CONVERSATION VIEW

We finally turned off a feature in Gmail that’s been there since the beginning and has been driving us crazy. It’s called “Conversation View.” We didn’t know you could turn it off.

In conversation view, new messages show up at the bottom of the thread. If you have a ton of them, you scroll forever. For example, Joy’s friend Mary Lynn Funk went back and forth in one conversation for six months, all with the same heading. Half the time, Joy would lose the thread, unable to find the latest email, as she scrolled past long emails from three months before. Now those emails have been automatically separated into 49 separate chunks. It’s much more manageable.

To turn it off in your Gmail, click on the little picture of a gear in the Gmail window. Then, click “settings.” Under the “General” tab, scroll down until you see “Conversation view off,” and click it. (It’s just past “Experimental Access.”) Then scroll to the bottom and click “Save Changes.” The only odd thing you’ll notice is that when you send off a message, it isn’t immediately available for viewing. You have to check your “sent” mail.

Professional Effects for Your Videos

StupidRaisins.com has a new tool called “CallOut Pop.” It makes animated callouts for video makers who use Apple’s Final Cut Pro. StupidRaisins is part of FXFactory. We’ve enjoyed their programs for years.

Instead of a plain text callout for a point of interest in your movie, you can have the text zoom into place. It’s very attention-getting. Callouts come in a huge variety of styles, around 30 of them. Though the program costs $59, there are also freebies available from StupidRaisins. They also have a video that shows them in action.

Road Trip Apps

Techlicious.com did a great round-up of road trip apps. Here are the ones we like.

“iExit” tells you what’s at the next exit. We had a friend, a travel writer, who loved Cracker Barrel restaurants and Comfort Inn, wherever he went in the U.S. The iExit app lets you search the next 100 exits to see if your favorite is there. It also tells you if you have enough gas to make it to the next town, whether there’s a bathroom coming up soon, or whether there’s a store like Walmart where you can buy the camping gear you forgot to pack.

Toll Guru,” which is available as an app or at TollGuru.com, figures out how much you’ll pay in gas and tolls on any given trip. For accuracy, put in the make, model and year of your car. Also put in the price of gas. In our tests, it assumed a gas price much lower than what we’re paying. If you’re unsure, go to GasBuddy.com or use the free Gas Buddy app.

Google Maps, which comes on Android phones and can be downloaded on iPhones, is good on traffic reports. However, we’ve noticed one troublesome thing. When you’re in a big city, the GPS signals can get skewed. A distance of a few blocks might be reported as 80 miles away. One driver told us he checks for directions before he gets into the city. If you tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) in the app, then tap “offline maps,” you can save a map that doesn’t depend on an Internet connection.

Internuts

The world of Steven Wright: We weren’t familiar with this guy till a reader told us about him. Look him up to see some great quotes. We liked: “I almost had a psychic girlfriend, but she left me before we met.” And “All those who believe in psychokinesis, raise my hand.” “When everything is coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.” “If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?” “The problem with the gene pool is that there is no lifeguard.” “If at first you don’t succeed, maybe skydiving isn’t for you.”

Coupons.businessinsider.com has a few coupons that actually work, unlike most coupon sites we’ve tried. (Readers, we’d love your suggestions.) We got money off on two coupons for greeting cards from Zazzle.com. However many of the other “coupons” on the site are just links to 50 percent-off sales at stores like The Gap.

ZMEScience.com has a report on electric buses. There are 425,000 electric buses in the world, and 421,000 of them are in China. That’s 99 percent of the world’s supply. The U.S. has only 300. However, China still relies on coal to produce most of its electricity. According to Wikipedia, Qatar has the highest carbon emissions per person (45.4 metric tons per person), as of 2014. Ours is 16.5, China’s is 7.5.

Mute the Driver

We’ve been riding Lyft when we need a cab, but Uber has a fun new feature that might make us switch. It’s called “mute the driver.”

Choose between “quiet,” “happy to chat,” or “no preference.” Some drivers complain

that a passenger’s ability to choose silence makes them feel like a robot. Others are glad to know they don’t have to make an effort. We’ve had some good conversations with drivers, and it almost seems unfriendly to choose “quiet.” But if we do choose quiet, we’ll probably break the silence within seconds anyway.

3D Printing Guide

A Beginner’s Guide to 3D Modeling,” by Cameron Coward, from No Starch Press, shows you how to make 3D objects, art and even robots. Learn how to use Autodesk Fusion, the most powerful computer-aided design (CAD) software, which is free for non-commercial use. The author contributes to Hackster.io and Hackaday.com. He wrote the “Idiot’s Guide to 3D Printing.” The book is $25 from NoStarch.com.

THE DARK SIDE OF 5G

Joy sent off the wrong column last time. The one without Bob’s views on 5G. She swears she didn’t do it on purpose. So here’s some wisdom from the more experienced half of our duo.

 There are two problems with 5G (fifth generation wireless). First, you almost certainly won’t get the speed advertised. Second, it ignores the competition, FTTH, or Fiber to the Home. Unlike 5G, FTTH involves laying actual cable connections, which is expensive. It’s not wireless. But it’s fast and secure. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says it’s the only way to give options to the 68 million Americans who have only one choice of Internet Service Provider.

 According to the EFF, 5G customers will either get moderate speeds with lots of coverage or high speeds with limited range, around 1000 feet from the tower. The hype you hear assumes you’re in close range. What’s worse, it exists only where you already have fiber infrastructure.

