TOE TO TOE WITH ALEXA AND GOOGLE

A child asked me which was better: Alexa, the voice inside the Amazon Echo Dot, or Google Assistant, the voice inside the Google Home speaker, renamed “Google Nest.” Until recently, I would have said Google Assistant.

That was before I read CNET’s “9 Things Alexa Can Do that Google Can’t.” Of course, right after that, I read “9 Things Google Can Do that Alexa Can’t.”

Let’s start with some Alexa differences. Alexa can play Apple Music as one of many choices;  Google makes Apple music off limits. Alexa listens for burglars, alerting you if  she hears glass breaking, an alarm going off and other sounds. (But you must turn on “Guard” in “Settings.”) Also, Alexa can hear your whispers and whisper back.  

OK, Google’s turn.  Google answers questions much better, even about Amazon products. I asked it about the new Amazon Halo, a Fitbit-type wearable. It answered perfectly. When I asked Alexa, she miffed it. Another thing I like about Google: It lets you play music, podcasts, audio books, video and other audio on another speaker or on your TV just by asking aloud. 

Now for some similarities: When I tried the free Alexa app on a new phone, it prompted me to set up an emergency contact. It will contact this person next time I say: “Alexa, call for help.” But both Alexa and Google can call friends and family by name, if they’re in your contact list. 

Fun Facebook Features

  • “Favorites” is a new Facebook feature. It puts the people you care about at the top of your newsfeed. To find it on your computer, click the down arrow in the upper right and choose “News Feed Preferences.” Then click “Favorites.”
  • “Watch” shows you videos based on what they think your tastes are. When I clicked it, I saw a guy play a typewriter in an orchestra performing the novelty tune “The Typewriter.” I also saw two guys performing “The Evolution of Piano.” But most of the videos on my list involved animal rescues. Obviously, Facebook has tagged me as a friend of the furry. You can find “Watch” on the left side of the Facebook home page.

What to Do When Your Mac Freezes

The first thing to do when your Mac freezes is to walk away for a minute or two.  It will make you feel better. It may even fix things: The problem could be a single program. By giving the system a rest, it gets a chance to catch up with you.

Another thing you can do is press the “Command,”  “Option,” and “Escape” keys. This brings up an option called “Force Quit,” giving you a chance to shut off any resource hogs. If you’re not sure who the offenders are, check the “Activity Monitor.” You’ll find it under “Applications” and “Utilities.”

HowtoGeek.com has more tips under the headline “What to do if your Mac Freezes.”

For Serious Artists

Created with Corel Painter – Click to see Gallery

If you don’t want to shell out $429 for the basic iPad and an Apple pencil to go with it, consider an $80 Wacom Intuos tablet. It comes with its own pencil.

Using a Wacom tablet plugged into your computer enables you to use a wide range of art and photo programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter or the free “Gimp.” With an iPad, you’re limited to apps.

The effects of digital paint are so realistic now that artists can create masterpieces without the fuss of paint, inserting details they’ve created before. Why reinvent another nose if you’ve already got a great one to slug in? 

During installation, the program asked me whether I would use it for 3D modeling, animation, illustration, comic design, web design or other professional-sounding activities. I chose “creative sketching.” It’s a bit intimidating, but the free “Gimp” program has some great tutorials starting at square one. 

If you prefer drawing on an iPad, see CNET’s article, “The Best Apps for Drawing on an iPad.” They chose “Procreate,’ “Autodesk Sketchbook,” “Art Set 4,” and “Lake.”

Windows Updates

Do you ever install the “Update Preview” in Windows 10? If so, you’re helping Microsoft by being a beta tester.

You can get to the Update Preview if you click “check for updates” in the last half of the month. There’s always a chance it might fix something on your machine, but experts say it’s better to stick with the stable version. Microsoft uses your experience to issue bug reports before the regular update is ready. The update appears on the second Tuesday of the month. 

 Internuts

  • Poets.org: If you like love poems that rhyme, search at Poets.org for those written before the 1920s. Better yet, do a Google search on “Love poems before 1920.” Then look for an address with dot org in it, such as classicalpoets.org.
  • Speedtest.net, as so many readers reminded me, is the place to go to check your internet speed, not Speedtest.com. Thanks guys.

 Making Money on Zoom

  • Luma,” free from the Zoom Marketplace, lets you sell tickets to your Zoom events.
  • OnZoom” also lets you sell tickets and promote your events. If you wish, you can sign up for other people’s upcoming events, such as “Back to Basics Breakfast Classics” and “How to Play the Ukulele.” Most are free. 
  • Whether using OnZoom or Luma, you must have the paid version of Zoom, It’s $149 a year. 

 

SMARTPHONE PLANS FOR THE FRUGAL

My frugal sister will get her first smartphone when her flip phone runs out of minutes, 45 minutes from now. 

That may take a while. She doesn’t make many calls on it. In the meantime, her friends keep saying: “What?” The sound quality is dreadful.

I suggested the Pixel 4a for $349 with “Google Fi” cell service for $20 a month for unlimited talk and text, not counting whatever data you use. But a friend’s deal may be better. She went with Consumer Cellular’s iPhone SE for $250. Consumer Cellular is known for their friendly tech support, especially for seniors. The monthly cost is lower than Google’s “Fi” service if you use more than 500 megabytes worth of data per month.

