her new portrait around with her and somehow work it into the conversation – as in: “Funny you happen to mention pictures, because I have a great one right here.” Comes up all the time.

But the new version of Portrait Pro, $45, is even better. Previously, if one eye was obscured by a flower, the program couldn’t touch up the other eye without making a false eye shine through the flower. Looked a little odd. Also, the old program wasn’t as good at touching up your hair. It could easily miss some if you have the free-flowing kind. The new version has a “hair volumizer” for making your hair look thicker.

Most of the enhancements are automatic; the program greatly improved photos without our having to do anything but applaud. Other features include the ability to add a logo or watermark to a photo, which inhibits, but cannot stop, all those art thieves who want to copy your picture. There’s a free trial of the program at portraitprofessional.com.

App Happy

  • Moovit” is a free app for users of public transit. The app tells you when to get off, solving the problem Joy had as a 15 year-old on a train for the first time when she went right past her station. If you fall asleep, it will wake you up. If your stop is a big one, it also tells you which exit to use. If you lose your connection to the Internet, you can still rely on Moovit’s directions.
  • Xender is free and lets you share music and photos from your phone without using the Internet. As long as the recipient is nearby you just drag and send. It also works in transferring pictures from computer to phone, though we found it a little buggy.

AOL Outages

A reader wrote to say that her computer often freezes up; the cursor becomes non-responsive, and she gets a message from AOL saying “Oops.”  It took her awhile to figure out it was caused by an AOL outage. “Oops” isn’t that informative.

Downdetector.com tells you which Internet services are down. It lists dozens, including Instagram, Facebook, Gmail and many others. We clicked “AOL” and checked the outage map. The reader always lists her location when she posts a complaint, “but most people just express their displeasure that AOL is once again leaving them high and dry.

“Now, every time we freeze up,” she says, “I go immediately to that site and bingo/bango, the live map shows that I’m on the outer reaches of yet another outage.” This bingo/bango is powerful tool.

Her brother also experiences freeze-up. He called an online tech support service that wanted to charge him $700 a year. Since he’s a heavy Photoshop user, we suggested he check his computer’s system resources. Photoshop uses five gigabytes of RAM just to open and close the program, which is more RAM memory than many computers have. We might as well comment here, as we have many times before, that if you do photo or video editing you need all the random-access memory you can afford.

YouTube TV

We stumbled upon the movie section of YouTube and found lots of free movies for “Premium” users. This led us to wonder what’s the difference between YouTube Premium, YouTube TV and plain old YouTube. It should be no surprise that the difference is money

YouTube Premium costs $12 a month. You get quite a lot of free movies and you also get music without ads from Google Play Music, which we like better than Spotify because it usually plays the whole piece, no matter how long.

YouTube TV is $40 a month, and gives you broadcast channels, cable TV channels and live news. You can see their channel list at tv.youtube.com/directory.  This is good for cable cutting, as they call it these days. We saw it had hundreds of channels, such as ABC and Turner Classic Movies, but didn’t bring in Military History or horse racing, all of which we like.

If you want to watch YouTube TV on a TV, rather than your computer, tablet or phone, you’ll need to plug something into the back and an HDMI port to plug it into, which most TVs have these days. The $30 Google Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku Stick ($35) all work with it, but not the Amazon Fire Stick. Somebody always has to be different.

HOW MUCH IS THAT IN AMERICAN MONEY

What do people really want? This sounds like a twist on Sigmund Freud’s last words, but we’re talking about cell phones here and he was gasping about something completely different.

The main thing people want in a smart phone is battery life, according to a survey of 1,894 U.S. users by market research firm Morning Consult. Over 95 percent of respondents said it was the most important feature, and after that they wanted “ease of use,” “memory and storage,” and “camera quality.”

Are we all wasting money on our phones?  Here’s an interesting report from Flipsy.com, a site that buys old phones: The average selling price for a smartphone in North America is $567, with an average upgrade cycle of 32 months. If you bought your first smartphone at age 18 and upgraded every 32 months until age 78, you would buy 22 phones. Based on average pricing today, you would spend $12,474. Oops. Have to add in the wireless service cost.  Current unlimited plans run around $80 a month, or $57,600 over those same 60 years. If you make purchases inside apps, that averages $88 a year, which brings the grand total to $75,354. And we haven’t even gone into what economists call “lost opportunity costs.”

Let’s Hear It (so to speak) for Cheap Phones

A reader took exception to our view that cheap phones are disappointing. Here is his tale of search and success:

“My cheap cell phone experience began with Net10 flip phones purchased at the Dollar General store,” he writes. “They later came out with a cheap Alcatel phone with a $25 price on a Thanksgiving Day special, so I got my first smart phone, which had Android 4.0 at the time. A couple of years later Best Buy ran an Alcatel CameoX with Android 7.0 for $20, although it was for the AT&T network.  I simply purchased a SIM card from Net10 for a buck which allowed it to work on their network.  AT&T had an app that transferred all of the info from my old phone onto the new one—couldn’t have been much easier.

“I use the phone for calls and texts, which work fine.  It’s also my alarm clock and I check my weather app since I do a lot of driving for my job.  I can access the Internet when needed, though I do most of that and my e-mail on my home computer. So, for basic needs, I can’t see why people would spend $100 and more for a phone.”

And that’s his story.

Cheap Calls

PC Magazine did an article titled “The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You’ve Never Heard Of.” We’re glad they did it, because we would have become basket cases trying to rate cell phones. The cheapest ones, “Unreal Mobile” and “Red Pocket,” cost around $10 a month but got too many complaints to recommend.