 In Verizon’s early tests, 5G’s peak speeds couldn’t compete with cable broadband, let alone fiber. While 450 megabits per second sounds good for the average 5G user, fiber customers can already get 10 gigabits per second, 22 times faster.

All of this is supposed to be for the benefit of the coming “Internet of Things (IoT).” So far, we don’t see a lot of interest in IoT. In fact, the 5G hype reminds Bob of the Near Field Communications (NFC) enthusiasm. That’s the technology involved when you 

point your cell phone at checkout and the amount is automatically deducted from your account. You have to be close, hence “near field.”  NFC was going to revolutionize business and communications. In fact, it turned out to be sort of a neat thing, but that’s it.

Before that there was the Segway. It was going to “revolutionize human civilization, said a Silicon Valley hotshot. Cops on the beat, mail deliverers, and commuters were all going to hop on. End result: We’ve only seen them used by tour guides and tourists. And what about CDs? They were the new gold standard for music and voice. There are people who bought thousands of them. Now we download everything. On and on into the night.

What is the point of all this? If you don’t have something new and wonderful, you don’t have anything to sell.

Bravo, Reader

 Sometimes a reader makes a really good point. Especially this one:

“Whenever someone writes an article about various ways to speed up a slow PC,” a reader writes, “why is replacing the disk drive with a solid state drive (SSD) never mentioned?  A co-worker was watching how slow my PC was and suggested that I swap out the drive for an SSD. I did it and my PC has been blazing fast!”

 NewEgg recently sold them for as low as $25. Check out How to Geek’s article on “How to Migrate your Windows Installation from a Hard Drive to an SSD.”

Sunglasses With Music

A hip young friend of ours plans to get a pair of $199 Bose sunglasses after trying them out at the Bose store. Talk about music to your ears.

Fortunately, no one else will hear it. That’s because each ear of the sunglasses has a miniature speaker, pointing directly at your ear. As long as you’re outside, and don’t turn up the volume beyond 60 percent, your music will not be heard by others.

 Amazingly, the frames will also provide navigation with turn-by-turn directions spoken aloud. Augmented reality will put pointers in the air in front of you.

Tracking Yourself

 On the fringe of the fringe now, is the Oura ring.

 Two  young friends both got an Apple Watch for their birthdays. But they crave one more gadget: the Oura ring. It monitors your sleep and fitness level.

 One of the two friends, Alfonso, is getting married this week. He wishes he’d gotten an Oura for a wedding ring. The basic ring starts at $299 and goes up to $999 for the silver diamond version. We asked him why he wouldn’t use the Apple Watch to monitor his sleep and fitness.

The Apple Watch is too bulky for sleeping, he says. Unless you put it in “theater mode,” it lights up every time you look at it, making you too alert to turn over and catch more Zs. And all the fitness podcasters recommend the ring.

We’re surprised that  these young people are so conscious of their health, when they’re  already bursting with vitality. Yet the ring is intriguing. It measures your heart rate, respiratory rate, heart-rate variability and other sleep-related parameters. It tracks your movement with an accelerometer and gyroscope.

 Using a free app on your Android or iPhone, you get an activity score that tells you 

whether you’re moving enough for optimum health. It encourages you to move every hour, for two to three minutes. The full report includes other variables as well.

But if all you need is a prompt to get moving, consider the Garmin Vivo Fit 3, which Joy uses. It looks something like a Fitbit, but gives you a red streak if you’ve been sitting more than an hour. Another red segment adds on if you don’t get up and move for two minutes. It costs $54, around $250 less than the ring.

Netflix Free Riders

Twenty-four million people watch Netflix movies without paying for Netflix, according to Cordcutting.com. We knew a grandma who used her niece’s account from afar.

Why doesn’t Netflix doesn’t do something about it? It costs them around $2.3 billion in lost revenue every year. The answer is competition, pure and simple. If they try to crack down on it, they could lose business. But Techlicious.com points out that a new algorithm created by Synamedia could work. It can tell if you’re viewing from home or a vacation home, or if your grown children, still part of the family plan, are watching movies from afar. Or if you’re using your ex’s password.

 

THE DROP SHIP HAS COME IN

People are making some pretty good money buying things on Amazon and selling them for more on eBay without ever touching the product. It’s called “drop shipping.”

PlanetMoney did a wonderful podcast called “Cat Scam,” to explore this topic. Their lead example is the Ripple Rug, a cat toy made by SnugglyCat. People bought the rug for $40 from Amazon and re-sold it for $60, using Amazon Prime’s free shipping service. They never had to touch the product or do much work. But when customers saw the Amazon box, they looked it up and found out they’d overpaid for the rug. So they’d return it to Amazon.

In two months, there were 200 returns. Bad news for SnugglyCat, the toy maker. They had to pay Amazon fees for every purchase, shipment, return and restocking. In two months, they lost $10,000. The eBay sellers kept the $20 profit on each rug. Is this legal? Turns out it is.

Why didn’t the customers send the product back to the eBay salesperson for the full amount they paid? The box came from Amazon so they returned it to Amazon.

SnugglyCat eventually solved the problem by giving up Amazon Prime. Their sales dropped by 58 percent, but it was worth it to ship stuff themselves.

Here’s another example of drop shipping: A couple in Iraq were so enamored of online shopping, they bought everything online, even a dog, who came all the way from Oklahoma. Next they signed up to become drop shippers with a company called DS Domination, which offers software to help you manage things. The “DS” stands for Drop Ship. Their first purchase was an Angry Birds Star Wars toy they bought for 30 cents and sold for $9, around 30 times the first day. After a few months, they quit their jobs and moved to Houston. They told Planet Money they make more than a million dollars a year in sales. Hard to believe.

