REPLACING THE BACKGROUND

Normally, we use the editing tools at Photos.Google.com to crop or enhance our pictures. But recently we discovered PicsArt.com for free special effects and templates.

You don’t have to create an account to use the site, and you might not want to. We saw several complaints at commonsensemedia.org. Some users said that after using the link at PicsArt to share their creations, they were bombarded with pornographic images from other members. One user complained of signing up for a “free trial” for certain templates which turned into a $48 charge on their credit card. We tried signing up at the site but none of that happened to us. The PicsArt app has 130 million active users, according to Wikipedia.

We think the most important feature is the “remove background tool.” In one click, we removed the inside of a cabin and replaced it with haystack which made a nice background. But we could have placed ourselves in Tahiti or on top of Mount Rushmore. Usually, removing the background from a photo in order to use a different one is tedious, but PicsArt did it in one click. After downloading a creation, you can add to an email, post it on Facebook or Twitter, or print it out.

Remember the Short

Does anyone remember when movies used to show shorts after the feature film? Well those days may return again if you’re willing to make the shorts.

You can post videos on Amazon’s Prime Video Service and charge for them. With millions of Prime members, the potential audience is huge. Using the service is free.

Video categories include movies, TV shows, educational, sporting events, concerts and performances, clips, short films, reporting and journalism and music videos. You might generate revenue by selling ads or letting Amazon pay you per viewer. Check out the guide from videodirect.amazon.com.

If making a movie is too daunting, consider publishing a book. Start the process at kdp.amazon.com. “KDP” stands for Kindle Direct Publishing. “KDP University” online teaches you the basics for free. Make an e-book or paperback. Check out “Kindle Create” for a free guide to publishing books that have lots of pictures, such as travel books, textbooks or cookbooks.

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Si.edu/openaccess: Go to this Smithsonian site to download, share, and reuse their images. The list includes millions of images from Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo. In the section called “3D Voyager,” we saw an unusual 11-foot tall statue of a bare-chested George Washington. It used to be in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., before moving to the Smithsonian.

Mariel Hemmingway

YouMustRememberThisPodcast.com has radio shows about former stars. Recent episodes tell the story of Mariel Hemmingway, Esther Wiliams, Merle Oberon, “Mama Cass” Elliot, and Marie Dressler, a comic actress who was popular in the 30s. In the Great Depression, people liked her plucky spirit and ignored her looks, which were homely.

“10 Years to Save Planet Earth.” Search on that phrase to find a USAToday article with six imaginative solutions. A Chinese team suggested a giant sunshade, but it might take a million rockets to get the shields in place. To prevent the Rhone glacier from melting, a Swiss town wraps it in thermal blankets every spring. This helps protect an ice grotto which has been carved out every year since 1870.

The First Computer Virus

The first computer virus may have been created in 1986. It was called “Brain” and was invented by two brothers in Pakistan who ran a store. They just wanted to stop people from illegally copying software. But once the first computer was infected, every time someone inserted a floppy disk, the disk was infected, and it would go on to infect more computers. It only took a year to spread through the entire world.

According to Wikipedia, the brothers were flooded with phone calls from angry users in the United Kingdom, the U.S. and elsewhere, demanding they fix their computers or else. The brothers were stunned and said they never meant any harm. They’re still in business in Pakistan.

What’s Running in the Background?

Recently, we wondered why the task manager in Windows said our disk was running at 100 percent. We had almost nothing open except our Bullguard virus scanner.

A user on Quora.com said: “That 100 percent means that the disk is always doing something. Since you are running a virus scanner, it is constantly reading the drive, so while it is scanning, the active time should be 100 percent.”

To find out what’s running in the background on your Windows computer, right-click the bar on the bottom of the screen and choose “task manager” from the menu. Click “More Details.” On a Mac, just look at the bottom of your screen, which has an icon for every open program.

Numbers Report

We often read that the worldwide web and huge storage farms are using an appreciable amount of the world’s electricity. However, the world’s online activity accounts for only one percent of global electricity use, according to a Northwestern University professor who recently published a paper in the journal Science. Servers are incredibly efficient.

BIG BACKUP

We’ve been trying out Google’s free “Backup and Sync” app. That’s how we discovered its sister app, Google One. 

Google One backs up the stuff on your phone that isn’t automatically saved to your account online. That’s handy when you switch phones, since you can get everything back. 

Thanks to Google One, we found an audio clip we thought was long lost. It was Bob’s best recounting of the time he faced a firing squad off the coast of Morocco, when soldiers on a remote island mistook him for the enemy. Before being shot over a cliff, the color of his passport proved he was an American. True story.

You can get Google One at the Google Play store or be prompted to get it. We were prompted to get it when we were backing up our computer files with Google’s free “Backup and Sync.”  We ran out of the 15 gigabytes of free storage and were prompted to get a paid account, with Google One as a bonus.

Without Google One, an Android phone only backs up call history, texts, contacts, settings and app data. Google One does all that plus photos, videos and multimedia messages. Those are texts sent with photos or videos. But Google One is only available if you opt for 100 gigabytes of storage on Drive.Google.com for $2 a month or $20 a year. We thought it was worth it. We’re the last of the big spenders.

Moving Day

A reader says: “ I am ending our long term relationship with AT&T about two years earlier than planned. I’ve got a Gmail account with Verizon. How do I import AT&T saved and archived mail into my Gmail account?”