Moving up to $20 a month, Republic Wireless got good reviews for customer support, Its $20-a-month plan came with unlimited talk and text and one gigabyte of data use on the Sprint or T-Mobile network. Consumer Cellular was also $20 a month and provides  250 minutes of talk, unlimited texts and 250 megabytes of data. PC Magazine says its readers consistently favor it because it’s easy-to-use and focused on seniors.

If you’re a heavy user of the Internet and favor AT&T, take a look at AirVoice which has a $30 a month, four-gigabyte data plan. Verizon fans should look at Walmart’s Total Wireless for around $33 a month, it offers five gigabytes of data.

App Happy

Woebot” is a free app for Android and iPhones that lets you talk to an artificial intelligence therapist. That’s someone who’s not real; can you tell the difference?

Text messages between you and the robot take place within the app. The Woebot app checks in with you every day and asks about your mood. It suggests ways to avoid woe.  The first conversation is about avoiding words like “always” when you say something like “You always make mistakes.” The second one is about avoiding black and white reasoning. Of course you tell the app your mood, which triggers the response you get.

This is interesting from several aspects. The famous Turing Test, named for British mathematician Alan Turing, basically says if you can’t tell the difference, than for all intents and purposes, there is no difference. But the early Apple computers had a psychiatrist program 30 years ago, and many people couldn’t tell whether it was a real person or not. It was always asking how you felt about your mother.

IBM’s Watson provided the correct diagnosis for lung cancer around 90 percent of the time; real doctors on the other hand, got it right only half the time. That doesn’t necessarily mean the computer is smarter than the doctor, because a key difference is the machine never forgets to ask about every possible symptom or test that would identify the exact problem, whereas a human can easily forget a point or two. And the IBM computer could read all the latest journal articles, which would have taken a human 160 hours of reading time per week, not counting all the older articles.

Internuts

  • Chameleon: The Color Changing Stainless Steel Bottle” is a water bottle that tells you how cold and full it is, by changing color. It’s about $14 on pre-order at Kickstarter.com. Update: This project did not get the necessary funding, but all backers, including us, got their money back.
  • WholeFoodsMarket.com/product-recalls   tells you which products have been recalled for safety or allergy concerns, such as the current fears about Romaine lettuce. Most chain stores do this. You can find your grocery store’s recall list by searching for the store name, along with “product recalls.”
  • Class-Central.com has links to free online courses from hundreds of universities. We clicked on “humanities” and noticed that many of the courses had trailers, just like movies. Sample the prof first; some are beyond boring. We watched the trailer for “Magic in the Middle Ages,” offered by the University of Barcelona, in English. There were over a thousand courses just in humanities.
  • Review of A Random Walk on Wall Street.” The site has a great summary of stock market concepts from ASimpleDollar.com. AsimpleDollar also has guides to the best credit cards, the best loans and the best articles on finance.

 

GOOGLE FINDS BAD RESTAURANTS

Harvard’s Public Health Center is using Google tracking to find restaurants that make people sick. This is how they do it:

If you’ve been to “Mom’s Diner” and a few hours later start searching on terms like “vomit” and “stomach cramps,” there is a likelihood there’s a problem at Mom’s. In Harvard’s tests in Las Vegas and Chicago, health inspectors were sent out when the searches turned queasy. Over half the time, 52 percent, they found a problem at the restaurant the person had been to that day. Chicago has 38 inspectors for more than 8,000 restaurants. They find problems only 23 percent of the time, less than half the probabilities inferred by Google tracking.

Reading this, you might worry that Google Maps knows where you’ve been and is reporting it to the authorities. But researchers at Harvard used data that was unconnected to any person. They knew only that there had been unnamed people at a given restaurant searching for terms related to food borne illness. If you want to look at your own location data, you can do so; go to google.com/maps/timeline. Joy did that and boy was it boring. If you don’t want your locations saved, click “Manage Location History” and toggle “Location History” to the off position.

Getting Started on Etsy

Bob wanted Joy to have a deluxe chemistry set for her birthday, considering that there are considerable gaps in her knowledge of the subject, at least compared with Bob’s. She chose a cheap set on Amazon but returned it when Bob was aghast at the contents. They smelled of lawyers. That led him to buy her a $500 “Ultimate Chemistry Set” from Etsy.com. The first experiment said: “Be sure to have a fire extinguisher.”

Etsy sells unusual items, many of them hand crafted. If you like crafts and have some to sell, there are various fees involved, amounting to 8.5 percent of the sales price. So if you sell something for $100, including shipping, you’ll receive $91.50.

Get started by clicking “sell on Etsy” from the home page. The site walks you through how to describe your item, and you can even sell digital copies of art you’ve made. For more info, see “How to Set Up an Etsy Shop,” from HowToGeek.com.

App Happy

Mamava” is a free app for mothers looking for private places to breast feed. It offers a map of those nearest to you, which, if you’re flying, is usually the airport.  Other common locations are at department stores, and the app keeps adding new ones. Currently they have over 2,000 pump-friendly locations. The app tells you what the location has, such as fridge, sink and privacy wall.

The Creep Who Leaves Voice Mails

A reader writes in exasperation about a man who constantly calls and leaves her messages. AT&T cuts them off after four minutes, but it’s still annoying. She blocked him, but the voice mail continues.

An AT&T “help” assistant told her to call 611, which she did three times. The 611 agents told her they can’t stop voice mail. Bureaucracy is a sometime thing.

One solution is an app called “No More Voice Mail.” It simply blocks all voice mail. Reviews of the app are evenly divided between those who love it and those who hate it. Some couldn’t figure out how to get their voicemail back. If you have AT&T and want to turn voice mails back on again, dial ##004#.  For Verizon, dial *73. If you have other questions, write support@nomorevoicemail.co.

