HEY BOO BOO

Google Home

We’re going to talk some more about the digital assistants put out by Amazon and Google. Those would be the Amazon “Echo” and Google “Home.” They are small, relatively cheap (from $50 to $129), and they answer questions and do requests. This is the future.

Essentially what we have are two devices that listen to what you have to say — with sometimes less accuracy than you would expect — and then respond. They can play music, occasionally with nonsensical results, and respond to more direct questions, such as “how many calories are there in an apple?”

This is all new stuff, the edge of wedge if you will. It’s potentially an encyclopedia on your end table, along with lectures, songs, weather, books and history. Some of it will be dead wrong, just as some items in Wikipedia are wrong. This will all get edited and corrected along the way, hopefully, but right now it is what it is, as the Zen Buddhists might say.

The potential is both enormous and obvious. LG recently paired a refrigerator with Amazon’s Alexa, the voice inside Echo, and you tell it what you want delivered. But don’t wait for the fridge, you can do that now with the Echo or Echo Dot. Just tell it what you want; not just food but for your whole life: books, clothes, furniture, electronics, tools, news, movies, and on into the night. Just ask and they will check your credit card and deliver. The number of businesses and jobs that will be wiped out by this technology may lower many people’s credit ultimately, but that’s the way things crumble, to paraphrase a common saying.

If you have a Chromecast or Amazon Fire Stick, ($30 to $40), you can cast a movie, TV show, or news shots onto your TV by voice command. Later — and probably not much later — we can expect the little boxes to come with cameras as well as microphones. They could take your picture and estimate the correct size and color for your wardrobe.

Now some of the people we have shown these gadgets to, and talked about their potential, are worried about their privacy. Well, a lot of people are worried about their privacy, but we fail to see the threat here: You can always turn the little box off. The counter argument of course, is that it may be possible for someone outside to hack in and turn it on without your knowledge. Definitely; it is absolutely possible. The final defense is simple enough: drape a hand towel over it.

Now that we’ve had more time with the Amazon “Echo Dot” (The cheapest version of their information device) and Google “Home,” we’ve noticed some differences.

Let’s start with how we talk to them. With the Dot, we say “Alexa,” to wake her up and get weather, music, news, podcasts and games. With the Google Home, we say “OK Google,” or “Hey Google.” We’ve found it also works to say “Hey Boo Boo,” and we encourage people to try other approaches, like “hey Schmoo-hoo.”

It’s hard to say “Hey Boo Boo” with a straight face, and it works best if you say it softly, not too clearly, so that it sounds like you’re saying “Google” but have marbles in your mouth, or have lost some of your marbles.

Joy feels that both devices are a great way to spontaneously ask for a favorite song or podcast. (Bob is still grumbling about the quality of some of those selections.) Google Home gets its music from YouTube, which, on the plus side, often means original recordings. For instance, we asked for music from “The King and I” and got a couple of songs before it switched unannounced to “The Sound of Music.” On the Amazon device, we got the 2015 Broadway cast of “The King and I,” which was slightly different. On the other hand, the Amazon Dot kept playing “The King and I.”

Amazon Echo Dot

The Amazon Dot gets music from Amazon Music, iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio, Pandora and, if you’re a premium subscriber, from Spotify. Bob says that’s not enough, though we haven’t yet added Spotify. If we ask for music from Bach, for example, Alexa plays a pop version of some Baroque tune. It works better to ask her for Baroque music, but Bob is dissatisfied with the recordings so far.

Bottom line: Amazon’s Echo Dot is cheaper ($50) and does more. Joy uses it to play audio books from Audible.com, something the Google device can’t do. Alexa has thousands of apps called “skills,” which can be enabled through your smartphone. We tried “Magic Podcast,” which lets you use your voice to find a podcast on the topic of your choice. Worked great on Joy’s searches, not so good on Bob’s. Podcasts remind us of the early days of the Internet. There are a lot of amateur shows out there, such as one called “Hardcore History.” We had better luck with Alexa playing “Jeopardy.”

In any event, this is the future. We mentioned the tie-in with Amazon and an LG refrigerator. New connections are coming in fast: The “Nucleus Anywhere Intercom” gives you all the existing abilities of Alexa and adds phone calls, either as an intercom or to the outside world. Likewise, a chef’s “sous vide” system from ChefSteps tells you how to control your cooking with ziplock bags, using water at various temperatures. There are also Alexa-enabled lighting systems, weather stations and a universal remote from Logitech. The Logitech “Harmony Elite” ($300) works with over 270,000 devices: It lets you use your voice to control your TV, satellite or cable box, Apple TV, Roku, TiVo, Blu-ray player, game consoles, connected lights, locks, thermostats, sensors and so on. Even as we wrote this column we received notice of a new link to control your burglar alarm system.

In conclusion: Watch what you say and don’t walk around naked.

 

 

GOOGLE WIFI

Google WiFi

From the earliest days, one of the primary rules about computers and related technology has been “No matter what you get, you have to get something else to make it work.”

For example: We wanted our new Amazon Echo Dot to play thunderstorms in the bedroom as we were going to sleep. (This is one of those digital know-it-alls that you place on a table and ask it to tell you things, usually simple things, like “what’s the weather out there?”)

Naturally enough, this didn’t work, because the bedroom was too far from the office router — all of 30 feet. So we bought a “Google WiFi” extender to extend our Internet signal there. This is what is often called a repeater, because it picks up an incoming signal, gives it a kick in the pants, and sends it on for extra distance. So when we add this all up it’s $50 for the Amazon Echo Dot and another $129 for the Google Wifi to make it work.

Our AT&T router should have been enough to do this on its own. After all, we’re only talking about 30 feet, but it couldn’t do it. An AT&T tech guy came out and installed one of their own range extenders to boost the signal but it wasn’t able to bridge the gap, as they say, and so we shelled out for the Google extender. That actually works. In fact, it works so well, that they’re on back order and we had to wait a couple weeks to buy one.

One nice feature: Google WiFi allows you to pause the Internet on various devices. Perhaps you want to be free from the distractions of email and Facebook, for instance. Tell Google, by way of your smartphone, with an app you can get for free, to keep the Internet off for a specified period of time, on a single or multiple devices. This is a good way to prevent children from over-using the web. In other words: shut up, everybody.