This was trickier than we thought at first, because the archived mail doesn’t automatically come over. You have to first move the archive over to your inbox. (Go to your archive folder, select all the messages there, then click “restore to Inbox.”)  

In Gmail, click on the little picture of a gear. Choose “Settings.” Then choose “Accounts and Import.” Click on “Import Mail and Contacts” and follow the steps. 

Unfortunately, this didn’t work for our reader at first because of pop-up blockers. We suggested he try another web browser. He wrote back: “Guess what? SUCCESS! I changed to Firefox, followed your instructions and the transfer is in progress right now.”

A Digital Life

After reading that the average adult spends four hours a day on a cellphone, we decided to check our statistics. 

Joy spends an average of 1.2 hours per day on her Pixel 2 smartphone. Bob spends zero. He’s not talking. You can check your usage by going to “Settings” and selecting “Digital Well-being and Parental Controls.” On an iPhone, go to “Settings” then “Screentime.” 

We tapped the current day for details, then slid a finger right to see previous days. You can switch from viewing screen time to “notifications.” We received 126 notifications the day we looked. 

If you fear you’re addicted to your phone, try “Post Box,” a free app for Android phones. It bundles your notifications and sends them in one fell swoop. You choose how often you want to be notified – up to four times a day. We also tried “Desert Island,” a free app that changes your phone’s home screen to a plain-text menu of the seven apps you use most often. But we voted ourselves off the island after a few minutes of frustration. Joy typically uses about 12 apps.

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  • Have you, while repairing a computer, ever found anything that made your jaw drop?” If you search that phrase, you’ll find a picture of a massive ant colony growing inside a Sony Vaio laptop. The owner saw an ant or two traversing the screen and suspected he might have a few more hiding inside. The local tech repair outfit was appalled at the giant mounds of them. No wonder the laptop was “acting hinky.” It turns out that this is not a rare event if you happen to be in the tropics.
  • Take Yourself Out of Any Video Stream WIth this New App.” Search on that phrase to find an article from ZmeScience. Jason Mayes, a developer at Google, has figured out a way to take anyone out of a video. He calls his app “Disappearing People.”  Using a computer’s webcam, the app memorizes the look of a room without a human. When a human walks in, they’re erased and the gaps are filled in. The developer will share the code with you if you want to try it. Alternatively, drop a towel over your webcam whenever you want privacy. 

App Happy

  • Photo by Richard Stare

    Audubon Bird Guide.” A reader told us: “Even if you aren’t a birder, the free Audubon Bird Guide in the Google Play Store (also in the iPhone app store) is a terrific app just for the photos. It’s a large download at 350 megabytes, if you install the guide for offline use, but it can all be moved to your SD card. Besides wonderful photographs, there’s loads of bird call recordings, maps, and highly detailed information on the individual birds, like what they eat, nesting habits, and so on.” Joy enjoyed listening to the call of the “Morning Dove,” which she recalled hearing in California every day. It goes “COO, coo, coo.”

  • Burner” is an app for Android and iPhone that gives you a disposable phone number. It would be  handy for anyone using a dating app. Burner gives you 20 minutes of talk time and 40 texts for free. After that, it’s $5 a month.

 

GETTING A HUMAN

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah. Blah! Blah, Blah, Blah.

If you say this when you call tech support, you could be practicing a George Gershwin song. But in fact, you want to talk to a person. We got this tip from a savvy reader who told us that if you just keep saying “Blah” when the robot comes on the line and asks you what you want, you’ll eventually get a person. The robot’s initial response will be “I didn’t understand. Would you please repeat it?” Go ahead. Give it more Blah. If you keep at it – not for long – the robot will say “Let me get you someone to help you.” Hallelujah! That’s why you called in the first place.

If enough people do this, the answering system will eventually be changed to the point where it doesn’t work anymore. But until then, keep those Blahs coming.

(This approach was used in Bob’s favorite press release. It was from a video game company and the entire press release consisted of Blah, Blah, Blah, lots of them, interspersed with the name of the game company. It was his all-time favorite release. His second favorite release was two pages of closely-spaced type promoting a product that was never mentioned. He decided not to write about it.)

Rotary Dialing

A friend said she wished the world could go back to rotary dialing. Now she can almost get her wish.

A new smartphone just came out with a rotary dialer on top. It looks like a mini version of a rotary phone without the receiver.

The “Rotary Cellphone” comes in a kit you assemble yourself for $240. It was designed  by Justine Haupte, an engineer at Brookhaven National Lab. The rotary dialer is sold separately.The only thing the kit brings you is the mainboard and 3D-printed case. Get it at justine-haupt.com.

The phone is part smartphone, part 60s’ throwback. It has a 2.1 inch screen on which you can read phone messages and missed calls. There are two physical buttons you can press for the people you call most. Justine says she uses them “for her husband and mom, ha ha.” We haven’t tried this and the cost seems high. But on the other hand, that’s the price for a trip down memory lane.

After a story at Engadget.com, the response to the phone was overwhelming, Justine says. So she might team up with another company to present a complete model instead of just a kit. But right now she doesn’t have the resources to offer customer support. So this is truly for the hobbyist.