Internuts

  • Happy Birthday, by Beethoven? Bach? Mozart?” Search on that phrase to find Nicole Pesce at the piano playing “Happy Birthday” in the manner of classical composers. She plays upside-down at one point, as Mozart would sometimes do, showing off. Joy has been posting this on Facebook when a friend has a birthday.
  • CartoonCollections.com has a New Yorker style Caption Contest with a cash prize of $100. The site is run by the former cartoon editor for the New Yorker and showcases cartoons from Esquire, Playboy, the New Yorker, Barron’s and others. Now … did they fire him or did he quit?
  • PatientsBeyondBorders.com shows you where to go to get a medical procedure done anywhere in the world. Cost are lower. No, it’s not outer Mongolia; hospital room costs in Australia are one-tenth what they are in the U.S.
  • Maps.Google.com, or the Maps app on your phone, now shows the locations of electric vehicle charging stations. Just search on “ev charging.” We know a guy whose job was setting these up for Tesla; they fired him.

Find My Whatever

Forget about tracking people, Joy usually can’t remember where she left her cell phone. So the most common interaction we have with the Google Home device is “Hey Google, Find My Phone.” Then Google informs us that she can make it start ringing at full volume, would we like her to do that? Why else does she think we’re asking?

Now we have a few other problems, like finding our glasses, our wallet and sometimes our mind. We have tried several devices: A company sent us an “Ekster Parliament wallet” to try out. It has a “TrackR” card inside. You set it up by pairing it with your phone and forever after, they say, you can find your wallet on a map. The wallet is $99. Despite their assurances, we had trouble pairing it with our phone.

We had no trouble with the “TrackR Pixel,” a $20 tracking device the size of a quarter. Joy put it in her glasses case. When she fired up the TrackR app on her phone, it made the TrackR pixel start whining. It made a shrill noise that you wanted to stop as soon as possible. If you’re not in the same room, however, you’re going to have trouble hearing it. We couldn’t hear it in the next room with the door closed. But the map on our phone said it was “nearby.” Very encouraging. Maybe the dog could hear it.

There are several “tracker” devices on the market, and several makers. So far we have not been satisfied. There may be a song about that.

 

A HEART-WARMING TALE

The cat came back. Not the very next day, but it did come back. They thought he was a goner.

It all happened after we wrote about a $30 security camera called “Wyze Pan Cam,” The price was right, so they bought it. The reader wrote to say that she and her husband put one in their open garage to see if they could find out where the cat went.

“It took over a week, but we finally saw our beloved kitty,” she said. “He is coming regularly now. He was a feral (wild) cat to begin with, so it will take time to get him back inside, but you have no idea how helpful this is for our emotional well-being. Without a camera, we still wouldn’t know his whereabouts, or if he was even alive.” And a week later, she wrote to say “the cat came back.” They named it “Tater Bug.” No explanation.

Your First Smart Phone

Several readers wrote after we suggested that an iPhone 6 or an iPhone SE would be a good choice for someone’s first smart phone if they wanted an Apple product. Some wanted to know where they could get an SE, which came out in 2016, is waterproof and costs around $160. That’s a thousand dollars less than today’s top model.

To find a low-priced iPhone SE, go to Amazon.com or eBay.com and search on “iPhone SE.” You’ll see two kinds. That’s because there are two types of cell phone services. One is GSM, which stand for Global System for Mobile communications and is the most widely used standard. The other is CDMA, which stand for Code Division Mobile Access.

AT&T and T-Mobile are two popular GSM services. We saw compatible iPhone 6 and iPhone SE models for $140. If you use Verizon or U.S. Cellular as a service carrier, a compatible iPhone SE tends to be more expensive, and harder to find.

All these deals are so-called “refurbished” or “renewed” phones. In either case, it means the product has been inspected and tested by qualified suppliers to work and look like new. It comes with a minimum 90-day supplier-backed warranty. The number of these available at any one time of course fluctuates, and so do the prices. As colleague of ours once put it: “Some days you in Frisco sippin’ wine, other days you in Fresno stompin’ grapes.

Speaking of refurbished phones, as soon as the iPhone 8 came out, the price of the iPhone 7 dropped and refurbished models came out for $399, around half price. Now that the iPhone XS is out, the price of the iPhone 8 has dropped from $699 to $600 if you get a refurbished model. Further drops on the horizon.

What Service?

Other readers said they didn’t care about getting an iPhone, even at a bargain, since Android has proven to be a great choice. But what service should they consider? One said: “Republic wireless has been recommended to me by friends because of the price.  Do you know any pros and cons?”

We wrote about Republic Wireless a couple years ago, and it looks like it’s come a long way since then. You can get unlimited talk and text and a gigabyte of data for only $20 a month. There has been talk of calls getting dropped, so you should check to make sure you’re firmly in their coverage area. However, the company gets praise for being very responsive through its website and email system.

Another criticism of Republic Wireless has been the limited choice of compatible phones. Most are from Motorola or Samsung. But these are great choices. The new Moto e5 Play is $129 and the Samsung J3 is $130 on Amazon. For a comprehensive look at the Republic Wireless service, read the review from TomsGuide.com.

Whenever you choose a budget phone, you’ll find critics who focus on technical details. But they’re fine if you don’t have to have the longest battery life, the greatest camera or the fastest processor on the block. We would love to hear from readers about their experiences with less expensive phones.

If you find smart phones confusing, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned operator. And how about a trained nurse or doctor? You might consider GreatCall. They have a simplified smart phone. The premium service with all those potential human helpers is $75 a month, and comes with unlimited texting and calling. (The basic service is $42 a month.) The agents who take your call are trained in emergency procedures. We tried out their flip phone, called the Jitterbug, and it was great. An operator looked up phone numbers for us and added them to our contact list. She also helped us find our rental car agency when we were running late getting a car returned to an airport and it was pouring rain.

