HOW TO SPOT A SCAM

We got a doozy of a phone call the other day. The message said our account would be automatically debited $499 unless we called back to get the money refunded. So we did what we always do in such situations. We typed the phone number into a Google search. Sure enough, it was a scam.

Interestingly when Joy bought Bob a new phone, the Pixel 3a, we got a spam call within ten minutes of activating the phone. So take note: They’re out there and they’re always gunning for you.

Kid Version of Alexa

Kids Edition with $8.49 Decal

Amazon’s smart speaker, the Echo and Echo Dot with Alexa inside, sometimes offers more information than kids can handle. Now there’s a “Kid’s Edition,” $70 from Amazon.com.

Say “Good Morning” to the kids’ version and Alexa will make you laugh, changing her answer every time you ask. Example: “”Good morning! Time to shake it out! Move your body and shake out the sleep! Ready? Shake, shake, shake!” 

Parents get access to Parents.Amazon.com to put in parental controls. That’s important if you don’t want kids talking to Alexa all night. You can read transcripts of everything your child said to Alexa, or delete it all. You can also do this on a regular Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Show. Just say, “Alexa, Delete everything I said today,” or “Alexa, delete that.”

The kids’ version also gives you a year’s subscription to “Free Time,” for free movies, games and books, which are available on Kindle Fire tablets too. After that it’s $5 a month per child or $10 a month per family of four ($7 a month if you’re a member of Amazon Prime.) For an excellent review, see TomsGuide.com.

Internuts

  • GetHuman.com. A reader reminded us to mention this site again. It lists the phone numbers you need to avoid voicemail hell and talk to an actual person.
  • RD.com has an article “People say These 15 Words Aren’t Words but They Actually Are.” When a non-word gains widespread use, it makes it to the dictionary. Examples: “Firstly,” “irregardless,” “prolly,” and “orientate.” Joy likes to “take things for granite,” but that isn’t common yet.
  • How to Create a Book in Microsoft Word.” Search on that phrase to find an article from HowToGeek.com with step-by-step instructions.

Windows 7 Security Risk

Photo Courtesy of HelpHelpNow.com

Our favorite guru, Kenny, who was a leading tech support guy for a leading firm before starting helphelpnow.com, says it’s not advisable to use Windows 7 or XP on the Internet once Microsoft stops offering patches. 

That surprised us. We thought  you were good to go if you have an antivirus program and the free Malwarebytes to ward off hack attacks.

“If the operating system has security holes,” he says, “hackers or worms can get through.” Last month, Microsoft released a patch for Windows XP users, though it officially ended support in 2014. That’s because this particular security hole was so bad, it could replicate itself on one old computer after another. If you haven’t updated your XP or Vista machine, do a search on this phrase: “Customer guidance for CVE-2019-0708” to find the patch from Microsoft. Support for Windows 7 ends January 15, 2020.

Kenny points out that millions of people have not upgraded to Windows 10 because their computers could not handle something newer. That includes the military and banks. We use a powerful XP machine that we paid $70 for on Amazon. We only it use offline for our favorite greeting card program and some art programs that won’t run on newer operating systems. As long you’re offline, they can’t get to you.

Who We Follow on Twitter

Our friend Louise saw dirty messages when she signed up for Twitter and stopped going there. The news media is always reporting on Twitter’s toxicity but we’ve never seen any rudeness. Maybe it’s because we avoid political sites in favor of upbeat science. Here are some of our favorites.

Screen Calls

We forgot to mention the best part of Bob’s new smartphone, the Google Pixel 3a. It’s the call screening feature found on all Pixel phones.

Tap “call screen” when a call is coming in and the person is asked to state their name and why they’re calling. You’ll see a transcript of what they’re saying as they talk, and can accept the call or reject it. This comes in handy when the area code matches our own, and we wonder if it’s someone local we know.

Bamboozled!

