AT THE OPERA

A reader told us she’s tired of being tracked. We suggest using the new Opera web browser.

It’s free and you can get it from Opera.com. Once on board you will have a built-in “Virtual Private Network,” or VPN, as the techies call it. It automatically encrypts all your data so hackers can’t get to it, which makes it safe (at least until the counter-attack) when you’re using free Wi-Fi at the airport or a coffee shop.

For your phone, there’s “Opera Free VPN,” from the iPhone or Android app stores. Besides safeguarding your data, it lets you into places you might otherwise not be able to go.  For instance, some videos are restricted to certain countries. We’re looking at you, Germany. According to Ublockvideos, 85 percent of all these web restrictions apply to Germany. We have no idea why.

To turn on the VPN in Opera on your computer, click the big red “O” in the left corner and choose “settings,” then “privacy and security.”  You’ll notice a blue “VPN” badge in the corner of your screen. VPN toggles on and off. It goes off for sites like Google Maps, that needs your location to figure out your best route, but you can toggle it on again. Opera has a great reputation for speeding things up. However, using a VPN will slow it down a tad.

We were never Opera fans until now, because we didn’t like the look of it. Our email always seemed a bit hard to read. Now everything looks great, a lot like Google Chrome, with one big addition. Off to the left are icons for Facebook Messenger, What’s App, Bookmarks, History, taking a screenshot and “Personal News.”  Personal News has built-in sources, but you can add your own and remove theirs.

A caveat: On some websites where you’re asked to fill out a form, only Microsoft Edge or Internet Explorer will do. Joy ran into this problem trying to submit a grant application for a local grad student, who ended up winning a $15,000 award from the women’s organization, P.E.O. She tried three browsers, but only Edge worked.

Grabbing Videos Online

Some of the videos we see on Facebook, like “The Evolution of Dancing,” are so good we want our non-Facebook friends to see them. But they can’t log in because they don’t have Facebook accounts. What’s a browser to do?

We tried a screen capture tool that’s part of Corel Video Studio Pro, but that’s a $70 program with a lot of video editing power you don’t need for a simple capture. For $40, you can get Movavi, which we found easy to use. Define the area you want to capture by highlighting it with your cursor, or capture the whole screen. The sound comes in automatically and you can add a voice-over if you wish. There’s a seven-day free trial, but the videos you capture during the free trial will have the Movavi watermark in the middle of the screen. It didn’t bother Bob but it bothered Joy.

Back to “The Evolution of Dancing.” Turns out if we had just Googled it, we would have found it on YouTube, rather than doing a screen capture. In the future, if you see something you like, it doesn’t take long to see if it’s also on YouTube.

Internuts

  • Cow Rescued After Hurricane.” Search on that term to see a one-minute video of a calf raised as a pet after it nearly drowned. The family dog, who was also rescued from the flood, helped nurture it back to life. Warning: this could be heart-warming; Joy had tears in her eyes.
  • The “Netflix Shows Most Searched for In Your State.” Search on that phrase to see what’s popular. In Alaska and Oregon they like “Star Trek: Discovery.” Most popular in California and Texas is “Ingobernable,” which is about a politician in Mexico. New York and 15 other states like “Orange is the New Black.”
  • Common Coffee Mistakes.” Search on that term to find an article from BusinessInsider.com. Mistake one is not buying it fresh, like bread. Another is keeping it longer than a month.
  • Cartoonist Shows Why You Should Say Thank You Instead of Sorry.” Much better results!

 Reading Apple files on a Windows Machine

Paragon Software is giving away free software for looking at Mac files on a Windows machine. Go to paragon-software.com/home/apfs-windows to download it. Then connect a drive that has Mac files on it. Then, in Windows Explorer you’ll be able to see the Mac files that are normally undecipherable.

From iPad to Facebook

A friend of Joy’s was having trouble getting photos from her iPad onto Facebook. Here’s how:

First tap “Photos” on your iPad. Second, look along the bottom of your screen and tap one of the categories you see, such as “albums.” Third, tap on a photo you want to share on Facebook. Fourth, look at the top of the photo. To the left of the trashcan is a square with an up arrow. Tap on that up-arrow to copy the photo to Facebook or some other part of the universe.

Reader Concern

A reader was worried because the power button on her computer wasn’t working and she was afraid if she turned off the computer, she’d never get it on again. Why not leave it on until the new part arrives from Dell?