Internuts

  • LittleFreeLibrary.org. Click on “map” to find free books in a tiny dollhouse in your neighborhood. The founder, who died this month, started with a miniature one-room schoolhouse on a post in his front yard. He filled it with books
  • 27 Facts That Will Make You Question Your Existence.” Search on that phrase to find a four-minute video, with amazing comparisons, like our tiny earth next to the sun, or the view of the sun from Mars. Or Earth shrunk down to a quarter next to a Milky Way Galaxy the size of the United States, using the same scale. We didn’t question our existence, but it was mildly interesting.
  • Supercook.com. You check off the ingredients you have, it offers recipes. Bob says you never need a recipe, but Joy loves them.

 

ONE MINUTE ON THE INTERNET

From The Guardian, a British newspaper, we learn that one minute on the Internet looks like this: 156 million emails, 29 million text messages.

Wait, we’re still not through. One point five million Spotify songs, four million Google searches, two million minutes of Skype calls, 350,000 tweets, 243,000 photos posted on Facebook, 87,000 hours of Netflix, 65,000 pictures put on Instagram, 25,000 posts on Tumblr, 18,000 matches on Tinder, and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube.

If you take just the online video watched on websites, YouTube, Netflix and webcams, you have 77% of the world’s internet traffic. Whew!

The Readers Bite Back

Camera Raw technique

We recently wrote that there’s no reason to have a terabyte drive if you don’t have a big movie or video collection. A few readers said yes there is. It has to do with photos.

One said: “When digital cameras came out in 2000, I took up photography again.  At the time a photo took up less than a megabyte.  Then I started taking photos in the RAW.  Let me rephrase that: I take photos in RAW format, and they run 25 MB per image.  So now I have two three-TB drives and they are over half full.  There is a world of amateur photographers out there who regularly use drives holding three TB, or more, for their photos.”

Who knew? We are abashed. Meanwhile, some background knowledge is required.

What is “RAW” you might ask. Good question. The letters needn’t be capitalized, because they’re not an acronym for some obscure tech routine. They just stand for all the “raw” data a digital camera collects when you push the button. Ordinarily, a digital camera takes pictures in what’s called “jpeg” format, which is a format that compresses duplicate and some related pixels – the stuff of which the picture is made – to save space and produce a picture that is still sharp but easier to store or send to someone. Handy, no?

If instead of this economical practice of taking compressed pictures, you have all of the digital data still available … well then, you can fool around. One reader points out he can darken the highlights and lighten the shadows to bring out detail that is otherwise washed out or lost. “JPEGs are fine for snapshots, but for images that I hope will have a ‘Wow!’ factor, I want control of RAW.” You can make highlights which are unrealistic but Holy Mackerel stunning. The trade-off is your drive starts filling up.

Another reader said it’s true that a one terabyte drive is “serious overkill,” but there are other reasons for getting one, namely, reliability. “I’ve had thumb drives fail totally more than once. That’s annoying. I know external drives can fail too but they’re more reliable, and the one terabyte size was only $10 to $15 more than the smaller size I was considering.” He adds: “Now that I have two to three backups each of my wife’s and my PCs, maybe I’ll try to download the Encyclopedia Britannica and a few movies with all the extra space, but don’t hold your breath.”

“That storage overkill applies to phones too. My two-year old phone has 128 GB. Only 22.2 GB of that is used.” What annoys him just a tiny bit is he paid an extra $100 for the unneeded storage space. He says: “Oh well.”

Printing a Passage

A reader wonders how he could print just part of a web page. We used to do that by highlighting the part we wanted and copying that into Microsoft Word.

But here’s another way: First highlight the section you want to print. To highlight, hold your left mouse button and drag the cursor over the text, then release. Now, right-click with your mouse and choose “Print.” If you use a trackpad, hold down the left button and drag with another finger. Alternatively, look up “three finger drag” for either Mac or Windows. It’s a change in “System Preferences” on the Mac, or in “Mouse and Touchpad Settings”, in Windows.

Google Bashing

Gone are the days when every story about Google was positive. Now it seems like every story is negative, and it often concerns privacy. It must be hunting season. Let us offer a different point of view.

Suppose Google didn’t collect data about you when you searched the web. Instead of seeing ads tailored to your interests, you’d see ads for everything, including the kitchen sink. Google would make less money, as advertisers saw you weren’t clicking on their pitches. With little income, Google would have to start charging you for their search services. Then you would hear some real protests. Most people are reluctant to pay $3 for an app from the online app store; we can only imagine the protest for paying for search services.

World Community Grid

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, which is 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, Ebola, the Zika virus, microbiome immunity and other projects. It has partnerships with 449 companies and organizations and 52,000 active users. If a single computer had been used to handle the projects they’ve finished so far, it would have taken 1.5 million years.

Go to WorldCommunityGrid.org to sign up or see what they’re working on. We did notice that the program causes our computer’s central processing unit (CPU) to work much harder. From Task Manager, we can see that it’s often working at 50 percent now, much of that due to World Community Grid. But we have fast machines, with 12 gigabytes of RAM, so it hasn’t slowed us down.

 

GETTING A SMART PHONE

iPhone 6s versus iPhone SE, courtesy of KnowYourMobile

Hard to believe but there are still people out there thinking about getting their first smart phone. That’s a cell phone that can search the web and take selfies. About 80 people a year die while taking selfies. Sometimes they step back too far at the edge of the Grand Canyon, sometimes the flagpole on the tenth floor is slippery.

Well, this has happened to us twice now. Not getting killed taking a selfie, but talking to older people who have decided they want one of those smart phone things. In one of the great marketing coups of all time, Apple has somehow made people believe that a smart phone is an iPhone.

This is despite the reality that Android phones – those using the Android operating system instead of Apple’s – outsell iPhones by a staggering ratio of six to one. And yet, in both recent examples of older women who have asked for our help, each thought that only iPhones were smart phones.