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  • ConsumerLab: If you go to YouTube and search on “ConsumerLab” you’ll see the results of laboratory testing of various supplements and foods. We subscribe to their website for $4 a month, but YouTube has 21 of their test results for free. If you reply to one of their videos with questions, a doctor answers right back. We learned recently that some cocoa powders and some chocolate chips, such as Guittard Extra Dark chocolate chips, are high in cadmium, a toxic metal. The best among the cocoa powders was Ghirardelli baking powder. The worst was from Healthworks, the one we buy. Out it goes.
  • The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge.” Search on that phrase to find a fascinating article. Ornate rooms for women opened several decades before public toilets were common. The Tremont Hotel, which opened in Boston in 1829, had the first restrooms and a women’s lounge.

Free Word Processing

Bob’s copy of Office 2007 mysteriously disappeared. What appeared instead was Microsoft Office 365, which they charge for. He didn’t want to pay for it, so he uninstalled Office 365. Lo and behold, that left the free versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint in place.

Now when he clicks on the Office icon in the Start menu, it comes up with the familiar icons for Word and the other Office programs. He ignores the reminder to buy Office 365. The free version of Word is familiar looking and if you prefer, you can use it at Office.com. In either case, everything you do takes place in your private online account. Since it’s all saved online, you don’t have to worry about losing things if you change computers.

Reader View

Our friend was annoyed by ads that come in the middle of articles on her iPad. We told her about “reader view.”

On an iPad, when using the Safari web browser, tap the “aA” icon on the left side of the search bar whenever you’re on a page with articles. Then tap “Show Reader View.” Or just hold your finger down on the letters “aA” and it will open automatically. Now you get the article without ads or links to stuff you don’t want.

On an Android phone, and for iPad and iPhone users who prefer the Chrome web browser instead of Safari, there’s the free app “Pocket” from the App store or Google Play Store. When we tried it on our Android phone, we got an option to have the articles read to us instead of reading them.

On a computer, search on the phrase “get pocket” and add the extension. The next time there’s an article you want to read uncluttered, click the Pocket icon in the upper right corner of your screen to save it. Go to App.GetPocket.com to start reading any of the articles you’ve saved, without the ads and external links. You might want to share them down the road.

GOING POSTAL

A reader wrote to say that he believed “the whole purpose of computers is to drive us insane.” We don’t know how he discovered our secret. We confess.

The source of his revelation was Barnes & Noble. He ordered an e-book called “Murder of a Post Office Manager.” He admitted that as a former postal worker, he had often thought about this possibility.

“When I downloaded the e-book, all I got was one page instead of 313, and it appeared to be the cover of a Korean comic book,” he wrote. Ah ha! He obviously didn’t realize that the comic book was about killing postal managers. Of course it was in Korean, and no one could understand a word of it.

So after deleting the comic book, re-downloading it, deleting the app from his iPad, and reinstalling it, he went online for tech support. Naturally there was no one there. Just a robot who didn’t understand what he was talking about.

“So I called in,” he says. “I don’t have an account number. All they have on file is my email and the billing information for my credit card. After being asked 50 times for my account number, I finally got a live person.” Surely, he exaggerates. We doubt that they asked him more than 40 times. “After explaining the order,” he continued, “I was transferred to the Digital Department. The rep tried to download the book. All she got was an error message. Good news is I got a refund. Hopefully in a couple of weeks, the book will be available for download.” The other good news is that the postal manager still lives.

Selling Your House on Zillow

A couple we know is selling their Florida home on Zillow.com. They think they’ll get a better offer that way.

The last time our friends sold a property, their daughter talked them out of using Zillow. Too bad. Zillow’s offer was $415,000. They sold the home two months later for $35,000 less.

One thing flummoxed our friend, however. She wanted to include a professionally-made video. Zillow asks you to upload it to YouTube or Vimeo first and then copy the link onto your seller’s page. YouTube confused her because it asked her to create a channel first. She just didn’t see herself as the star of a series. But creating a channel is just a matter of choosing a name for the videos you upload. It could be “Joe Doe’s Videos,” for all they care. You can make your videos private if you wish. If you choose the option “anyone with a link can view,” the “anyone” will be the people you send the link to or the people who find the link on some website. No one will be able to guess the link’s long string of characters and numbers. Joy uploaded the video to our channel as a favor.

Mighty Mouse

Which is better, a gaming mouse or a gaming keyboard? We got the answer on Quora.com, our favorite question-and-answer site. It’s a mouse that has a keyboard.

Think of it this way: You tap one button on a keyboard to move forward. But using your mouse you can turn and target, shoot, aim, zoom in and out, cycle between weapons, and throw grenades. “So, in a single move forward, 99 percent of the control is from your mouse,” says one gamer.

Corsair has a new gaming mouse with 17 programmable buttons, called the “SCIMITAR RGB ELITE MOBA/MMO Gaming Mouse.” What caught our attention is that 17 programmable buttons can be used for any functions you want, not just for blowing things up on the screen. So heavy spreadsheet users, text editors, programmers, etc. could assign their own actions to these programmable buttons and never leave the mouse. If there’s some set of actions you regularly perform, create a routine called a macro. With a macro, you can tap one button to launch the whole series.

If the mouse doesn’t strike your fancy, but the macro does, there are free utility programs that will create macros for you. You can find a list of them with a Google search. But if you like having the buttons on your mouse, Corsair’s device costs $80. You better be right-handed though.

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8 Places that Baffle Scientists.” Search on that phrase to find some doozies. First off, there’s “Eternal Flame Falls” in western New York state. You can see a flame in the waterfall but there’s no explanation. In Naica, New Mexico, there’s a cave with 39-foot long, three-foot wide crystals.