Bob seldom shuts down his computer unless the system forces a restart for an update. Before the environmental crowd starts pounding on our door, we got some specifics on the electricity cost from MichaelBluejay.com. He pointed out that an iMac left on in sleep mode would have an electricity cost of $6 a year if actively used for only two hours. A Windows computer would be similar. Bob has always maintained this was the case, but never in polite company.

 

FACING FACEBOOK

As a special treat for our regular readers, we have nothing to say about Facebook. Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

Virtual Reality at the Mall

“Virtual Reality” has been over-hyped as a way to experience a movie or game. But it may be about to bring you into the mall.

At the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles last month, six people at a time were allowed into a special room containing a virtual “Alien Zoo.” Those who made the trip viewing other-worldly animals said the 12-minute journey was something like being inside “Jurassic Park.” Participants, wore goggles and backpacks, fended off aliens and in general had a whopping good extra-terrestrial time.

The company that set it up is “Dreamscape Immersive,” backed by 21st Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Nicolodeon and AMC. Steven Spielberg, director of the movie Jurassic Park, is a big investor.

They’re not alone in this one small virtual step for mankind. Rival outfit The Void features two VR adventures: “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” and “Ghostbusters” at shopping malls in Florida, New York, Utah, California, Toronto, London and Dubai. At their web site, TheVoid.com, you can watch video clips of people walking around in their gear. We heard some startled screams. Don’t know if that was because of the exhibits.

Heaven knows, something has to be tried to get the shop-till-you-drop crowd back into the malls, and this may be it. But you can sell more than shoes and shirts this way. Some schools are also starting to use VR.

“VictoryVR,” from VictoryVR.biz, is creating science lessons for kids using virtual reality headsets. The “Chemistry Wonderlab” app can be downloaded for $10 from the Windows store, but that’s just the ticket cost, so to speak. One of three headsets are also required: “Mixed Reality” for $399, the Oculus Rift, also $399 or the HTC Vive ($499).  In Chemistry Wonderlab, kids visit an antique truck museum where the chemistry of rust is explored; then it’s on to “Trickybeard’s Cave” for chemical elements. Another app called “Mendel & the Mystery of Genetic Traits” is a VR comic book by candlelight. The company says it helps kids retain 60 percent more than they would from an ordinary book.

We took a look at these apps in the Microsoft Store on Windows 10, and ran smack into the requirement page. Besides a headset, you need a powerful computer. Ours has 16 gigabytes of RAM and a fast Intel i7 processor. But even that is not good enough. Microsoft says we’d need a better graphics driver and perhaps a better graphics card.

The Lenovo 750, at $1500, would do the trick. So would the HP Spectre x360 15, Dell Alienware 13 and the Microsoft Surface Book 2. The Surface Book 2 is the most expensive of those on the recommended list, at $2500. For headsets, if you want to go all the way, the HTC Vive Pro just came out and is said to fix the problems of other systems: You don’t get tired halfway through an intense experience.

How about on the job training in virtual reality? “Matrix Academy” is training hairdressers through VR. At the other end of the cosmic scale, a VR outfit called “8i” worked with Buzz Aldrin, who recorded messages for scientists training for Mars missions. The training was in Hawaii, which might be slightly different than Mars.

Internuts

  • Underwater rooms at the Manta Resort, Pemba island off Tanzania

    Names.org tells you the origin of names, gives you a timeline of their popularity and adds lots of fun facts. The peak popularity for the name “Joy” was the late 1950s. “Robert” or Bob is of British origin and means “bright fame.” It reached its peak bright fame in 1947 and is the third most popular name of all time after James and John. “Joy” is most popular in Oklahoma, where her mother was from.

  • 11 Tell-Tale Signs your Accounts and Devices Have been Hacked” is a Gizmodo article. “Unexplained credit card charges” seems like an obvious one, but a sudden, serious slowdown of your phone or computer might also mean you’ve been hacked, and someone else is on the line.
  • The World’s 30 Most Impressive Hotels.” Search on that term to find an article in Popular Mechanics on ice hotels, palaces, forts, tree houses, caves, you name it.
  • “Pancreatic Risk Calculator.” Google that phrase to calculate your chances, or choose any other problem, such as breast cancer or heart disease.

App Happy

  • Netflix Party” lets you watch a movie with remote friends. It keeps you at the same place in the movie and lets you chat by text message off to one side.
  • “Chompers” keeps kids entertained with stories, riddles and dental directions while they are brushing their teeth for two full minutes. If you have an Alexa Echo or Echo Dot, your kids can say, “Alexa, start Chompers.” To get the app, or hear the episodes, go to gimletmedia.com/chompers.

