WHO’S ANONYMOUS?

Many readers have written to rave about the search engine “DuckDuckGo,” because it promises privacy as you search the web. But we learned that it’s only partially private. DuckDuckGo itself doesn’t track your movements, but you can still be “seen” by the websites you visit, for marketing purposes.

An alternative is Startpage.com. Search on anything and when the results come up, click “Anonymous View” next to the site you wish to visit. Your computer’s address will be masked. So will your location, your browser, operating system and personal information.  So … when you go on Facebook or Twitter, those sites can’t share your activities with the websites that advertise with them.

We actually don’t mind advertisers collecting data on us, since advertisers use it to show ads for stuff we might be interested in. But just like a late night TV pitch, it turns out “that’s not all they’re getting.” A report from thezebra.com, a site that helps you find cheaper car insurance, says your search habits can, and often do, influence what companies charge you. For example, if you search for auto insurance on a computer, you would save 5.49 percent compared to the average payment. If you search with an Android phone, you’d pay an extra 2.25 percent. Searching with an iPhone would cost you an extra 4.93 percent. We’re guessing that’s because smart phone users are assumed to have more money than computer users. However, your email address also makes a difference, with Gmail users paying more. Even the time of day you search makes a difference, with morning users paying less.

Word Alternatives

Wow, our lead item last week about Microsoft Word touched a nerve. That’s the nerve inside people’s wallets. A bunch of readers weighed in after we said we were cutting ties to Office 365 and going back to an earlier version of Microsoft Word. Here’s what they’re using instead.

One guy said he refused to pay $100 a year for Office last year, and started using the free Google “Docs” instead of Word, and Google “Sheets” instead of Excel. “Docs is totally free and is very similar to Word, plus, everything is automatically saved to Google Drive.”  We tried it too and find it works well.

Another reader said he likes Google Docs, but when he wants to work offline, he uses LibreOffice, free from LibreOffice.org. “Libre does everything I need, is totally free, including periodic updates, and always works. I can open and edit any file types, including Microsoft files (.doc & .docx), OpenOffice documents (.odt) and ordinary text (.txt & .rtf); it can also save to these formats.”

Another reader says he wouldn’t mind giving up Microsoft Office when he retires, but he’ll miss Outlook, the email program. We told him there’s a free version of Outlook at Outlook.com. We tried it and it works well. He said “I like it that Outlook syncs with my iPhone contacts and syncs the email accounts so if I send, delete, or receive one, it’s the same on my home computer and iPhone.” But this is also true of Gmail, Yahoo and other services.

App Happy

  • Tipster Guide,” free for iPhones only, gives tipping advice for the whole world. When you cross a border, you are immediately notified of tipping etiquette for restaurants, bars, hotels, taxis and more. It also tells you which currency you should be using.
  • “Afterlight 2” is  photography app, free for Android and $3 for iPhone. We were impressed by its ability to take a dull photo and liven it up. Among its special effects, it can turn a photo into a letter of the alphabet, filling in a hollow version of the letter.
  • KeyMe” lets users scan their house or car keys and order a duplicate to be sent in the mail. They also have kiosks in places like 7-Eleven and Bed Bath and Beyond, where the key is duplicated on the spot.
  • QuizUp has 20 million players in five languages. You choose a category, like geography or tech and play a random player if you wish. Dots on the map showed players all over, including Africa and Australia. When we played we met our match in a top-ranked player from Portugal.

Numbers Report

According to a survey of 1,108 U.S. millennials who bought tech products on Amazon this year, there are some surprising trends, says Max Borges Agency, a public relations   firm.

  • Fewer than one in four say they would buy a tech product if it’s not available on Amazon. They like Amazon because of Prime (two-day) shipping.
  • Around 77 percent said they’d rather give up alcohol than Amazon; 44 percent said they would choose Amazon over sex.
  • 90% consult Amazon Customer Reviews before making a tech purchase on the site.
  • A mere 8% of millennial buyers are likely to make a tech purchase on Amazon with a 3-star review, but 47% would purchase when the star count hits 4. The majority require a 5-star review.

