GO GRANDMA GO

A few years ago, our friend Ida got a smart phone so she could use Uber and Lyft. We wish there’d been a connection to “Go Go Grandparent” back then.

Any cell phone will do.  And imagine this: you can even call from what’s called a landline, whatever that is. Go Go Grandparent connects you to Uber and Lyft with nothing extra to do on your part. Register at GoGoGrandparent.com. Then call Go Go Grandparent from any phone. Press “1” to be picked up at home. Press “2” to be picked from wherever you were last dropped off. Press 3, 4 or 5 to be picked off at one of your usual locations. Press “O” for an operator you can talk to if you’re confused.

The pickup is from Uber or Lyft. The call is transferred to them automatically. A friend of ours says the first time she did this, the driver thought her name was “Go Go Grandparent Betty.” Other than that, it works fine. The operator tells you the driver’s name and license plate, which is information you’d normally see in your smartphone app. During registration you can sign up to have text messages automatically sent to a friend or spouse, so they know when you were picked up, when you arrived and when you got back home. There is no escape.

Go Go Grandparent charges a 13 percent commission on each ride, which averages about $2.50. Otherwise, it’s the same cost as Uber and Lyft, which are generally  cheaper than ordinary taxis. Register online or by calling 855-464-6872.

Speeding Up A Slow Computer

A reader writes, “I want to change over my desktop’s hard drive to an SSD. Prices have really tumbled!” He wondered if he needed to clone the drive. For those who came in after the movie started, “SSD” stands for “solid state drive,” and it means there are no moving parts, everything is on memory chips. Result: faster than you can blink.

We answered him the next day but he’d already found his way. This is one savvy guy: he wrote a program for the old Commodore 64 computer back in 1984 and was written up in a magazine. Some of our readers are techier than we are.

For the rest of us, there are great tutorials on the web about swapping a laptop’s hard drive for an SSD. It’s remarkably simple. We watched a YouTube video called “How to Upgrade Laptop Hard Drive to SSD without Reinstalling Windows.” There’s also an article at HowToGeek.com called “How To Upgrade and Install a New Hard Drive or SSD in Your PC.” Or you can get a cloning kit from Amazon for around $24. Search on the phrase “SSD hard drive cloning kit.”

But the big question is, does it really speed up your computer?  Our knowledgeable reader says: “As far as performance goes, this is the best $100 I ever spent on a computer.  Startup now takes only a few seconds.  Heck, the Windows logo screen at the beginning doesn’t even get a chance to get going.  Sign in and the desktop is right there, no waiting.” These drives cost anywhere from $29 to $600, the cost depending on the capacity of the drive. But it doesn’t speed up web browsing. For that you need a fast processor, like the Intel i7, and eight to 16 gigabytes of RAM.

App Happy

Paris Hilton, 2009

Paris Hilton had 80,000 views of her photos but gained 1.4 million more after using a free app called “Plotaverse.” (That many people remember Paris Hilton?) Plotaverse creates photos that move and sway. Paris was always good with that. Facebook named it one of the top five photo apps for creating ads. And it currently has over four million users.

Plotaverse comes in three apps: “Plotagraph,” “Plotamorph” and “PlotaFX.” On their website, we saw a woman with Mickey Mouse ears morph into a man, and a field of flowers come alive with birds. Reminds us of Pixar or Disney. In an “Elle” ad, the model’s hair begins to flow as you look at the photo.

The pro versions of the app are $99 a year. But in the Google Play and Apple app stores you can find free versions.

The Numbers Report

Decluttr.com surveyed 1007 parents in the U.S. to determine how they deal with their children’s smartphones.

  • In the U.S., 20 percent of children between the ages of one and six own a smartphone. (What does a one-year-old say?)
  • Half of parents agree the most appropriate age for a child to own a phone is between 10 to 13 years old
  • Eighty-three percent say their children spend up to 21 hours per week on their phones. (Good grief!)
  • Sixty-eight percent of parents have not placed limitations on their children’s smartphones

One survey respondent said: “My 2-year-old has her own cell phone because she likes to play games and watch YouTube at daycare.” Parents should consider getting a refurbished phone, which can always be upgraded after the peanut butter and jelly attack.

Bitcoin Magazine

Joy’s been on a roller-coaster investing in Bitcoin, a form of e-cash currently crashing. Inevitably, there is now an online magazine about these new crypto currencies.

We found out about it from a friend, the former movie editor at the New York Times. Some of her media pals have started a publication called “BreakerMag,” at breakermag.com.

The stories are breezy and light, covering cryptocurrencies and “blockchain.” Besides the latest developments, we learned about a new novel called “Bitcoin Bimbo.” The excitement was hard to deal with.

Blockchain is an encrypted online ledger, normally shared by millions of computers, though some companies have developed private versions. Its goal is to increase efficiency, in everything from everyday legal contracts to international supply chains. For example, Walmart is using it as a tracking system to halt outbreaks of food borne illnesses, like E. coli and salmonella. Tracking a slice of mango used to take Walmart over six days. They’re slippery and tricky. Using the blockchain, it takes 2.2 seconds.

It reminds some people of the early days of the Internet, when everything was booming. “It’s like 1998 all over again,” said an attendee at “Blockchain Week,” which drew 8,500 people to New York City. Then again, maybe it’s not. Naysayers, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, call the whole crypto currency world “evil.” But his track record isn’t great. In the 1990s he predicted that the Internet would be no more important than the fax machine.

 

SOMETHING NEW IN GMAIL

Joy’s favorite part of Gmail is the “Undo” button, which allows you to call back an email that on second thought, you shouldn’t have sent. You can set it to hesitate for as long as 30 seconds, which allows for short naps.

Now this second-thought-er is available in the free Gmail app for Android and iPhone. To try out the “undo” feature of the Gmail app on your phone, compose a message as you normally would. After you send it, look at the bottom of your screen. Tap “undo.”

There’s also a new Gmail look available for your computer. If you’re a Gmail user this new version should pop up as a choice, meaning it will show you what’s new and you can keep that or go back to the old email version. The new one adds icons for your calendar, shopping list, and task list on the right side of your screen. Click the calendar app, and it opens in a side bar, not interfering with your email view. The same goes for the shopping and to do list.