At Consumer Cellular, unlimited voice and unlimited texts with 500 megabytes of data is $25 a month. If you go over the data limit — by surfing the web when you’re away from a Wi-Fi connection — they only charge an extra $5, even if you use three gigabytes worth.  On Google Fi, three gigabytes of data with unlimited talk and text would cost $50. That’s $20 more than the Consumer Cellular deal, not counting the five percent discount for AARP members. 

When I visit my sister next week in California, I’ll hand her my Pixel 3a phone so she can compare it to her husband’s iPhone. She’s leaning toward the iPhone. It’s a good idea to get the same type of phone as your loved one or friend, so they can show you the ropes. I’ll always regret getting my 90-something aunt an iPad when all her friends had computers. She never did learn how to work it.

For budget-minded folks who rarely use a phone out of range of WiFi, it’s hard to beat TracFone’s $30 Android smartphones, such as the LG Rebel 4 with a $125-a-year service plan. It offers 1500 call minutes, 1500 texts and 1.5 gigabytes of data. If you spread it out evenly, that’s about two hours of talking a month, 125 texts a month and 125 megabytes of data a month. To escape the voice and text limits, use a free app like Signal or WhatsApp when you’re in range of WiFi. But in my experience, TracFone doesn’t offer good tech support.

I Was Wrong

A reader wrote to say he tried clicking on the link in what I thought was a fake AOL message. Nothing bad happened. He was right, I was wrong.

My earlier suspicions came from Googling it. I also examined the link itself. The text in a link is often just decoration; it doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going. When I hovered over the link and looked at the bottom of my computer screen where the real address was displayed, it looked phony. I should have tried clicking on it anyway. I have the free extension “Malwarebytes Browser Guard,” so I would have gotten a warning if it had been fake.

AOL would like all users to either download their new iOS or Android app, or to click one of the links in their message to get third-party apps, such as Gmail, in sync with their new sign-in procedures. Those who go to AOL’s website instead of using an app don’t have to worry about this.

Pinball

One of the earliest games I ever played on a computer was pinball. It’s still fun. So I eagerly turned to Stern Pinball’s new Star Trek game. It’s $5 from Steampowered.com.

Stern is the biggest manufacturer of arcade-quality pinball machines on the planet, going back to the early 1930s. They also make computer games. The new StarTrek pinball I played was fun, with chatter about alien civilizations. I don’t think it beats the old Microsoft Pinball for Windows 98, which a friend of mine plays in Windows 10, but it’s good. 

The download at Steampowered.com said it would take 55 minutes– unheard of! But trying it again later, it was zip quick, for reasons known only to the gremlins who haunt these things. Besides the Star Trek game, I played Stern’s free pinball game, “Last Action Hero,” named after the movie by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a good thing I bought the $20 Logitech Gamepad to play it with. A mouse just doesn’t cut it. 

App Happy

Google’s free app “Arts and Culture” has a new feature: it lets you step into a famous painting, by tapping “Art Filters.” You need a phone that has augmented reality to make it work. I used my Pixel 3a.  Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” put a headdress on my head. Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Monkey,” put  a monkey on my shoulder. I snapped a picture of myself and saved it. But the app’s links to the world’s best art  museums are better than these AR filters. No augmented reality required. No app required either. Just go to ArtsAndCulture.Google.com on your computer or phone.

 

 

 

A SECOND LOOK AT AMAZON HALO WEARABLE

Amazon Halo, the new Fitbit-type wearable I wrote about it last time, is even weirder than I thought. But I like it.

 Halo’s voice analysis can pinpoint my moods to the very second, telling me when I sound delighted, amused, shy, and so on. (I’ve yet to sound angry even once in over three weeks.) For example, it said I was  “miserable” at 11:10 a.m., but “happy” exactly two seconds later. If you want to improve your tone, the app has video challenges for that. For instance, a four-time martial arts champion and yoga expert guides you in warm-ups for powerful public speaking. You can turn off the mike if you don’t want your tone analyzed. Speech samples are processed only on your phone, then automatically deleted.

The sleep analysis is superb. I thought I got at least nine hours of sleep per night, on average. (After all, I was the only one in kindergarten who had to be roused from nap time.) Halo says I average only seven hours. Luckily, she won’t downgrade me  for getting up in the middle of the night unless I do it too often, but she takes a stern view of lollygagging once morning arrives. This morning, my score dropped from 75 to 71 when I lolled around for an extra 30 minutes. Halo also tracks sleep disturbances, which are defined as any time you’re awake in the night for more than five minutes. More than three are inadvisable, but the app’s sleep videos and tips can help with that. 

My only beef so far is the activity monitor. I can get 60 points for cycling a half hour, only one point for yoga. But anyone who’s done power yoga knows that it beats the heck out of cycling on a low gear.

Magnetic Toy Teaches Young Scientists

A toy came in for review that taught me something about magnetism. For $30 from Target, the “Magnetic Motion Set” from Geomag could get any kid’s imagination working.  At least for half an hour.

There are four projects. Each one has two components. When you set one side swinging, the steel balls in it get the steel balls on the other side swinging too. With a gentle push to start it off, they can keep swinging on their own for about 30 seconds.

The box says it’s for ages 7 and up, but unless your child is a genius, you’ll want to help. There are few words in the instructions, it’s almost all pictures. Basically, you use a magnetic stick to check polarity: if a magnet repels, it will go with one kind of design element; if it attracts, it will go with another. Look at the pictures carefully. My friend and I started by putting some orange discs together upside down. It’s not obvious at first how they interlock with each other. 