A Facebook friend sent a video link and a question: “Is this you?” Joy clicked on it. Big mistake.

The next thing she knew, Russian text showed up on the homescreen of her phone and every one of her 235 Facebook friends got the “Is it you?” link. Now they’ll be sending it on to all their friends if they click on it. Some were savvy enough to say they needed more information before clicking. Joy tried to write them all to warn them, but Facebook Messenger only lets you do 20 at a time, a real nuisance. 

In general, a vague text message like “Are you there?” or “Is it you?” is probably a scam. As a consequence, Joy is being sent to her room.

 

 

A READER TAKES A STAND

 A reader writes in to share his regret over buying a Windows 10 computer. “Here’s my issue,” he says. “I have never been a big fan of Microsoft and was a Mac-aholic until Mac OS 10.4.1 when the Mac OS was no longer backwards compatible.” It would have cost him more to make his documents and applications compatible than to become a Windows user.  It was hard-slogging at first. Then, he writes, “when Microsoft finally arrived at Win 7, it produced an OS that was reasonably stable and NOT buggier than a wino’s beard… hooray!” Then came Windows 10.

I despise Win 10 and all the hoops (and $$$) I’m gonna have ta go through to get this machine integrated seamlessly into my home network (existing printers, scanner, router, yada yada) plus upgrade a dozen or so applications for WIN 10 compatibility,” he adds. “AAARRRGGGHHHH!”

He wondered if he could strip Windows 10 off the machine and install Windows 7, but  Windows 7 might not have the right drivers for the new machine. Our favorite guru Kenny suggests using a virtual machine to run Windows 7 on top of  Windows 10, which is what he does. His tech support service, at helphelpnow.com, can help with that.

Alternatively, we suggested he return the Windows 10 machine and get a Windows 7 desktop. Amazon is selling refurbished machines with fast i5 processors for as low as $137. 

Alexa as Career Counselor

Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s smart speaker and the free Alexa app on phones and tablets, told Joy her top career choice was dietitian. It told Bob that his number one career choice would be dentist. When he heard that, he felt a little down in the mouth. He was hoping for “hammock tester.”

To get your own career advice, go to Amazon.com, click “Alexa skills” in the drop-down list and type “career advisor” into the search bar. Click on the first one, then click “enable” when it come up. If you have the free Alexa app on your phone, or an Echo device, all you have to do is say, “Alexa, open Career Advisor.”  She asks you 26 questions first.

Free Movies

Archive.org has thousands of old movies for free. What a surprise. 

Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women

We’ve recommended Archive.org in the past for its “way back machine.” It can show you what a given website looked like in the old days. This can be handy if there’s some info on there you need to recover, that has since been taken off.

For movies, just click on the “movies” tab when you get to the site. The sci-fi horror section has some real howlers, like “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women,” and “Planet 9 from Outer Space.” In comedy, we found one of our favorites, “His Girl Friday,” a remake of the classic play “Front Page,” along with the original Front Page movie. There are lots of Charlie Chaplin films. If you want captions, click “cc” then “ASR,” for automatic speech recognition.

Leaving Archive.org and turning to  “IMDb TV,” you’ll find a few hundred free movies. Most of these are from the last ten years or so, including “Paddington,” “Captain Fantastic,” and “La La Land.” IMDB is owned by Amazon. We saw it as one of our choices on the Kindle Fire.

Getting Charged

You’d think a fast-charging phone like Joy’s Pixel 2 would never go dead. But just the other day, it did, on a long bike ride. As she squinted at a Google Map, the phone went kaput. She had to get directions the old-fashioned way: by asking a couple who were walking by.

The Catch 22 of phone chargers is that you have to remember to charge them so they’re available for your phone. Of course, once you do, they’re good for several full charges, depending on the kind you buy. If you want one small enough to fit in a pocket, you’ll likely get just one or two charges out of it. 