The Best Free Anti-Virus

One of the questions we get most frequently is what’s the best free anti-virus program? We went to AV-Test.org, an impartial third party tester, to see what they had to say about the matter.

Panda Free Antivirus” got the highest marks, but close behind were “Avast,” from Avast.com, “Avira,” from Avira.com and “AVG,” from AVG.com. If you go to YouTube and search on “Best Free Anti-Virus,” there are good explanations of pluses and minuses. All three of these freebies work for Windows and Mac.

The three top paid programs for Windows and Mac are Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Trend Micro. The one we use currently, Bullguard, wasn’t far behind.

For many years Mac users didn’t worry about viruses because they weren’t a rich enough hunting ground to bother with. But according to recent studies by Bit 9 and Carbon Black, malware for Macs increased by 500 percent last year, more than the past five years combined. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Interests on Pinterest

Pinterest.com is a website where people pin up pictures. There are about 50 million subscribers to this site — its free, and at least double that number who go there once in a while. From the beginning you could always go on and browse through pretty and unusual pictures, but later they put them into categories, like vacations, properties, art work, etc.

Go to Pinterest.com/categories. We clicked “art” and discovered Stan Ekman, whose works could easily be mistaken for those by Norman Rockwell. Like Rockwell, he illustrated the Saturday Evening Post, especially in the 1940s.

We clicked “Film, Music and Books,” and found some fun posters for old movies, like “To Catch a Thief.” We clicked “49 Underrated Books You Really Need to Read,” and discovered George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” (It’s a bulbous tropical plant with big leaves.) Watch out for the ones showing beautiful pictures of resorts for your vacation. We went to one in California that ranks itself as best in the nation and advertises “walk to beaches.” That walk turned out to be well over a mile, crossing a six-lane highway and then through a whole lot of scrub brush.

As with Facebook, you can follow friends on Pinterest and they can follow you. When you see something of interest, click the icon to pin it on your board. Create as many boards as you like. A few days ago, our niece started a new one with jewelry pictures.  A hint perhaps? Tough luck for her, because Bob doesn’t like jewelry.

News on the FitBit Front

Those who use movement trackers like FitBit had a bit of discouraging news recently, when a University of Pittsburgh study showed that those wearing them didn’t exercise any more than they did before they got their device. The constant monitoring either made them complacent or discouraged. However, a new study by Indiana University showed that using a FitBit, a Garmin VivoFit, or some other “wearable” did make a difference if live coaching was added.

For Christmas, Joy received the new Garmin VivoFit 3, an improvement over the original VivoFit. The original version popped off her wrist one day and was lost forever. The VivoFit 3 has a small round disk on the band that locks it in place when you turn the dial.

The VivoFit 3 also does a better job of tracking a variety of exercises, such as swimming and biking. The earlier version gave Joy credit for only 500 steps — even after she swam nonstop for an hour! Is that a dirty deal or what?  The new version gave her over 3,600 steps. A half hour on a stationary bike earns about the same number (if you wear it on your ankle). A red line streaks across the screen after one hour of inactivity.

The Family Segway

A guy we know gave a Segway miniPRO to everyone in his family. This is a smaller, much cheaper, version of the adult scooters, that Silicon Valley hotshots touted a few years ago as “the next great thing.” (Was it even the next good thing?)  We saw the new Minis on Amazon and elsewhere for $600. The scooter goes 14 miles on a single charge, and charging takes about four hours. It weighs 28 pounds.

Like the Segway, the miniPRO is a two-wheel platform that you stand on and control by way of a stick between your knees. It won’t let you go faster than four miles per hour until you’ve mastered a few tutorials, using a free smartphone ap. Then it can go up to 10 mph. One 63 year-old guy says that he and his wife ride theirs to the grocery store.

 

 

 

THE NEW CHROMEBOOK

It’s been four years since we bought our first Chromebook, a remarkably cheap, self-repairing computer from Google. The original one may have walked off with a sticky-fingered repairman. We were overdue for a new one anyway, so we bought a “refurbished” Acer 14, for $274. (Saved $25!).

We are now up and running with the kind of computing power familiar to several million six-year-olds. (Now in 50 percent of schools.) Compared to Windows machines, which slow down as you add more programs and tabs, nothing bogs down a Chromebook. It stays lightning fast, because it fixes problems every time you reboot, and nearly everything it does takes place online.

Unlike Windows, a Chromebook starts up in a few seconds. But even if you don’t mind going for a cup of tea while your Windows PC climbs out of bed, the slow loading of web pages is enough to drive some of us crazy. (It’s a short trip.) Joy typically has 12 web browser tabs open at once, and on the Chromebook they still load quickly. For her, getting a Chromebook for Christmas felt as good as a shiny new bicycle.

The Acer 14 isn’t the top of the heap, but somewhere in the middle. Chromebooks start at $149 and go up to around $700. The 14 (14-inch screen) has great resolution, and feels as thin and fancy as a Macbook costing a thousand dollars more. We didn’t feel the need for the high-end model, which would be good for gamers or video editors.

Chromebooks have come a long way toward ease of use since the first ones came out. A tiny start button with your picture of choice is on screen in the lower right corner. On the lower left, there’s a green “help” button, with links for doing work, playing music or video chatting.  A help section called “App replacements” has links to free substitutes for programs you might miss, such as iTunes, Skype and Photoshop. The lower left area of the screen also has icons for Gmail, Google Docs and YouTube.

We’re using our new (refurbished) Chromebook to write this column, update our website, edit photos, create a new website, answer email, listen to music and play videos. The battery life is a seemingly forever 12 hours according to the manufacturer, though PC World tests clocked it at a real world nine hours.

There are drawbacks. (Key ominous music in the background.) You can’t install any Windows programs. Well, we guess that’s a drawback, but increasingly it seems like  everything we do takes place online anyway; think of all the smartphones in constant use by anyone under 30.