I thought the last project was attractive enough to put on display. But if you want hours of amusement, you’ll have to order more pieces.

Trading in Your iPhone for a New One

Most people trade in their phone at the carrier where they bought it.  But according to Flipsy.com, iPhone buyers could get $200 more if they avoid Verizon and AT&T and try a site like Swappa or eBay.

 Alternatively, you could skip the auction sites and use Flipsy, which directs you to websites that offer instant cash. Your offer won’t beat eBay, but it’s convenient. You won’t have to take pictures of your gizmo or provide a written description, like you would on an auction site. Besides, there’s always a risk that your used item won’t sell. According to oberlo.com, used items on eBay don’t sell as well as new ones, at least in the U.S. Only 40 percent of used items get sold, compared to over 56 percent of new ones. It’s the reverse globally.

Internuts

  • Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in a Zoom Book Discussion at BookPassage.com

    Go to Wikiwand.com to download a freebie that makes Wikipedia look like a pleasant magazine. After I did, I searched on Google for “corn” and clicked on the Wikipedia link. Instead of the usual gray page, the article appeared in Wikiwand, with photos attractively placed and a table of contents in a colored bar on the left.

  • BookPassage.com. Sign up to get a daily, live interview with an author, or browse their recordings. Recently, I watched one with P.J. O’Rourke. It was funny and insightful.

 

WHEN IT COMES TO A LAPTOP, IT CAN PAY TO SPEND LESS

You don’t have to buy an expensive laptop to get a fast machine. I like Google Chromebooks, but learned my lesson on the more expensive ones.

Chromebooks are fast because they aren’t gunked up with software. Almost everything takes place online. Any errors are automatically fixed each time you boot up. But reviewers often encourage you to spend more money than necessary. Except for a cheapish Lenovo, everything listed on “The Best Chromebooks for 2020,” at TheVerge.com is around $600 on up, with one well over a thousand. Same goes for CNET and Wired reviews.

For more than a week, I used a friend’s $199 HP Chromebook 14, comparing it with my own $650 Pixelbook Go from Google. Sure, the Pixelbook Go has a touch screen, but I don’t need that. The Pixelbook Go also has backlit keys — so nice in a dark room– but I can turn on the lights. The Pixelbook has an amazing battery life: nearly 16 hours. But I’m rarely away from a wall outlet. Eight hours is plenty.

The full name of the HP I’m trying out is “HP 14 DB0043wm.” It seems just as fast as my more expensive machine. Like my Pixelbook, the HP has the kind of screen you can view from all angles. This is especially helpful if you’re watching a movie while sitting on the floor and looking up at the screen, or sitting off to one side. The HP also has a nice variety of ports: two USB-3 ports, two USB 2 ports, a micro SD card slot, and a headphone/microphone jack. The Pixelbook Go doesn’t have any USB 2 slots or a card reader. (All of my flash drives are USB 2, so I need those slots.) What’s more, the HP Chromebook, at three pounds, is only seven ounces heavier than the Pixelbook. And like all Chromebooks sold in the last four years or so, you can install Android apps on it, which includes Xbox games, printing apps and other useful stuff. It also has great sound and a nice screen resolution.

Walmart.com is selling the HP 14 for $90 less than Amazon is, though they’re currently out of stock. But before I get carried away on bargains, I must admit that cheap isn’t always better. It’s safe if you get a good brand like HP. I bought a cheap “VssoPlor” mouse that stops working half the time. I should have gone with Logitech.

Playing Music in an Old Car

A reader wants to play his favorite music in an old car with no Bluetooth capability. It’s stored on a flash drive. But where can he get a radio receiver with a USB port?

Start at Crutchfield.com and search on “radio receiver.” Then put in the make, model and year of your car; this ensures you’ll get one that’s compatible. Scroll down to the cheaper models. If you see one that says “screen mirroring with USB,” it will play your thumb drive full of music. I checked to see what they had for my 20-year-old Honda Odyssey. I found the Jenson CMM7720 for $150. A friend bought the Kenwood “Excelon KDC-X304 CD Receiver,” for $120. Once you stick your flash drive in, it will start the music right where you left off the last time, when you turned your car off. The sound quality is better than what typically comes with an older car.

Best Buy says they’ll take out your old receiver and put in a new one for $65, even if you don’t buy the receiver from them. I gave this advice to a reader, but he had a different experience. Instead of $200, they wanted to charge him over $400 with tax. I took a look at the invoice. They’d tacked on a steering wheel gizmo that lets you change the music with a tap. It required an extra installation fee. Otherwise, the total would have been around $199, not $400. All the reader needs is the $17 dash kit for his Toyota Avalon, the $65 in-dash installation, a $17 wiring harness, and a $100 Alpine In-Dash Media Receiver.

Alternatively, get a boombox. At Amazon,  search on “portable radio with USB.” For example, the Pyle “Surround Portable Boombox Wireless Home Speaker” has a USB slot and high definition sound. It’s only $20 and you can use it in the house too.

Covering Your Phone

In a craft project, a lint-filled, gluey blob landed on my Android phone. Try as I might to remove it, it wouldn’t budge.

A friend suggested an alcohol wipe. I’ve read you shouldn’t use those, but I was desperate. No dice. The blob still obscured my Pixel 2. So I tried a razor blade. That did it, but the phone stopped working. Uh oh.