There are dozens of other methods, some of which we found at Quora.com, the question-and-answer site. Do a search on the phrase: “What is the Best Drop-Shipping Software?” Is there a limit? Could you drop ship a car?

Internut

Planet Money Videos.  Planet Money, our favorite podcast, now does videos too. Watching one on the Tooth Fairy, we discovered that parents now leave an average of $4.13. Gosh, Joy only got a quarter.

Automatic Speedup

Be skeptical of any program that offers to “clean” the Windows registry, since registries don’t get dirty. But you can buy a program to speed up Windows.

We’re looking at you, Ashampoo WinOptimizer. We chose it over Iolo System Mechanic, which won PC Magazine’s “Editor’s Choice Award.” Ashampoo came in second. WinOptimizer costs $40 one time. Iolo’s cost $25 every year.

Many of Ashampoo’s 38 modules speed up your computer by getting rid of junk. But they also add to your privacy, by preventing you from being tracked or your files sent out to nosy third-party applications. WinOptimizer also gets rid of duplicate files, including movies, music and photos.

Online Services

Just for the fun of it, we tried Hello Fresh, a meal kit delivery service. We received a giant box with ingredients and instructions for three meals.

It was so much fun, but we felt bad that there was so much packaging waste. Even two tablespoons of sour cream came in its own sturdy package. This had to be a disaster for the environment, we thought. But a new report says that’s not so.

According to a study by the University of Michigan, reported by the blog Engadget, the carbon dioxide emissions tied to the average grocery store meal were about 4.4 pounds higher than those produced by meal-kit services. That’s because meal kits cut down on wasted food. The amount of energy going into the food we eat is a lot tougher on the environment than a few extra boxes.

The grocery store also wastes a lot by stocking too much food and throwing out unsold stuff. According to Dumpsters.com, grocery stores throw away 43 billion pounds of wasted food each year.

Scan Your Photos

One of these days, we’re going to free up space in our apartment by having all our photos scanned.

Several years ago, we sent a box of photos to ScanMyPhotos. They not only scanned them, they improved them. Which was good, because some were pretty faded. The problem is, we didn’t save any storage space because we kept the originals they sent back to us. Parting with those is the tough part.

However, it’s much better to have the digital version. The print versions sat in boxes, un-looked at for years. As soon as we had them digitized, Joy began making her relatives’ day by emailing them every so often. Her nephew’s new bride was especially happy to see what her husband looked like, back in the day. The cost seemed trivial.

Since sending out that box, ScanMyPhotos has a new offer: one cent per photo scanned. One customer sent in 9,100 photos. It cost him only $131.60. The catch: The photos are “social media quality,” 150 dots per inch. That’s fine by us. Good enough for email.

5G PROMISES GREATER SPEEDS, BUT HARDWARE IS CRITICAL

“What is 5G?” The question reminds us of one of Joy’s favorite novels, “Atlas Shrugged.” The characters go around saying “Who is John Galt?” but never get a good answer until the end.

Some say that 5G is ten times faster than the previous generation, others say it’s 100 times faster. An article in the New Yorker claims you’ll download a two-hour movie in four seconds. There will be no lag times for online games. But is this hype or reality?

Several factors come into play, such as the hardware you’re using, where you’re located, what your network can handle, how many users are sharing it, what kind of interference you’re getting, and whether you’re at home or zipping around town. Verizon says users at home can get 300 Megabits to one gigabit per second. T-Mobile says the average user will get 450 megabits per second, going up to 4 gigabits per second five years from now.

All but one of the latest 5G phones we’ve looked at is expensive — over $1000. The exception is Motorola’s “moto z3.” It’s $680 if you buy the attachment, called the “moto mod,” that turns it into a 5G phone. But it’s exclusive to Verizon. Verizon will offer the Samsung S10 5G starting Saturday, May 16.

Whatever the speed 5G achieves for the average person, Wired Magazine is calling it the fourth industrial revolution. The Hill reports that 5G will bring 22 million new jobs to the U.S., adding $3.5 trillion to the gross domestic product. That’s like adding nearly the whole economy of Germany to our GDP, or adding India’s economy plus Turkey’s. Cell phone service companies are expected to spend $275 billion to build 5G networks. 

Crumbs in the Keyboard

Does your keyboard have crumbs? In a PC Magazine article called “How to Clean a Keyboard,” they suggest using a blob-like gel called CyberClean to get the crumbs out. It’s around $11 and also cleans phones to get rid of nearly all germs.

This is a new one on us. The more common approach is a can of compressed air to blow out the particles. It’s best to do it outside or in a bathtub, or you’ll get a cloud of dirt landing everywhere. It can also be used on the computer’s fan. Or you can use a keyboard brush, which costs about $9. You might want to start by turning a desktop’s keyboard upside down and tapping it.

Taking Alexa on the Road

Sometimes we take the Amazon Echo Dot, with the voice of Alexa inside, to our history club, so she can answer obscure and give us some accurate dates. Sometime we’re speaking from a part of the room with no outlets to plug in into.

That’s when a battery comes in handy. We tried out the $40 “VAUX Portable Battery Base.” The Echo Dot fits in the top and plugs in. The first time we asked a question, it blasted us out of the room. This thing really adds volume to the Dot. Sound quality is good.

How to Master the iPhone

A reader reminded us that some of the best “how to” books are in the “Teach Yourself Visually” series.