Another new feature is “Confidential Mode,” available for phones and computers. Confidential Mode lets you put an expiration date on an email, making it vanish after a set time. It also keeps the recipient from downloading or forwarding it, though they could do it anyway by taking a screen shot of the photo or message and sending that.

To try “Confidential Mode” on your phone, write a message. Then tap the three stacked dots in the upper right corner and choose “Confidential Mode.” If you’re on the computer instead of the phone, look for the picture of a locked clock in the bottom right of the email window. Decide when your message should expire, anything from one day to five years. (This could save many politicians and any number of shaky romances.) If you change your mind about a message, tap “revoke access.” That’s kind of a harsh phrase, but the programmer was probably having one of those days.

Other new features on the computer: You can hover over an email and snooze it for later viewing, delete it, or archive it. And when you reply, you’ll see canned messages, ready to click on. Joy has been using these in text messages for a while, but they often have unnecessary exclamation points. A different kind of canned message, created in settings, can be used as a signature, like “Yr Hmbl Srvt, Bob,” if you just happened to have dropped in from the Elizabethan Age.

Listening to Magazines

We were surprised to learn that one of our favorite magazines, The Economist, includes an audio version. Download the app, tap the icon for the headset, and listen to all of the articles or create a playlist of the most interesting ones. The voices are professional readers and have that British classic BBC announcer sound. Unfortunately, you must be a subscriber, which costs $147 per year for the digital/audio edition.

We checked to see if other magazines have free audio versions and found the website AudioReadingServicePodcast.com, a service of a public library in Indiana. They have Time Magazine, AARP, Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest and others. The Atlantic magazine has articles available to listen to for free at theatlantic.com/podcasts/audio-articles/.

The Fortnite Craze

Now we get it. We know why our youngest relatives are mad about Fortnite, and a heck of a lot of adults. We read about it in David Pogue’s column at Yahoo.com.

The Fortnite shooter game is free and kinda funny. The first vehicle allowed in the game was a shopping cart. You arrive in the game on a flying bus. And there are no blood and guts spread across the screen; when you shoot someone, they just go down. But the circle you play in gets ever smaller, making it more intense, as the odds of being killed get ever shorter.

Fortnite has 125 million players; about 40 million are there every month. In May, last reported month, the game’s maker, Epic Games, took in more than $10 million a day, as players paid for extra challenges and rewards. Keep those shopping carts rolling.

Who’s Calling?

A reader wrote: “Had a very strange incident with my cellphone recently. I had an incoming call and it was from my own phone number!” Her husband told her not to answer, but she did anyway. And … there was no one there!

This reminds us of sci-fi stories where one meets oneself somewhere and the usual problems ensue. In this case, the call is coming from someone else. You can make any call look like it was coming from another number by using an app that changes the caller I.D. Asterisk.org and FreeSWITCH.com can do this. We haven’t tried these out, so this is just for your own information.

Internuts

  • FreedomInThe50States.org shows you which states have the fewest regulations and lowest taxes. It’s put together by the libertarian Cato Institute. Florida is their number one, New Hampshire number two, and then Indiana, Colorado and Nevada.
  • FakeSpot.com. Surprise! Some Amazon and Yelp reviews are fake. If you’re suspicious, paste in the website listing at FakeSpot.com and click “analyze.” All the ones we looked at got “A” grades, but we’re sure there are fakes out there.
  • DigitalSculpture-uffizi.org. Visit a famous art gallery in Florence, Italy without leaving your sofa. The “Uffizi Digitization Project” has 3D scans of more than 300 items from the gallery’s Greek and Roman collection. Turn around an ancient statue, just by moving your mouse. Most impressive. Uffizzi, by the way, is simply Italian for “offices;” the building formerly housed the offices of the Medici family.

 

ONE REAL FAST PHOTO SCANNER

Our new Epson “FastFoto” scanner sucked in photos so fast it made us laugh. Put a stack in, and the photos jump through the scanner like they’ve been shot out of a cannon. Typical speed is one a second.

Then we asked ourselves the big question: Why get a photo scanner when ScanMyPhotos.com will do it for you?  For instance, they’ll currently scan a thousand 4- by-6-inch photos for $50. No muss, no fuss. So here’s why your own scanner might be more useful:

A scanned photo, sent by email or shared on Facebook, is often a spur of the moment thing. Reach your hand into an old collection, pull out a stack and put them in the FastFoto scanner. Within a few seconds, they pop out, enhanced if you wish, red-eye removed, and uploaded to your private account on Dropbox or Google Drive. And oh yeah, saved to your computer. The scanner scans both sides at once, which is kind of crucial. Because many times we, and we’re sure many others, have looked at an old photo and said “who’s that?” So it’s worthwhile to jot a note or two on the back of your prints.

You can scan documents too; the scanner doesn’t know whether you put in a photo or your mortgage contract. You’re prompted to give a scan or group of scans a really descriptive filename. That’s the key to searching for them later. You can’t search the whole text you just scanned, because it’s really just a picture of the words, not the words themselves. But you can easily search for a file name, if you give it one, like the “Murgatroyd reception photos,” or “home repair bills for 1958.”

We did our scans with the Epson “FF-640,” which is similar to the latest version, the “FF-680W,” but cheaper. We saw the FF-640 at Epson.com in a refurbished version for $414. What’s the difference? The older model can scan 300 dots per inch (dpi) or 600 dpi; the higher number may require two seconds per photo. The more expensive model has a list price of $600 and can scan up to 1200 dpi. High resolution scans like that might be useful for museum archives, detective work, or printing posters, but wouldn’t matter for normal use. The 300 dpi setting is great for sharing photos online, because the file size is smaller. Also, at 300 dpi each one is scanned in a second.

An Epson rep told us a big advantage of the more expensive model is that scanned text is searchable. This would be particularly useful for law firms, libraries and many businesses. One last comment on so-called “refurbished” items: We only had trouble with such buys once, and that was because the hard drive on the computer still had someone’s files on it; there was nothing wrong with the computer itself.

Ads in Your Texts

If you’re not afraid of offending your friends, you can earn up to $50 a month by allowing ads inside your text messages.