Following PC Magazine’s advice in “The Best Portable Chargers,” we got the $30 Anker PowerCore 1000 for our phones. It weighs 6.35 ounces and has a 10,000 mAh battery. It takes four hours to charge it, but it’s good for between two and a half and four charges, depending on the kind of phone you have.

You can get some chargers for less than $10 and they work fine. The only hassle you will encounter with any charger is carrying a cable with it to connect to your phone, unless you get the wireless kind. Make sure it’s compatible with your phone. There should be a list of compatible phones on the package.

The News From Abu Dhabi

What a computer does is make calculations. Today’s microprocessors do their calculations on unencrypted data. But researchers from the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University have figured out a way for calculations to take place on encrypted data. Talk about privacy!

If these “GoPHEE” microprocessors make it to market, which researchers say will happen within five years, major data leaks may be a thing of the past.  Hackers won’t have any way to get in, except by human error. For example, a stranger once knocked on our door and asked for access to our WiFi connection. Fortunately, Joy stopped short of giving it to her. By the way, microprocessors are found in just about everything these days, like gas pumps, bread machines, washing machines, credit card processors, elevators, stop lights, TVs, and even your refrigerator.

                                              

A PHONE FOR BOB

Joy bought Bob a new cell phone for his birthday. Actually, it was his first. It was a Motorola Moto G7 that cost $249. It was beautiful. It was wider than other cell phones, took a while to get charged up, and was slow to process information. In short, Bob thought it was just like his own personality.

However, Joy didn’t like it. Why didn’t she like it? Because she has a Google Pixel 2 and she saw on the web that you can get a Pixel 3a for $399. It could take a seven hour charge in 15 minutes, it was lightning fast, it could take pictures in the dark, and it cost only $150 more than the Motorola. So just what are we penny pinching for? We’re going to have this phone for years. For an $15 extra a month, we added it to our present carrier, Google Fi phone service.

One thing Bob likes and asked for, is it’s white instead of black. With a clear case, it’s still white. You can tell them apart. We rest our case.

Customer Service

A reader writes to weigh in on the topic of the best way to get help on an issue: a phone call or an online chat: “I agree that online chat is far, far superior to phone calls in almost all cases. If nothing else, you can print the chat and have a record of exactly what was said, if needed.” He continues: “I have also found that if I am not getting anywhere, an actual, snail mail letter, with a CC to the owner or president, will get attention, probably because it’s so rare. I was having no success dealing with a problem after two months.” But after writing customer service and the head of the company, his problem was solved in three days.

The Sound of Music

We get press releases almost every day for new headphones the way we get phone calls for holiday trips or pitches to give to various associations we never heard of. They all get equal treatment. We see if they can hit the wastebasket when they’re crumpled.

But this one stopped us. What stopped us was the price: $20. Twenty dollars! They look like the kind of cushioned headphones you see at airports on people who are waving in a big plane. They’re heavy duty, but light on your head. They have their own rechargeable battery and adjustable volume. We don’t understand how someone can sell these for $20 and still make a profit. Bob’s guess is that somebody bought somebody else’s warehouse full or they went out of business and they picked these all up for a few bucks because otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

The sound quality is excellent. They’re wireless and connect to your phone, computer or tablet by Bluetooth. We’re thinking of buying half a dozen and distributing them as gifts. They come from Mixcder.com, and they’re called the “HD 901.” This is one of the best deals we’ve ever seen.

Beware of turning the volume up too much, however. These are really powerful. Experts say if you hold the headphones at arms length and can hear the music, it’s too loud. Most people listen on headphones at 94 decibels, which is too much. At 105 decibels, or maximum volume, it’s equivalent to a chainsaw. Ordinary conversation is 60 decibels, so it’s best not to go much higher than that. Note: After this went to press, the price rose to $25.