Great Radio

There are thousands of “podcasts,” also known as online radio shows, so how do you choose? Here are a couple to try out if you’ve already been to Planet Money and Freakonomics Radio, our two favorites.

  • Panoply.fm has a “By the Book” podcast where two friends try to follow a new self-help book in each episode, often with hilarious, sometimes disastrous results. We listened to the one on “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” which sold 50 million copies and even led to his and hers salad dressings.
  • Song Exploder” lets musicians break down their songs and tell you how they put them together. Find it at Player.FM.

Which is Safer, Android or iPhone?

Apple’s iPhone has long maintained a reputation for tighter security. Download an app from their app store and you can be sure it’s OK. Now Google is challenging that.

According to a report by Engadget, Google says downloading Android apps is now just as safe as the iPhone. In 2016, the probability of downloading a harmful app over a year’s time was less than half of one percent. In 2017, the probability was reduced to one-fifth of one percent. There are currently two billion Android devices in active use. There are about seven billion people, counting babies and toddlers.

 

 

WHO’S THAT DOWN THERE?

This is one of the weirdest cases we’ve ever heard of from a reader. A woman wrote to say that anyone replying to her emails was redirected to a hacker.

We tried writing her back, and sure enough, we saw her email address change before our eyes. An extra letter was automatically inserted. We didn’t put it there, we just hit “reply.” Off it went to the hacker. The next time, we hit “reply” we carefully erased the “send” address and put in the one without the extra letter.

This was beyond annoying for the reader. Friends thought she was getting their email but those messages all went to the hacker instead. She first tried getting help from “Geek Squad” from Best Buy. They worked on the problem for more than three hours, but couldn’t fix it. She next tried Verizon’s tech support, but they were no help either. We suggested she go to helphelpnow.com and talk to Kenny, who has helped us many times. He fixed it in seconds, she said, removing the fake account the hackers had set up. Of course one mystery remained: why would a hacker want to get her emails in the first place?

Over three billion Yahoo email accounts were hacked in 2013, which the company admitted in 2016. Most held onto their accounts for the convenience of it. We use  Gmail, as does most of the world.

Ad Blockers

Websites are full of ads, and without an ad blocker they can be slow to load. But ad blockers themselves can cause problems if they use too much computing power, thus slowing down your machine. The ad blocker, “Ublock Origin,” is a good one, because it blocks ads without getting in the way.

Ublock Origin is an extension for the Chrome browser and an add-on for Firefox. We Googled it, and the Chrome extension came right up. To test it out, we went to Yahoo.com and in seconds, it blocked 29 ads. On Firefox, we searched on the phrase “Ublock Origin Firefox” to find it.

TrueCaller

NBC Nightly News recently did a story about phone spoofing. That’s when a hacker calls someone you know and makes it appear the call came from you. In their test case, a hacker-expert called the interviewer’s mom, disguised his voice and got her social security number. He got it because a picture of her son’s face showed up on her cell phone screen. Naturally enough, she thought she was talking to him. We use the app “TrueCaller” to identify these kinds of fake callers. TrueCaller is kind of a fanatic about identifying spam; it labeled the Wall Street Journal a spam caller because they were asking us to renew our subscription. (Maybe “TrueCaller” was right, it’s an outrageously expensive subscription.)

How it works: As a call comes in, the app turns red if it’s a spam suspect. It’s up to you to accept, decline, or block it forever. We find it handy for receiving and making calls. But to check voice mail, we tap the regular Android phone icon.  For some reason, we don’t see any voice mail messages come up in TrueCaller.

Playing Android Apps in Windows

Joy lost her smartphone somewhere in the apartment. Is it just us, or do other people, somewhere in the world, also lose things in their own homes? For now, she’s having calls forwarded to Bob’s phone. But what about all those fun apps?

“Bluestacks,” a free download from Bluestacks.com, allows you to use Android apps on a Windows computer. It includes the Google Play store, making it easy to search for the apps you want. Joy downloaded her new favorite, “Aaptiv,” which brings her personal trainers for yoga, strength training, rowing, running, elliptical machines and a host of other categories (free for the first thirty days, $99 a year if you continue). She also downloaded “Word Chums,” a free app that’s like Scrabble on steroids and has better sound effects.

She also tried running apps on our Google Chromebook. Word Chums and Aaptiv worked fine. Another one she tried did not.