It’s a free app called “Slam Ad,” available in the Android or iPhone app store starting in November. Once installed, it will pay you a tiny amount for every text message you send. Sounds intrusive, but the ads are short. A few lines of text include a coupon, discount code or announcement that ties in with the conversation. If you’re texting about a movie, for instance, you might see an ad for popcorn and soda. If you’re meeting someone for coffee, you might see a Starbucks coupon. As the text sender, you can redeem your earnings for cash, gift cards or a savings account for college tuition.

It’s a new business idea that doesn’t appeal to Bob, but Joy thinks it sounds fun. Given that young people typically send 120-130 texts a day, this could mean a little something to them. Americans in general send more than 500 billion texts per month. Yes, that’s “billion.”

Instagram Woes

A reader tells us that her Instagram account was hijacked, and all 1700 of her posts, including private photos, made public. Her profile picture and user name had been changed so that the photos appear to be coming from someone else. Yikes! Even changing her passwords had no effect, nor did writing to Instagram, or its owner, Facebook.

We were a bit shocked, and apparently out of touch, because this turns out to be fairly common. Instagram lets you secure your account with so-called “two-factor authentication,” which uses a text message to verify that you are you. However, word has it that they’re soon coming out with a separate “authenticator” app, like Google or Microsoft Authenticator. In just one week, the tech blog “Mashable” reported that 275 people wrote to say their Instagram account had been hacked. However, most of those didn’t use two-factor authentication, which can be enabled by tapping the icon for a person in the lower right of your screen. Next, tap the three dots in the upper right corner and choose “Two Factor Authentication.”

Now … the real puzzling part of this problem is why anyone would want to post someone else’s photos as their own. These aren’t photos from professional photographers mind you, but somebody’s kid in the playground pictures, or Uncle Max at the picnic table. If you think you’ve been hacked, open Instagram on your phone. Tap the icon for a person, then the three dots or stacked lines representing “settings.”  Scroll down until you see the word “Support” and “Report a Problem.”

If you want to backup all your photos and videos on Instagram to be on the safe side, here’s how. Go to Instaport.me, iDrive.com or Digi.me and try their Instagram backup feature. In a blog post, Instagram suggests revoking access to any suspicious apps that may have access to your account. What’s suspicious? Even paranoids can have enemies.

 

HEY GOOGLE, START THE CAR

If you’re out of favor with the Mafia, you need this. It’s the Google Home smart speaker, or the free “Google Assistant” app on your phone. You can sit on your couch and say “Hey Google, start my car.” If it doesn’t blow up in three minutes, you might as well get in and go.

This currently works with new Hyundais, Mercedes  and BMWs. More are likely to join in soon. The Hyundai program is called “Blue Link,” and requires either a 2017 or later Hyundai, or one of a dozen models from 2016 or a few from 2015. Besides starting your engine from the couch, you can set the interior temperature, send points of interest to the car’s navigation system, lock or unlock the doors, blow the horn, turn on the lights, and in general make a real nuisance of yourself.

Mercedes offers something similar. From your couch, you can ask Google to remotely lock the doors, start your engine or send an address to your navigation system. It works with select 2016 and newer models.

BMW’s version of this finds your car, gives you details about it, tells you when your next trip is, checks the battery status, locks the doors, activates climate control, and checks to see that the doors are actually locked, the windows are up, the trunk is closed, and your fuel level is adequate. Getting from the house to the car, you’re on your own.

Your Inner Botanist

We recently read that people no longer know their plants. Even botanists.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a PhD candidate touring a garden with other botany grad students wondered if a fern was part of an orchid; he didn’t realize they were two separate plants. Another grad student was about to explain it to him, but she waited to see if anyone would answer first. No one did. Botanists these days are more focused on the molecular level. Molecular plants are hard to see.

Tsk, tsk. Ferns are nothing like orchids. They don’t even have seeds. They reproduce through spores; everyone knows that. It is tough to keep up, however. There are approximately 391,000 species of plants, 23,000 are trees. It’s a hard world. Bob says the only way he would recognize an ash tree is when it’s been made into a baseball bat.

There’s a solution for all this, in fact there are several. These are apps for your phone that can examine a picture of leaves, flowers or bark and tell you what it is. “PlantSnap,” from PlantSnap.com, is free for Android and iPhones, if you don’t mind ads. We took a picture of one of our house plants, and it immediately identified it as “Weeping Fig,” or “Ficus Benjamina.” There’s a terrific story involving the discovery of this plant, and someday we’ll get to it. Right now, we have to move on to another plant, because Joy’s on a roll. So it turned out one of our other house plants was “Spathiphyllum,” also called “Peace Lily.”

The app recognizes 316,000 species of flowers, trees, succulents, mushrooms, cacti and other flora of the planet. If you want to remove ads, it’s $20 a year.

A nice thing about PlantSnap is it saves your plant photos in a gallery, so if you forget their names you can refer back. There are half a million trees, flowers and other plants in their database, and their machine-learning algorithm recognizes about 2000 new ones a month. Now we know that this huge number does not match our other huge number when we listed species, but that’s because many species have more than one variety. Black panthers, for example, are just ordinary leopards, but with dark skin.

Another option is “iNaturalist,” which includes animals as well as plants. With iNaturalist, free for Android and iPhone, you can share your identifications with others and get their comments. That grizzly attacking you might be a Kodiak grizzly and you’ll want to be able to tell someone that on your way out. “Research grade” observations are shared with scientists.

In some tests, Plantsnap did best, other times iNaturalist was the winner. Plantsnap got a Japanese maple totally wrong, but iNaturalist nailed it. But one of the decorative plants in front of our high rise was identified as “Pampus Grass,” found all over the place in Argentina. Could be that one, but we have our doubts. Tapping on photos that others have taken in iNaturalist gives you the address and a map.

Brushing Up Your Photos

We compared the free editing tools from Google Photos (Photos.Google.com) with Ashampoo’s Photo Optimizer 7, which costs $20. Not surprisingly, Photo Optimizer did a better job.