BiodiversityLibrary.org allows you to download 150,000 free illustrations of the natural world, from the 1400s to the early 1900s. We saw a lot of bird paintings that looked like those of James Audubon. But they also have animals, insects and plants.

Bathing Alexa

If you get gunk on or inside your Echo or Echo Dot with Alexa inside, you might want to give it a thorough cleaning. We got these tips from CNET.

Start by lightly tapping it to shake out loose debris and dust. Use a toothpick to dig out crumbs. Don’t use a knife, since that might scratch the speaker. Use a lint roller to get stuff from the surface. If that isn’t enough, use the small attachment on your vacuum. A microfiber cloth is also recommended as a final step. Don’t clean with alcohol, Windex or any other liquid except water.

PICKING UP A TABLET

We bought the newest iPad model because we couldn’t stand getting iPad or iPhone questions from readers without being able to try out the solutions ourselves.

We’re happy with the current model but a newer version is coming out sometime this year. The next iPad is rumored to have an anti-reflective coating on the surface. That’s what’s used in telescopes and microscopes. It improves the contrast of the image by eliminating stray light. A triple-rear camera is also expected, for extra wide photos and videos like the iPhone 11 Pro can take. But we’re happy with the current model. It sells for $249 at Amazon, down from $329 at Apple. 

What we like best about our iPad is the sound quality. Even at full volume, the iPad doesn’t grate on our ears the way the Amazon Fire HD 10 does. It also has a lot more apps compared to Amazon’s Fire. For instance, we can get the Economist Magazine app on our iPad, not on the Fire. The iPad also holds a charge much longer, up to ten hours, and charges faster. We’re tempted to get the $99 Pencil, a stylus for drawing and note-taking on the tablet.

We’ve had just one problem with the iPad so far: It kept stalling during our first video playback. Joy was watching Jane Austen’s “Sanditon” at PBS.org while walking on a treadmill. Fortunately, when she switched to the built-in Safari web browser, instead of using Google Chrome, the videos played without a hitch. 

But until we got the iPad, we were perfectly happy with our Fire. True enough, the Fire takes a long time to charge and needs charging much more often, but that’s not a problem if you only use it at home where it’s easy to plug in. The sound is a little tinny, but not noticeable until you increase the volume. To our eyes, the picture quality, even when playing videos, is the same as the iPad. Finally, our Fire costs $85 on Amazon, used, and the newest Fire is only $149. That’s $180 less than the current iPad.

Touch Zones

A reader told us he uses his touchscreen computer when he travels, because he hates to carry a mouse. Touch screens open up other possibilities.

If you have a Windows computer with a touchscreen, you can get a $5 program called “Touch Tasks” from Stardock.com.

The program gives you five zones on the edge of your screen. In their example, one was used to show the brightness control panel. Another showed the start menu. A third activated a hotkey, to launch an application quickly. A fourth activated the quick navigation panel, a feature from Windows XP that was later abandoned but some find handy. It shows you your most recently opened programs. A fifth activated the task switcher panel. It allows you to find open windows, instantly hide open windows or manage windows across multiple monitors and virtual desktops.

YouTube Downloads

The first time we wrote about a way to download YouTube videos and watch them offline, we heard directly from a Google exec. It isn’t legal he said, so don’t do it or recommend it to others. One of our readers chimed in too.

But what if you’re downloading a video for personal use, not to sell it? One of our readers suggested the free Firefox add-on, “Easy YouTube Downloader Express.” He uses it because he likes to stop a video at various points during playback, something he can do more precisely by using the free “VLC Media Player” on an offline video. Others might like the Downloader because they want to watch videos on a train, away from WiFi, or because their Internet connection is slow and the video stops and starts.

Easy YouTube Downloader Express is recommended by CNET.There are other downloaders out there but they’re often full of spyware or malware, so beware. To use Downloader Express, fire up the Firefox web browser. (If you don’t have Firefox, Google the phrase “get Firefox”). Then search on “Easy YouTube Downloader Express” and click to install it. Go to YouTube, find a video you like, and click the green “download as” button. Works great. This is the easiest one we’ve ever seen.

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  • MovieMistakes.com examines the hole in a movie plot, and other absurdities. We skipped to the end of a Nicole Kidman movie, “Before I Go to Sleep,” and was gratified to read on Movie Mistakes that they agreed with us on how stupid it was. 
  • Victorian times had fashion to die for, literally. Search on the phrase “7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You” to find out more.
  • Geek.com has “The Most Amazing LEGO Projects Ever.” For example, a 10-year old Icelandic boy with autism built a 26-foot long, five-foot high replica of the Titanic, made from 56,000 blocks. In the process, he went from being almost non-verbal to giving a TED talk and appearing on TV shows.

Atari Hotel

Atari, the retro game company, is starting its own hotels in eight U.S. cities, starting with Phoenix.

The hotels will be “Atari gaming playgrounds,” according to Engadget.com. Each will have a variety of games available for guests. The hotels will also have movie theaters, bakeries, restaurants and bars.

 

PASSWORD FOLLIES

Over 23 million people had their account information stolen because they used “123456” as their password, according to PreciseSecurity.com. Another eight million used “12345678.” Nearly four million used the word “password” as their password. Many people use a favorite password for all or most of their accounts.