Fortunately, I had a Pixel 3a that my late husband discarded in favor of our landline. I bought a TOCOL screen protector for it for $9, made of tempered glass. Works well. Though I mostly use a stylus, I’ve noticed my fingerprints don’t smudge it half as much as they did on an unprotected phone.

App Happy

Find a less-crowded train using Amtrak’s free app for Android and iPhone. It shows you how full the train is, as a percentage. You can use the app to book, board and check the train’s status. You also get route details and service alerts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SLEEP TRACKER KEEPS ME UP ALL NIGHT

My first night with Amazon’s $65 “Halo” fitness band was hilarious. I kept waking up to see if I could improve my sleep score. I couldn’t stand to see a “poor” grade. I kept trying to go back to sleep until I got a “fair.”

The next night, my sleep score went up to “good,” with eight hours and six minutes of sleep but slightly less rapid-eye-movement than ideal. It also told me how long I took to fall asleep. Last night, it was zero minutes, compared to 14 the night before. I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. The funniest thing happened when I took a nap. The app changed my score to “poor” and said I’d been in bed for more than 15 hours! Turns out I shouldn’t have worn it on my ankle. It only works on your wrist.

Halo is much more than a sleep scorer, however. It monitors activity, heart rate, body fat and a somewhat mysterious item called “tone” — which has nothing to do with fitness and everything to do with personality. Concerning the activity monitor, I was pleased to discover I got credit for leg lifts and other floor exercises, instead of just walking. I can even swim with it. But all analyses take place on your phone. The band is just a strap with the computer gizmo underneath where you can’t see it. More stylish bands are supposedly coming soon.

The heart rate monitor seems much more accurate than other wearables. It correlates with another monitor I have. But “tone” needs work. On a day when I felt joyful all day, it said I was neutral 55 percent of the time, happy six percent of the time and energetic for one percent of my day. My most negative moment occurred at 4 p.m. That’s when I was playing a Pachinko-like game called Peggle, and cried out after missing a shot.

You get voice analysis, body fat measurements, health tips, exercise videos and extensive sleep analysis for six months for free. After that, it’s $4 a month. I was pleased to discover that my body fat percentage put me in the athletic category. The voice analysis seems gimmicky but might be good for those trying to improve on a negative personality. The app also has video workouts. I’ve tried their beginning yoga and am considering one from a football quarterback called “DangerTrain.”

Amazon’sHalo is $65 during a discount period, then it rises to $100. If you want one, go to Amazon.com, search on “Amazon Halo” and click to request an invitation after explaining why you want it. I said I was a huge Amazon fan and had previously owned fitness wearables. That did it. It arrived the next day.

Website Tip

If you find yourself going to the same website on your phone or tablet, why not add an icon to the home screen to get there in one tap?

Here’s how to do it in Google Chrome. Launch Chrome, then go to the website you want to save. Tap the three vertical dots in the upper right corner. Choose “Add to Homescreen.” In Safari, go to your favorite website, click the “share” icon in the bottom of the screen and choose “Add to Home Screen.”

Disconnected

I kept losing my connection to the Internet at a friend’s house. Then I tried unplugging the router for 30 seconds. That worked. Alternatively, I could have pushed the reset button.

Just as a computer can often be fixed by powering it down, so can a router. According to HowToGeek.com, a router is a kind of computer with a central processing unit, memory and local storage. Just like a PC, mysterious things can happen inside. For instance, a bug can cause a memory leak, the CPU can overheat, and who knows what else goes on in there. Maybe gremlins hold hands and dance. When you turn the router off for 30 seconds, the capacitors are drained and fully reset.

Of course, sometimes you can’t keep an Internet connection no matter what you do. I tried a Google Mesh system, which is supposed to help. But putting the router in a central place was the only thing that worked.

YouTube Tip

If you’d rather read than watch a lecture on YouTube, look for the three horizontal dots to the right of the word “save” underneath the video. Click “open transcript.” Now, when you click the play button, the transcript will run along the right side of the screen. But if you want to go faster, pause the play button and use the arrow key on your computer to move the transcript along.

 

 Internuts

  • “People on dating apps are more likely to exhibit dark personality traits.” Search on that phrase to see an article in ZME Science. A new study, using 555 Germans, found that people using three major dating apps were more likely to be scheming narcissists. Another study showed that Australian men on the dating site Tinder scored high in psychopathy. However, I have a friend who is very happily married to someone she met through the site EliteSingles.com.
  • Archive.org, also known as the “Way Back Machine” brings you websites as they used to look, even a decade ago. So far, they’ve made 468 billion web pages available from way back. Recently, they teamed up with CloudFare to archive even more.
  • PetCoach.co can answer your pet questions 24 hours a day, every day. For more resources, search on the phrase “Chat with a Vet.”

 

FREE CALLS AND TEXTS

If you’re on a limited calling plan, you don’t have to buy more minutes when you run out. A free app called “Signal Private Messenger” lets you call for free using a WiFi signal. It beats the heck out of WhatsApp and the other free WiFi calling apps I’ve tried.

Using the Signal app, my voice calls are as clear as any on my landline or cell phone service, whether I’m talking or listening. Ironically, 60 of my friends are on WhatsApp, but until I sent invitations, none were on Signal. Yet in my experience, the sound quality in WhatsApp is lousy. When I tried it, the sound kept cutting out. In Signal, it’s great.