Wish we’d thought of that before we gave a friend advice. We told her to browse the bookstore or library and get whatever looks best to her. She chose “iPhone 7 for Dummies: Senior Edition,” by Brad Miser.  “I guess seniors are the dumbest of the dumb, so I bought it!” she said. Despite the name of the book, it covers earlier iPhones too, going back to the iPhone 5. It’s $16 on Amazon.

The first thing she learned: The volume buttons depend on the context. When you’re listening to music, pressing the volume button turns the music up. Otherwise, it controls the volume of the ringer. You can also use Siri to turn the volume up or down. You can get more info on this by Googling “iPhone volume.” (Or whatever kind of phone you have.) In fact, this is often better than any book. Just search on whatever specific question you have. The more specific, the better.

Erasing Stored Passwords in Google Chrome

If you’re not careful, Google may save passwords to your machine that are too secret to save.

To erase them, open Chrome and click the three dots at the upper right of your computer screen. Click “settings.” Scroll to the bottom of the settings page and click “Advanced.” Now click “Passwords.” You can click the trash can next to any password you don’t want saved. For other browsers, do a search on “manage passwords in Firefox,” or whatever browser you use.

 

LOST IN THE AMAZON

Everyone in our building is Amazon-nuts, including us. The boxes pile up like mountains in the package room. The lady who handled them quit.

We are just as Amazon-mad as everyone else. We can’t help but be impressed by Amazon’s bargains and free shipping. But they don’t always have the cheapest price. And yet, nearly every thing we get comes from Amazon or one of its five million vendors.

We ordered a bed and mattress from Amazon for about $600 less than the local store was charging. The order page had an option to have the old bed hauled away. But that moved back the delivery date a couple of weeks. We nixed that and called a local guy to haul away the old bed He came, but the new bed didn’t. Now we were bedless and had just given away our couch.

Amazon’s vendor said they called us but we must have had the ringer off. So they rescheduled the delivery for five days later. That was five days too late, so we canceled everything and walked around the corner to American Mattress. It was great to test a bed with our own backsides. And to talk to an actual sales person. But the old-fashioned approach also had its flaws.

We couldn’t be home to accept delivery on the day assigned to us. But we live in a building with a doorman who said he’d handle everything. The store’s driver said he called the doorman but got no answer.The doorman said he saw them parked in front for a long time before they finally drove away. It didn’t dawn on him to ask if they were delivering something to our address. It was also his fault, as it turned out, not Amazon’s, that we didn’t get the first bed delivered on time.

So we will continue to order from our favorite e-store. Surprisingly, the first bed we ordered from Amazon finally came, though we had canceled it three different ways. This time the driver got through to us on the phone, so we could simply say: “We refuse it.” The refund showed up in our account the same day. 

Doorbell Camera

Our friends Olga and Stefano, a Russian wife and her Italian husband, recently got a doorbell camera. That’s how Olga was able to surprise the neighbor by telling him that his son had stopped by her door when she wasn’t home. “How did you know?” he asked.

If you want to see who’s at the front door, and you don’t have a peephole or aren’t home, a video doorbell is the way to go. Google’s “Nest Hello” camera for $229 gets all the publicity. But the number two camera, “Ring Video Doorbell 2,” for $199, may be worth your attention. It’s now owned by Amazon. Both record video you can watch on your phone.

According to DigitalTrends, Ring is the one to get if you prefer simplicity over style. Like Nest, it lets you see and talk to the person at the door without being there, and see video clips on your phone of any action outside your door. Unlike Nest, it’s wireless, so you don’t have to fiddle with your doorbell’s wiring circuits. On the downside, the video isn’t as sharp or clear. Also, Ring’s sound quality is muffled compared to Nest’s. Overall, DigitalTrends recommends Nest over Ring, unless a simple setup is key.

Giving Away a Kindle

A reader writes that she “loves her new Kindle Fire 10, it’s so easy for us old people.” She wants to give her three older Kindles to her granddaughter’s fourth grade class. It’s important to deregister them first. Here’s how:

First, restore the Kindle to its factory defaults. Tap the menu icon (looks like three lines, also called the hamburger icon). Then tap “Settings,” “Menu” and “Reset Device” or “Reset to Factory Defaults.”

Now Google the phrase “Manage Your Kindle,” and click the first result. Next click the “Devices” tab. Finally, click the three dots next to the device you want to de-register and click “deregister.”

Internuts

  • Fosse and Verdon.” Click on that link from YouTube or click the play  button below to see some spectacular dancing by Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in “Damn Yankees.” The FX channel has a new TV series on the pair, who were married.
  • 27 Incredibly Useful Things You Didn’t Know Google Sheets Could Do.” Click on that link for tips on using Google’s free spreadsheet program. Our favorite: Type “sheets.new” without the quotes wherever you are on the web to start a new spreadsheet.

Numbers Report

Ever wonder why Google is such a big company? It has 61 percent of the worldwide market for ads that appear next to your searches, according to eMarketer. Overall, its digital ad revenue will amount to $104 billion this year, giving it a 31 percent share of the digital ad market. Facebook is second with a 20. percent share. Google has 35 percent of the worldwide mobile ad market –the ads you see on your phone or tablet, compared to Facebook, which has 27 percent. YouTube will have 1.7 billion users this year, two thirds of all digital video users worldwide.

WHAT’S APP, DOC?

Our friend Olga called us from the Dominican Republic, using the free app, “WhatsApp.” It’s a great way for travelers to avoid having to buy a local SIM card for their phone, or face expensive roaming charges.