(Note: Bob has long been skeptical of reviews on Amazon and other web sites, such as Yelp. Of course he tends to be skeptical by nature.)

The report also analyzed when millennials are shopping on the site, with 61% shopping in the middle of the night, and 57% while working. Almost half of millenials shop in the bathroom, and 19% admitted to purchasing tech goods while intoxicated.

Tech purchases outweighed all others, at 61%, followed closely by clothing, shoes and jewelry at 60%. However, smartphones are least likely to be purchased on Amazon, as respondents still look to brand retailers for assistance, pricing and compatibility. Over 71% shopped for tech products on their mobile device.

 

COMING CLEAN

A cell phone has 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats, according to scientists at the University of Arizona.

We got on this because Joy got an antibacterial box for her cell phone, the second one we’ve been sent in a few years. The first one was a royal pain to use, which made her turn to soap and water, which of course killed the phone. Yes, we know phones are  waterproof now, but they weren’t then. Reminds Bob of his first video tape player, a Japanese model which came with a manual advising the user to avoid turning it on underwater. Good thinking.

Despite the soap and water hazard, the name of this gadget is “PhoneSoap Go.” It involves no soap or water but instead uses ultraviolet light to kill little bugs and other stuff that just does not like a day at the beach. The phone goes into the box, and the box has a  battery. Press the button on top and in 10 minutes, the light kills the bugs. Well, most of them anyway. Hospitals and labs also use ultraviolet light as part of their sterilization arsenal, so this is not exactly a new thing.

PhoneSoap Go costs $100 and weighs one and one-quarter pounds. (Yes, we weighed it.) So that makes it portable, and it also charges your phone from its own battery, while you wait, or travel or whatever. It can disinfect the phone 45 times on a single charge. You could also put in your keys, credit cards and earbuds to sanitize those.

Pump and Dump

Wonder why Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were on a roller coaster last year, and now are in the doldrums? Okay, so you didn’t wonder, and maybe didn’t even care. But here’s what seven economists writing for the Social Science Research Network found :

There were 4,818 “pump” signals, which were sent to hundreds of millions of users of two apps, one called “Discord” and the other called “Telegram.” Those signals led people to buy cryptocurrencies over a six-month period. The economists also found thousands of “dump” recommendations, encouraging people to sell.  It’s a fraudulent practice well known from the early days of the stock market. We think it was early days.

Internuts

  • NetbookNews.com has some tips on speeding up your computer. Click on “tips” in the upper right part of the website screen. Tips on buying a new laptop look good too. Speeding up a computer is a particularly popular thing with video game players. A Google search reveals all. Take a look at HowtoGeek.com’s article, “Do You Really Need to Reinstall Windows?”
  • Plastic shopping bag.” Go to wikipedia.org and type in those three words to learn the history of the plastic bag. Between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year worldwide. We re-use paper bags.

App Happy

Malwarebytes for Mobile” is a free app for Android and iPhones that has really cut down on the number of spam calls we get. It also scans for malware, bad apps and “ransomware.” Ransomware locks down a phone and demands, well, ransom money  to unlock it.

The app comes with a 30-day free trial of the Premium version, which is $12 a year. The only difference between the two is that the Premium protects you in advance. The free version cleans up the security breach after it’s happened. The same is true for the free and paid versions of Malwarebytes on your computer.

We really liked the call-blocking feature. Of course it means that we miss out on wonderful deals for cruises, time-share vacations and lowering many other special deals. Every time a call looks suspicious, Malwarebytes prompts us to add it to the blocked list. Most spam calls are blocked automatically. Try to explain that to your mother-in-law.

Oki Okay!

Our Okidata laser printer, the C331dn, had a paper jam. We couldn’t find it, so we called 800-Okidata. You have never seen tech support like their tech support. You have a problem at three in the morning on a Sunday, they’re there for you.

Like NASA’s mission control, when you call for help, they look at the problem by going over to a machine that is just like the one you’re calling about. This way they can duplicate what they’re asking you to do. That was pretty impressive, since our Okidata printer is at least ten years old. Our C331dn was discontinued years ago.