Weak passwords caused 30 percent of all “ransomware” attacks in 2019. Ransomware refers to hackers who lock the information on your computer and demand a ransom to unlock it. But only 12 percent of users in the U.S. take advantage of password managers, which create and store passwords for you. If you search on the phrase “best password managers,” you’ll find a TechRadar article on the best: “Dashlane,” “LastPass” and “Keeper.”

We haven’t had much luck with “LastPass,” which had its information stolen in 2015. Email addresses were taken but no one’s encrypted private information was hacked. Google Chrome sometimes offers you a strong password when you’re setting up a new account. They also save it for you, so you don’t have to write it down or remember it. But the nice thing about making your own password is that you’ll know it even if you’re using someone else’s machine, where it hasn’t been saved. We suggest using the first letter in each word of some song lyric, or random words strung together such as WalnutRugMath34.

Phones For the Phoneless

The U.S. government sells cheap, infected phones to the phoneless, according to Malwarebytes.org. Beware of officials bearing gifts.

The $35 phone, a Chinese brand called UMX, is for people in the “Lifeline Assistance Program.” It’s also sold by T-Mobile. Among other things, the phone collects personal information and opens the way for other rogue apps to be installed. A free app, “Malwarebytes for Android,” will remove one of the Trojan viruses the phone comes with. But removing the other one leaves the phone unuseable. Malwarebytes asked the government why they were selling infected phones but they never responded. Ironically, you can get a good phone, such as the LG Rebel 4, for just $5 more. No government required.

New Gadgets

  • “Moxie Showerhead.” If you miss Alexa when you’re singing in the shower, you’ll be relieved to know she comes inside a showerhead from Kohler. She’ll play whatever song you request, if it’s available. Or you can talk to your showerhead to order new soap. The audio is from Harman Kardon. Should there be anyone in the shower with you, they’ll probably think you’re nuts. It’s coming this summer for $229.
  • “Roxie Karaoke.” Roxie brings karaoke to your car. It uses a microphone which pairs with your phone and your car’s stereo. After you choose a song from your phone, the Roxie app will strip away the vocals so you can sing solo. It’s $149 from CarkitAI. Later, they plan to sell one with a camera so your friends can see you crooning in real time. Isn’t that exciting?
  • “EnvisionBody.” EnvisionBody is an app that shows you what you’d look like with more muscles and less fat. That will either motivate you or make you depressed.
  • “Welt Smart Belt” is for seniors who are prone to falling. It analyzes your walk, and will send alerts to your support list if you seem rocky. It also lets you know when your waistline is expanding, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Who’s the Smartest of them All?

According to CNET, a well-known tech site, your home assistant Alexa gives you the answer you need 80 percent of the time. Their test found that Google Home was right 93 percent of the time. Apple’s Siri was right 83 percent of the time.

We didn’t do a rigorous test, but here’s our own impression. If we ask for a stock quote, Google gets it right away, but Alexa is lost unless we tell her to open Bloomberg. Even then, she doesn’t get all the stocks we ask for. This morning we asked for a history fact and Alexa gave us the address of a local restaurant.

Games People Play

What’s the world’s oldest board game? “Senet,” an Egyptian game from 3500 B.C.E. Now you can play it on your phone or tablet. If you’re an ancient Egyptian, you may even understand the rules.

Archaeologists found the game in tombs and developed rules that they believe are close to the original. But they should have asked their mummy. We found those rules a little too complicated but the graphics in the free apps “Egyptian Senet” and “Senet” are good.

Facebook Followers

Anyone can read your posts on Facebook if you leave the default setting alone. A reader wrote to say: “I was shocked at the people it listed following me even though I had not given permission for that.” Here’s the fix.

On your computer in the blue bar at the top, go to the far right, click the drop-down arrow and select “Settings.” Then look to the left and choose “Public Posts.” Under “Who can Follow Me,” change it from “Public” to “Friends.”

If you want to see how many followers you have, and who they are, go to Facebook.com on your computer and click your own name. Then click “Friends.” On the Friends page, under the word “Friends” next to “Hometown,” there’s a tab for “Followers.” Click it. As our reader points out, if you see someone you don’t want there, you can block them by clicking “Settings” and then “Blocking” on the left.

THE RULES OF THE GAME

Joy would like to contradict Bob’s complaint about updates. He recently advised not doing them, even on an iPhone, because of all the problems they cause. Joy always does updates for security reasons and because some apps require them. A reader wrote us with these words of wisdom:

“My son who is chief programmer and bottle washer in his game company says there are two mandatory rules about updating software: 1.NEVER update software. 2. Be sure your software is always up-to-date.”Bob has an additional rule: No matter what you get, you have to get something else to make it work.

Update on Updates

“Don’t let the door hit you on the backside on your way out,” is a variation on one of Bob’s favorite sayings. But that’s just what Microsoft did with Windows 7.

Support for Windows 7 ended on January 14. That means no more patches for security flaws. But on the way out, Microsoft couldn’t resist doing one more update. This caused some computer screens to go black. They were forced to do one more.

Millions still use Windows 7. Perhaps your doctor does. If so, let’s hope that he or she safeguards your information with security software or doesn’t click on suspicious links and attachments, like Mark Zuckerberg did recently. He opened a video from a Saudi prince and his computer was immediately infected with malware. 