Besides the usual photo editing tools, the Ashampoo program removes red eye, whitens teeth, and allows you to process a whole batch at once.  As with Google Photos, you can click once to enhance the photos. However, teeth whitening takes a bit of practice or your subject will look like they have white dots instead of teeth.

Beware of Pop-Up Ads

A reader says she gets pop-up notices from an “Advanced Mac Cleaner,” saying her computer has viruses. She wondered if she should download the program. Absolutely not.

These kinds of pop-ups are a classic tool of hackers. Now sometimes, a program you have installed on your computer will give you a pop-up request to take some action. If you recognize the program, it’s usually a good idea to follow its suggestions. If in doubt, Google the words in the pop-up with the word “scam.” We searched on “Advanced Mac Cleaner scam” and found a user forum on the Apple website where many said it’s a fraud.

 

DEFEND YOUR PHONE

Users and Apple say the iPhone is the safest smartphone out there, but you can make it safer still.

Start with the log-on. Do you use a fingerprint? You should. Joy initially had difficulties getting her Android phone to recognize her index finger. The solution was to use more fingers. Now she uses her middle finger to get into the phone, and this one rarely misses. (No comments, please.) If you have an iPhone X, you can use your face instead of a fingerprint. It’s rumored that all iPhones coming out this fall will have “Face ID.” It’s inevitable.

What about a hacker breaking into your iCloud account on the web? It’s a good idea to set up “two-factor identification.” If you Google that phrase, along with “iPhone,” (or Android if that’s what you use), you can find simple instructions for setting it up. With two-factor ID, you’ll need a code that was just emailed, phoned, or texted to you as well as your password, whenever you’re logging on from a new machine. This stops the bad guy or girl in their tracks.

There is a device called “GrayKey,” which its maker claims can crack any iPhone password or code. It comes in two versions, one for $15,000 and one for $30,000, used by some police departments and presumably some government agencies. An Israeli firm, “Cellebrite,” will crack a cellphone code for you for $5,000 a pop. That’s plus airfare, because you have to bring the phone to Israel.

If it’s installing phone apps you’re worried about, try the free Malwarebytes mobile app for iPhone or Android, which blocks anything suspicious. In our test, it tagged an app called “Lost Android,” so we removed it. If we ever lose our phone and it isn’t in range of Alexa or our Google Home speaker, either of which can make our phone ring to announce its location or its address, we can go to MyAccount.Google.com and click “find my phone.”

A $12-a-year version of Malwarebytes’ mobile app can screen and block scam calls and texts. It can also unlock your phone if you’re a victim of “ransomware.” In a ransomware attack, you’re asked to pay a sum of money to get your phone unlocked, but Malwarebyes can do that for you for no extra charge. You get a 30-day free trial of this premium version when you download the free version.

Book Shout

Joy has a bookstore habit and buys more books than she reads. A free app called “BookShout” fixes that.

BookShout sets a daily goal for you, with a progress bar that moves along as you’re reading a book. After reading just 1000 words, Joy got a congratulatory email. After 5,000 words, she received 50 cents in BookShout bucks.  The first day, she ranked 1535 among her friends, but quickly moved up to 534 a few days later. It’s all so gratifying, she might just finish a book called “Only Humans Need Apply,” which chronicles the rise of robots. (These robots can also read books, though their reviews are somewhat mechanical.)

To start, either download the app from the app store onto your phone, or go to bookshout.com to read books on your computer. We compared Bookshout’s e-book prices with Amazon’s and found them to be identical. BookShout also has a category called “free books.”

Though some reviewers have balked at reading books inside anything other than the Amazon Kindle app, Joy likes seeing the progress bar move along towards the daily goal. You can switch from one book to another and still get credit for reading. If you don’t like getting congratulatory emails, you can turn those off.

Internuts

  • AffordableCollegesOnline.org ranks online programs at a huge variety of colleges, from state schools to the Ivy League.
  • MrOwl.com lets you save your favorite websites to a page that others can see. If they like your collections or you like theirs, you can “heart” them. We clicked “history” and learned that a Union commander in the Civil War issued orders freeing the slaves in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, though this was well beyond his authority. The orders were rescinded by President Lincoln ten days later.

Recovering Photos on Your iPhone

We don’t own an iPhone, but the site Comparitech.com gave us some good tips for recovering photos from one.

First, open the Photos app on your iPhone. Look at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen and tap “Albums.” Scroll down and look at “Recently Deleted,” which has all the photos you deleted in the last 30 days. Your lost photo might be there. Now tap “Select” in the upper right and choose the photos you want back. Then tap “Recover.”

Next, try logging on to iCloud.com. Your photos may have been automatically backed up there. Tap “Photos” to see everything saved. If your storage is full, use the iTunes app to back up your photos to your computer. If you’ve done this regularly, you can recover any lost photo. Even easier: Download the free “Google Photos” app. It will automatically back up any photos you’ve taken with your phone. Google Photos gives you unlimited storage space if you are willing to limit photo resolution to 16 megapixels and video resolution to 1080p. If you store at higher resolutions, it counts against your Google Drive quota of 15 gigabytes.

The Numbers Report

Google has 31 percent of the world’s digital ad market, according to research firm eMarketer, generating $85 billion in revenue. Facebook is second, with 18 percent. Google also owns YouTube and gets another $9.13 billion in ad revenue from there.

Hey Google!

If you have the “Google Home” speaker, you no longer have to say “Hey Google,” every time you want its attention. If eight seconds or less have passed since your last question, you can just ask a follow-up, which doesn’t have to be related to the first one.

But first you have to set this up. Go to the Google Home app on your phone. Look for the three stacked lines called the “hamburger icon” or the word “menu.” Tap it, then tap “more settings.” Tap “preferences” and turn on “continued conversation.” While you’re there, tap “Getting Around” and tell Google how you usually get around — car, public transportation, walking, biking, jet pack, etc. The next time you ask for directions, the Google assistant will tailor her response to your preferred mode of movement.

 

FINDING FREE ONLINE GAMES

We got a guide from Play-Free-Online-Games.com. The exact page is impossible to find in a search, so we’re giving you the gist of it here. Actually, these things are fun, and you can’t beat the price.