In our case, we had to lift out the toner and the drum, retrieve the trapped paper and put them back. The tech told us exactly how to line them up to get them back in, because he was looking at the same thing we were. Tech support has always been free, even for old printers.

Reader Fitness Question

A reader wondered if Siri or Alexa or Google Home would organize her health data into a usable graph or chart. She’d like to say, “Siri, my blood sugar is 140, I did 20 minutes on the treadmill, I had three shots of tequila and half a bag of chips.”

If you have a FitBit, the little step counter that goes on your wrist like a watch, and an Echo or Echo Dot, it can work with Alexa, the voice inside your Echo speaker. (Go to Amazon’s Alexa section to browse the various applications, called “skills,” and turn on as many as you like.) Once enabled, Alexa can give you a Fitbit report, saving you the trouble of cycling through the options on your wrist. Ask “Alexa, how am I doing today?” Or “Alexa, how many stairs did I climb on Wednesday?” and a host of other questions. You can get a list of possible questions by searching on the phrase “Alexa and Fitbit.”

 

CUTTING OFFICE TIES

A few readers have asked us what would happen if they stopped paying Microsoft $70 to $100 a year for Microsoft Office 365. Would there be a knock on the door late at night? Men in black suits? These are questions we have asked ourselves many times, usually just before breakfast.

We ask no more. That’s because we switched back to Microsoft Word 2007, which is free, more manageable, and of course out of date. So the next question to be answered is this: Does it matter? In short, what do you use Microsoft Office for? Most people get Office 365, the $100 a year version, just to use Word. That’s their word processor. The other popular feature is Power Point, for presentations.

So the next question  to ask – my god, there are a lot of them –are you a business or a home user? Because if you’re not a business, one with many demands from the computer, it’s hard to justify paying an annual fee.

The next, next question is: so where do we get the earlier version? Do a web search and you get prices ranging from around $60 to $150. You can go to WPS.com and get a program very similar to Office for free; it’s gotten good reviews. Walmart has a $29 program similar to Office called LibreOffice. OpenOffice.org has a free program very similar to Microsoft Office and it’s been available for decades. These are not made by Microsoft, of course, but they work and you only have to answer the last question of … just what do you really use it for?

How it all began:

Our rejection of Office 365 was triggered when Joy couldn’t get her computer started, and we had no idea why. At the boot-up screen, she couldn’t type more than a few letters of her Microsoft password before the computer stopped accepting keystrokes. So she used the Windows recovery option to reformat her computer. This is a drastic solution, and recommended only in dire circumstances The recovery held on to her files  but wiped out all of her programs. This turned her computer into a speed demon. The central processing unit used to run at close to 100 percent, and so did the disk. Now, when we check “Task Manager,” both are usually running at less than five percent.

Windows put a list of the removed programs on our desktop as a reminder to re-install them. It’s a long list. We are pack rats and tend to keep all the programs we’ve ever used. We have stuff that’s still on floppy disks and even old hard drives that have been removed from our computers when we replaced them. We have a tape drive printer that went out of production forty years ago. (There were only six of them.)

Chief among those programs she decided not to reinstall was Office 365. We have a perfectly good copy of Office 2007, and there are many things we like about it. For one, although Office 365 claims to keep whatever files you save to “One Drive,” available right there on your desktop, synchronized with your private One Drive storage space online, it never did. Every week we save a rough draft of our column to One Drive but when we went to look for them, the most recent one they saved online was from last June. It turns out you have to be signed in to OneDrive, by clicking on the icon in your taskbar. But it’s flawed. You can right-click a file to “keep it on this device,” meaning it’s on your computer and in the cloud. But if it’s accidentally erased on your computer, it disappears from your online account too.

We love the old Office 2007 file-listing feature, which is also present in previous versions of Office. By clicking the “orb” in the upper left corner of Word (or clicking the word “File” in previous versions), you can see a list of whatever files you most recently worked on and then click on the one you want. Office 365 removed that ever so convenient orb and now the files list opens up in a separate app. The programmers probably probably laughed all the way through that meeting.