But we’ve often wondered what other advantages WhatsApp has, considering all the alternatives, including Skype. One big one is simplicity. Because WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, you automatically see Facebook friends who use it. With Skype, you must know the person’s user name. Our friend Olga didn’t use her last name so she was particularly hard to find on Skype, but easy to find on WhatsApp. However, call quality on Skype is usually better.

You can use either one for a video chat, audio call, or text. We did a video chat. It was great seeing Olga’s happy face and the Dominican scenery when she turned her phone camera toward it.

Signing in was as easy as using Facebook. When you tap the messaging icon, you’ll see a list of friends who are on it. If the person you want isn’t there, tap “invite friends.” and send them an email with a link.


WhatsApp is popular for text messaging, because it uses a WiFi signal, so you’re not charged for each text. Of course, if you have a plan with unlimited texting, this hardly matters. Like Skype, WhatsApp doesn’t require a smartphone. You can download it to a Mac or Windows computer.

Phone Drain

Visiting a family member in the hospital, Joy lost her phone. She called it from the room phone and could hear it ringing, but couldn’t place it. A nurse came in and helped, but many minutes passed before they found it, stuck in the innards of a reclining chair.

She hadn’t thought to charge it the night before, and it was down to around 18 percent when she lost it. It hadn’t run out of battery, though it was on all night, because Joy had it on battery saver mode, with the GPS turned off.

We switched to battery saver mode when the phone seemed to be draining quickly. The culprit was Google Map’s turn-by-turn directions, which we forgot to turn off. We got a clue when the phone announced: “GPS signal lost.” When you’re in battery saver mode, GPS is automatically off. When the phone has to search for a weak GPS signal the battery drains quickly. We figure no one needs to know where we are right now.

Fun With Numbers

Bob was a math major at the University of Chicago before he switched to the history of technology, and Joy took advanced calculus, but neither one of us has ever questioned the Babylonian method of multiplication.

That method requires you to multiply each digit of the first number by each digit of the second one. If both numbers have a billion digits each, you’re going to be doing a billion times a billion multiplications. A computer would take over 30 years to finish.

In 1971, the mathematicians Arnold Schönhage and Volker Strassen discovered a quicker way. With their method, an ordinary laptop can do the calculation in about 30 seconds. But they didn’t stop there. They predicted that an even faster method would eventually be found. Now they’ve been proven right. Joris van der Hoeven, a researcher from the French National Research Center, and David Harvey from the University of New South Wales have found it. It’s available through the online “HAL” archive at hal.archives-ouvertes.fr. The article is titled “Integer Multiplication in Time 0.” It’s quite technical.

Reader Question

A reader writes: “My HP All-in-One with Windows 7 is ten years old and getting cranky like me.” So he got a new computer with a trial version of Office 365. The question is: should he upgrade it to the full version, or use the old Office 2007, which works great on the old computer and could also be installed on the new one.

His fear is that Office 2007 no longer gets updates. He wonders if it’s safe. We use Office 2007 ourselves and feel quite safe. The trick is to have a good antivirus program, which he does, and so do we. He uses Norton Internet Security. We use Bullguard. Both are excellent, though Bullguard makes you turn on daily or weekly virus scans, and the setting is buried. We’ve often used their free 24-hour-a-day tech support.

Microsoft charges you $70 to $100 a year, minimum, to use Office 365, and we feel they should pay us. Things that were easy to do before, like find the file you were working on, became difficult in the new version of Office. It seems slower too. If you don’t already have an old version of Office, consider the free versions. We like the free Google Docs and OpenOffice.

Hospital Gifts Part III

Related image

Our experiment in sending a gift to someone in the hospital using Amazon Prime was a bust, as we reported recently. It never got off the loading dock. But a friend reports that she uses Amazon all the time. “I’ve had no trouble sending Amazon Prime gifts to a hospital patient, although it was  a small hospital. It is important to have a correct patient name, ward number and room number.”

DRIVING AN OLD COMPUTER

We heard from several readers who were wondering if they should buy a Chromebook to replace their old Windows machine.

A reader writes: “I saw an article that said, ‘Using a five-year-old computer is like driving a 1966 car on the interstate.” Her computer is four years old, and ran Windows 8 until she upgraded it to Windows 10. It came with four gigabytes of RAM, and her daughter added another four gigabytes.  But that “didn’t seem to make it any faster,” she said. Even after she switched to a fiber-optic internet provider, it was slow.

We hear you. Even our super-fast Windows machine with an i7 processor and 12 gigabytes of RAM gets slow when the antivirus program is scanning, or for unknown reasons.

If you search on the phrase “15 reasons why Your Computer is Slow,” you’ll find many possibilities, such as a virus, a slow processor, a full hard drive, too many startup programs, or too many tabs open. Joy usually has at least six tabs open.

A Chromebook has several advantages. It doesn’t need antivirus software or reformatting. It repairs itself every time you boot up. Bob dumped a load of soup on ours, calling to mind the time he killed a Mac by spilling orange juice on it. It  had no effect on the Chromebook.

Another alternative is the Chromebox. It’s like a Chromebook, except it’s part of a desktop system– not a laptop. You can hook up an old monitor to it but you may need an adapter cable and a compatible printer. A Chromebox starts at around $250. An adapter runs around $20. Chromebox-compatible printers go for as little as $40, like the HP Deskjet 1112.

Our reader said: “The sales guy at Best Buy didn’t think it was a good idea. He got to talking about all the extra cables, converters, etc. that we would need to purchase to hook up an older monitor, keyboard, and mouse.  I was overwhelmed and just thought, ‘better stick with a Windows computer.’” We disagree. The extra expense is trivial compared to the extra cost of a Windows machine.Your current keyboard and mouse will work just fine.