If you want to upgrade, you can still get Windows 10 for free. Search on “BusinessInsider, get Windows 10 for free” or use TechRadar’s guide for more info. When they say you have to have a license to install it, they mean your Windows 7 license. But upgrading may slow your computer down. If you want to go with Windows 10, but miss the look of Windows 7, consider getting “Start10” for $5 from Stardock.com. It keeps the look of Windows 7 but uses the power of Windows 10.

Amazon Fury

A reader was so angry about a package that didn’t arrive from Amazon, he wrote us to complain. 

Sometimes, he says, “the vendor doesn’t have the item in stock when he makes a sale. He only claims to have shipped it, so he can get his money.” Then he goes out and buys the item for less and sends it out after some delay.

We encouraged the reader to complain to Amazon but he could only find a chat session with “predigested answers that don’t address my issue.” It looked to him like the “contact us” link was gone. It’s there, but it’s hard to find.

After you sign in to your account, click “help” at the top of the page at Amazon.com. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Need More Help?” Then click “Contact Us.” Finally, click “Start Chatting Now” or “Need More Help? We can call you.” We’ve always had good results with chatting in a text window on the site or talking on the phone. However, this doesn’t always work. For third party sales, you have to contact the vendor first. 

Regarding “free two-day delivery,” a post on the Amazon forum says you need to see the word “guaranteed” or it’s not really two-day. The word “guaranteed” shows up right before you click “place order.” If it’s not guaranteed, it could take much longer than two days. According to a post on their seller support page, “Free two-day shipping” without the guarantee means the item is out of stock and will ship in two days once Amazon gets it. Bob is still waiting for a blazer that was supposed to have arrived last week.

Uber Annoyance

A reader wrote to tell us about the run-around she got from Uber. For starters, she forgot her Uber password. But when she tapped “forgot password?” they sent the reset link to an email address she no longer uses. She called their support number, 808-169- 7335, but they never called back. We suggested doing a Google search on the phrase “update Uber email online.” The second search result, from help.uber.com, takes you to an email-update form. But Uber can be annoying.

We have a friend who calls the intermediary service, “Go Go Grandparent,” when she needs transportation by Uber or Lyft. That way, she never has to deal with either company. And she doesn’t need a smartphone to use it.

However, the company now charges 27 cents per minute for the length of your ride, on top of whatever Uber or Lyft charges you. So if it takes you 15 minutes to get somewhere, the extra charge would be $4.05. That’s almost twice as much as they used to charge, but they do a lot of hand-holding in exchange. After you request a ride, they’ll call you when your driver is less than four minutes away and notify you if better drivers are found. You can text an operator with questions any time. You can also set up automatic requests for fixed appointments.

Internuts

Unclaimed.org: On NPR’s Planet Money, we heard about a guy who bought Amazon stock in the early days. Then he didn’t touch his eTrade account for 20 years. When he peeked, it was gone. Money or stock from inactive accounts can go to the government. It collected nearly $8 billion in 2015, the most recent year available. You can find out how to get yours at unclaimed.org.

CBSrmt.com stands for “CBS Radio Mystery Theater,” which may appeal to fans of old time radio drama.

COOL INVENTIONS

A reader sent us an article about contact lenses with augmented reality. Now you can be out of touch with reality all the time.

  • Mojo Vision Contact Lenses: Though they’re like regular contacts, they also  give you the weather, a map, your heart rate, blood sugar and other info floating in the air before your eye. They remind us of Joy’s “Form Swim” goggles, which give swim statistics in front of the right or left pupil. Google is an investor in MojoVision. Availability: In two years, or so they say.
  • S-Pod Review on YouTube. Click for video.

    Segway S-Pod: Remember how the Segway was going to revolutionize transportation? It never happened, though we do see tourists using them. Segway just announced a sit-down version, which goes up to 24 miles per hour. (They’re about to invent the golf cart.) That’s more like it. As people age or have joint problems, they’ll need them at airports, large campuses and on tours. This seems to be a big improvement over the current Segway, which isn’t easy on the feet if you’ve been standing on it for hours. Joy was a little leery to try one but it practically balances itself. The new version will be even more of a no-brainer, if you don’t mind joystick controls. It’s sometimes described as a “self-balancing stroller,” or a “lounge chair on wheels.”

  • Nurvv insoles” might have prevented Joy from damaging her feet in long runs around a track. She used to run on her toes, which was bad for them. These insoles send data to an app on your phone. The app analyzes your running technique and gives you statistics, such as stride length, as well as advice. 
  •  Manta 5 Hydrofoil Bike:” It has a ridiculous price: $7,500. An electric motor provides an assist to your pedaling. Once you get up to speed, the hydrofoils provide lift. Joy saw it on YouTube and now wants one.
  • Feles Box,” for around $3,000, is the ultimate science kit. It includes equipment for incubation, electrophoresis (charged particles), spectrometry, a centrifuge and a cyclometer, among other tools.

See more in a SmithsonianMag.com article called “Eight Remarkable Inventions Unveiled at This Year’s CES.” That’s the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Updating the iPhone

A reader is in doubt about whether she should update her iPhone 6. She stopped doing updates when her friends’ phones got messed up after they did theirs. Bob has an aversion to all updates. Every change is not necessarily an improvement.