Hey Photographers

Around 85 percent of the images you see online are stolen, according to the CEO of Copytrack.com. Copytrack is a free service that searches up to 5000 pages per second and uses artificial intelligence to find out if your photo has been copied. They then notify the thief. If there’s an immediate settlement, you get 70 percent, they take 30 percent. If they have to take legal action, you get 45 percent, they take 55 percent. The service is worldwide. You decide if the photo has been stolen. If you think so, submit the case to Copytrack by clicking a button. The top three countries for photo theft are the U.S., Panama, China and Germany. Why Panama? They’re a major website host.

Add a Widget

If your phone displays the weather in tiny type on the home screen, or you can’t see the temperature until you tap an app, you might prefer a widget. Unlike an app, a widget shows you continually-updated information before you tap it. Here’s how to get one.

On Android phones, press and hold your finger on a blank area of your phone’s screen. To find a blank area, you may have to scroll past several screens. (Joy has 213 on six screens.) When you get a pop-up, tap on the word “widgets.” Your choice of widget corresponds with the apps you have already installed. So if you want a moving display of the stock market, you might have to get a stock market app first, by searching for one in the Google Play store. We use the Weather Service widget, a widget for free audio books from Hoopla, and one that shows our monthly calendar at a glance.

On an iPhone, swipe to the right on the home screen. Scroll to the bottom and tap “edit.” Scroll down to find a widget you want to add. Tap the plus sign to add a widget, then tap done. You can view them when you swipe right on the home or lock screen or when you swipe down to view notifications.

SOFT IN THE HEAD

We’ve never written about headphones before because we were never impressed before. And that’s because every time a new set came out, bingo, every writer in America was immediately notified.

But “SleepPhones,” $40 from Acoustic Sheep, (see them leaping the fence?), answers something we’ve all wondered about. How do we learn Zulu in our sleep? Acoustic Sheep makes a cloth headband with tiny equipment inside. Wear them to bed; they’re as comfy as any soft headband. Though designed for listening to music, Nature sounds or audio books as you fall off to sleep, Joy likes it for yoga.

To avoid waking Bob, Joy sometimes puts it on her head in the middle of the night, whenever she has excess energy.  Currently, Joy’s using a yoga program from Audible.com, but she’s also tried recording yoga from TV or YouTube.

Recently, Joy tapped the Spotify app on her phone, chose some show tunes, and exercised away. She wore it above her ears and could hear perfectly. It’s nice not to have something jabbing you in the ear like earbuds do. And it’s so light, you hardly feel you’re wearing anything.

Now the question will arise: Is this safe? The answer would be in line with: “Are you safe using a cell phone next to your ear?” So far, there’s no evidence that you’re not. You’re not directly connected to any electrical output. The connection is short-range radio of low frequency.

You can set your cell phone to have the music go off after a set period. On an iPhone, use the sleep timer function in the “Clock” app. On an Android phone, get the free “Sleep Timer (Turn Music Off)” app from the app store.

Setup was challenging at first. The instructions said to place the headband on its tiny charging station to start, lining up the control gizmo inside. We kept placing it in various positions without effect. Finally, we just took the unit out of the headband and put it directly on the charging station. It was easy to slip back into the headband opening.

Keeping Windows 7

A reader writes: “I received an email from Microsoft stating that Windows 7 will no longer be supported after next year. I do not like Windows 10. Plus, I do not think it will run on this laptop.”

Windows 7 is fine. Anyone getting this warning should ignore it, as long as they have a good antivirus program, such as Norton, McAfee or the free Avast, which recently won PC Magazine’s “Editor’s Choice” award.

Another alternative, recommended by TomsGuide.com, is “Microsoft Security Essentials,” also free.  It comes in two versions, one for 32 bit machines, another for 64 bit. In Windows 7, if you’re not sure which you have, click the “start” button, right-click “Computer,” and click “Properties.”  

Was Your Phone Hacked?