There’s plenty of memory. Download anything you want to its 32 gigabytes of internal storage, or attach a thumb or flash drive to either of its two USB 3.0 ports. So we’re happy with all this — and we’ve become several decades younger. The Acer 14 also has an HDMI port, in case you want to connect it to a big screen TV. Yeah.

Wanna Be a Windows Insider?

Anyone can be a “Windows Insider,” by typing “Windows insider” in the Windows 10 search bar and signing up.  Insiders get new Windows features before other users do. So far, the best thing we found was “Paint 3D.”

This is a new version of the classic “Paint” program that has been a part of Windows since 1985.  It allows you to create a scene with what looks like 3D characters. You can take a selfie and pop that picture into an astronaut’s space suit. Or take a picture of a porpoise and drop it in to your aquarium picture. It comes into the 3D scene without its background, which photo editors call “masking,” and is a real pain to do. It’s perfectly cut out and looks like it belongs.

You don’t have to use your own pictures to add elements to a scene. There are hundreds of free 3D objects at Remix3D.com. Go to Remix3D, choose an object and then click “open in Paint 3D.” We added an elf, a toy soldier and a reindeer to our snow scene. Once in there, it was also easy to move them around.

If you select “print” while in Paint 3D, it may ask you to click “repair” to fix the object first before clicking “order online.” We know this all sounds complicated, but it’s much easier than signing up for health insurance.  Theoretically, anything you build here can be printed as a 3D object and delivered to your home for a price. But we have enough junk, so we skipped that part.

Internuts

  • Twiggy

    Upworthy.com has real news, instead of what happened yesterday. For instance, an article on inflation in women’s clothing sizes points that when the ultra-thin actress “Twiggy” was buying pants 50 years ago, she wore a size 8. Today that would be marked as size 00. We also read that Sweden is running out of trash they burn to heat homes. Boy, have we got a new source for them. The site also has videos, and will send you a daily news briefing to your email if you wish.

  • Glamping refers to “glamorous camping.” Oprah Winfrey told Michelle Obama they should go glamping together, and listening to the interview, Joy thought, “what is glamping?” (She is so out of touch.)

From Camcorder to TV

A reader wondered how to get the video files from his Canon camcorder to a DVD so he can play them on his TV. Thank heavens he asked. We would use a free program called “Ashampoo Burning Studio Free,” from Ashampoo.com.

Burning Studio is great at turning “VOB” or “AVCHD” and other strings of meaningless letters into playable DVDs. But how do you get the files off your camera onto the computer? Watch a video on how to do it, on YouTube. One of those is entitled: “How to Transfer Video From a Canon Camcorder to your PC.” In the search box on YouTube, you can put in the kind of video camera you have.

A friend gave us a flash drive full of “VOB” files. Ashampoo’s program turned those into a playable DVD. (It was pretty boring stuff, actually.)

 

 

 

DRONE ENTREPRENEURS

First there was the Drones Club, then Drone Racing and now: making some money with drones.

Our friend Lee gets his family a tech present every year. Last year it was drones. Lee’s 20-something daughter, a civil engineer, started using hers to offer aerial photography and video to construction sites. Then she started her own drone business, offering these services as a certified remote pilot in Wisconsin.

If you Google the phrase “how to be a drone entrepreneur,” several sites come up. The first, from Virgin.com, describes several possibilities. One is farming. Drones have been crop-dusting in Japan for 15 years, and U.S. farmers are getting started. American farms are much larger and farmers here are looking for drones that can carry more, are made from cheaper or disposable hardware and can stay in flight longer. Basically, these are the same features the military are looking for. Other areas for drone entrepreneurs include mapping, 3D modeling and surveying. An outfit called Conservation Drones is using them to monitor Sumatran rain forests (they count orangutan nests), Bolivian fresh water fisheries, and plantation health all over the world.

It’s the Tech Support, Dummy

Hardly any companies pay much attention to tech support. They should. Top tech support was a major reason for the rapid rise of Dell in the early days of desktop computers. Those days are gone.

Looking at the latest Consumer Reports Magazine “Buying Guide for 2017″ (available in most public libraries), we found an extensive review of computer company tech support. Apple got a good rating; everyone else flunked. Microsoft came in second, but with a negative rating for online support. All the rest had the worst possible ratings for tech support. These included Dell, Lenovo, HP, Asus, Samsung, Acer/Gateway and Toshiba.

What’s our own experience, which as tech columnists for more than thirty years is pretty extensive? The worst has been Hewlett Packard, which not only has not solved a problem when we call in, but tells us the best solution is to buy a new Hewlett Packard computer or printer. Gosh, that’s helpful.

The best tech support we have ever found, including all of the known universe and parts of New Jersey, has been from Okidata, which just makes printers. Their phone tech support is available 24 hours, every day, and in thirty-five years they have only once failed to fix the problem. That one time, they just sent a new printer, and asked us to use the same box to return the old one. Now, what to us is an interesting thing about their printers is the quality is the best and yet you never see them for sale in any of the big office supply stores. Why is that? A mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Way to Scan!

Epson just introduced the fastest low-cost scanner we’ve ever come across: “WorkForce ES-400” and the “Workforce “ES-500W.” They can scan both sides of a document at 35 pages per minute. That’s both sides of a page about every two seconds and the capacity is 50 pages at a time.

Now we have absolutely no use for something like that but we’re charitable in our tightwad way and figured that it might be pretty handy for law firms and government agencies. Anybody who likes to have a backup copy of printed material.

The scanned image shoots right into storage sites, like DropBox, SharePoint, Evernote, and Google Drive. The scanners can handle ID cards and business cards, receipts, extra-long pages, and so on. They say it’s virtually jam-proof. (They haven’t tried one on some of our relatives.)  The machines come with lots of software: Epson Document  Capture, ABBYY FineReader and NewSoft Presto! Bizcard. The wired version is $349, the wireless scanner is $399.

By the way, we haven’t talked about ABBYY Fine Reader for a few years. This is a program that lets you edit a scanned document. You see, when you scan any document, what you get is an image of that document, not the actual text. If you want to make changes, you need a program like ABBYY.