Internuts

  • Archive.org is famous for its “Way Back Machine,” offering old versions of current websites. But it also has free games, movies, audio and TV. Click “movies” for hundreds of free classics, such as “His Girl Friday,” and Charlie Chaplin silents. Click “audio” to get free audio books and old-time radio. Old-time radio programs include The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Dimension X, Our Miss Brooks, and many other classics. Click “software,” then “Internet Arcade” for 607 retro games from Atari and others. They look clunky today but they were hot stuff in their time.
  • JoinAllofUS.org is the website for a million-person study being conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the next ten years. Joy just joined, which involved filling out an extensive health questionnaire. She’ll be contacted soon to make an appointment for a blood test and various measurements, for which she’ll earn $25. Later, she’ll have her genome sequenced. NIH is trying to create the largest health data resource ever, to better understand health and disease.  Partners include a subsidiary of Google and scientists from leading universities.
  • RRAuction.com has some unusual items come up for bids. Steve Jobs’ employment application sold for $174,757. At the time, he was an 18 year-old freshman at Reed College in Oregon and listed his major as English Lit. He misspelled “probable.” We don’t know if he got the job.

ALEXA, START MY DAY

The battle between Amazon’s “Echo” and Google Home never ends. Which is all good for us.

The other day we turned to Google’s smart speaker and said “Hey Google, play ‘La Bamba.’” That launched a playlist with some of the best rock ‘n’ roll of all time. Joy could hardly stop dancing and return to the column.

Alexa has her own new tricks. For instance, you can give her several commands at once without having to say “Alexa” each time. We said, “Alexa, turn the volume to 7.” A second later, we said “Call Bob,” and Bob’s cell phone started to ring.  We also plied it with questions. “Alexa, what’s the population of North Korea? What’s the population of South Korea?” Note that we only had to say the opening command “Alexa” the first time.

To set this up, tap the Amazon Alexa app on your phone. Then tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) and tap settings, choose your device and scroll down until you see “Follow Up Mode.”  In settings, you can also set up what you want to hear when you say “Alexa, Start My Day.” This can be a fun way to start your wakeup.

We have ours set up to give us the weather and the latest podcast from Planet Money. The first time we tried it, we heard about Grace Owen, a New Hampshire woman who got the lowest Social Security number ever issued: 001 01 001. Grace appeared on “What’s My Secret?” and guess what, that was her secret.

Google Home Strikes Back

We tried a similar new feature for the Google Home smart speaker called “Routines.” You can start by saying, “Hey Google, How’s My Day?”

This launched a weather and traffic report, followed by news briefings from National Public Radio, Fox News, Anchor News, Bloomberg Business News, Score Sports and the BBC Minute. Joy said “Hey Google, skip” during the sports briefs, but not before hearing about March Madness, whatever that is. This was all pre-set; we provided no instructions.

To learn how to customize this daily report, we went to our computer and searched on “Set Up and Manage Routines on Google Home.”

Some of the “Routines” are best for after work. For instance, you can say “Hey Google, let’s go home,” and the Assistant will give you a traffic report, send text messages, read unread texts, and play whatever you’ve chosen, whether it’s music, news, a podcast or nothing. It will even broadcast to all the Google Home speakers at your home that you’re on your way.

Once you get there and settle in, the doorbell might ring. If you have one of these three security cameras – Nest Cam, Logitech Circle, or Tend Secure, you can say “Hey Google, who’s at the front door,” and see the person on your TV. But that also requires the $35 Chromecast plugged into the back of the TV. It also requires that at least one of those security cameras be focused on the front door.

Getting help for a Google Home speaker is easy. When we were on their support website, a small window popped up allowing us to chat with a Google employee. This one was a guy named Ian, from the Philippines. Later, he sent us a replay of our chat by email and added that if we replied to it, he would deal with any other Google-related issues. (By the way, there are 7,614 islands in the Philippines.)

Big Clipboard

The 2013 and 2016 versions of Microsoft Word have an extended clipboard feature. So instead of copying just one item and pasting it in, you can copy dozens and later choose the ones you want from a list.

Here’s how: In Windows 7 or 10, copy something from the web or elsewhere and it automatically saves in the clipboard. To copy, highlight the item with your mouse and hold down the “Ctrl” key on your keyboard while tapping the letter “C” to copy it. On a Mac, hold down the “Cmd” key and then tap the “C” on your keyboard.

Now, in Microsoft Word, change the settings for the clipboard. (You only have to do this once.)  Click the “home” button, then click the little arrow next to the word “Clipboard” in the upper left of your screen. If you want the list to show up whenever you have Word open, click “options” at the bottom of the clipboard and choose “Show Office Clipboard Automatically.” When you’re ready to paste, choose the one you want from your list.