So why did we sign up to renew our subscription to Office 365 last year? There was a dire warning about losing our files. But it turns out this only happens after thirty days, which gives you plenty of time to move the files to a new folder on your computer, or to an external drive. Thumb drives are real cheap these days.

To cancel a subscription to Office 365, search on “cancel Office 365.” We went round and round a couple of times till we found the billing page. To save time, go straight to account.microsoft.com/services/office/billing. (There should be no hyphens in that address.)

App Happy

  • Drops” is a free app for learning a language in five minute sessions each day. (We’re trying German, since a couple friends of ours recently moved there to open a barbecue place, of all things.) It’s called “Drops” because the German word drops into place, with a picture of the thing that fits the word. The founder says you only need a couple hundred words to get by in most situations, and learning food words first builds confidence. (Do they understand “hamburger?”)
  • “Sleep and Relaxation Sounds” is one of the top Alexa “skills” of the year. To turn on any skill, go to the Alexa app on your phone and tap the three lines in the upper left, then “skills.” Search on “sleep sounds” and then click “enable” next to whatever you fancy. Bob likes thunderstorms.

That Gosh-Darn Dash

A reader wrote to Joy, saying his note to Bob came back to him. That’s because he had a hyphen in the address, between the “Bob” and the “Schwab.” It should read bobschwab@gmail.com (no hyphen). If you see a hyphen printed in a web or email address, take it out.

 

NEW ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER

We were roped in by Google’s one-day offer of a nice discount on a new phone; it came with a gift card from AirBNB, worth the cost of the phone, plus $225 for our old phone.

But when we got the new phone, the Pixel 3, we decided to return it. The sound quality was muffled, said Bob. Joy couldn’t tell if it was better or worse, but she’s not the audiophile Bob is.

This opens the way for a bit of high dudgeon. That is to say, an incensed tirade. One of the great flaws of the high-tech industry is adding improvements where none are needed. We have been writing about this stuff for so long that we now get asked to review products we first looked at twenty years ago. “Yeah, but this is a new version,” they tell us. They mean, new to them.

Internuts

  • Italy

    Ball Lightning.” Joy had never heard of this phenomenon when it came up in a sci-fi story, so she looked it up on YouTube. It’s real and it’s rare; it looks like a mysterious ball of light from another world. Who knows, maybe it is.

  • CnTraveler.com, online home of Conde Nast Traveler, has an interesting article on “The World’s Best Cities for Arts and Culture.” Bob has been to all of them, Joy just two: New York and Washington, D.C.

More Cheap Phone Services

A reader wanted to use his wife’s old iPhone and was looking for a service to go with it. It turns out his current service “Net10,” lets you use most phones.

Net10 is just one of many cheap ones; it starts at around $35 a month. It gets poor marks for customer service. Well, win some, lose some. But what mattered most was he was already using Net10, so why mess around with something unfamiliar.

We searched on “how to bring your own iPhone to Net10.” As expected, there was a YouTube video on the topic. It tells you which activation kit you need, which was enough for him.

Why does he want a smart phone? For the maps and directions, the GPS that tells you where you are now and how to get where you’re going. Bob hates it. The directions are sometimes just dead wrong, and their usual approach is to take you to the nearest Interstate highway. What a great idea – not! – because then you can compete for road space with tractor-trailer trucks five times your size and weight, all going 60-70 miles per hour. Joy disagrees totally. Without GPS, she’d be lost most of the time.

But you can go even lower than Net 10. “Tello,” which uses the Sprint network, costs $14 a month for unlimited talk and text and one gigabyte of data on a 4G network. “US Mobile,” on the Verizon and T-Mobile networks, has a $6 a month plan. It offers 40 minutes of talk, 40 texts and 100 megabytes of data. That sounds low, but GPS only uses about five megabytes per hour of driving.

Replacing Windows Movie Maker

A reader asked us for a substitute for Windows Movie Maker, a nice program no longer available for Windows 10. “Microsoft Photos” has taken its place. You can get it by typing “Microsoft Photos” into the search bar in the lower left of your Windows 10 screen. It lets you put video clips and photos into a movie or slideshow.