Signal lets you make calls on an iPhone, Android phone, Windows computer or Mac. It’s run by a nonprofit foundation, which gets donations rather than trying to make money. There are no ads, no affiliate marketers or creepy tracking. Besides voice calls, it also handles text messages and video calls. Find it in the app store on your phone.

Oontz Adds Oomph

The best affordable portable speaker I’ve ever had is the one I just got: the “Oontz Angle 3 Ultra, third generation” from Cambridge Soundworks. It was recommended by a reader and is $35 from theOontz.com or Amazon.

It’s great for amplifying a phone, computer, or tablet. Lately, I’ve been using it instead of a soundbar for improving the sound on my TV. It’s better than nothing, especially for those British films where the crunch on the gravel walk is louder than the dialogue. But it makes a much bigger difference when listening to music from my phone or watching a movie from my computer. Instead of having to sit in front of the computer, I can sit across the room with the speaker on a table next to me. That way I get great sound without turning the volume up. You can connect the Oontz wirelessly using the Bluetooth setting on your phone. It works from up to 100 feet away.

Since there are two speakers inside the Oontz, which is about the size of two glasses cases taped together, you get stereo. It will play for 200 hours before needing to be plugged in for a recharge. It’s waterproof enough to play in the shower or at the beach.

Get Windows 10 Free

A reader asked about getting Windows 10 for free. It’s considered risky to continue using Windows 7.

Microsoft said it discontinued the free version of Windows 10 in 2018 but you can still get it if you use their accessibility site. Search on the phrase “Microsoft Software Download Windows 10 Page.” When you get to the site, click on “Download Tool Now” under “Create Windows 10 Installation Media.” You’ll need to burn an “ISO” file to a thumb drive or memory stick. I used the free “Burner Studio Free,” from Ashampoo.com. If you aren’t techie, or don’t have a techie friend to help you, try Kenny from helphelpnow.com.

Kudos to You

Kudoboard.com lets you pin photos, clipart and text to a greeting card wall to share with others via a link. Kudos to them for making greeting cards more fun.


The link will look something like “kudoboard.com/mycard.” This may turn off people who think they’ll have to register at the site. (They won’t.) To ensure they’ll open it, get the words “kudoboard,” etc. out of the link. Put your cursor somewhere in the blue text and type something like “my latest thoughts and pictures” or whatever sounds compelling to you. (“My secret diary about to go viral” would get more eyeballs than you probably want.) Delete any extra characters. The underlying link will stay the same, only the description changes. As you email it around, each recipient can sign it and add their own pictures and videos. The site is free if you have ten or fewer contributors.

Unusual Podcast

Blog.FreetoChooseNetwork.org has radio shows on economics. I listened to “Do Economists Reach a Conclusion?” It calls to mind the old joke: “If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.” Actually, economists tend to agree on how to achieve a given policy outcome, such as lower housing costs. They disagree on priorities.

Call Blocker

A reader says he gets a lot of junk calls. He was wondering if there is a way to accept calls from contacts only. There is. It’s in a free app called “Call Blocker.” It works but it requires disabling your battery optimization. Bummer. If you stop optimizing your battery

for this app, your phone can drain more quickly. On the other hand, if you don’t disable it, Call Blocker turns itself off periodically.

Before I got a Pixel, which automatically screens calls, I used “TrueCaller” to block the junk. The ad-free version now costs $30 a year. It blocks telemarketers, detects fraud, identifies unknown callers and allows unlimited call recording.

Internuts

  • 7 Palindromes that will make your head hurt.” Search on that phrase to find them on wordgenius.com. Examples include short ones like: Dammit, I’m mad.” And long ones like: “Doc, note. I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.”
  • Ducksters.com has interesting historical tidbits. For example, Adam Smith, the great economist, was kidnapped by gypsies as a young child. As an already-famous adult, he worked as a tutor. This gave him time to write a book that influenced the founding of America: “The Wealth of Nations.” Take note, tutors of today.

 

DATA NAKED

A reader got upset when I said Chrome was my favorite web browser. He wrote: “You do realize that Chrome keeps track of everything you do on the internet–  browsing, searches, and anything you write? I switched to Microsoft Edge after being a Chrome user for many years. I finally realized how data naked I really am.”

It could be worse. According to Google’s privacy policy, your personal info is not for sale to anyone. Google uses it to show you ads for products from Google partners or Google itself. If you’re worried about privacy, go to myaccount.google.com and click on “data and personalization” to automatically turn off tracking and delete every trace of everything you’ve done on the web or in an app. It’s under “Activity Controls.” You can wipe everything older than three months. Of course, a lot of tailored ads could be sent to you in that period of time.

Microsoft Edge, although based on the same Chromium system as Google Chrome, minds your privacy better, according to CNET. However, search engines like Microsoft Bing, used by Edge, do sell info to advertisers. Even the frequently-recommended search engine DuckDuckGo, allows you to be seen by advertisers on the sites you visit.

An alternative is Startpage.com. Search for anything and when the results come up, click “Anonymous View” to the right of the link you wish to visit. Your computer’s address will be masked. So will your location, your browser, operating system and personal information.  They claim you still get Google’s great search results, but I noticed they were different and not as good.

Let Me Count the Waze

Waze is a free app for calling out directions to you as you drive, walk or take public transportation. Now Waze has a new feature: It will tell you the best lane to be in. It will also tell you when to leave home, based on how long such trips usually take you.

I get lost easily, so Waze’s ability to call out directions is a lifesaver for me. My brother likes it because it tells him when he’s near a traffic jam, an accident or a police car. He also reports this kind of info in the Waze app for other users. You can report it too.