Bob has long used multiple saved clips to use with emails. You can make a standard sign off, with name and web site, or address or whatever. It can be good for canned replies: “Thank you for contacting us,” etc. He has long admired the canned response that the late Sen. Metzenbaum of Ohio used to send to people who wrote him with wild accusations and comments: “Dear Sir or Madam: We think you should know that some crank is sending out letters signed with your name.”

 Internuts

  • Bookstore.gpo.gov is the U.S. government bookstore. They used to have bookstores in many cities, but now it’s just Washington, D.C. You can order online, and the range of topics is enormous; Bob has long been a fan of their titles. Under the “Best Sellers” category, there’s a tax guide for individuals and a book on protecting your family from lead exposure in the home. They also have ebooks.
  • Search on the phrase “Mesmerizing Wind Patterns” to find a page from LaughingSquid.com. It pictures a globe showing wind patterns and speed. Turn the globe to see various regions. Click on one to get precise wind speeds and directions. Scroll down the page to see another map of ocean currents, and an animated visualization of every meteorite recorded since 861 A.D.
  • Search on the phrase “Kingsoft Office Free” to find a free word processor, spreadsheet, and PowerPoint program similar to Microsoft Office.

 

 

HERE THERE BE TYGERS AND ALL MANNER OF STRANGE BEASTS

One of our frequent correspondents had a near miss.

That’s a near miss from disaster when he got a phone call telling him his PayPal account had been compromised and he owed $340. The caller said they could fix the problem for $299 but they needed to take control of his computer. They said they needed his bank account number too, so he gave it to them.

There was a lot of background chatter on the caller’s end of the line. The red flags went up, the rockets exploded and the bells started ringing. He turned off his computer, told the caller he just had a power outage, hung up and moved everything from his checking account to his savings account. Then he removed the software the callers installed. Whew. This is a pretty savvy guy we’re talking about, so this can happen to anyone.

So here’s the message: Never, we mean not ever, give control of your computer to someone you don’t know and trust. And … there’s no reason on Earth they need your bank account number. In fact, once he did that, even though he took alarm and took the right defensive action, the same people still call him. They figure they have a live one.

What is to be done, to be done, to be done?

We have had similar run-ins over the years. On one occasion, Joy gave control of her computer to someone she thought was from Microsoft. On hearing this, Bob, who has the same level of suspicion as a CIA agent who’s also paranoid, said hang up the phone and do it now. Joy had to reformat the computer afterwards.

So, when you have a problem with the computer, be it large or small, where do you turn? The stores that offer tech services have a natural conflict: they charge quite a bit for doing not much but the real profit is made in selling something additional. So the guys and gals who do the tech work often find it easier to tell the person seeking help that it’s better to just reinstall Windows. We’ve had this from two people we know just in the last couple of weeks. It’s a never -fail fix, somewhat expensive, but everybody comes out happy. Of course, there’s the additional expense of replacing the programs that got wiped out when you reinstalled the operating system.

We have tried the sites that provide contacts with freelancers who sell various skills and have various levels of expertise. The results have varied. There are lots of these sites. Last June, Forbes Magazine had an article called “79 Websites to Get Freelance Jobs Fast.”

These sites are legitimate and the freelancers do the work but results vary. Years ago, we went to a website called CrossLoop and by chance got a guy who was terrific on computer problems. The web site is no longer in operation. The guy’s name is Kenny. We’ve never met him but he’s who we recommend when there’s a problem. He’s at helphelpnow.com. We’ve also gotten great help from Esther, a website expert, at EstherRosie.com. By the way, we get no percentages on this or any other kind of payback from anything we write about; we want to go to “Reporter Heaven” when the time comes.

Going on Wheel of Fortune

Joy wanted to be a Wheel of Fortune contestant and they ask you to upload a one-minute video. So she got up early one morning and did it, putting her Android phone on a shelf, making sure the camera was facing her, and tapping the video button. It worked fine, though she had to try four times to get it under one minute.

The video was automatically uploaded to Photos.Google.com. From there, she put it on YouTube (unlisted) and shared the link with Wheel. Unfortunately, the next step proved impossible.

The directions said to upload a headshot. But she kept getting “upload fail.” She tried three different browsers, two kinds of photo formats, three resolutions, and used two different computers. Finally, she tried submitting her application with just the video and no headshot, and that worked fine. We’ll let you know if she makes it.

Killer Course

Google is offering a free crash course in machine learning. That’s the kind of learning a computer does when it learns by watching rather than from explicit directions. As Yogi Berra once said: “You can see a lot just by looking.” Quite so. That’s how a Google computer beat a world champion in the game of Go and that’s how the future “Terminator “will figure things out.