  • Shooter Games. If you like to fly through space, try “Battleship Galactica” or “Ace Online.” If you prefer to fight on the ground and like monsters and werewolves, try “Wolf Team.” If you prefer mummies, try “Mission Against Terror.” If you would rather fight the military, and like World War II vintage tanks, try “World of Tanks.” If you prefer a deadly cartoon soldier, try “Lost Saga.”
  • Role-Playing Games. If you like fantasy, join ten million others in “World of Warcraft.” If you’ve been there, done that, try “Runes of Magic,” “Adventure Quest Worlds” or “Dragon Fable.” If your age is a single digit, try “Wizard 101.” If you want an easy sci-fi game, try “Dark Orbit.” To perfect the art of crushing your enemies, try “Age of Conan.” If you like “Dungeons and Dragons,” try “Crystal Saga,” “Forsaken World,” “Drakensang,” “Dark Swords,” “Dungeons and Dragons Online,” or “Lord of the Rings.” If you’re old enough to remember when “The Incredibles” came out, try “DC Universe Online.” If not, try “Superhero Squad Online.” If being a vampire hunting a werewolf is strange enough for you, try “Bitefight.” If not, try “Glitch.”
  • If you like a fantasy setting, try “Call of the Gods,” or “Grepolis.” If you like a historical setting, try “Castle Empire,” “Travian,” “1100 A.D.,” or “Tribal Wars.” If you like games with blocks or Legos, try “Minecraft” or “Roblox.” To make new friends, try “IMVU.” If you mainly want to create things, try “Second Life.”

Portable Speakers and All That Jazz

It has become clear to us over many years that there is a secret meeting place, perhaps in a remote mountain location, most likely in Bhutan, where the makers of electronic devices gather to decide what to promote for the coming holiday season. There is no other explanation for what are clearly waves of gadgets and stuff that wash over us every year.

For some time now, we have received pitches for earphones and speakers. Apparently, no one can fully appreciate rock or rap without special equipment, which is quite understandable. Nor are they able to distinguish what actors are saying on their television sets without a yard-long bar that delivers clear enunciation even when it is not intended; after all, a grunt is a grunt and that is the essence of an action movie.

There was a recent wave for smart TVs, one for protective smartphone cases, another for home antennas, and a constant effort to make a cell phone the movie camera of our time.

So we received a wireless speaker for review. We went to a nearby store and found that there were several of these on the market and they seem quite similar. So there is little point in trying to figure out which is the best, because that will depend on the individual’s ear and taste, meaning pop, rock or classical.

But we can look at what they’re good for. These new portable Bluetooth speakers are all about the size of a soup can and range in price from $20 to $350. Sound quality is pretty good and – if they’re waterproof – you can wash them with soap and water. On a more practical level you can download an app to let you wake up to music or news delivered at a clear understandable level.

A good way to start is the free Pandora app from your phone’s app store. Tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) in the upper left corner of the screen and choose “settings,” then “Alarm Clock.” Tap it to set the time and the station you want to listen to. A station can be the name of a band, such as “The Beatles” or “Benny Goodman.”

Coming this month to the free Clock app from Google is the music service Spotify. The nice thing about Spotify is that you can name a specific song rather than a radio station. For instance, if we ask for the Tijuana Brass on Pandora, we get a lot of Bert Kaempfert. We like Bert a lot; he gave the Beatles their first big gig in Germany, and launched their career. But sometimes we want the original: Herb Alpert.

We tried the new “Sbode 6 Bluetooth Portable Waterproof Speaker,” a six-inch wireless speaker. Besides playing music, audio books, and other sounds from our phone, it takes phone calls. The sound quality was good and the price $36 reasonable.

It’s hard to choose one of these speakers over another, unless you go by price. For $36 on Amazon, the Sbode seems a good deal. The manual leaves much to be desired, however. While the sound blared out at us, we struggled to read the tiny print on how to turn down the volume. The manual says to “short press” the minus button on the side of the speaker to decrease the volume. Pressing short or long turns out to be subjective; Bob’s short press had no effect either way and the long press was enough to blast you out of the room. They’re quite rugged. Though we wouldn’t try this, they say you can clean them with running water, and wipe off any amount of sand or snow. The speakers also have an FM radio, and a slot for a micro sd storage card.

The Cutting Edge

We usually ignore crowd-funding campaigns but this one broke a record; it took in almost 28 million dollars in 30 days. They call it the “GlowForge,” and it’s for engraving on wood and similar materials. The basic model; is $2,500.

There are cheaper 3D laser cutters available, but users say the cheapies have more of a learning curve and some use software infected with malware. There are more expensive ones too: A $35,000 laser used in commercial applications is, as you might expect, much faster than the $2500 or $6000 model GlowForge.

We saw a GlowForge for $4000 on Amazon, but users say the cheaper one from GlowForge.com is all that most beginners will need.  Bob said he would cut Western scenes or a Tarzan adventure on veneer for custom furniture. That’s if he ever wanted to go into the custom furniture business.

Take a look at the user forum to find out what others are making. Popular right now: cheap ceramic tiles from Home Depot turned into coasters. Users color in the engraved areas with Sharpie marking pens. The excess ink wipes off the unengraved areas.

 

 

THE DAY OF THE PAINTER

All of the artists we know paint the old-fashioned way: with a brush. But we’re fairly awed by what you can do with a mouse or a tablet.

The new Corel “Painter 2019” is out, and it’s worth taking a look at what artists are doing with it. Some of these people start with a photo, and produce the kind of work sold at art festivals. After some digging we found them on Instagram. Go to Instagram.com/CorelPainter to get a little awe for yourself.

We were curious about trying it ourselves. So we installed the free trial version from painterartist.com, and clicked on “Discovery Center” inside the program. This was Joy’s job, and she encountered some difficulty right away. Tutorials have to be approved by a long line of corporate types who feel they have to make some changes or they’re not doing their job. All bases must be covered. The trouble with covering all the bases is that long before you’ve touched them all, you feel like dumping the whole program. In short: Too much information. Much too much information.

Hacking her way through the underbrush of Corel tutorials, she was intrigued to see one titled “painting like Bob Ross.” Though now deceased, Ross still appears on public television in re-runs and they’re still popular. This software will not paint a Bob Ross painting for you, but explains his methods. Go to Learn.corel.com/tutorials/paint-your-very-own-mystic-mountain.