App Happy

  • “AOL Alto” is yet another way to manage more than one email inbox on your iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet. You don’t need an AOL account to use it. You can bring in mail from Gmail, Yahoo and all the usual places, and swipe between the accounts for various family members. There are tabs for photos, shopping, travel, personal notes and attachments and other categories.
  • “RedZone,” from RedZoneMap.com, identifies high crime areas in the U.S., pinpointing areas of assault, shootings, theft and other crimes. It was iPhone/iPad only when we mentioned it eight months ago. Now it’s out in a version for Android as well. The new version sounds an alert when you’re navigating within five miles of a crime zone. (That cuts out most of any large city.) It pinpoints crimes committed within the last 48 hours.
  • We first tried the “7 Minute Workout” using the Amazon Echo Dot, but it’s also a stand-alone app for iPhone, iPad and Android. It’s an amazing way to build strength. Start from the easiest level and before you know it, you’re doing advanced pushups.

(subhed) Internuts

  • Worldfitnesslevel.org will judge your age based on your fitness level. Joy is 33. Bob doesn’t want to know.
  • PaperlessPost.com has online greeting cards that unfold on the screen like a traditional card. At the site, click “online cards” at the top of the screen. Their main focus, despite the name, seems to be printed cards. We dropped three photos into a “Ho Ho Ho” card, one next to each “Ho.” Well done.

 

A WORD TO THE FRUGAL

wordA reader wrote to say his copy of Microsoft Office failed and the Microsoft Help Desk suggested he buy a new copy for $150. Of course they would, but …. no need to do that; freebies abound.

“OpenOffice” works great. Basically, it does everything that MS Office does and it’s free. It’s been around since 2000. You can open Word documents, create your own, and save them in the familiar “doc” format. It’s free at OpenOffice.org.

google-docsAnother nice free option is Google Docs from Docs.Google.com. All your stuff is saved online, and from there you can download everything to your computer. If you’re writing a novel, as Bob is, and would rather speak than type, click “tools” and then “voice typing.” Or try Google “Keep,” a free smartphone app. Use it for dictation and send the results to Google Docs, just by clicking “send.” This is the author on the beach approach; it will take down everything you say.

Now back to Microsoft Word: There’s a free version online. Everything you write goes out online, but you can also save it to your computer. Find it at office.live.com/start/Word.aspx.

Joy uses Microsoft’s Office 365, for $70 a year, which works offline or on. It automatically saves a copy online, which syncs with her other devices. Bob only uses Microsoft Word for this column, otherwise he finds it too cumbersome and annoying and prefers to write with a text editor called Q10. There are dozens of these text editors, so pick and choose as you like.  Dark Room is another one he likes.

Smart Shopping

shopping-onlineOver 54 million Americans pay $99 a year to get free two-day delivery on Amazon, as well as other perks. But there are additional tricks to being a wise Amazon shopper.

Take a look at their outlet store. Where it says “all departments” in the drop-down list, choose “Amazon Warehouse Deals” to see used and refurbished products. But watch out: Sometimes the supposed good deal is nothing special; we saw a used Playstation 4 for $242, but that was only $27 less than a new one. So, price check everything.

Going beyond Amazon, there’s the “InvisibleHand,” from GetInvisibleHand.com. (A tip of the tam-o’shanter to Adam Smith.) It notifies you of price drops on shopping, flights, hotels and rental cars. The name comes from the famous statement by 18th century economist Adam Smith, who pointed out that the invisible hand of the marketplace does a better job than government in allocating goods and services.

Managing Bookmarks

bookmarkWe tend to accumulate Internet “favorites” or “bookmarks.” After a while, the list is so long, we can’t find anything. Here’s what to do.

In Google Chrome, click on the three dots in the upper right of the screen and choose “Bookmarks,” and then “Bookmark Manager.” Highlight the ones you don’t want and click “delete.” Bob accidentally deleted a bunch he did want, so it’s best to save the list to your machine first. Click the picture of a little gear and choose “Export bookmarks.”

For Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Safari and other browsers, find the bookmark manager easily by searching on the name of the browser and the words “Bookmark Manager.”

Where Am I?

internetIn Kansas City, some mansions are so large, housekeepers get lost. We heard from someone we know there that one puzzled maid was adrift in the west wing and finally called the owner to ask: “Where am I?”  That can happen to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) too. They think they can pinpoint the location of your computer. They can’t. Ours says we live in Cicero, Illinois. We don’t. Al Capone liked it there but it’s nothing special to us.

A reader told us that every time he visits HomeDepot.com and similar websites, they peg his computer as located in a town at least an hour away. So if he wants to shop online and pick up stuff in person, he has to change the location they have or take a long drive. Same thing happens to us. It gets annoying. Some people have their location pegged to another state.

Experts have suggested calling your Internet Service Provider and telling them to fix it. That didn’t work for us with AT&T. In fact, after being connected to a help person in India and following her directions, we temporarily lost all connection to the Internet when they did a reset. We then we lost our TV service and they had to send a technician. He was local.

Our reader’s ISP is CenturyLink. When he called, they said they had one smart guy who could fix it, though they haven’t yet; maybe he was out sick. So instead of the fix, they offered a faster service and a new modem for the same monthly price he was already paying. So it pays to complain now and then and see what they offer. (Yes, we know we’re troublemakers.)

Those Annoying Ads

adsA reader wrote us that he’s saved a lot of money buying his car tires from eBay and Amazon. But now, no matter where he goes on the Web, he gets ads for tires. He says it gets “tiresome.” (People just want to have pun.) There are ways out of this.

On your computer, search on the term “Google Ad Settings.” Uncheck the box next to the word “Personalization.” You can accomplish the same thing on an iPad or iPhone, by tapping “settings,” “Privacy” and “Advertising.” Then tap “limit ad tracking.” On an Android phone or tablet, tap “Settings,” then “Google,” then “Ads.”  Then tap “Opt out of Personalization.”

Bob has his own swift method of killing ads that come up because they’re just following along with some search he did. Those ads usually appear in a column on the right-hand side of the screen. Do the “control” and “plus” keys together to enlarge the display on the screen. Keep doing it until the ads move off screen and out of sight.