Machine learning doesn’t happen automatically; it requires a savvy program. If you’re interested in learning, search on the phrase “Machine Learning Crash Course,” and look for the Google link. The prerequisites are mastery of entry level algebra and proficiency in programming, especially coding in Python. There are free tutorials in Python on YouTube, and we also like the paid lessons at Lynda.com.

 

The Numbers Report

  • According to researcher Dscout, the average person touches their phone 2,617 times a day. Heavy users touch theirs 5,427 times a day. By touch, they mean every tap, swipe, type or click. The company recruited 94 Android users and installed touch monitoring software on their phones. Those people are now in rehab.
  • Shareaholic.com reports people are clicking on links they get from Google more than the ones from Facebook and other social media sites. This is a shift. For the past three years, most people used a Facebook link or similar social site to get to another website. Facebook lost 12.7 percentage points in share of visits between 2016 and 2017 while another social site, Instagram, saw their share increase ten times. Of course, Facebook owns Instagram.

 

 

DEVELOPING A TWITCH

An old friend in the computer gaming business called to pitch a new product. The product was interesting though not yet ready for prime time. But his call opened a window we hadn’t looked through in many years.

We hardly ever mention computer games anymore, because it has become a specialty in its own right and is too narrow for this column. And yet, they’re still out there. More than half a million people tune in daily to Twitch.TV, where they can watch other people play video games. Ten million have downloaded the app to watch Twitch on their phones. Sound pretty stupid? We tuned in (because we have to) and it was actually interesting. In fact it was more interesting than a lot of the TV shows we’ve looked at for ten minutes or less. You can also tune in to watch artists draw the characters and scenery that go into these video games.

This harks Bob back to the early days of personal computers, when the popular machines were Commodore and Atari, and the conventional wisdom from the far-seeing pundits was that personal computers would never amount to much and were only good for games. They didn’t understand what was happening, of course. Bob’s own managing editor told him it was just a fad. What strikes us about conventional wisdom was how conventional it is, and that the wisdom part usually drops off the edge of an intellectual cliff.

Well things went along, and two students at Harvard designed a spreadsheet they called “Visicalc” that would run on Radio Shack’s TRS-80 personal computer. A guy in the dorm had one. But he transferred out and took his computer with him, so they were stuck with writing it for an Apple, another guy in the dorm had one.  Radio Shack went bankrupt, Apple became a giant. Many things are subject to chance.

Painting with Bob Ross

Games lost their prominence but continued to live. They’re out there now; go to the web site Twitch.tv and watch. You think this would be a really boring thing to do? You think wrong. There are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of games going on. In the corner you’ll often see a picture of the player. You’ll hear their excitement, and feel it too. Get the monster, find the treasure, be a hero, or heroine.

The program our old friend was pumping is a new arrival, still in “beta” testing, as they say.  It’s called “MobCrush;” you can download the app or go to MobCrush.com. Gamers who play programs associated with movie studios, game companies and other commercial enterprises can earn anywhere from $15 to $2500 an hour, depending entirely on how many viewers they can pull in. The minimum payout starts with around 5,000 followers.

So the kid who won’t go outside because he or she is playing video games could have earnings potential. A guy we know says his daughter, an artist, has over 10,000 followers. Well, that’s ten thousand potential customers. Dead artists can also pop back. An old PBS show, “The Joy of Painting,” with Bob Roth, streams live, so to speak, on Twitch.TV. He died in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of viewers continue to watch the show. Other artists can be watched on Twitch by typing “creative” in the search box at the top of the screen. The Japanese “Manga” style is popular.

Battery Life

We killed the battery in our old laptop by leaving it plugged in all the time, though after seven years it might have caught something deadly anyway. Battery death can happen to phones too, in just two to three years. The key is don’t over-charge.

A free app for Android phones called “AccuBattery,” from AccuBattery.com, gives you an alarm when the phone you’re charging has reached the 80 percent level. According to the app maker, charging to the 80 percent level instead of 100 triples the battery life.

Though modern phones are protected from overcharging when you plug them in all night, some experts say their batteries last longer if you turn your phone off after charging it completely. Another tip: Don’t let an Android or iPhone go completely dead. The battery will last longer if you charge them when they still have around 20 percent left.

By the way, a new battery for our old Windows 7 laptop cost $27 on eBay. We gave the old computer away, and warned the person not to do as we did, leaving it plugged in. It should run on the battery alone a couple of times a month. When we’d had the laptop a few years, it no longer stayed charged for six hours but started sighing at two.