The biggest change in the latest version of Painter is its look and speed. Everything loads much faster, and the background is dark so as not to intrude on your art.  They’ve added more brushes, like Real Watercolor, Real Wet Oil, and Sargent. Video game designers and concept artists can paint with five new patterns. If your Windows computer has a touch screen, you can use your fingers to reset a picture, zoom in or out of the scene, or pan around.

The program isn’t cheap at $429, but there is an “education edition” for only $99. Many companies have these education version deals, and usually you just have to give a student or faculty I.D.; sometimes you don’t have to show anything. If you want to try other digital art programs for free, and have already finished the Corel Painter free-trial period, try “MyPaint,” “Gimp,” and “Krita,” all available as a free download. All of these are compatible with a Wacom tablet, though setting up Gimp looks tricky.

Your Video on Amazon Prime

If you’ve always wanted to be a movie producer, here’s your chance. A company called “3Roads” will make your production available on Amazon Prime. And they won’t charge for it.

We looked at several homemade videos that ended up as choices for Amazon Prime users. One was strictly for train buffs, but there are plenty of those. Another covered Civil War battle reenactments. A third called “Dinner for Hire with Chef Bernard,” takes you into a house party to see how a professional chef prepares party food. A fourth, “Chasing Taste,” is about a desperate novelist who becomes a food critic. Another, “Heart Child” is about teaching autistic children to ride a skateboard.

To get your video on Amazon, go to 3Roads.com and click “services.” Then click on “Amazon Prime distribution,” which is on the left side of the screen. There’s no charge for having it distributed, and you can even make money based on the number of minutes your video is viewed. If you do make money with your video, the distributor, 3Roads, gets 30 percent.

Facebook Tip

Joy’s friend Margie sometimes complains about all the notifications she gets from a woman’s club Facebook page. But she doesn’t have to put up with that, and neither do you.

If one of the Facebook groups you belong to is annoying, click “Groups,” (on the left side of the Facebook page on your computer), then click the tiny picture of a gear and “edit notifications.”  You can turn them all off, be notified when your friends post, or get the highlights. Or click “leave group.”

Maybe you’re not part of any group but would like to be. On your phone, tap the three stacked lines and then click “Groups.”. Then tap “discover” and look at the various categories, such as “games,” “trending,” “funny,” “movies and TV,” “sports,” “local,” “travel,” and “parenting.” On your computer, click “Groups” off to the left of the home page, when you get there, click “Discover.” When you find one you like, click “join.” We just joined “Science Humor,” which has almost half a million members. Hopefully, they’re laughing.

App Happy

  • The Trading Game” is a free app for Android and iPhones. It starts off teaching you about “Forex” or foreign exchange trading. Answer three questions right and you have $750 in play money to try trading it virtually. But they won’t let you spend it, even virtually, until you’ve taken more quizzes or read more about trading on their site. Maybe you’re the next George Soros.
  • Microsoft News” is a rival to Google News and others. Worth checking out if you’re a news-aholic. Bob likes to wait a year or two for any news to develop its full flavor.

The Numbers Report

Fake news has changed the way people interact with Facebook. According to a Reuters report, they no longer trust it for news of the world.

Worldwide, over half of participants in a research study said they were concerned about fake news. The highest concern is in Brazil, Spain and the United States. In Brazil, 85 percent of people are concerned, in Spain, 69 percent and the United States, 64 percent.  It is lowest in Germany (37 percent) and the Netherlands (30 percent) where recent elections were largely untroubled by concerns over fake content.

 

BRUSHING UP

It’s a brave new world for dental patients: There’s a financial incentive to brush.

We just earned 226 “Dentacoins,” a form of crypto currency, from brushing three times. We looked up their value and at the time of writing, they were worth eight cents. There are a dozen exchanges where we could sell our e-cash to get our eight cents, but the Dentacoin app says we must wait until we’ve accumulated more. Nuts. The brief spike in January when that amount of Dentacoin would have been worth $1.30 is gone, fell into a cavity. Perhaps it will rise again.

“Dentacare Health Training” is a free app for Android or iPhone. It aims to make you a better brusher and flosser by guiding you through a timed session. For each session, you earn a small amount of a crypto currency called “Dentacoin.”

The fun part is the music and the motivation. The app often calls us “Darling,” or “Sunshine.” It praises us when we’ve brushed, flossed and rinsed. However, set-up is not for the non-techy. If you want to sell your Dentacoin, you must first have an “Ethereum wallet,” and give the app that address. Addresses are OK to share because they’re only for receiving money. We set up our Ethereum account on Coinbase.com. It only takes $2 worth of Ethereum to get a wallet address.

The idea behind Dentacoin is to give patients an incentive to keep their mouths healthy, and to make it easier to do business across borders. So far, 38 dental clinics in 14 countries are using it. The app itself has 23,000 users so far.

No Rabbit From Magic Jack

We still like a landline and we read recently that 40 percent of phone owners do as well. The fact is, handsets are more comfortable and easier to handle than cell phones and they have a big number dial-pad and a louder speaker phone. We were Vonage customers for years, which gave us a relatively cheap Wi-Fi phone service that works with a landline. Then we switched to Magic Jack.

Why did we do this? It’s cheap (and so are we). Magic Jack is only $39 a year. But our phone was dead about 90 percent of the time whenever we wanted to call out. So we switched back to Vonage and were assured that we could have our old number back. After all, we’d had that number with Vonage for eight years.

Then came the bad news. Magic Jack said that if we canceled, we’d lose that number. So now we have four numbers: Two cell phone numbers, our old land line number that transfers automatically to a cell phone, and a new phone number from Vonage. This gives telemarketers four times as many chances to reach us with their urgent messages. They usually start with “This is a recorded line.” Who cares? Record all you want; the only thing you’re going to get is a click when we hang up. However, four lines means two payments, $39 a year for Magic Jack and about $22 a month for Vonage. Egads, as the bard might say.

Truth Machine

With a leery eye, Joy turned to a new book on crypto currency, having lost a little money in Bitcoin. Even so, she believes that some form of “e cash” will someday take off. It’s certainly very popular in science fiction stories.