 

 

A HARD MASTER

Well we won’t make that mistake again; we’ll make a different mistake.

Some readers wrote to say they were confused by our advice on the use of DOS as a quick and easy way to control PC computers. Most readers were not confused, but those who got lost were confused because while DOS, the operating system underlying Windows, is easy to use, it is super strict about grammar. Yet it’s common to type an extra space or key.

All this reminds us of one of C. Northcote Parkinson’s famous “Laws.” That is the one that states: No matter how many times you search for a mistake in your work, the first person to look over your shoulder will see it immediately. His most famous law is that all work expands to occupy the time allotted to its completion. A corollary to that law is that anything left until the last minute will be done in one minute.

Parkinson, by the way, was a British bureaucrat who several decades ago wrote an essay in the Economist Magazine about the way the world, particularly government, actually works. He noted, for example, that while the British Empire was shrinking rapidly, the number of people who worked for the Foreign Office, which was charged with managing that empire, was continually increasing. (Thomas Jefferson, attempting to halt the same kind of bureaucratic problem, complained about “the bloated war department,” which had increased to three people.)

So things do sometimes get out of hand and we got a lot of very pleasant reader mail about our attempt to simplify computer control. One fellow wrote to say he used to program in “Assembly” language, but retired and switched to painting. (He’s pretty good: Take a look at blackwoodart.com.) Then he got a dog, a beagle, and slacked off on the painting. Assembly is what’s called a “low level language.” Not because it’s low class but because it’s very close (nearly one to one) to the instructions the brain chip actually understands. High level languages, like BASIC or C++, are so-called because they are far removed from chip talk.

But we digress, as they say, and must move on.

Plug Me In

hootooShowing off photos on your iPad is fun. But getting them there can be a hassle. We use the “iPlugMate,” a $35 gadget we found on Amazon.

The iPlugMate, from “HooToo,” is a tiny flash drive with two working ends. On one end is a “Lightning Connector” which plugs into an iPad, Macbook, iPod or iPhone. The other end is a USB 3 connector which plugs into a Windows computer. Plug it into your computer to get the photos you want on the flash drive. Then plug the flash drive into your Apple device to transfer them, using a free app. It also works in the other direction.

We tried it with an iPad, a couple of Windows XP machines and a Windows 10 machine and in every case it worked great. Huge photo folders transferred quickly over to the tablet and we of course kept the original photos on the drive as a backup.

Another way to transfer photos is Apple’s free iCloud service. Unfortunately, iCloud doesn’t work with Windows XP, unless you use a techie workaround that was too techie for us. ICloud sers get five gigabytes of storage space, but you have to choose a folder you want to keep synchronized. If you have lots of photos in separate folders, drag them all into the iCloud folder and they’ll stay in sync.

Animate That

MakeaGif.com, a free site, lets you make animations from still photos. If the photos aren’t similar, it will look more like a slideshow than an action shot. The nice thing about the GIF file format is that it loads much faster than a video. So if you put it on Facebook, your friends won’t turn to stone waiting for it.

After adding your photos and clicking to turn them into a GIF, you can add photo captions if you like. Or download it. Or click to get a link and share it in an email or on Facebook and other sites.

Gamer’s Keyboard

ornata-chroma-keyboardThe “Razer Ornata Chroma” is a $99 keyboard for gamers and it’s pretty fancy. We fell in love with the backlit keys, which cycle through all colors of the rainbow. Joy is using it as her regular keyboard now.

This lighting is nice to have when you stumble into the office at night. It’s also good in the daytime if your office is a bit dark. You can customize the colors and display to get various effects. Tap the “fire” effect and the keys appear to be smoldering.

The key strokes are short and spring loaded. This reduces the time between striking and having your actions register, crucial when you’re in a high-speed game. You can give it ten commands at once and its own memory keeps track.

You can assign keys to specific functions for quick and sure action. These shortcuts, called “macros” have been around since the earliest days. When Bob was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the copy desk editors had a shortcut key for “Zbigniew Brzezinski,” Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. Tap a key and Zbigniew was slugged in.

What we have found interesting about this sort of thing over the years is that equipment made for video game players — who always want fast action and lots of options, is often the best of its type (so to speak).

Last Pass

A reader begged to differ on our password advice. We warned against the free version of “LastPass,” because it’s had a couple of security breaches.

There would have been no security problems, he notes, if people had used LastPass with two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication means that no one can sign in to your account because they won’t have the code that was sent to your phone or tablet. To use it with LastPass, you need a premium account, which is $1 a month. Then click on your account and “multifactor options.”

Besides Last Pass, the reader recommends using 2-factor authentication with all your online accounts. His Facebook account was hacked recently, so he added two-factor identification to it. Search on the phrase “Lifehacker two-factor authentication” for an article with links to automatically enable it on a wide variety of sites, such as Dropbox, Twitter and Gmail. (Many holiday thanks to our reader for supplying this reference.)

To recap the main feature of Lastpass, it saves the effort of writing down dozens of passwords, which in many instances must be changed on a regular basis. You only need to remember one master password, which is not recorded by LastPass. Knowing it unlocks all the others. At least that’s the theory; for some reason, it failed to log us in on half the accounts we have passwords for.

 

 

EASILY DONE

 

easily-doWe’re using a new email application that keeps you organized through the holidays and beyond. It’s called “Email by Easily Do,” and it’s free for iPhones and iPads from easilydomail.com. As you would expect, an Android version is in the works.

Here’s what we like: It automatically tidies your email, giving you a new inbox with multiple categories. Travel plans, such as airline notifications about your flight, automatically land in one spot. Bills and receipts are in another. Events and entertainment have their own slot. So do subscriptions. We instantly saw all our Amazon receipts going back five months. And it tells you when to expect any packages you ordered and provides their tracking numbers.

As many people do these days, we’ve put ourselves on too many lists. For example, Easily Do unsubscribed us from 75 newsletters in a minute, as we tripped down a list tapping the “unsubscribe” button. There were lots of publications and shopping alerts we had no idea we were signed up for. Some companies must sign you up for these things because you went to their web site and they captured your email address.