Extension Extermination

Adding too many extensions to your web browser, whether Chrome, Firefox or something else, slows it down. Here’s how to remove them:

In Chrome, go to chrome://extensions and click the trash can next to any you don’t want. Sometimes, however, the extension still has access to your account, even though you deleted it. Go to MyAccount.Google.com and click on “Sign in and Security,” then “Apps with Account Access,” to see which apps can access your account.

In Firefox, click the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) in the upper right corner of the screen. Then choose “Add-ons.” Here you can disable any you don’t want or add new ones.

In Safari, pull down “Preferences” from the Safari menu. Then choose “Extensions” and “remove.” In Microsoft Edge, click the three dots in the upper right corner and then “Extensions.” In Internet Explorer, click the “tools” button, then “add-ons.”

Internuts

  • Cob house coziest place.” Search on that phrase to find a so-called “cob” home with a 25-foot high solar dome in Norway. The family grows almost all their food in an amazing greenhouse.
  • WagnerStudios.org has some great Calvin and Hobbes’ snowmen comics. Joy sent the link to her nephew, who’s a big fan. More at GoComics.com.

 

BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

A reader innocently called a tech support phone number he saw on the Brother Printers website. It turned out to be a scam. Unlike “click bait,” which leads you to fake news stories or other web sites, this one goes after your wallet.

When our reader called the supposed tech support number, he was told they needed to take control of his Macbook Pro to fix a major problem. They said he had a lot of “stuck” and “sleeping” files (whatever those are), and added he needed to pay $299 a year for a firewall. Fortunately, he said “no.”

He added: “They told me there was no way that I would get the printer to work without their firewall!”  But he did after watching a tutorial on YouTube.

The same thing happened to our friend Ida last year. She went to the Brother Printers site, called a number listed there, and was scammed. Joy used Windows’ “System Restore” to get her computer working again. Remember: If it seems fishy, it probably is.

We like Brother Printers okay, but this is a bad situation. We notified them about the problem more than six months ago.  A spokesperson wrote back and told us they were aware of everything and were working on it. Slow going; apparently they take a lot of coffee breaks.

Video Editing

We don’t’ have the patience for video editing. (Actually, we don’t have the patience for much of anything, which is why we write short items.) What we like are programs that do all the work, like “Fast Flick” in the new Corel Video Studio Ultimate 2018.

The $100 program finally makes it simple, three clicks and you’re done. Click to choose a template, click to add pictures and videos, click to add text. (Okay, it’s four clicks if you want to change the background music.). The result is amazingly professional.  Our movie had fast dissolves, picture-in-picture, nice transitions and so on.

The program does much more, if you’re adventurous. You can show multiple video streams simultaneously, remove distortion from wide-angle or action camera footage, create a video in 360 degrees, and create a stop-motion animation. Some of the tutorials are great, but the one on stop motion left a lot to be desired. You can get a free trial at videostudiopro.com.

If you just want a simple slideshow, try the free Google Photos at Photos.Google.com. Click “Create” and choose from nine templates, such as “They Grow Up So Fast,” “Selfie Movie,” “Doggie Movie,” “Meow Movie,” “Mother’s Day Movie,” and “In Loving Memory.” For a Valentine’s Day movie, Joy clicked on Bob’s face, then hers, on a page that showed all the faces of family and friends appearing in previous photos. Google Photos automatically found photos with us in them and put them into a romantic slideshow with music. Can’t beat the price.

(subhed) Internuts

  • Netflixhiddencodes.com takes you to a long list of very specific categories on Netflix that you might otherwise never find. For instance, what if you want … “Alien Sci Fi,” “Basketball Movies,” “Movies for Ages 11 to 12,” or “Quirky Romance?” Joy counted 221. How about “Steamy Thrillers?”
  • Medigo.com recommends medical care in clinics and hospitals abroad. Current estimate is that 1.5 million Americans have made these trips, sometimes called “medical tourism.” Savings are huge. Bob’s doctor said he is worried about the trend. Here’s a graph showing their affiliations with more than a thousand hospitals. The “quality” destinations are higher quality than what people in the U.S. have been able to find, but this is very much from an English-speaking perspective. For example, India is also very popular as a quality destination from neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but it is definitely a cost destination for patients from the US and Australia.
  • DogGIFpage.com has sweet and hilarious short videos of dogs. Let’s face it, dogs are cute.
  • InformationIsBeautiful.net presents ideas in pictures. We liked their infographic on common fallacies, like thinking something must be true because an expert said it. This reminds Bob of Mark Twain’s definition of an expert as “Someone who lives more than 50 miles away from you.”