The Truth Machine,” by Casey and Vigna, tells you why it’s gotta happen, though Bob remains skeptical. It’s his job. Michael Casey works at M.I. T. and Paul Vigna is a Wall Street Journal reporter. Their central point is that a digital payments system allows you to cut out the intermediary and make records un-hackable. This is crucial in countries where corruption is common.  It can also establish property rights where there are none, making it possible for people to get loans on their land.  It can speed up settlements between buyers and sellers all over the globe, and open new markets like the market for your personal data, something offered already by a company called Datum.org. The Netherlands, more than any other country we’ve read about, seems to be forging ahead as crypto currency pioneers. That’s because they often go Dutch. (Sorry about that.)

For instance, there’s a “Virtual Power Plant Project” in Amsterdam. The battery packs owned by homeowners are connected to microgrids that keep everyone topped up; there’s no need for a power company. Every transaction is encrypted and secured by the “blockchain,” a continuous digital ledger.

We came across “The Truth Machine” because the head of Sotheby’s, the auction house, said that a smart millennial recommended it to him. It has more technical detail than we’d like but makes some interesting points.  The authors say that what makes the blockchain so revolutionary is the invention of “triple-entry bookkeeping.” You take the double-entry system which made the Renaissance so profitable and add a third component, an open ledger secured by code. It involves a signed receipt for every transaction and a time and date stamp. It is an excellent way to ward off fraud.

Bob’s youngest son is helping to market a new kind of Bitcoin called “Bitcoin Core.” Joy gave him her Bitcoins to convert into this new version. It’s supposed to be faster. Bob likes going to the track.

Profit From Your Data

Every day comes a new story about Facebook, Google or someone else profiting from your data. How about you profiting from it?

We just installed “Datum,” a free app for Android, iPhone and computers, from Datum.org. It lets you sell your own info. First, we gave advertisers the right to send us one email per month, then we allowed our background location data to be collected for a month. Heck, if we go to Timbuktu, we don’t care who knows it. (Bob has already been to Timbuktu, says it’s sandy.)

Our email could be worth up to 100 “DAT” (another cryptocurrency) per month, according to the app. At of today’s writing, that’s $1.67, which puts us in our place. We tried out their data calculator, at calc.datum.org, and found out that our data is worth about $2,000 to companies. That’s quite a spread between their price and ours.

The Numbers Report

According to Decluttr.com, nearly half of single women view the owner of an old phone as an immediate turn-off. Also from Decluttr: Most iPhone users are turned off by Android users, and only half of Android users are inclined to date an iPhone user. (Well, naturally.) Android users tend to agree with the statement: “iPhones are overpriced and fragile, and if my date had one, I can assume that they might make poor purchasing decisions.”

Where etiquette comes into play, iPhone users are more likely to cancel at the last minute or end a relationship by text. iPhone users are also more likely to fake a bathroom trip to use their phone, text a friend, and complain about their date. iPhone users are also more likely to text friends in the middle of a date to find ways to excuse themselves when it’s not going well. As Bugs Bunny would sometimes say: “You know of course that this means war.”

 

CUTTING THE CABLE, REVISITED

We asked AT&T how much it would cost to drop our TV service and just keep the Internet. They immediately offered to drop the monthly charge to $120 from $160. That’s better, we thought, but hardly the best.

Philo TV” has over 45 channels for $16 a month. These include A&E, Discovery, AMC, BBC America, Food Network, History, Travel, Lifetime, Food Network and Nickelodeon.  You can watch them on your computer or your phone. Or, if you want to watch on a regular TV, you can plug in a Roku stick or player, Apple TV, or an Amazon Fire stick. Roku and Amazon Fire are fairly cheap, $28 for Roku Express and $40 for the Fire stick.

Though Philo doesn’t have local channels, you could get those by buying an indoor antenna for around $30. You can try out Philo for free at Try.Philo.com. The nice thing is, they don’t ask for a credit card, just a cell phone number.

Another option is AT&T’s “Watch TV,” free for subscribers to AT&T’s unlimited cell phone service, which starts at $80 a month. It offers 31 live channels, around 15,000 shows and movies on demand and an option to view anything that’s been on in the last 72 hours. The word is they’re going to offer this service “soon” to non-subscribers at $15 a month. We aren’t holding our breath; “soon” is one of those magic words, always changing shape.

Better Searches

Joy argues that the best way to find anything on Google is to type it exactly as you want  it understood. Bob says there are some tricks of the trade worth knowing. For example:

Put in a dash or minus sign to exclude something. Say you’re looking for a history topic but are tired of articles from Wikipedia. Type into the Google search bar: “Teddy Roosevelt –Wikipedia,” without adding the quotes. Use the minus sign on your keyboard. (Note: Put a space to the left of the minus sign but not to the right.) We typed “CNN.com -politics” and got celebrity and business news. All right, it’s not a big timesaver, but at least it narrows things down.

Type “related:” (without the quotes) to find websites similar to ones you like. We typed “related:ZMEscience.com” and found FuturePundit and ScienceBlog.  Don’t forget the dot com part or you’ll get a different result. We typed “related:boardgames.com” for a lot of board game websites. Who knew there were so many board games?

Use “vs” when you want to compare foods or anything else. For example, “rye vs wheat” will bring up a comparison. Bob likes rye.

You can also search within a site, which is often better than a site’s own search bar. Just type the site’s name, add a space, and then the search term. For instance: “Burpee.com indoor plants.”

Google Pay

You can often use Google Pay, formerly “Android Pay,” just by waving your phone at the terminal you see at the check-out counter in the grocery store and other places, though our local CVS wasn’t set up for it. There’s also something called “Google Pay Send,” which lets you send money. Now the two apps are merging.

In Google Pay, tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines in the upper left corner of your phone screen) and choose “send or request money.”  (You can also use Google Pay on your computer.) There’s a 2.9 percent fee if you use a credit card, but it’s free if you use a debit card. Google Pay and Apple Wallet let you store airline boarding passes, concert tickets, loyalty cards, gift cards and so on. In Google Pay, if you want your friends to pay their fair share, just click on the transaction and then split it up. Other ways to do this are through Venmo or Apple Pay.