Making Calls on a Computer

Joy found it a bit strange to hear her friend Betty’s voice coming through the laptop, but it was loud and clear. She was camping out at a hospital to help a sick relative and forgot her phone charger. Fortunately, she had her computer and made phone calls on it.

Search on the phrase “Make a phone call with Google Hangouts” and follow a few simple steps to set it up on a computer, iPhone, iPad, or Android. Start by signing up for a free Google Voice or Google Fi account. It’s also great for text messaging.

Internuts

  • 88 Comics that Introverts Will Understand.” Search on that phrase to find some funny cartoons. One of them reminds us of Joy, who often replays old conversations in her head when you think she is listening to you.
  • The Most Valuable Vinyl Records on Earth.” Search on that phrase to see a list from DigitalTrends. An Elvis Presley record is valued at $300,000. A Beatles, limited-edition record once owned by Ringo Starr fetched $790,000 in 2015.
  • Words to Turn a Conversation Around (And Those to Avoid).” Search on that phrase to find some useful tips. For example: Avoid the word “just.” It’s seen as too whiny, as in “I just want one thing.” A good word to use more often is “willing” as in: “Would you be willing to come to a meeting?” “Willing” usually gets a yes response even in tricky situations.

Playing Baseball with Alexa

You don’t need to buy an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot to have fun with Alexa. All you need is the free Alexa app on your phone.

To get started, find it in the app store and install it. When it’s installed, tap it to open, and then tap the blue circle in the lower middle to talk to Alexa.

Although we usually use Alexa to find out the weather, answer a trivia question or play music, she has many skills.

We said:  “Alexa, play ultimate history quiz,” to get three true-or-false questions designed by History.com, which is part of the History Channel, Bob’s favorite. Joy missed this one: “Fortune cookies were invented in Japan.” She said false, thinking they were first baked in the U.S. She also wrongly guessed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the National Park Service. No, that was Woodrow Wilson’s doing. She said “false” instead of “true” when asked if the Republican Party was formed to combat slavery. (It sure was.) If you wish, they’ll tell you how you rank against others. Joy said she preferred not to know. It wouldn’t be fair if Bob played. People in the newsroom used to tell others, “Don’t bother with the reference books. Just ask Bob.”

For more tricks, go to Amazon.com and click on “Alexa skills” in the drop-down list in the search bar. Search on any term you fancy. Baseball fans might like the “Background Baseball skill” to listen to games from 1933 to 1973. We asked for a random game, and got the 1934 All Stars Game. It’s famous because National League pitcher Carl Hubbell struck out five of the game’s best hitters – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin – in succession, setting a longstanding All-Star Game record for consecutive strikeouts.

 

 

 

EH? SPEAK UP!

Joy’s totally nuts about exercise classes and once found herself trapped in a place where the music blasted so loudly that the instructor had to scream over a microphone. She should have left immediately.

The tiny hairs in your ears lay flat when assaulted by noise. Like good soldiers, they bounce back– if they’re not insulted too often. After awhile, they can’t bounce back anymore and you have hearing loss.

A loud rock concert — 110 decibels–  gives you permanent hearing loss after just a minute and a half, according to HowToGeek.com. An NFL game or a noisy bar gets up to 90 decibels of sound, and will cause hearing damage after a couple of hours. If you want to find out how loud the neighborhood is, download a decibel measurement app to your phone or tablet, such as the free Sound Analyzer for Android or iPhone. It said our place was almost as quiet as a library.

Bob is a big fan of ear plugs, and always wears them to the movies. But what are the best ones?  For concerts, ReviewGeek recommends “Etymotic Fidelity Earplugs” for $14 from Amazon. (We figure those would also work for noisy bars and football games.) For airplanes, there’s “Earplanes,” which come in a set of three for $14. For yard work, there’s “EP4 Sonic Defenders, also $14.

Internuts

  • ASlobComesClean.com gives good advice, slob-to-slob. Why listen to someone who was born organized?  Dana White coins words like “deslobification” and “procrasti-clutter,” to guide you in your decluttering adventure. Joy prefers her book, “Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff.” But the blog is a good place to start.
  • Restoring a dragon in a carousel

    OnlyInYourState.com is a website for roadside attractions. We like the dazzling dragon at the carousel museum in Albany, Oregon.

  • Ecuador Legalized Gangs, Murder Rates Plummeted.” Click on that link to find a fascinating article. Gangs started acting like community service organizations, adding women and children, when the government legitimized them.

New Way to Get Your Email

It’s frustrating to label an email “spam” only to see it come back again and again. So we love the new blocking feature in the free “Edison Mail” app for your Android or iPhone.

You don’t need to change your current email address or service to use it. Just sign in with your Gmail, Yahoo, or whatever service you use. It works with all the major providers. Like Gmail, it uses a “bot” or robot to comb your mail to fit it into categories. But the ones it adds are handier: packages, bills and receipts, travel, entertainment, subscriptions and security.

To get rid of a pesky sender, tap an email. Then tap “block.” All mail from that source  will skip the inbox and go directly to the trash from then on. Though you could set this up in other services like Gmail, it’s more work than simply tapping the word “block.”

Edison Mail also has a handy “unsubscribe” feature. Tap the hamburger icon, which is three stacked lines in the upper left. Then tap “subscriptions.” Tap “unsubscribe” next to any newsletter you don’t want to receive any more.

Since launching three years ago, Edison Mail has sent more than 10 million flight notifications (such as letting you know if the plane is on-time or delayed, and if the gate has changed), tracked shipping for over 90 million packages, and organized over 500 million receipts.