Under the Hood

A “Kano PC” is a $299 tablet aimed at kids who want to understand how a computer works.

Unfortunately, the kiddies won’t learn much by assembling it. Out of the box, they can only connect the battery and speaker. The processor, built-in storage, RAM and power management components are highlighted, but they’re covered by an aluminum heat sink, rendering them invisible. Still, the kids will learn a lot from the PC’s tutorials on how computers work.

The Kano PC looks a lot like Microsoft’s Surface Go when the keyboard is attached. It comes with Windows 10 and a free mouse but the Kano webcam is $30. The PC has only 64 gigabytes of storage space, but a microSD slot lets you add a card with up to 512 gigabytes — not enough for Fortnite.

If your young ones just want to learn to code, they don’t need this thing. They can go to  World.Kano.Me, Kano’s free site. It has the best kids’ coding tutorials I’ve tried, using the building block approach. By moving colorful blocks into place instead of writing code, you’re much less likely to make errors. (I managed to make one anyway.) Which reminds me: I once stayed up till midnight at a college computer lab trying to find a bug. Fortunately, a smart boy helped me before I tore my hair out. For more info on the Kano PC, check out the review on Engadget.com.

Rogue Apps

Look out for rogue apps. They put malware on your computer.

I tried to track a package sent by the Post Office and wound up installing a dubious “package tracer.” I should have known. The Post Office would never ask me to install anything. I became suspicious when the app told me it found my package but had no arrival estimate. Good thing I had Malwarebytes “Browser Guard” installed, or the app would have taken me to malicious sites. To find my package, I searched on the phrase “USPS tracking.” It came up instantly.

App Happy

I was at a friend’s house when I wanted a print-out of a recipe from my phone. Fortunately, I’d just installed the free “Mopria” app for Android phones and tablets.  It works beautifully and is universal. That means that instead of having to download a specific app every time you want to print something away from home, you can use Mopria. It’s compatible with over two dozen major printer brands. The company has certified 120 million individual printers.

Once I’d found my recipe, I tapped “Print.” My friend’s Canon printer came up and I chose it. Note: The printer must be wirelessly connected to the internet. It won’t work if it’s connected  by USB cable.

If you have an iPhone, try the free PrintJinni, found in the iPhone or iPad app store. For extra features, there’s “Printer Pro by Readdle,” for $6. It can send a document to a USB-connected printer or a wireless one.

Getting a Charge

If you have an Amazon Fire HD tablet, you may wonder why it takes so long to charge the darn thing — seems like all day long. That’s because the output on the charger is only 1.8 amps. What you need is a charger with 3 amps. The Fonken “3 Amp USB Wall charger” comes in a three-pack for $14.

 

LET’S COLLABORATE

I just started using Google Docs to collaborate. It’s fun.

I enjoy collecting web links, poems and photos in a place where loved ones can view or add to them. That way, there’s no hunting for email attachments or cycling through photo galleries looking for stuff to see or share again.

After someone shares an item, you can go to Drive.Google.com and click “Shared With Me” to see it. It will always be there to view or edit unless one of you deletes it. Another way to view your stuff is with the free app “Google Backup and Sync.” It adds a Google Drive shortcut to your computer. But if you use that program, be sure to select which folders you want backed up. Otherwise, it will backup almost everything, eating up your online storage space.

Senior Watch

A new smartwatch for seniors  looks like an Apple Watch, but everything is bigger and easier to read. Called the “Movietime Family Watch MT43a,” it’s coming out this fall for $271 from TCL. Most importantly for older seniors, it has a heart rate monitor: An alarm goes off if the rate is too slow or too fast. If a fall is detected, it will call an emergency number. It also has an “SOS” button. Push it to call an emergency contact or service.

Large Type

I’ve been reading about “flexible displays” for years and they’re finally here. The $398 “Nubia Watch” will wrap around your wrist as easily as a roll of film. The display is about an inch wide and four inches long. It shows you a lot at once: incoming calls, emails, Facebook posts, text messages and notifications. But it has more drawbacks than an elephant at a tea party.

A Gizmodo reviewer said the Nubia crashed when he tried to import his iPhone photos and music. He couldn’t get phone calls to work either, and it recorded the wrong distance for his run. Besides that it’s bulky. Worst of all, it’s not available yet.

Backers on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.com can preorder the watch for half off. People adore novelty: It’s already raised 20 times the funding the company hoped for. But not all Kickstarter projects make it to market. Buyer beware.

It’s All Symbolic

A reader wrote: “How do I find the old fashioned symbols for temperature in degrees or the ‘cents’ symbols for my email? It’s tiresome to write 67 deg. I’m a Luddite.”

There’s no easy way to add symbols in email except by copying them from somewhere.  Using the Windows Extended Clipboard, you can copy up to 25 items at a time, by holding the “Ctrl ” key after highlighting each item and tapping the letter C.  If you want to choose from a list of things you’ve copied, tap the Windows key (looks like a flag) and tap the letter V. Then choose an item to paste. (The first time, you’ll need to turn on the Extended Clipboard by doing a search on “Clipboard Settings” from the search bar in the lower left of your screen. Then click “Clipboard History.”)

Alternatively, there are free apps, such as Clipboard History Pro, for Chrome. Copy as many things as you like by holding down “Ctrl” (or Cmd on the Mac) and tapping the C key. Then go to the menu in Clipboard History and choose one to paste in with “Ctrl V.” Firefox and Microsoft Edge have a similar app.