Internuts

App Happy

MobCrush.com is a place to watch others play video games live.  Who would want to do that? So far, 670 million people.

Want an easy way to share your own game playing and possibly earn money through ads? Mobcrush added an app called “MobCam.” It will let you share your game playing on lots of social platforms at once, including YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, Twitter and others. The app also lets you chat with anyone watching. If you get ad sponsors, you can earn $15 an hour on up. Keep on shooting.

You’ll find MobCam for free in the Apple App Store and a free version for Android is expected out later this summer.

The Numbers Report

Here’s what’s hot in the freelance job market: According to the latest report from Freelancer.com, it’s data mining, networking technology, web design, and writing. (Bob has noticed that everyone thinks they write well and can sing grand opera. They are mistaken.)

Not hot are jobs related to e-books, Google Plus, Microsoft and app design. According to a study by The Nielsen Company, kids and adults are turning to traditional books, not e-books. With over 2.8 million Android apps and 2.2 million Apple apps, many are questioning the need for more, so that demand is way down. Jobs related to blockchain technology were up 58 percent in the first quarter of this year.

 

OUR FAVORITE PHONE SERVICE

We like Google’s “Project Fi” cell phone service so much we wish it were available on every phone. Until recently, you could only get it on a Google Pixel or Nexus phone. Now they’re branching out to LG and Motorola.

The price is the best part. Project Fi offers unlimited calls and texts for $20, with each gigabyte of data costing $10. You only pay for what you use. Our bills have ranged from $26 to $36. If you use more than six gigabytes, they cap the maximum charge at $60, the rest is free.  The service itself, despite the Google name, comes from T-Mobile, US Cellular and Sprint, whichever signal happens to have the strongest signal for your location.

If you go abroad, your charges are the same as in the U.S. Starting this year, Project Fi has data coverage in 170 countries and territories. It’s still high speed, even if you’re in a far-away spot like Belize or Myanmar.

One of the new phones you can use with Project Fi service is Motorola’s “moto g,” usually $249 but sold by Google for $199. It has one of those edge-to-edge displays, which looks pretty sharp, and comes with 32 gigabytes of storage. You can add more by plugging in a micro SD card.

The other new phones that work with Project Fi service is two versions of LG’s “ThinQ.”  Now we’re talking expensive, at $749 and $899. You’re paying for better sound quality, faster speeds, a brighter display, a more efficient battery and sharper photos. More info at Fi.Google.com.

Hey, Taxi!

Our friend Betty had never used Uber or Lyft, the ride-hailing services. So we installed the Lyft app for her, sent her off on her maiden voyage and hoped for the best.

Everything went well and the service was half the price of an ordinary taxi. The car was clean and new, the driver friendly, and she got to her doctor’s office much faster than usual. (We have found in the past that regular taxis sometimes take circuitous routes.) On the return trip, she couldn’t quite figure out how to use the Lyft app, so she asked one of the doctor’s staff, and was off again in seconds. (A Lyft or Uber driver sometimes arrives in less than a minute, though you can tap “schedule” in either app if you need to delay it.) The app tells you the make, model and color of the driver’s car, plus their name and license plate, so you should know whether you’re getting into the wrong car by mistake.

To set it up, download either Lyft or Uber from the app store and put in your address and credit card number. If you’re retired, you can list your most frequent destination as your “work” location. That way, it will pop up without needing to be typed in or searched for.

Our friend was surprised that you don’t have to deposit any money upfront, they’ll subtract the amount of the ride automatically. And you don’t have to worry about giving a tip as you get out of the car. They’ll send you a text message to give you that option and allow you to rate the driver. Note: Neither you nor the driver need carry any money.

What if you and a few friends want to share a ride? If you are using the regular Uber or Lyft service, only one of you will be charged. But if you’re using “Uber Pool,” the carpooling service, which is much cheaper, each person will be charged for their seat. The same goes for “Shared Rides” in Lyft. Search on the term “shared rides in Lyft” to see if it’s available in your city; it’s typically just for big cities. This echoes a kind of ride service that is available in many countries and is often called “jitney service.” It used to be available in the U.S. too but that was a sometime thing long ago and far away.

Internuts

  • Top Tourist Attractions in Every Country.” Search on that phrase to find a map that seems to have been put together by someone who has never been anywhere. They list the top tourist attraction in the U.S. as Central Park, which is nice, but we usually see the top attraction listed as Las Vegas or Disney World. In Russia, instead of visiting the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or the Kremlin in Moscow, they say the number one attraction is “The Church of the Savior On Spilled Blood.” Seems unlikely.
  • 20 Quotes from Children’s Books that Every Adult Should Know.” Search on that phrase to find some good ones. Joy especially like this from Roald Dahl: “If you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
  • CryptoCoreMedia.com has fascinating articles about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. We looked at the “List of Crypto Tycoons and How They Became Rich.” The richest is Chris Larsen, founder of “Ripple.” He’s currently worth 59.9 billion. Well, in crypto currency.
  • Rubiks.com has six video tutorials to help you solve the famous “Rubik’s Cube.” The Cube has been purchased by over 450 million frustrated people since it came out in 1974. In other news, an intelligent robot is going to try to solve it in space as part of Space X’s 15th cargo mission headed to NASA’s International Space Station. Boy, does that sound like a gimmicky publicity promotion.

Getting Linked

A reader wanted to share his favorite photos via a link. He wasn’t sure if he needed a blog or a website to do that. Nope, never mind all that stuff.

Though there are several ways to do the share, here’s the easiest: Go to Photos.Google.com and click “upload” to upload any photos that aren’t there already. Then click “create” and choose “photo album.” Mark off the photos you want to include, type in a name for the album, and then click the “share” link to create a link you can send in an email.

After you click the share link, you will see choices, like sending it to one person on your email list, or posting it to Facebook. But if you look in the lower corner, there’s also a choice that says “get a link.” This link can be pasted in an email. Alternatively, you can send all your photos as simple attachments in Gmail. Gmail will automatically create a link in Google Drive, if your attachments add up to more than 25 megabytes.