To Screen or Not to Screen

One thing we love about Google phones, such as the Pixel 2 and 3, is their “Call Screen” feature. Until Joy learned she’d been screening out Bob’s doctor.  

Rumor has it that it’s about to roll out to Motorola, Nokia phones and other “Android One” phones as well. It works like this. A call comes in. You’re not sure whose number it is. You tap “Call Screen” and the person is asked to state their name and the nature of their call. You see a transcript of that as they’re talking and can tap to answer or hang up. The odd thing is, caller ID doesn’t always kick in. It didn’t for Bob’s doctor.

He told us that he’d called a couple of times and that he should probably let the call screening feature take his name next time. His number is on our contact list, so there should have been caller ID, but there wasn’t. Call Screen screened out our friend Jay too. So we may just stop screening for awhile.

Free Calling

When our niece first got an iPhone, she didn’t pay for cell phone service. Whenever she was in range of WiFi, she made a free call or went on the Internet for free.

Most people have a data plan, which costs money. You use it when you’re out of range of WiFi. But if you didn’t turn on WiFi calling, you might be using your data plan when you don’t need to. We don’t remember turning ours on, but it was on when we checked.

On an iPhone, go to “Settings” then “Cellular” then “WiFi calling” and toggle it on. On an Android phone, go to “Settings” then “Network & Internet” then “Advanced.” On our phone, we tapped “Configure SMS calling,” then noticed it was already on. These settings vary, however, depending on the Android version you have. If in doubt, search on the phrase, “how to do WiFi calling in Android 7,” or whatever version of Android you have. To find your version, tap “Settings,” “About Phone,” and scroll down to “Android Version.”

 

COPY THAT

A reader says he uses the free LibreOffice as a Microsoft Word equivalent, but wishes he had an “extended clipboard.” That’s a program that lets you keep copying items from the web or elsewhere without losing the first thing you copied.

He writes: “If I can’t find some program or add-on that will let me send 10-20 items to a clipboard to then mass paste to a Word document or spreadsheet, looks like I will be forced to buy from Microsoft. Prior to Windows 10, I had been using Office XP Pro for many years on all my computers. Any suggestions?”

We suggested “Comfort Clipboard,” free for 30 days and then a one-time charge of $20. The reader says: “I gave it a good workout over the last two days. We are changing our electric company and I highlighted enough stuff from web pages and PDF files to fill six pages of a document. If there was something I could not highlight, I was able to use PrintKey, a 20-year-old (screen capture) program, to select what I wanted off a web page and send it to the clipboard. Unlike the Microsoft Office clipboard, Comfort Clipboard does not appear to have an overall size limit in terms of megabytes, and is not limited to 24 items.” It was such a good program he decided to buy it.

If you have a Mac, you might like the free version of “Alfred 3,” from Alfredapp.com. Unlike Comfort Clipboard, it doesn’t just save text, it saves web links as well. Another alternative is the free “Ditto Clipboard Manager” for PCs. It saves text and web links, and is activated when you press the “Ctrl” and tilde key.

Glitter Girl Shoots Again

Photo courtesy of Makers.com

Though we wrote about this last time, we didn’t feel we did it justice. A 13 year-old girl named Jordan Reeves was born without a left arm. So she worked with an engineer from Autodesk to create a 3D-printed prosthetic arm that shoots glitter.

All of this reminds Bob of a story from almost 50 years ago. The setting was a fast-draw contest in Tucson, one of those strictly-for-fun events that tourists get a kick out of. Everybody had an equal-weight gun and drew and fired, the winner being the fastest. The winner was a 15 year-old girl. She drew, fired, and hit the target in three-tenths of a second. Take that, Wyatt Earp.

Internuts

TrustedHousesitters.com is one way to get a free vacation. Stay in someone’s house and look after their pets. It costs $79 a year to join, but competition is stiff for coveted travel destinations. Popular house-sitting destinations include the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, New Zealand and Australia. If you’d rather hire a house sitter than sit, that also costs $79 a year. All sitters are verified through criminal background checks and other means.

DiscoverQuickly.com helps you build better Spotify playlists. Spotify is an online music service that plays just about any song you request. It’s free if you don’t mind ads, otherwise $10 a month.

MyModernMet.com has interesting articles on art. We learned about an 85-foot tall sculpture, the meaning behind a Norman Rockwell painting, and books that really teach you how to sketch.

Still Time to Panic

There’s always time to panic. Well, usually, anyway.

We were traveling when our Chromebook went on the blink. It seemed obvious we needed a computer to write the column, so Joy rushed to Office Depot and bought one.

Our $200 Acer 14 Chromebook was stuck in an infinite loop, playing the same maddeningly loud six-second riff from the Nutcracker suite. Bob thought it might be because Joy left it on a vent in our hotel room, with the heat on. In any event, Joy rushed off to buy a replacement.

She came back with a 4.5-pound Windows monster that cost $625. She didn’t realize how spoiled she was by the lightness of the three-pound Chromebook. On the Chromebook, it was easy to do all our writing using Google Docs, which is similar to an old version of Word. So there was really no reason to buy another Windows machine, except nostalgia. We can get back to our favorite Windows programs when we’re back home on our desktops. But for traveling, a Chromebook is hard to beat.

Just when we were thinking that, Joy plugged in the Chromebook, which had finally run out of battery life and stopped playing the maddening tune. It sprung back to life easily. Remember: There’s always time to panic.