There are considerable difference in prices. But for our friend Nancy, who uses a  wheelchair, Joy got on the case:

At the bottom you can get an Android phone for $40 from TracFone.com. But it can be aggravatingly slow at times, and tech support is almost non-existent. For tech newbies, even an older iPhone has great tech support. What’s more, you get the latest operating system on all models starting with the iPhone 5, which came out six years ago. The latest iPhone operating system, iOS 12, lets you enjoy video conversations with up to 32 people at once. (We want to emphasize that, because wouldn’t you know it, it comes up all the time. There’s no way to get a mob together for a spontaneous demonstration unless you can get everyone to agree on where and when to be spontaneous.)

Back to Nancy: Joy suggested the iPhone 6s for $200 or the $160 iPhone SE. Big savings there. Unfortunately, the iPhone 6s isn’t waterproof, so if she needs to text anyone while diving it’s not going to work out. The biggest difference between the 6s and the SE is screen size. The iPhone 6s has a bigger screen; it’s about $40 bigger.

Blocking Spam Calls

Courtesy Joseph Enriq  

We recently got a voice mail saying the license key of our computer “had been expired.” Besides using bad grammar, they wanted us to call an 800 number to fix it. Sure, we’ll get right on it.

Remember this: Computer companies never call you, you call them. The call we got was labeled “spam” on our Android phone, but they were still able to leave a message. To make sure it didn’t happen again, we blocked the number. Here’s how: Tap the phone icon on your phone and go to “Recents.” Tap a number, then tap “Block.” But what if the number you want to block isn’t on the list? In that case, tap “settings” from within the phone app. Then tap “Blocked Numbers,” and “Add a Number.” On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” tap “Phone,” and then “Call Blocking and Identification.”

Spamming has gone wild. By the end of the second quarter this year, which went to the end of June, 4.1 billion robocalls were placed in the U.S. That was up a lot from the 2.5 billion placed in the first three months. That’s about a dozen calls per person for everyone in America, including little babies, who must wonder what to make of it all.

The number of Robocalls, recorded messages that often start out with “Do not hang up, this is an important message,” are not exactly the same as the number of spam calls, which can be from a live voice, but the purpose is the same. Believe us: whenever you get a call that starts out “Do not hang up,” hang up.

This is big business. Spam calls brought in an estimated $9.5 billion last year and there are very few businesses that bring in that much. If it starts by saying “This is an important message,” it isn’t. And that free cruise to the Bahamas isn’t free.

Pop Out

A reader told us he couldn’t figure out how to block pop-ups on his computer. He writes: “Using a Toshiba laptop — and with no grandchildren around — I’ve been going in circles with Chrome trying to block the growing number of stupid ads (some blatantly sexual).”

We thought at first he meant the kind of ads that you can block with the free “Ad Block Plus,” from AdBlockPlus.org. But he was talking about the kind that flash up in the lower right of the screen. Those are called notifications. Often, you’ll be on a site and something will pop-up to give you two choices: “Allow” or “Block.” If you choose “Allow,” you’ll get notifications.

For a while, we were allowing notifications from one of our favorites, ZME Science, but they got too frequent. Joy likes FEE.org, ”Foundation for an Economic Education,” but its notifications got to be too much too. To block a notification in Chrome, click the stacked three dots in the upper right. Then click “Settings” and scroll down to where it says “Advanced” and click on it. Now click the right arrow next to “Content Settings,” and click the arrow next to “Notifications.” For any you don’t want, click the three dots next to it and then “Block.”

App Happy

  • Think Dirty” is a free app for checking out the chemicals in make-up, sun block, and other products. The Natural Resource Defense Council says there are 80,000 chemicals that are not fully tested. Federal agencies test about twenty a year; so this may take a while.
  • EWG’s Healthy Living” is a free app for testing skin products and food scores. We learned that our Neutrogena T/Gel shampoo is a cancer risk, but the Neutrogena Triple Moisture Shampoo is only an allergy risk. Moving on to food, we looked at one of Joy’s favorite products, tomato paste, and learned which ones don’t use BPA in the lining of their cans. (Muir Glen, for one.) EWG.org, the home of the Environmental Working Group, also has guides on their website.

 

REALLY BIG NUMBERS

An exchange of emails with a reader on the subject of falling prices for large storage drives, led to an inevitable question: What are they good for?

In short, once you get past a few gigabytes – which you can buy as thumb drives for less than $10 – just what are you going to store? We know that the general notion is that bigger is always better, and at these prices why not go nuts and pull up the truck?

Terabyte drives are now common. That’s a thousand gigabytes, a million megabytes, a big number. Let’s talk reality here. According to Britannica, all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica would take up 4.7 gigabytes. That’s all the words and pictures, including an index. Throw in a World Atlas, the Webster Collegiate Dictionary, half a dozen reference books and you might get up to using ten gigabytes.

That’s one percent of the capacity of one of the new terabyte drives. So what do you do with the other 99 percent? You could store all your notes and letters. That wouldn’t take much, really. Every column we’ve ever written can be stored in one-tenth of a gigabyte. (A sobering thought.) So, saving words doesn’t take much of that digital space. There must be something you can do with what’s left over.

We know two people who have terabyte drives and use all that space. What do they use it for? Movies. A one-terabyte drive can hold around 700 movies. But who on Earth can watch 700 movies? How many movies could you watch more than once? Five? Six? Even recording them is a bit of stunner: If you did it for eight hours a day, five days a week, it would take five months. That’s dedication. Which brings us right to our next topic.

Recording Streaming Video

Both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video let you download streaming video to watch offline on a plane, a train, or anywhere you’re not connected to the Internet. Now you can use that big thumb drive!