Search is lightning fast, which is handy if you misplaced an email. Example: Tap the “trash” category and confine your search to that. Or tap “attachments,” and search there.

To tackle an avalanche of mail, do what all the pros do, including us, (or at least one of us). Create a new email account at one of the many free services, such as AOL, Yahoo, or Gmail. Give that email address to any merchant who asks for it, and you will confine their messages to that address; also give it to people you really don’t want to hear from. Joy has a separate AOL account for this purpose, but it used to be a hassle to have to sign out of Gmail and go to AOL.com to view it; with Easily Do, we see AOL mail when we tap on its tab, but can ignore it otherwise.

Goodbye Cable TV

tv-watchingYet another reader is getting ready to drop her cable TV subscription but wonders about getting sports. We discovered the best: It’s called “Playstation Vue,” and you don’t need a Playstation game machine to use it.

You can use the service with a Roku stick, which is now $30, or the much-more expensive Apple TV, or a Playstation 3 or 4. We’ve just been trying it out on our old Roku stick, and it’s a marvel.

Playstation Vue (or “PS Vue”) is $40 a month, but we think it’s worth it if you no longer use cable TV. Unlike using a plain antenna to catch local channels, it can record shows for later playback.  (The shows are saved on the Internet for 28 days.) The basic service comes with dozens of the most popular channels, including some semi-obscure ones like “Chiller” and “Oxygen.” It’s much easier to find a show with PS Vue than on cable TV. With cable TV and its hundreds of channels, Joy usually gives up and hands the remote to Bob.

“Sling” TV is another way to get sports on TV without a cable subscription and it’s only $20 a month. But we’ve found it to be a frustrating, 1990s-ish experience, full of stutters and stops. Furthermore, it doesn’t record shows. You can only watch live TV. For a comparison between Sling and Playstation Vue, go to GroundedReason.com and click “how to cut cable” in the upper right. There are links to many helpful articles.

With either service, you don’t have to buy a TV antenna. As long as your TV has an Internet connection, you’re fine.  Or, you can buy an adapter, such as the “HDMI to Composite AV Converter for Amazon Fire Streaming Stick.” (How’s that for being specific?) It’s $40 at Amazon. The Amazon Fire Stick, sold separately, comes with its own remote and gives you a variety of Internet channels, similar to the Roku.

Internuts

  • FreeDocumentaries.org has hundreds of documentaries, all free. In the “fact-checked films” category, there’s a” video about farm-raised fish, another about weather, one about the pagan roots of Christmas, and many more. “The 11th Hour,” about the environment, was created and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. Lots of thought-provoking stuff here.
  • flash-mobWant to spend an entertaining time on the web? Search on “flash mob” at YouTube.com to see an amazing variety of music and dance as surprise performances in public places. One called “Christmas Food Court Flash Mob,” has over 48 million views. Once you start one going, they’ll continue in succession. From Irish airports to Hong Kong, they’re dancing and singing.
  • 18 Secrets to Make Your Food Healthier Without Even Trying.” Search on that phrase to turn up a Reader’s Digest article with great tips. Who knew that poking holes in a broccoli bag will give you 125 percent more antioxidants than a tightly sealed bag? You get more lycopene when you thoroughly chew your grapefruit. And try baking with avocados for oil instead of butter.

 Numbers Report

The fastest-growing categories for online jobs, according to Freelancer.com, are photography, German fluency, and video editing. Those are all up between 19 and 22 percent this quarter. After that comes virtual assistant jobs, “branding,” blog installation, fashion design, photo editing, Amazon web services and Google Adwords. Ja, das ist gut.

To look for work on Freelancer.com, sign up for a free account and then tap the “Work” category at the top of the page. You can browse by category, or look only at jobs that meet your skills. After clicking “projects,” we noticed that this is really a buyer’s market. Employers sometimes pay as little as $20 for a job. However, we saw some photography jobs for $700. Still, it’s almost all home work.

 Books

scratch-programmingScratch Programming Playground,” $25 from NoStarch.com, and “Coding in Scratch: Projects,” $6, are two books for kids who want to learn how to be programmers.

Instead of esoteric lines of code, kids using Scratch drag colorful blocks into place. A block might ask a tiger to turn around. Another might make him walk three steps. As they get more complex, a child creates games and stories. In “Scratch Programming Playground,” kids make games like Fruit Slicer, Asteroids, Snake, and a kind of Super Mario Brothers.

Kids can play around in Scratch without these books, but they’re helpful. To program in Scratch online for free, go to scratch.mit.edu. To work offline, go to scratch.mit.edu/scratch2download.

 

DOS IS BOSS

 

dos-files“I must be old because I still use DOS,” a reader says. He’s not old, he’s smart. It is the fastest, cleanest way to control any PC using the Microsoft operating system. And he gave us some examples of the power.

A bit of an aside to start: It’s often called MS-DOS, for Microsoft DOS. The DOS stands for “Disk Operating System,” and though it doesn’t show up on your regular screen, all Microsoft systems still have it and you can still use it. Back when the world was young and jungle noises ruled the night, this is what we used — and we loved it. When Windows came into general use — mainly to compete with Apple’s graphical user interface — DOS was considered too complex for ordinary users, and was unceremoniously moved to the back of the bus. It’s very roomy back there.

To access DOS, type the letters “cmd” (without the quotes) into the Windows search box. A DOS window will appear. Then type “cd\“ (again without the quotes) into the DOS window to go to the top of your hard drive. You’re in biz.

Example: People panic when an expert tells them they need a new hard drive, our reader says. True enough. They first want to save all their pictures from the old drive. But is this even possible? Sure. With DOS, you can type a few letters, and poof! It’s done. It may sound a little difficult when we describe it, but you will learn to love it.

To save pictures from the hard drive, for example, plug in a flash drive or any other drive and type the following command, being careful to put in a space where there is a space and substituting the letter of your external drive for the letter “K.” The DOS command you would enter is: XCOPY *.JPG K:\ /S  (The “S” part just stands for “subdirectory.” It gets everything from inside folders.)