We were looking at “Six Signs Your Phone Was Hacked,” an article from Techlicious. They’re all pretty obvious. Your phone slows way down. Your data charges go sky high. Friends get calls or texts from you that you didn’t send. Mystery pop-ups appear out of nowhere. Your password was changed and you didn’t do it.The battery loses power rapidly, and it’s not because you left the Wi-Fi on and your phone is constantly searching for a connection while you’re out.

Techlicious suggests getting the free “Avast Mobile Security” app, which we’ve mentioned many times before. It not only looks for hacking activity on your phone, but blocks scam calls. If you want to add protection against identity theft, that’s $10 a month. By the way, iPhones are safer than Android phones but can still be hacked.

Amazon’s Choice: Is it Yours?

We just ordered a $6 mouse for our laptop from Amazon. How did we choose it among hundreds? We clicked “Amazon’s Choice.”

Bob is totally skeptical that Amazon’s Choice is the right choice. Who’s behind it?

In truth, no one knows. Amazon isn’t saying. Even the millions of third-party sellers on Amazon don’t know. When one of their products becomes “Amazon’s Choice,” they aren’t told why. Furthermore, companies cannot pay to have their products listed as top choice. An algorithm decides, which is the same thing as saying it’s in the hands of robots. But humans created the algorithm and it’s slightly biased toward Amazon products. Search for a tablet and you won’t see an iPad as “Amazon’s choice.” Amazon’s Choice is the Amazon Fire. The latest iPad is labeled “Best Seller,” but you have to scroll past several Android tablets to see it.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Amazon’s Choice began in 2015, when the Amazon Echo smart speaker came out. If someone said to Alexa, “order toothpaste’ when they had never ordered it before, there had to be some way of figuring out which brand to buy. Hence: “Amazon’s Choice.”

Using Google Docs

A friend just bought a new lightweight laptop from LG and was wondering if she should buy Office 365: $70 a year for one user, $100 for several. We recommended Google Docs, which triggered several questions from her. First off, how do you save a document?

There’s no “save” button. It saves automatically in your private online account, which makes it available from any computer, tablet or phone you use. To delete a document, start at Docs.Google.com. Scroll down so you can see the icon for each document in your list. On the right bottom edge, there are three vertical dots. Click them and choose “Remove.” In case you think you made a mistake, the item will spend 30 days in the trash and 25 days in “post trash” before becoming unrecoverable.

 

TACKLING PHOTOS

A reader writes: “Do you have any idea why Google stopped supporting the free photo organizing/editing system called Picasa?  How would we contact them to plead for it to be brought back? Do you know of any system that could replace it?”

We hear you. Once you know your way around a program, it’s tough to switch. Google  thinks their online editing tool, Google Photos, is better. It lets you crop, enhance light, and save photos to your computer. But not everyone wants to work online.

If you’re a Windows 10 user, try the built-in photos app. Click “start,” then “photos,” to get started or search the web for the phrase “How to Use Microsoft Photos,” to get more detailed instructions. If you want a program similar to Picasa, consider “FastStone Image Viewer,” for Mac or PC.  Like Picasa, it helps you get organized.

But those programs don’t do what our reader liked best about Picasa: She used it to make photo greeting cards. For that, we love Canva.com. It’s free, and their templates are gorgeous. A tutorial shows you how to drop your own photos into their backgrounds and use their wonderful fonts to liven things up. Download your card  to your computer and print it yourself or pay a fee to use their professional printing. It’s not as easy as greeting card software, like Hallmark Studios, which shows you the front, back and inside of the card you’re designing, but it has great results. In Canva, we have to design two separate pages. One is our front and back. The other is our insides. We print them out and glue them together with rubber cement or a glue stick.