Netflix makes it easy. Tap the icon on your phone, then tap “Downloads.” You’ll be taken to an area called “Find Something to Download.”

It gets tougher with Amazon Prime videos (free movies for Prime members). Whether you use an Android phone or tablet, or an iOS device, such as an iPhone, iPad, iPod or Apple TV, you’ll need the Amazon Prime Video App, from your phone’s app store.

When we looked it up on our Android phone, it came with a warning about damaging our phone. But we trusted Amazon, so we chose the option to open it with a “Package Installer.” Then we got another warning, “For your security, your phone is not allowed to … blah, blah blah, etc.” Lawyers. Heaving a sigh of resignation, we tapped on “settings” and chose “allow from this source.” Phew, that was a lot of work.

It’s much easier on an Amazon Fire tablet. We tapped on the already-included Amazon Video App, then tapped “Movies” and “included with Prime.” Then we chose one and tapped “Download.” It informed us that we didn’t have enough storage space for the movie. An extra SD card solves that, and they’re cheap – 32 gigabytes cost $13.

For offline music, there’s “Audials,” a free app for recording radio stations from all over the world. It has over 100,000 radio stations, as well as podcasts. We tapped the classical genre, found a station, and tapped “record.” Worked great, but it also recorded the commercials. We tuned in a station from an autonomous region of Finland called the Aland Islands, and then stations from Bosnia and Bhutan. Not every station gives you an option to record, but if there is one, it’ says so right on top.

We found the computer version of Audials to be a clunky disaster, and it costs $3.49 a month.  It’s supposed to find the best version of a song, movie or TV program. We searched on “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles, and the first five versions were either from Beatles clones or worse. One was in German, another had someone singing along in an amateurish way.

Amazon Discounts at Whole Foods

Nearly every time we go to Whole Foods, now owned by Amazon, we see someone who doesn’t have the Whole Foods app on their phone but still wants an Amazon prime discount. They’re app-less.

The checker always says, “just link your phone number to your account.” The young woman ahead of us today was totally confused. “My bank account?” No, it’s your Amazon Prime account, if you have one.

Here’s how. Go to Amazon.com/primesavings and click “update mobile phone number.” Then look for blue price signs at any Whole Foods store for member savings. If you see a yellow “sale” sign, you get an extra 10 percent off.

App Happy

  • Wolf+Friends” is a free app for iPhones, iPads and iPods. It’s for moms who want to connect with like-minded women who are raising children with special needs such as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder or other issues.
  • Google Translate, a free app for Android, iPhone and computer, now supports 50 languages after adding 13 new ones this month. It works offline or in real time, translating what the person is saying to your language, and translating what you are saying into theirs.
  • Tor Browser” is considered by many to be the most secure browser in the world, and they’ve just come out with a version for Android. It’s in the testing phase, so you have to install “Orbot,” another app, to make it work.

 

 

LET THE ROBOT TAKE IT

Michael Faraday

“Robo calls” are getting worse. Adrian Abramovich, of Miami, has been accused of making 97 million spam calls and is facing a $120 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission. There’s a call-screening feature in the new Pixel 3 phone from Google, and it’s a sure bet you will soon see it in other makes.

When your phone rings, you’ll see a “screen call” option. Tap it and a recorded voice in the Pixel phone asks the caller to state their name and the nature of the call. The caller might say something like “You have won a free cruise.” (We win an amazing number of those, which is unfortunate because Bob doesn’t like cruises.) At this point, you can tap a button to get more info without answering the call. The same screening feature will likely appear on Google’s Pixel 2 phone later this month, and other Android phones are sure to follow this lead.

Our readers have probably noticed that we normally don’t do phones, and the reason for that is we figure people with cell phones are elsewhere absorbed. Joy and I were in an elevator recently and a young woman got in without looking up from her phone or even pushing a floor button. Of course, there’s no phone signal in elevators, because of something called the Faraday Cage effect, but whenever Bob mentions this, it turns out that none of the users have ever heard of Michael Faraday, which is too bad, because he’s the reason they have electricity.

The reason we’re talking about the Pixel phone now is Joy has one. We are nothing if not parochial. One of the things she likes about her Pixel 2 phone, which at $649 is cheaper than the $799 Pixel 3, is that it gets all the Android updates as soon as they come out. For instance, Pixel phones will be the first to have “Duplex,” the artificial intelligence service that calls restaurants, hair salons and others to make reservations for you.  We never make reservations, but we like the theory.

Getting to phone service, what we like best is Google’s “Project Fi,” which is only available on Pixel phones and certain LG and Motorola models. It combines service from T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Sprint, and searches for the strongest signal. The basic charge is $20 a month for unlimited calling and texting, plus $10 for every gigabyte of data. You get money back on any part of a gigabyte you didn’t use. We get money back every month; we’re not surgically attached to the phone.

A Reader’s Tests His Speed

In a recent column we mentioned that the closer your device is to your router, the faster your Internet speed. So one of our readers put it to the test.

Going to SpeedTest.net, he tested his computer’s Internet speed from 20 feet away. The download speed was 34 megabits per second and the upload speed was 12 megabits per second. Moving out to 100 feet away, the download speed dropped to just under 3 mbps and the upload speed dropped to 4mbps – a huge difference!

Maps With Music

We switched to the free app “Waze” after getting annoyed with Google Maps for unnecessary twists and turns. However, Google now has a new music feature and an “events” information button. Do not use this while you’re driving.

The music feature lets you see playback controls such as play and pause while the map is showing on the phone screen. To turn it on, tap the Google Maps icon on your phone. On Android phones, tap the three lines in the upper left corner, then “Settings,” and finally “Navigation Settings.” Turn on “Show media playback controls.” On an iPhone, tap the Google Maps icon, then the picture of a little gear, then “Navigation.” After turning on media playback controls, you’ll have a choice of Apple Music or Spotify. On Android phones, the choices are Google Play Music or Spotify. If you don’t see playback controls, be sure you’ve got the updated version of Maps. Just tap “help” then “update.”