Hospital Gifts Revisited

In a recent column, we mentioned that you could use Amazon to send gifts to people in the hospital, with no delivery charge if you’re a Prime member. It turns out it’s more complicated than that.

We asked the hospital concierge what happened to the gift we sent and they said it went to the dock. Joy asked where the dock was, and went on a wild goose chase through various basement hallways. She saw the waste department, the engineering department, the Fed-Ex office, everything but the dock. After giving up, Amazon sent a note that the item had been returned and our account would be credited. In other words, they failed to deliver.

Student Hackathon

NationalCyberLeague.org has team competitions for high school and college students. For a $35 registration fee, students work on real-life security issues. For instance, they help police crack passwords to access a hacker’s computer.

WEARABLE MARVELS

We were invited to preview the first-ever wearable tech exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. We came. We saw. We were disappointed.

Self-lacing shoes got our attention right off. Nike’s version of Marty McFly’s “Back to the Future” shoes worked fine in the exhibit but aren’t playing well in the rest of the country. As the Washington Post reported recently, at least one user said his shoe lost connection to the Internet and wouldn’t lace. He couldn’t tie it manually because the shoe’s software was buggy. Pushing onward, Nike will come out with shoes that collect information about your athletic performance.

In another part of the exhibit, we saw the late actress Marlene Dietrich’s 1950s tech vision. Dietrich imagined a future where dresses glowed. A company called ElektroCouture made a version of the dress she described to a designer. It uses 151 LEDs, 313 flowers and 2,371 crystals. It switches light patterns to match Dietrich’s songs.

Also on view was the “Gravity Jet Suit,” by Richard Browning, CEO of Gravity Industries. The suit cost $440,000 to make, and you can see a video of Browning in it on YouTube if you search on “Real-Life Iron Man Sets New Flight Speed Record.” It set a speed record for a device of this type. It goes 32 miles an hour.

Ray Girl

A 13 year-old girl named Jordan Reeves worked with Sam Hobish of Autodesk to design a 3D-printed prosthetic arm that shoots glitter. With her mom, she founded the nonprofit “Born Just Right.” Reeves shared her glitter cannon at MakerFaire and TEDx. She was born without a left arm but now considers herself a superhero cyborg.

Sensors for the Blind

SpiderSense” is a jacket that helps the blind see. It has 12 sensors, vibrating to let you know if you’re getting near something or it’s getting near you. It could also be used by soldiers in areas of low light or heavy smoke.

Skin Talk

Tattoos on the skin will allow you to dial your phone, turn on music, and play video games. Microsoft and M.I.T. developed the system called “DuoSkin.” The tattoos are electronic circuits which last for months on non-skin surfaces.

as a self-lacing shoe.

Texting on the Computer Instead of Your Phone

Away from home for two weeks, we’ve had an unusual number of text messages on our phone. Frankly, we can’t stand typing on the phone screen. If it bothers you too, here’s how to see your text messages on your computer instead of on the phone and respond to them with a full-sized keyboard.

For Android phones, go to Messages.Android.com on your computer. Then on your phone, tap the Messages app, then tap the three vertical dots in the upper right corner. Now choose the menu item “Messages for Web.” And, while still on your phone, tap the blue link that says “QR Code Scanner” and point your phone at the big QR code on your computer screen. The code is scanned automatically and all messages are copied to your computer screen.

On an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then “Messages.” Toggle on iMessage, then tap “Text Message Forwarding,” and choose the computer or tablet you want to use. For more detailed info, search on the phrase “How to Send a Text Message From a Computer.”

Reader comment

We recently wrote about cell phone batteries, noting that you could leave your phone plugged in all night without harm. It would take two or three years for a phone’s capacity to drop by as much as 20 percent. Yet the average person gets a new phone before this happens. A reader wrote:

“Just read your article on cell phone battery life, so I was curious as to how old the battery is in my Samsung Slider. The date code on the Samsung battery is April, 2012. I guess I need to have a birthday party for it next month.” We hope he invites all the other batteries in the neighborhood.

Hacked!

Our friend Betty said we sent her a virus by email and her iPhone was hacked. Gosh, we hope it wasn’t us. But she’s right that even iPhones are vulnerable.

One way to protect yourself is with “McAfee Mobile Security & Safe Web VPN,” for Android or iPhone. It will tell you if a public Wi-Fi spot is risky, cloak your identity, and stop you from clicking on malicious links. There’s a seven-day free trial, then it’s $10 a month for most features.

To uninstall McAfee and try another app, we disabled McAfee’s administrative privileges in “Settings” after first Googling how to do it. But the subscription itself wasn’t canceled until we opened the Google Play store on our Android phone, tapped the three lines in the upper left, tapped subscriptions, tapped “McAfee” and “cancel.” To cancel a subscription on an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then “iTunes & App store,” then “subscriptions.”

Another option is “Sophos Mobile Security.” Unlike McAfee, it doesn’t offer a virtual private network (VPN) to conceal your identity, but it’s free. Sophos prevents you from tapping malicious links or going to fraudulent sites on the web. Many of its advertised features, however, like the ability to filter text messages or block calls, did not work on our phone. We got the message that Google, in the interest of our privacy, does not allow apps to access texts or calls. Nor did Google allow Sophos to remotely lock our phone for us, since Android phones already have this feature built in.

If you just want a “VPN” to protect your identity, it’s coming soon to the mobile version of Opera, and is already on the PC, Mac and Linux versions. Opera is a web browser that competes with Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari and others. It has 320 million users. They just announced they’re rolling out an update that will include the VPN in its mobile browser for Android. A VPN for iPhones hasn’t been announced.