If you want to copy from a table full of symbols and accent marks in Windows, type “character map” into the search box in the lower left side of your screen. On a Mac, select “System Preferences” from the Apple menu in the upper-left corner of the screen and find “Language and Text,” then “Character Palette.”  

The Old Solitaire

In 2012, Microsoft removed Solitaire from Windows. Go figure. It was one of the most played games in the world. It came back as part of Windows in 2015, but it was different. 

Some miss the old version. A reader told me where to get it. Go to winaero.com/blog/get-windows-7-games-for-windows-10/. The nice thing about it is you also get classic versions of Hearts, Free Cell, Mahjong, Minesweeper and “Purble Place,” for kids.  It also has internet versions of Backgammon, Checkers and Spades.

The good thing about Microsoft’s newer solitaire, however, is that you can choose to play only solvable games, which I love. I can’t stand playing game after game without a win. You can also choose your skill level. I like intermediate. 

To find the new version, type “solitaire” in the search bar in the lower left of your Windows screen. Then choose “Microsoft Solitaire Collection.” It’s also available for iPhone, iPad, Android phones and tablets or on the web at zone.msn.com. Over 100 million hands are played daily by 35 million people around the globe.

Stylin’

A reader wrote to share his experience using a stylus on his phone. Now I’m hooked on a stylus too.

One reason I love it:  I’ve stopped smudging my phone and laptop screen. For another, it’s more precise. The NOAA.gov weather page, for example, has some links so tiny they’re hard to pinpoint even with a baby finger. 

I bought the same stylus the reader recommended, the “MEKO Universal Stylus” for $14. You get two of them, plus four replaceable disc tips that are more precise than the rubber ones it also comes with. The disc on the end is clear plastic so you can see what you’re doing.

 

PRINTER PROBLEMS

Over the years, companies have sent Bob Schwabach and me a lot of printers for review. We once lined up six of them and they were all clogged. After hearing from readers on this topic, I’m tempted to start a Cloggers Anonymous.

“My sister has an Epson XP-446 that seems to have been clogging up since just after she bought it,” one guy wrote. “She doesn’t print much and suspects the printheads are clogging between uses. Is it worth buying the $25 kit to clean the heads or should I just get her a new printer? I am concerned it will just clog up again.”

“You probably don’t need a new printer or a cleaning kit,” I told him. “You just need to select the right buttons on the machine to run the printhead-cleaning routine. You can find your printer manual online. There will be a section on how to clean the printheads.”

Any inkjet printer will clog from disuse. Experts say you should use it at least once a week to prevent this. The longer the ink cartridges sit unused, the more likely it is that the ink left on the printheads will dry up and clog. But even if you use the printer every day, clogging is still possible. Run your printer’s cleaning cycle once a month, to be sure. It’s just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

Saved by a Free App

Without a free recording app called “Otter,” from Otter.ai, I would have lost one of the best memories I have. Otter records any conversation and gives you an instant transcript. 

Otter keeps your recordings in your own private space on its own website, which is a godsend if you do a factory reset of your phone and lose them. It also makes a transcript of every recording, so when you’re on the Otter website, you can export either the recording, the transcript or both.

Otter is great for doctor’s appointments. Doctors have a way of rattling information off so fast, you hardly get what they’re saying. But the recording I made of Bob telling guests about his Moroccan adventures is the one I treasure most.

Perjil Islet, off the coast of Morocco

When Bob was a 20-something, he gave some Spanish sailors $5 to take him to the rocky islet of Perejil, not knowing that he was about to enter a Moroccan military base.

After waving goodbye to the sailors and climbing a cliff, he was immediately taken for a spy. A firing line assembled, pushing him to the cliff edge. Just as he was considering diving down to the water below, the captain emptied Bob’s kit bag. His passport fell out. “Américain?” he asked. Bob was saved. In 1786, Morocco signed a treaty of peace and friendship with America, cementing the longest unbroken relationship in U.S. history.

Keeping Your Phone Clean

With all this news about the coronavirus, there’s more concern than ever about germy phones. The average person touches their phone 2600 times a day.

If you have an iPhone, a recent Samsung Galaxy or Pixel 4, there are phone cases that kill germs on contact. The “Speck Presidio Pro” is $40. Tech 21’s “Evo Check” covers more Samsung models but fewer iPhone models for $30. There are also antimicrobial screen protectors, such as the InvisibleShield Glass Elite VisionGuard and some from UltraClear. But they’re only compatible with fairly new phones. Alcohol wipes are not recommended because they remove the coating that protects your phone from smudges. Even worse, they don’t get rid of all germs.

I use an $80 box from PhoneSoap.com. The company got started when one of the founders discovered that the average cell phone is 18 times dirtier than a public restroom.

To use it, place your phone inside the box. UV-C laser light zaps 99.9 percent of the bacteria away while the phone charges. You can also throw in keys, credit cards, earbuds and other small objects. A new, much larger PhoneSoap box is coming out later this month for $200. It can handle pacifiers, tablets, game machines like the Nintendo Switch and so on. By the way, PhoneSoap doesn’t claim their product kills Covid 19, but UV-C light has been shown to kill the virus in the right dosage.

We can expect to see many more such gadgets, including “The Luna” from TheLunasphere.com. Small businesses are starting to use it for outgoing packages. They use a conveyor belt: The gizmos go through a tunnel that looks something like the airport screening system for your luggage and electronics. A home version starts at $1,895.