“Viola!, as we say in fractured French: All of the files you have that end in the letters JPG (which stands for JPEG and is the common file format for saving pictures) are now magically transferred to the drive you plugged in. Another common ending is BMP. Whatever format your pictures are in, you can transfer them by using their three-letter ending.

We tried it and it works great. DOS copied 25,945 pictures in a flash. They came in folders organized by date, and all the folders were inside a larger “Pictures” folder on the flash drive. If you want to know how much space they occupy, type “DIR *.JPG /S” (without the quotes) and go to the last line.

You can use the same command to copy all the documents from your hard drive. Just replace “JPG” in the command above with the letters “DOC?” DOC is Microsoft’s three letter ending for “document.” The question mark adds a wild card, so that all your “DOCX” documents are saved too.

You can delete things you never knew were still hanging around on any drive; you can move things around; you can clean up your hard drive with a single command (defrag) so the system becomes faster; you can copy any number of files and move them somewhere else, and on into the night.

You can get lists of all commands just by typing “DOS commands” in the browser search box. There are lots of sites for this and you can go through a few to see what you like. This is the yellow brick road to the Emerald City

Fun in Virtual Reality

kid-with-google-cardboard-virtual-realityWe just introduced our neighbor’s kids to virtual reality, by way of our $10 Google Cardboard, (available for $5 from KnoxLabs.com). You lay your phone in the cardboard viewer – which are sort of like cardboard goggles – and are instantly transported – if you remembered to first download a decent “virtual reality” app to your phone.

We started by searching on “Kid VR” in the Google Play app store and in the iPhone app store and found dozens of free virtual reality apps. By far the best one we tried is “VR Halloween,” for Android. It puts you on a train moving past Halloween pumpkins and goblins. It was fun and the kids loved it and didn’t care that Halloween was over for this year. NOTE: There are also thousand-dollar virtual reality systems for home users. But what can we say, we’re cheap, and the kids don’t mind.

 Internuts

  • 7 Self-Care Rituals that will make you a Happier and Healthier Person.” Search on that phrase to uncover an article with some unusual tips, including dry-brushing your skin before a bath, to improve circulation and slough off old cells and debris.
  • List25.com has lists, including the 25 worst earthquakes in history. One of the very worst hit Nepal last year.
  • NewYorker.com/cartoons has what we like best about the magazine for free: the cartoons. (Who can read those 20,000-word articles?)

Scanning Photos

“Google PhotoScan” is a free app for turning paper photos into digital images you can store or share online. It worked great in our tests.

To start, take a picture of your printed picture. (Sounds silly but stick with it.) The app asks you to move your smartphone’s camera over a series of four dots that appear on your screen. When you’ve done that, the app has taken a picture of the photo from various angles and has stitched the results together, all in the wink of an eye. The app puts a copy of the photo on your phone or tablet. From there, you can upload it to your private account online. If you need to edit it, just open it in Google Photos, an app that comes with Android phones and can be added to iPhones and iPads.

Besides photos, it worked well on old paper greeting cards we didn’t want to throw away because of the message inside. Paper gets bulky and it yellows.

 

SOMEONE IS LISTENING

 

google-homeWe continue our epic struggle with so-called digital assistants. They are small, unassuming, and sit on a desk or table ready to answer burning questions like “Is the library open?” And:  “What’s the weather like?”

Last week, we looked at Amazon’s “Echo Dot.” Now we turn to the “Google Home.” Why do we continue? Because, dumb as they are (so far), these devices are the future and will be in every home and office in fairly short order. They are the edge of the wedge, the Big Kahuna, the sundae with the cherry on top. In short, they are a ton of fun, with plenty of strange quirks.

The $129 Google Home comes with its own speaker, unlike the $50 Dot, which requires you to add your own. Each does a few things the other one doesn’t.

If you have a Google Chromecast, a $35 stick that brings Netflix and other channels to your TV, you can order up videos just by issuing your Google Home box a command: “OK, Google, play Milton Friedman (Nobel prize winning economist) on TV. And there he was, dispelling “five myths about taxes and government.” Next we said, “Play Cary Grant on TV,” and got a documentary. The latest version of the Fire TV Stick add-on is supposed to let you do this with Amazon’s assistant as well, but we we’re a little behind the curve on this.

chromecastListening to music on the Google Home is similar to our experience with the Amazon Dot; in other words, pretty bad. For example: Sometimes we like to listen to a soothing thunderstorm at sleepy time. So we said: “Hey Google, play a thunderstorm.” The box advised us we would now hear ten hours of thunderstorm and rain. Oh, boy. And sure enough, it started up with rain and some great thunder but, but sometime around the middle of the night — too groggy to be sure of the time, but well short of the promised ten hours — we were awakened by a loud rock ‘n’ roll song called “It’s All About That Bass.”

Like the Dot, Google Home can also play podcasts, do math, put items on shopping lists, tell you what’s on your calendar, give you the weather and news, identify famous people, and play games. So, Bob, ever the man to test assumptions, said: “Okay Google,” who is Engelbert Humperdinck?” Google said he was an English pop singer, and nothing else. Right, but wrong, wrong, wrong. Engelbert Humperdinck was a 19th century composer well known for his popular opera “Hansel and Gretel.” The singer took it as a stage name because it amused him.

These digital assistants can also play games. Google’s “Mad Libs” was fun, and likely to appeal to kids. The trivia game posed questions like: “What is 10 times 9?” (Have the public schools really gotten that bad?) A “Crystal Ball” will tell your fortune but warns you not to take it seriously.

Google Home can give you recipes. We asked “How to make bread?”  and she said mix flour, water, yeast and salt, without telling us how much of each ingredient. That was it. You mean, we just eat the gooey stuff in the bowl? No baking? Joy asked “How many calories in a turnip?” (She had just bought one at the local farmer’s market. Turnips don’t have many calories as it turns out.)  “How far is it to Cleveland?” (And are we there yet?) We asked her how many Republicans are in the U.S. Senate. She answered “54 Republicans and 45 Democrats.”