Microsoft Photos starts by asking you whether you want the program to create a video for you, or whether you want to edit one yourself. We chose the automatic option, checking off the photos and video clips we wanted to include. The program pulled these together and added some jazzy music. After they make a movie for you, you can edit it, adding captions and even 3D effects. Share the movie as an email attachment or click the “share” button to upload it to YouTube, Facebook, Skype and all the usual places.

Disaster Averted

Our new-ish Lenovo Idea Centre 510 desktop computer wouldn’t start, alarming a reader we had just recommended it to. We tried to warn him but it was too late. He had just bought one for his wife. Fortunately, we fixed it. Disaster averted.

Telling you how we did it is a great example of what’s sometimes called “Nerd-jacking.” That means hijacking someone at a party and making them listen to a nerdy explanation.

It turned out that a thumb drive plugged into the back of the machine was causing the PC’s failure to launch. When we took out the memory stick, Windows 10 came right up. This had to be a “BIOS” problem. BIOS stands for Basic Input Output System. It’s been there since the earliest days and it tells the computer what to do, basically how to get up in the morning. When you flip on the power, the current goes to the BIOS chip or part of a chip, and triggers built-in instructions like “Go to the hard drive, see if you find an operating system and poke it in the ribs if you do.”

However, it can also be set to go to an outside drive at startup. Why would it ever do this? Well now we can get really nerdy. You might have more than one operating system. Some people like to use a Linux system, but still keep their factory system. LINUX is a system derived from UNIX, which is what giant main-frame computers used. It’s still around. Every time you search the web or send an email and put that “period,” usually referred to as a “dot,” as in “dot com,” into the address, that is an old UNIX command telling the computer to go to a certain place and look for what this guy asked for. (We warned you this could get nerdy.)

What used to be called the BIOS is now called “UEFI,” which stands for Unified Extensible Firmware. It works the same way but by changing the name the folks in Silicon Valley can make it their own and keep the rest of us from catching up too fast. Actually, the real reason for the change is that storage drives have gotten very large and the old BIOS didn’t recognize anything bigger than 2.2 terabytes.

 

 

THEIR ART ON YOUR TV

We downloaded our favorite paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago, which just made over 52,000 works from its collection available in high resolution. Then we put them on our TV and cycled through some favorites, like Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte,” and Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”

You can download what you like to your phone and then make a nice background show on your TV. To do this, we first tried the slideshow option on our seven-year-old Sony, but the images looked faded. We could have burned them to a DVD and used that to improve the colors but turned instead to try Roku and Chromecast.

We have the cheap version of Roku, the $30 “Roku Express.” This has worked okay with family photos, so it’s handy for the holidays, but it didn’t work with the paintings from the Art Institute. We’re not sure why. We turned to our Chromecast, which immediately stopped working. But … a call to their free tech support fixed it right up. Somehow it had gotten on the wrong network.

To cast photos from your phone to your TV using a $35 Chromecast device, which plugs in the back, first find the photo album on your phone. Then tap the “cast” picture, which looks like a square with a rainbow in one corner. Then tap the three vertical dots in the upper right of your phone screen and choose “slideshow.”

If you have any trouble with your Chromecast, call (844) 400-2278. If you want to add those Art Institute paintings to your phone or computer, go to artic.edu and click on “The Collection.”

Internuts

  • PoetryNook.com has poems for every occasion. Joy likes “Volcanoes Be in Sicily” by Emily Dickinson. Bob thought it was so-so. He prefers Robert Louis Stevenson.
  • Clever Mason Jar Hacks” is a YouTube video with great ideas for replacing the top of a Mason jar with something more useable. For instance, cut a circle around the top of a soy milk carton and use it with the rim part of a Mason jar lid and you can then pour the ingredients, from juice to nuts.

Dump Your Web Browsing History

A reader said that learning how to dump her browsing history “has been a life changer.” It certainly can speed up your web browsing experience.

We found a shortcut for this, which works in all the browsers we’ve tried: Chrome, Edge, Firefox and Opera. Just hold down the “Ctrl” (or “Cmd” on the Mac), and the “Shift” key at the same time and tap the “Delete” key. Then click “clear” or “clear data.”