Another great alternative is  Zazzle. They print the card and they mail it. We opted for the $35 a year option to get free shipping. Nearly every time we make a card there, they have a promotion going, so our latest card cost only $1.35, including the stamp. We’ve gotten a bigger reaction from these cards than our Hallmark creations, even when we didn’t choose the giant card option: 8.5-inch-by-11 inch. To add images for birthday cards, we Google the person’s name along with the word “birthday,” to add images that feature their name on a birthday cake or billboard. It’s easy to pop those images into Zazzle’s templates. Or you can use their pictures.

Googling for Errors

Sometimes knowing too much can get you in trouble. We’ve been victims too.

A reader writes that he got a Windows error message on his screen. Then his system wouldn’t boot up. Being a savvy guy, he searched the web using the exact error code he received. But the web is like the Wild West. Two of the answers were wrong and the third came from a scammer who looked legit.

For  $28, the “Reimage” software seemed to fix things for our reader at first. Then it did an “analysis,” which found new problems requiring another $28. At that point the reader balked. Not only was the second request suspicious, but they’d hung up on him when he tried to call them.

Fortunately, the reader’s Lenovo Yoga 2 comes with its own reset button to bring the computer back to its original pristine condition. Other computers require you to hit the F8 key or some other key during boot-up to go into Windows recovery mode. But the reset action wipes all your programs. If you don’t have the original installation codes or disks, and you’ve installed a lot of programs, it can get expensive and time-consuming to replace everything.

What didn’t work for the reader is the boot disk he made when he got the computer. Windows often prompts you to  make one, but in our experience, these are easy to make, hard to use. Windows said his was “invalid.” The same thing has happened to us.

But all’s well that ends well. After the reader uninstalled the scammers’ program, he was able to get his system up and running again, even with all his old programs on it. It was scary for a minute, since the scammer’s program, Reimage, made it look like his Windows operating system was also being deleted. Fortunately, all was saved. Bottom line: Go to the manufacturer’s website and follow their advice for recovering a computer that won’t start.

Going Paperless

We have boxes and boxes of drawings, poems and love notes we’ve made for each other. In fact, our ongoing romance is using up all the remaining space in our small apartment. Time to go paperless.

We’ve always liked “Abbyy Fine Reader,” which works with scanners to turn paper copies into digital documents you can read on your computer or share in an email.  But early on, Bob realized a phone can do the same thing, more conveniently. For one thing, you usually have it with you. For another, it’s quick.

“Abbyy FineScanner” is a free app for iPhone and Android. It allows you to get a super-sharp image of everything you have on paper. If you need to search an image for the text inside it, or edit the text, you’ll need the “premium” version, currently on sale for $10 a year. In our tests, we found it difficult to preserve the look of the original after we extracted the text, but it did create searchable documents.

 

PORTABLE APPS

If you need to use a hotel computer, but are worried about getting hacked when you do online banking or email, consider bringing a thumb drive or memory stick with a portable app for web browsing.

With a portable version of Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, free from PortableApps.com, you can use a borrowed computer with ease. No one will ever know you were there. Just plug in your USB drive and go.

It’s All in the Algorithm

Nobody acts their age anymore. In fact, “We Are All the Same Age Now” is the title of a new book by data analyst David Allison.

A recent survey of 100,000 people in the U.S. and Canada shows that the old demographic stereotypes are wrong. Nobody acts their age, gender roles have changed and income doesn’t correlate to behavior as it once did. What seems to correlate best are interest groups or character types.

Examples include workaholics, hunters, loyalists, environmentalists, techies, adventurers, savers, spenders, and anti-materialists. In each of these categories, agreement on values, needs and expectations was over 75 percent. In traditional categories, like “men,” “women,” “Millennials,” or people above or below a certain income, agreement was around 10 percent or less. You’d think people in the category “people with no children” would be somewhat alike. But they disagreed with each other on 95 percent of issues.

Convertibles

A reader writes that he loves his convertible computer, something we never seriously considered. It’s a tablet and a laptop in one. When he’s not typing, he folds it back and reads books and articles on it like he would if he had an iPad. He finds it very handy.