The latest version of Google Maps invites you to explore your own city. We tapped “Events” and then “Date” to look at things going on this weekend. Later, we tapped “this month” to see the whole month. You can also tap “now” to see what’s going on today. It’s just busy, busy, busy all the time.

Light Up Your Life

LED Projects for Geeks” is a book by John Baichtal that has a dozen do-it-yourself projects that use LED lights. You can control lights with hand gestures, or an LED sash that flashes scrolling messages you send from your phone. Bob wants to program it to read “Silent Partner.” The book is $25 from NoStarch.com.

Free Book For Windows

We were intrigued by the offer of a free online book, called “Windows 10 Troubleshooting Guide.” We’re always attracted by “free.”

It’s available at solvusoft.com/en/windows-10-troubleshooting-guide. It has chapters on freeing disk space, speeding up your computer, tackling the so-called “blue screen of death,” and so on. Some explanations need improving. For instance, the author tells us  five ways to find the “Task Manager,” but doesn’t mention the easiest one: just right-click the mouse pointer anywhere in the taskbar. Bringing up the task manager lets you get out of problems like a program that freezes. Just highlight the troublesome program name and click “end task.”

Similarly, he gives three steps to get to “Disk Cleanup.” But you can go there directly by typing those words into the Windows 10 “Cortana” search bar on the left of your screen. Overall, though, there’s good info here, and you can’t beat the price. Another way to go is type “troubleshoot” in the Windows search bar.  Windows gives you a long list of items to investigate, including power settings, printer and Internet connections.

App Happy

  • “Nwsty” is a free app for those who feel over-informed. It gives you the headlines and the gist of the story. Android version here. iPhone version here.
  • Google Duo” is an alternative to “Facetime,” which is for iPhone users only. With it you can video chat with Android and iPhone users.

 

POP-UPS ON YOUR PHONE

Android Emulator from Andyroid.net

An interesting thing happened: Joy was looking up recipes at VegetarianTimes.com. But as she was viewing these in the Chrome browser on her Android phone, she was inundated, distracted and annoyed by a constant barrage of pop-up ads.

They were stupidly annoying: “You’ve won a new iPhone 9!” was the first one. (That’s not even the name of the new iPhone. It’s iPhone XR or XS. They skipped number nine).  The second pop-up: “You’ve won a prize on Amazon!” Really! The ads were so bad she closed the browser and started over.

Pop-ups are supposed to be blocked automatically, if you want. To find out, she went to the Chrome browser, tapped the three dots in the upper right, then “settings,” then “site settings.” Yes, our pop-ups were set to be blocked, but after a further search, we discovered Chrome’s “Data Saver.”  Its main purpose is to save you money on your data feed costs by compressing web images, but it also blocks malicious pages and phishing attempts. The default position is off, so we switched it to “on.”

To block pop-ups on an iPhone or iPad, open the Chrome app. Tap “More Settings.” Tap “Content Settings” and “Block Pop-ups.”

Mac Update

We looked into the latest free software update for the Macbook: “MacOS Mojave.” It has one feature we would use, if we actually still had our Macbook. It failed to survive a glass of orange juice.

The update is called “Dark Mode.” It gives you white text on a dark background, which is a lot easier on the eyes. Bob’s favorite is the old-fashioned green text on a dark background, which used to be the way we got text in the old days. He gets this with a program called “Writer;” it can also provide white letters on a blue background, like the old WordPerfect program.

Black letters on a white background, which is the way almost all computer screens show text, was a Steve Jobs’ idea. It makes the screen look just like printing on white paper, he said. Of course, white paper doesn’t constantly shine light into your eyes and he didn’t write anything anyway, but everybody sort of obediently said “Yeah,” or words to that effect.

To get the new Macbook dark screen, go to System Preferences, which you can find at the top left of your screen by clicking on the three rows of 12 dots. Choose “General.” Then turn it on. You’ll see dark mode in most of the built-in apps, such as messages, calendar and mail.

Coding Cards for Kids

Programmers normally use slugs of code someone has already written. These are modules which perform routine tasks. For example: recognizing where the cursor is as you move it around the screen, or connecting to the Internet. After all, why reinvent the wheel or reprogram something that has already been programmed a million times.

Scratch Jr Coding Cards” is a box of 75 colorful cards that lets children use the same approach. They’re for ages five and up, and cost $25 from NoStarch Press. The cards tell you what to do to create a moving cartoon on your phone or tablet screen. You start with a character and a painted background. You plug in a pre-built movement module and tell it how far you want your character to move. Joy found this almost too much fun to stop and had to be pried loose by the promise of a cup of herbal tea.

The first lesson involves making a cat get out of bed and say “Hi.” The card directs you to choose a background, such as a bedroom. Next it has you move colored blocks (code modules) into place in a chain. Each of these blocks holds different commands. You click a green flag to start the animation. Our only problem came with the “disappearing” command. Our cat disappeared and we couldn’t get it back. (We thought the cat always came back.)

Scratch Jr is designed for a tablet, and you’ll find it in the app store on your device. However, we used it on a Windows computer. We got around the restriction by first downloading the free Android simulator from Andyroid.com. Once installed, we searched for “Scratch Jr” and installed it. Then we were ready to follow the coding cards. The last card shows you how to open one of 20 sample projects, ready to be customized.

SSD Prices Tumble

A reader who recently sped up his computer by putting in a solid state drive (SSD) was astounded at how cheap they’re becoming, and how quickly.