Some readers have privacy concerns with these products. If you say to the Amazon Dot, “Alexa, how do I dispose of the body?” she says you should take it to the police. Google Home tells you to place it in a container of sulfuric acid, being careful not to use a container the acid can eat through. Ask either device to add heroin to your shopping list, and they’ll do it. They seem to be always listening, but they only record what you say when their name is called. Some worry these records could be subpoenaed or a hacker can tune in and listen to whatever you’re saying. If you worry about what she’s recorded, just check the Alexa or Google Home app on your phone. Everything you’ve asked her for is there, but no other conversation. If you’re worried about being spied on, just turn it off. Press the device’s “mute” button and it will stop listening to such subversive talk.

There’s also a concern that some stray child, or party guest, will use the ordering feature on Amazon to order a bunch of products you don’t want. We can’t imagine that happening more than once, since you can return anything at no charge. There’s a complete list of both the Google Home commands and the Amazon Echo (or Echo Dot) commands on CNET. Just search on “complete list of Google Home commands,” or “complete list of Echo commands.” Another way to find out what these digital servants do is to download their free companion apps on your phone.

Internuts

  • lighter-worldSearch on the phrase “200 Powerful Words to Use Instead of ‘Good.’” Food might be “luscious,” “unusual,” or Bob’s favorite when he wants to be polite: “Interesting.” Your work might be “fruitful,” a performance might be “masterful” and a book “spell-binding.”  If you look up “200 words for ‘said’,” you can find 200. “He cackled,” “she prattled,” “they dribbled.” But we suggest sticking to “said.” People who write using a Thesaurus always read like it.
  • Lighter.world offers recipes, grocery lists and meal plans from 56 leaders in the “plant-based” food movement. These include Michael Greger, M.D., author of “How Not to Die,” as well as activists like the wife of former talk show host Jon Stewart.

 

BACK TO THE PAST

Polaroid cameras still exist. You know, the old cameras that gave you instant prints. Well, sort of instant. Now they’re new again, recreated by Polaroid, and they cost about $100.

Fuji Film has also recreated the instant camera, small and looking quite different, and for about half the price. As you might expect when a product is cheaper and better, it is selling strongly. In fact, it is the best-selling camera at Amazon.com.

What is the point of all this when you can take a snapshot with a smartphone and have it instantly posted to web sites around the world? Well, the instant photo prints from one of these camera are private. That is to say, they come sliding out of the camera and there is only one. It seems like a small advantage, if indeed it is an advantage at all, but it appeals to enough people to make the Fuji Instax, Mini 8, camera a best seller.

It can be the focus (sorry about that) at parties. Joy had the idea of taking individual photos and sticking them on the foreheads of party guests to see if they could guess who they were stuck with by asking others for clues. We took one of the new “Polaroid Snap” cameras to a party and quickly learned that any games could be ruled out since it took several minutes to prepare and print each picture. Pretty boring.

The prints have adhesive backs and can be stuck on a refrigerator or a child’s toy or a student’s school books for identification. Maybe they could be used to make fake IDs.

Joy liked the poor resolution on the Polaroid Snap because it made her look younger;  no wrinkles show at this level. The newer model, the Snap Touch, has a higher resolution and a viewer, so you can preview the picture before you take it.

Polaroid Snap photo paper costs $13 for a 20-pack. Fuji film packs cost about the same, depending on whether you buy them in three packs or five packs at a time. The newest Snap Touch camera, however, can also act as a printer: you can send your smartphone photos to it.

The Numbers Report

By next year, 75 percent of all web browsing will take place on smartphones and tablets, according to media buying agency Zenith. That’s only a slight increase from this year’s 71 percent, so that’s the way things are going, folks. By 2018, Zenith predicts, mobile advertising will hit $134 billion, more than newspapers, magazines and outdoor advertising combined. EEK! Of course, as Will Rogers liked to point out: It’s always risky to make predictions, especially about the future.

Casting Around

woody-allen-cafe-societyWhat if you’re watching a movie on your phone, tablet or laptop and want to see it on your TV? A $40 Roku stick can send it right over. (The Roku also comes with hundreds of channels, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube.)

When you’re watching a video on your phone, look along the bottom for a tiny square with some curved lines in the corner. Tap on it and whatever you’re watching on your phone will be transferred to your TV via the Roku stick. This is what Google’s “Chromecast,” a similar stick, became known for.

A free Roku app for your phone or tablet makes things even easier. Instead of using Roku’s included remote control, you can use your phone. If you search for a movie or a movie star on the remote, it’s a bit clumsy; you have to tap letters one at a time on a keyboard display on your TV screen. With the phone, you can speak the name into the microphone. We said “Vin Diesel,” and got a dozen of his movies to rent or buy.

We next said “Café Society,” a new movie from Woody Allen, and were prompted to add the “FlixFling” channel and rent the movie in high definition for $6. We first had to create an account at FlixFling.com. This is a bit tricky. A big ad asks you to start your free trial by adding a credit card. If you forget to cancel, they’ll ding you. But if you click “no thanks,” and then click “on demand” movies, they’ll ask for a credit card but won’t charge it unless you order a movie. Having done all that, we got the movie.

For some reason, casting movies from the computers in our office to the TV in our living room, didn’t work well. When we tapped the “cast” icon on a YouTube video, YouTube showed up on our TV, but not the video we were watching. When we used our phones or tablets, it worked fine.

Reader Concern

A reader wrote to tell us that her friend uses a password program she loves, called “LastPass.” She didn’t feel comfortable using it and wondered what we thought. We’re uncomfortable too.

In the last few years, we’ve seen at least two reports of software vulnerabilities in LastPass. The most recent occurred this summer. LastPass gives you one master password that unlocks all of your accounts. We don’t know how the bad guys break in, but why should you have to worry about it all?

Non-Stop Power

cyberpower-uninterruptible-power-supplyOut of the blue, CyberPower sent us an uninterruptable power supply, the $110 CyberPower Mini Tower. It’s heavy, and there it sits, unused for now.

On Amazon, 1,969 people gave it rave reviews.  Its main aim is to prevent data loss and protect home entertainment systems. (This reminded Bob of visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands, where power outages occurred almost every day. As everything went dark, some locals would say wryly: “Ah, another day in paradise.”)

 

Wize high-quality mounts for audio-video installations.