It turns out her phone is too old anyway. You need an iPhone 6s or newer to install Apple’s latest operating system, 13.2.2. It won’t work on a plain ol’ iPhone 6. That may be a lucky break. According to Forbes magazine, version 13.2.2.has caused a lot of problems. These include crashing during email, audio irregularities, graphic glitches, cellular connection difficulties and excessive battery drain. Forbes told users to stay away from the update unless they’ve been faithfully installing updates all along and now have version 13.2.1, which is worse. Version 13.3 is in the “beta” or testing phase, but we’ll probably see a version 13.2.3 first. Are you confused yet? We like to fall back on the farmer’s mantra: “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”

Facebook Annoyance

Bob got so tired of getting notified about every post on Facebook, he went to “Settings” and turned them all off. Joy did it too. We were astonished by the number and variety of notifications.

Start at Facebook.com on your computer. Look at the blue bar at the top of the screen and go all the way to the right to click a drop-down arrow. Choose “Settings.” In settings, look to the left and click “Notifications.” You can turn off more than a dozen of them. This includes notifications by  email, text message or pop-up. We shut down notifications about status updates, videos, things for sale and charities, among others. Birthday reminders we kept.

Internut

Can this teenager use a rotary phone?” Search on that phrase to find an unintentionally funny YouTube video. A friend, who had coincidentally just wished aloud that the world could go back to rotary phones, found it for us. “I couldn’t stop laughing,” she says. Two teenagers try to work a dial-up phone and can’t figure it out.

Landline Spam

A reader writes: “I’ve still got a landline that I need for business purposes and I get as many or more calls on that phone as I do the cell phone. Both are ATT. Any suggestions for dealing with those calls– besides being on the ‘no call’ list that I’ve been on for years?” In short, he’s getting plagued by robocalls on his landline, and all the advice articles tell you how to stop them on cell phones.

 If you’re with AT&T, you can block robocalls from returning by dialing *61# after you hang up. Or you can call AT&T (or whoever your provider is) and tell them which numbers you want to block. This of course isn’t a perfect solution because robocallers use thousands of different phone numbers and it’s hard to block them all. 

We also were plagued by calls on our landline. So we had our landline number transferred to our cell phone, where calls are easily screened and blocked. We got a new landline number from Vonage, an Internet phone company. This number we’ve only given out to our closest family and friends. Hence no spam calls. We also tried Magic Jack, which at $39 a year is about the same price as only two months of Vonage, but we didn’t get good call clarity. Others swear by it.

 

 

 

WHY ARE THEY SPYING ON US?

Why are they all spying on us? It’s because they want to sell us stuff.

The “they” we’re talking about are Google, Amazon and Apple. They record you when you use the microphone on your cell phone or computer. It also happens when you talk to one of your smart speakers, like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home.

We tap the microphone symbol when conducting searches on our phone. We can ask for a Chinese restaurant nearby faster than we can type it. These days everybody delivers.

We’ve written before that we don’t care what gets recorded. Our conversations are beyond boring. A reader wrote that he agreed but was still bothered by it. He felt that what he had to say was also boring but he thinks big business may find a way to take advantage.

We can’t expect to get services for free. If the search engines are going to find things for us, it’s only reasonable they want to advertise similar products. People worry that their insurance rates might go up if Google sells their data. But Google, which is by far the leading search service, does not sell your information.

If you stop their data collection, you’ll still get ads, but they’ll be way off. Our reader turned off all personalization options when he got his Android phone. So he gets the same annoying ads over and over. One is from a law firm looking for clients who want to sue someone. He also gets political ads.

If it bothers you to be recorded when you press the mike icon, keep in mind that it’s not just the Google search engine. If your TV takes voice commands, these are also being recorded.

If you have privacy concerns, here’s how to stop Google from storing your voice: Go to your computer and search on the phrase “Manage your Google Account.” Click on the first result that comes back. Choose “Manage your data & personalization.” Look for “Activity Controls.” Now look for “Web and App activity.” Uncheck the box next to “include voice and audio recordings.” If you click “manage activity,” you’ll get a chance to delete all the recordings they have.

You might think that using Chrome’s “incognito mode” or “private browsing” in Microsoft Edge or Mozilla Firefox would be enough to shield you from prying eyes. But you can still be tracked. The difference is that nothing is saved on your local machine.

Craigslist Scam

A PhD researcher we know nearly lost $9000 in what appears to be a scam.

Looking for a place to live near Stanford University, she saw an ad on Craigslist that seemed to provide the answer. Housing there is so scarce that some businesses are leasing parking lot spaces with showers so people can sleep in their cars. In San Francisco, the average rental for a one-bedroom is $6500 a month.

Our researcher searched the web and found other ads that were strikingly similar, even down to describing the property owner’s occupation. If in doubt, Google the words from an ad, along with the word “scam,” or “risk” before you fall for it.

In a Vice.com article, “I Accidentally Uncovered a Nationwide Scam on Airbnb,” a woman says she was told at the last minute that her Airbnb room was unavailable but there was another one three times bigger. She was forced to make a decision on the phone, so she said yes. The place looked grimy, like a flophouse. They forced her to move out the next day, which might have been OK but she only got a third of her original payment back: $399 instead of $1,221. It was part of a nationwide scam involving eight cities and nearly 100 properties, using fake reviews and intimidation.

Fast Company reports that some Airbnb hosts use hidden cameras. Look for oddly-placed clocks, smoke detectors, plants, mirrors, speakers and USB wall plugs. Shine a flashlight on a suspicious object. A lens made of glass will be more reflective than its surrounding material.