He writes to point out that “The Samsung 500 gigabyte SSD I bought from Amazon for $100 for my desktop; and bought again a week later for $98 for my HP Pro Book; is now $88!  How low can they go?  Remember what happened with thumb drives?  Whee!  We’re in for a ride, I think.” Thumb drives went from about a thousand dollars a gigabyte to $5 for 16 gigabytes.

Internuts

  • World’s Largest Donors of Foreign Aid

    WalletHub Cell Phone Savings Calculator.” To swallow that mouthful, go to Wallethub.com, click “Tools” and then “Calculators.” Under “other,” you’ll find one that lets you compare cell phone contracts from all the major carriers.

  • 25 maps that will change the way you see the world.” Search on that phrase and find a YouTube video. The first map divides the world into one-billion person chunks. More people live inside a circle containing part of China, India and Indonesia than live in the rest of the world combined. Another map shows the tiny amount of land in 22 countries that Britain never conquered.

 

INTERNET BLUES

A reader wrote to say she can’t get fast Internet service from her Internet provider. They say it’s because she’s in a rural area, at the very edge of their coverage. “An update available on my iPhone 6s took a day and a half to download,” she says.  “The update on my watch took even longer.  My son got both done at his school in two hours!  It’s ironic that in order to pay the bill I have to mail it in.”

If you’re in the same rocky boat, go to speedtest.net to verify how fast your Internet connection is. (Just click “go” and they do the rest.)  Our connection is pretty fast, with a download speed of 20 and an upload speed of 4.57. Our reader’s download speed was only “point 34” and she got only “point 17” for upload, both way less than one. Her Internet Service Provider still called her service “high speed,” she says. This is one angry customer.

CNET.com says that a new router can help enormously. Search on the phrase “CNET Best Wireless Routers for 2018.” They cost around $100 to $400. Another option is satellite service, which costs around $50 to $100 a month or more for 10 to 50 gigabyte of data. Fifty gigabytes of data would allow you to watch Netflix or other streaming movies for 10 hours a day every day of the month, or chat on Skype for over nine hours a day. If you’re doing that, you may need help from more than a router.

If you run a speed test on your computer and find that your connection is fast, but your web experience is slow, consider upgrading your computer or reformatting it. Our Windows computers used to be so pokey, we could make tea and get back before a page loaded. But we suspected that our Windows computers were to blame. To get a faster experience, we got new computers, with Intel i7 processors and 12 gigabytes of RAM. Now they’re speedy, just like the Macbooks and Chromebooks we’ve tested, using the same Internet connection.

Clean Air?

One of our relatives was born with a withered leg and it may have been because her mother used a paint stripper while pregnant, in a closet. A device called the “Atmotube” can warn about such dangers.

This kind of problem was first mentioned in ancient Rome, when Pliny the Elder, a Roman Senator, wrote that pregnant women were at risk of flawed births from the fumes generated by oil lamps, particularly at night when the lamps were nearly done and were sputtering.

These “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) are up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors. Examples are acetone, methanol, benzene, ethanol, toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde. Many VOCs are found in cleaning supplies, paint, varnish and solvents.

In our tests of the new Atmotube Plus, our living space air quality ranged between 91 and 99 percent pure. That info was reported in a free app on our phone, which also gave us the VOC level, atmospheric pressure and temperature. The Atmotube can also sense smoke and other hazards.

The new Atmotube Plus, $99, is about the size of a tube of lipstick and can be worn on a string around your neck. It’s for indoor use only. There’s also the Atmotube Pro, $189, which handles indoor and outdoor air quality. It can detect pollutants, as well as dust, pollen, soot, and mold spores.  Both work for a week on a single battery charge. Plug it into your computer to recharge.

A similar device, called the “Eve Room 2,” displays air quality readings and temperatures. The catch is, you need an iPhone to use it. It costs $100 and is about half the size of a cell phone. To find out the air quality of your room, you can ask Siri, look at the device’s results on your phone, or stare at the gadget itself. It uses Apple’s HomeKit software. So if you have other Homekit gadgets, such as Philips “Hue” adjustable light bulbs, you can make the bulbs flash when the air quality is poor. It detects volatile organic compounds.

Moving up in price, you can get a “GLAS” thermostat from Johnson Controls for around $300. It reports indoor and outdoor air quality, including pollen counts and ozone levels. You can also usually get this kind of information for larger local areas from the newspapers and TV weather summaries.

 Retro Fun

The current Playstation Pro 4 is $670, but if you prefer the retro games of the 1990s, you’ll be able to get a miniature version of the original for $100 in December.

The mini version, called the Sony Playstation Classic, comes with 20 pre-loaded games. It’s 45 percent smaller than the original, which came out in 1994. Games include Final Fantasy VII, Jumping Flash, Ridge Racer Type 4, and 17 others.

If you’re a Nintendo fan, there are classic versions of that too. The NES Classic Edition console is around $60 and includes 30 classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Donkey Kong, PacMan, and The Legend of Zelda. An HDMI cable lets you plug it into your TV for the big picture.

A New Way to Browse the Web

Most people use Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Safari, or Opera. Consider Vivaldi, free from Vivaldi.com. It’s for computers only, not phones. We loaded it on our machine and definitely like it.

One of the things we like is the side bar, which has quick access to nice extras, like bookmarks, downloads, notes and a history of where you went on the web. It also lets you add any website to the side panel, so you can hold on to that page while you check out what’s new on Facebook or other sites. We watched a video clip in the sidebar while continuing to work on other things. If you like to jot down ideas while you browse, you can highlight a paragraph on a website, then use your right mouse button to save it to a notes section on the side. Could be useful for journalists.

The Numbers Report

More than 200 current British divorce proceedings cited the war game “Fortnite” in their complaints, according to Divorce-Online.co.uk. We would guess the number in America would be several times higher. There are 125 million registered players worldwide.