Adding to Your Google Play Music Library

Do you ever wish you could listen to the music from your CDs away from home or your home computer? Here’s how to do it on Google Play Music.

Go to Play.Google.com/music. Select the three stacked lines and then “upload music.” Select music from your computer to upload. (If you don’t have any music on your computer, you can pop CDs into the DVD drive and they will automatically get added to your music folder.)  If you use iTunes, you can drag and drop music from your iTunes library into the upload area.

A Better Uninstaller

High among the many things that bog down a computer: Installing programs and uninstalling them. That covers most of it. You’d think that uninstalling gets rid of programs, but there is usually junk left behind. These bits of flotsam eventually slow things down or worse. A friend of ours who has never added a thing to her Windows PC never has any problems.

We’ve had a couple of uninstallers over the years, and they work all right, but most recently we like Ashampoo’s Uninstaller, now out in version 8 for $20. It seems a small price to pay to keep a computer running smoothly. This version is easier to use.

Infuriating Pop-Ups

It turns out that it wasn’t notifications that were bothering a reader who wrote to us, but the kind of ads that didn’t get blocked by an ad blocker. Must have been a virus. In one evening, he said, he got 25 of them, mostly sex-related. “Just infuriating.”

We suggested he should make sure his anti-virus program was doing weekly or daily scans, and also try the free program from Malwarebytes.org. If that didn’t work, he should do a System Restore. Since he uses Windows 7, that means clicking “start,” “All Programs,” “Accessories,” “System Tools” and finally System Restore. System Restore leaves your documents, photos, music and other data intact. It only restores the system to a point where everything was working. In Windows 10, type “system restore” in the search box to find it. His McAfee anti-virus program finally solved the problem.

Free Books

A website called “JoyofAndroid” (no relation to the Joy we know and love) has some great tips for finding free books, as well as other articles on how to get the most out of your Android phones. Here are some suggestions.

  • Free Books,” a free app for Android and iPhone, has 23,469 classics for free.
  • Moon+ Reader” is a good guide to the most popular, free books from Project Gutenberg.
  • Wattpad” is a site we’ve mentioned before, but parents beware. There’s a lot of free fiction aimed at teenagers, but some of it can be crude. For example: number one in the sci-fi category is “My Sexy Alien Boyfriend.” Over 123,000 people have read it. Amateur writing, but popular.

 

 

YOUR STUFF ON FACEBOOK

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

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

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

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

A New Portrait

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

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

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

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

App Happy

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

AOL Outages

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

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

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

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

YouTube TV

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

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

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

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

HOW MUCH IS THAT IN AMERICAN MONEY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s his story.

Cheap Calls

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

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

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

App Happy

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

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

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

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

Internuts

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

 

GOOGLE FINDS BAD RESTAURANTS

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

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

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

Getting Started on Etsy

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

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

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

App Happy

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

The Creep Who Leaves Voice Mails

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

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

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

Internuts

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

Find My Whatever

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

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

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

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

 

A HEART-WARMING TALE

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

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

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

Your First Smart Phone

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

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

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

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

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

What Service?

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

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

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

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

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

Internuts

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

 

ONE MINUTE ON THE INTERNET

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

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

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

The Readers Bite Back

Camera Raw technique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Printing a Passage

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

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

Google Bashing

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

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

World Community Grid

At the dawn of computer life, when the first emails were getting cranked out, Bob had a vision. The Internet would one day help people help each other all over the world. That turns out to be especially true for users of the “World Community Grid,” launched in 2004 and still going strong with over half a million users.

If you go to WorldCommunityGrid.org, you can get in on the action by downloading their free program, which is sponsored by IBM and uses their security system. The program allows scientists to use your computer’s power when it’s idle, to analyze cancers, Ebola, the Zika virus, microbiome immunity and other projects. It has partnerships with 449 companies and organizations and 52,000 active users. If a single computer had been used to handle the projects they’ve finished so far, it would have taken 1.5 million years.

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