Books

“The Impossible Fortress,” by Jason Rekulak, is a hilarious techie/caper novel, set in the 1980s. In it, a guy and gal try to win a video game contest. You can play a game similar to the one in the story at the author’s website, JasonRekulak.com.

“WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us,” by Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Press, says we don’t have to be afraid that robots will take our jobs. We’ll have more rewarding ones than they will. If you want to look at the future, he says, look at what rich people do today. They’re the leisure pioneers. For instance, a car phone used to be a marvel, but now most people carry one. Travel and dining out used to be a luxury activity. Now it’s common.

How to Return an Audible Book

Joy loves Audible.com, which reads you books for $15 a month. But sometimes she chooses the wrong one. What to do?

You can return a book and get your credit back. Go to Audible.com on your computer. Next to your name, click the drop-down arrow and choose “Account Details.” Then click “Purchase History.” You can exchange any book that has the word “Exchange” next to it.

ROBOT VACUUM

Vacuuming the old way

Our oddest Christmas present this year is a robot vacuum, given to us by a young relative. Bob was hugely skeptical at first but he has to admit: “It works, but it doesn’t hold much.”

Go to YouTube.com to find reviews for dozens of these, from Roomba on down. Ours, the “LeFant 300m,” costs $140 on Amazon. Roomba ranges from about $200 to over a thousand.

We have hardwood floors, four small mats in the kitchen, and a large Home Depot rug in the living room. It seems complicated, yet the robot vacuum handled them all, traveling from room to room in our small apartment. We charged it by plugging it into the wall. We dumped the debris by using a tiny Phillip’s screwdriver to open up the compartment where the filters are. One of the filters is washable. The other is a HEPA filter which limits dust, smoke, pollen, bacteria and mold. Joy likes it.

Readers Ring In on Robocalls

 We recently mentioned “do not disturb” mode on the iPhone but left out a crucial point. Readers were quick to point this out. Thanks guys!

 As one reader writes, with this new iPhone feature, “robo calls hang up before they even get to voicemail. Any human call you miss goes to voicemail so you can call right back.” Another points out that the missed call can be found under “Recents.” We’re guessing that the niece of ours who missed an important job interview after turning on “do not disturb” isn’t in the habit of checking voicemail very often.

Internuts

  • Museum of Lost Objects.” Search on that phrase to find a BBC website with interesting articles and podcasts. They trace the history of antiquities destroyed or looted in Iraq, Syria, India and Pakistan. For example, a year ago a man used a drill to deface a winged bull in the ancient city of Nineveh, in Iraq.

  • TubiTV.com has thousands of free movies, including classics. Joy immediately watched part of an old favorite, “Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” They also had one of Bob’s favorites, the spaghetti Western, “My Name is Nobody,” and much more recent titles, like the 2007 movie “War” with Jason Statham. We clicked “browse titles” and didn’t have to register on the site to start watching.

    Image Courtesy of CNN

  • You can still buy $1 homes all over Italy.” Search on that phrase to find a fascinating article from CNN.com. It’s an attempt to get rid of abandoned homes, mostly in the south.Though many have been snapped up, you can still get one if you put down a deposit ranging from $2200 – $5600. You get your deposit back in three years if you have refurbished the home.
  • The best thing you can do for your health: Sleep Well.” Search on that phrase to find the Guardian newspaper’s most-read article of 2019. Both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher bragged about sleeping only four or five hours a night but they both got Alzheimer’s. Insufficient sleep may be a factor.

The Worst Video Game Ever

The other day we were listening to “Sidedoor,” a podcast from the Smithsonian. They were talking about the worst video game ever, a 1982 Atari game based on the movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” Instead of the usual eight months, the developer was given only one month to create it. Apparently, it was so bad it ruined the company. Atari’s name was mud. (Atari means “that’s a hit” in Japanese.) The developer lost his job and became a therapist.

It didn’t help that Atari allowed other companies to use the Atari name and after awhile, there was only so much you could do with the old format. Their video game sales dropped 90 percent between 1982 and 1986.

In the podcast we learned that a group set out to find the old cartridges dumped by Atari in the New Mexico desert. Sure enough, they uncovered 1,178 of them.

Pedal to the Metal

Joy bought a foot pedal for her sewing machine on eBay for $20 but It was the wrong one. Returning it to China cost $23.50, and involved standing in a long line at the Post Office twice. The first time she had to step out of the line to fill out a form.

The irony is, the Chinese vendor had already refunded her account on eBay and hadn’t asked for the package back. But it felt wrong to keep it. Lesson learned: Pay attention to where a product is coming from. If it’s from too far away, it may cost a lot to return it.

Shopping Scams

Fake sites are a growing problem. They now number in the thousands.

Joy thought she was buying a birthday present from Arlington racetrack in Illinois, but it was really a Shopify.com site with Arlington in the name. Five months later, she found out that the recipient had not received it. When she contacted the Shopify store, they refunded the money for the original shirt she ordered, supplied a free shirt of a different kind, and apologized profusely for letting things fall through the cracks while they were in a transition period.

The Washington Post did an investigative piece on Shopify problems nationwide. They gave an example of a photo of a $2,495 coat from Overland Sheepskin that was used to sell a $70 knock-off with lopsided sleeves. The fabric was described by one buyer as looking like “roadkill” or “rat fur.” Around 753 websites stole Overland Sheepskin’s photos to sell their own wares. Most of these sites are on Shopify. By the way, the Post sells their own branded merchandise through Shopify.