Zoom Tip of the Week

Use “Lingmo Translate” to send text messages in 80 languages while you’re in the chat area of Zoom, the online conferencing system. You can also use it outside of Zoom, but Zoom makes it easier. Just go to the Zoom Marketplace and click to install the free app.

If you’re not the administrator of a Zoom account, you can send a request to the administrator. It’s $89 a year after the first free month.

Internut

Frank Sinatra

FilmRise,” a free movie app, has added award-winning movies and TV shows to its line-up, for viewing from September 13 through the 20th. The idea is to get you in the mood for the virtual Emmy Awards on September 20. Titles include “An American Crime,” “Hunter,” and oldies, like “The Rifleman,” and “Frank Sinatra, A Man and His Music.”

BYE BYE ROBOT VACUUM

When a young relative gave me a robot vacuum last Christmas, I got excited. Sure, it wasn’t a Roomba, only a $140 knock-off. But it jump-started my vacuum adventure.

The “LeFant 300 M” robot did a great job, but I had to babysit it. It would go back and forth, practically on the same path, on a faux Persian rug from Home Depot, though it did better on wall-to-wall carpet. After awhile, I got bored and left the room. That’s when disaster struck. It made a beeline for the strings that pull up the blinds. After having a good chew, it burned itself out. I could still start it up, but after a few seconds it would stop and bleat wildly. I gave up on it, turning to a heavy Kenmore upright.

A few weeks ago, a cordless, stick vacuum came in for review. Unlike my Dyson V7 stick — which conked out on me after a few years — the “ROIDXI X30 Procomes with a “HEPA” filter, and a patented antimicrobial agent. It doubles as a mop with its own magnetic water tank. I can go around the room from rug to floor to carpet, almost noiselessly. It’s not available yet, but a similar model, the ROIDMI Cordless Stick NEX 20, is $449 on Amazon.

The parent company, Xiaomi, also makes robot vacuums. In addition, it has 10 percent of the global smartphone market. Last week, speaking of its latest phone, the “Mi 10 Ultra,” Forbes Magazine said: “Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy Beaten by Another Radical New Smartphone.”

Falling in Love Through Tech

Falling in love in the tech age is quicker. But today’s tech may be too fast.

Bob Schwabach and I were the opposite of quick. We met on the phone when I was pitching a tech product for a public relations agency in California. We wrote snail mail letters to each other for two years. After a couple more years, he sent me a book he’d written; it had his email address inside. That accelerated everything, launching our great tech adventure and eventual marriage.

Email is great. Back then, it was somewhat new. As our courtship heated up, we began emailing each other several times a day. But we didn’t forget the old tech. Bob’s landline phone bill cost more than his apartment rent.

Many people these days send more text messages than email. But a young couple I read about ditched it entirely. They were tired of being misinterpreted. They also discovered the joy of having lots to catch up on when they met in person or talked on the phone.

Another disgruntled texter I read about had a phone that automatically added three dots to the end of every message. His contacts thought he was giving them the stink eye. Writing his boss “I’ll think about it…” sounded presumptuous. The guy’s relationships didn’t heal until he got a new phone.

The rule for text messaging should be the same as Bob Schwabach’s rule for journalism: “Keep it light, tight and trite.”

The Blockchain Revisited

The experts are divided: Is the so-called “blockchain” the best thing since sliced bread or is it a dud? An article in TheCorrespondent.com is a real eye-opener.

For those of you who just tuned in to this topic, the blockchain is like a giant Excel spreadsheet used to keep track of data. It was built to handle Bitcoin, which lets you transfer money without using a bank. Unlike a regular spreadsheet, no one’s in charge of it. You can view it or add to it, but you can’t edit it. It cuts out the middleman, saves money and is more secure. But it’s still in its infancy.

According to Bloomberg, the blockchain is a $700 million-dollar industry. “Wow,” you might be thinking. Think again. Americans spend $9 billion just on Halloween. Out of 86,000 blockchain projects, 92 percent of them were abandoned by the end of 2017. On the other hand, IBM and Microsoft, among others, have whole blockchain divisions.

Some of the activity recorded on the blockchain is shadowy. For example, drug dealers have used it to sell drugs as a mail-order business, banking on the blockchain’s anonymity. But their identities are linked to a number, and if that number can be linked to names, it’s game over.

Here are some additional features:

It’s great for improving food safety. Walmart uses it to track 25 products, including pork sold in Chinese outlets and mangoes sold in the U.S.

A service called “Santander One Pay FX” lets customers make same-day or next-day international payments using the blockchain.

There’s less possibility of illegal downloads, especially in the entertainment industry: MGM is using it for global streaming.

It can prevent hackers from disrupting payments between individuals, in apps such as Venmo.

It makes an end run around government corruption. I’ll never forget the guy who wanted to sell a condo in Argentina back in 2014. If he hadn’t used the blockchain, the government would probably have confiscated his entire profit.

Internuts

Foodtimeline.org tells you the history of food. Who knew that popcorn was eaten as early as 3,500 B.C.? Or that cheesecake was enjoyed in the first century?

WaiverSign.com. Need a waiver for your business? Maybe you teach yoga in the park; you need a waiver in case someone’s downward dog lands on a real dog. You can do it digitally with this app. There’s a free trial at WaiverSign.com, then it’s $10 a month.