At a recent trade show, Dell announced a new one of these, the latest version of the “XPS 13 2-in-1,” starting at $999 for one with the slower i3 processor. It will probably be double that price for a faster i7 processor. However both will use the new tenth generation technology. Another improvement: The webcam is now at the top of the screen, which makes sense unless you plan to show pictures of your belt buckle. What goes through their heads, we wonder.

A convertible laptop solves the problem we’ve had with having a separate tablet, like an iPad or a Kindle Fire. We can never find it when we want it. So we end up reading articles on our phone or computer screen.

Mona Lisa Talks

You can watch Mona Lisa talking, though there is no audio. A team from Samsung also brought Salvador Dali, Thomas Edison and Marilyn Monroe to life.

This is all thanks to Samsung’s Artificial Intelligence Center in Moscow, which learned how to make a talking head that turns, speaks and makes expressions, even from a single picture. We saw it in a ZME Science article. Search on “AI Can Create a Realistic Talking Head from a Single Picture or Painting” to get all the details. The next challenge is to make them dance. It’s an important step toward completely artificial actors.

A revived Humphrey Bogart could play a lot of roles.

Runner’s Utopia

For serious joggers, walkers and cyclists, a Fitbit tracker may not be enough. Yet they might not need an Apple watch either, if they don’t care about phone calls on their wrists or a ton of apps. The $80 “Runtopia S1,” $20 less than the latest Fitbit Inspire, is good if you’re willing to take time to learn all its features.

The watch is more rugged looking than an Apple Watch, but either a man or a woman could wear it. It gives you your pace, the length of your workout, your heart rate, a stopwatch and a compass. A logbook on the watch saves your recent runs, walks and bike rides. It also tells you calories burned and average altitude. We found it all a bit confusing, noticing that it added the steps from yesterday to today’s, because we forgot to start over.

A nice surprise is you get rewarded for exercising with digital coins that can be used in the in-app store. The top prize is an Apple Watch, which costs 349,999 coins. (Don’t hold your breath.) You can earn twice as many coins if you’re a premium member, but that costs $24 a year. But it adds features like training for a marathon or losing weight.

The instructions are minimal but we like it. Joy especially liked a vibration that told her to get up and move after she’d been sitting too long. It also reminded her to drink water.

Alexa for Less

Amazon’s $50 smart speaker, the Echo Dot, has some new competition: A copycat version for $20 from Anker. It’s called the “eufy Genie.” Like the Echo Dot, it has Alexa inside.

Just like the Echo, the eufy lets you use your voice to ask Alexa to tell you the weather, answer a question, or play music. Music is our favorite use. Choose Amazon Music, TuneIN, Sirius XM or iHeartRadio. Or use it to control the lights, a RoboVac vacuum, call an Uber, listen to NPR, or order a pizza. It’s compatible with Alexa’s 10,000 skills. Look them up on Amazon.com by choosing “Alexa skills” from the drop-down list in the search bar.

The eufy doesn’t do everything the Echo Dot does. It can’t “drop in” to let you listen in on what’s going on in another room. And you can’t use it to call someone. But considering the price, it does a lot.

CONVERSATION VIEW

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

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

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

Professional Effects for Your Videos

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

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

Road Trip Apps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mute the Driver

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

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

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

3D Printing Guide

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

THE DARK SIDE OF 5G

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bravo, Reader

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

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

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

Sunglasses With Music

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

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

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

Tracking Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix Free Riders

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

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

 

THE DROP SHIP HAS COME IN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Automatic Speedup

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

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

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

Online Services

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

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

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

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

Scan Your Photos

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

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

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

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

5G PROMISES GREATER SPEEDS, BUT HARDWARE IS CRITICAL

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

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

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

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

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

Crumbs in the Keyboard

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

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

Taking Alexa on the Road

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

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

How to Master the iPhone

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

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

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

Erasing Stored Passwords in Google Chrome

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

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