Choosing Your Music on Google Home

A reader said that when he asked his Google Mini to play music, the voice in the box said he didn’t have a music plan. What’s up with that?

In the Google Home app on your phone, which you’re asked to install after getting a Google Home device, you can set your music to the free version of Google Play Music, Spotify or Pandora. We subscribe to “YouTube Red” for $10 a month, to improve the range of music we get. Tap “Google Home,” then the hamburger icon (three stacked lines), then “Music.” Tap the service you want to use.

You can also say, “Hey Google, play KLRE radio,” or your favorite station. It comes in from TuneIn Radio. Google isn’t good at calling up radio stations from other states, however. But you can do that easily on your computer or phone. Search on “sports radio in New York,” or whatever category and state you like.

If you have an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, you get more choices including Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio, TuneIn, Gimme Radio, and Sirius. For a change, instead of asking Alexa for a favorite tune, we browsed the library on our phone in the Alexa app to get ideas. When we saw something we liked, we tapped and it started playing on the Amazon device. You can also listen to Amazon Music on your computer through the free “Amazon Music” desktop app. We like “Classical for Babies.” Years ago, Bob read a study that found playing Mozart eased anxiety in hospitals, particularly mental wards. Bach had a similar effect. Back to babies, they seem to like classical music from the Baroque period.

 

MISSING AND NO ACTION

A reader writes that she doesn’t hear from her son. She can send messages but she doesn’t know if he’s getting any email. She may be able to find out what’s up with that by using an email tracking program.

ReadNotify.com (free to try, $24 a year for regular use) can let you know when the emails you send are opened, if they are opened. To get that response, tack “ReadNotify.com” on the end of an email address. For example, if your friend is JoeDoe@aol.com, you’d write “JoeDoe@aol.com.ReadNotify.com.”  When Joe Doe opens the email, you’ll get a message in your inbox saying when and where he opened it. It works with any email service, from Gmail to Yahoo.

When Joy tried it out, with Bob sitting in the next chair, it said he was 25 miles away. Windows uses your Internet Protocol address, rather than your actual address, and that’s what they use too. But at least she knew he’d opened her message.

Paid subscribers can make the email tracking automatic and they get extra features:  Your emails can self-destruct – just like Mission Impossible, except no puff of smoke. Your email can also be self-retracting. If the person hasn’t opened the email within a specified time, you can call it back. We do this in Gmail, using the “Undo” feature found under “Settings.” But in Gmail, the undo period has a maximum time lag of 30 seconds.

Alternatives:

  • “Mailtrack” is a free extension for Gmail users. Go to MailTrack.io, click “install” and then “add extension.” You will then get an automatic email receipt whenever someone has read your email. You’ll also know how soon they opened it; our tax preparer opened our mail four minutes after he received it.
  • Users of Microsoft Outlook, but not the free Outlook Online, can also find out who’s opened the mail they sent. Click the “file” tab, then look under “options.”
  • Users of Google’s “G-Suite,” which starts at $5 per month, get email tracking automatically, along with a lot of other services. It’s designed for business use and allows the wizard behind the curtain to erase mail data from a remote location.

Doctor Robot Is In

Image courtesy China Daily, via ZME Science

“Artificial Intelligence” (AI) is the hot subject of our time. And it’s likely to get even hotter. Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Tesla car maker Elon Musk have both publicly warned against it, but there is no chance of stopping its advance and little prospect of even slowing it down.

A couple months back, a Chinese robot passed the state medical exam, and was officially certified as a doctor. He failed miserably the first time he took the test, but after reading four million medical records and 400,000 articles, he scored 96 points above a passing grade. It took him only a fraction of the time normally allotted for humans to take the test. More than half the questions involved analyzing patient cases, diagnosing the problem and recommending treatment. Dr. Robot is formally named “Xiaoyi,” which means “Little Doctor,” and he will begin his practice in rural China.

The Numbers Report On Robots

  • According to research firm IDC, 60 percent of the 2000 top public companies in the U.S. will replace humans with robots by 2025. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates an 85 percent decrease in idle time when workers collaborate with robots.
  • According to Novatio Solutions, the return on a robot investment occurs within six to nine months. Novatio, which brings wireless networks to public schools, was named “Newcomer of the Year” at a New York City technology show. They say their robots are nine times more effective than a full-time employee at one-tenth the cost.

App Happy: Bumbling Along

A young friend of ours met the man of her dreams, a pilot, using the free Bumble app, which has 18 million users. It sounds like a nice alternative to the usual online dating sites.

You can read all about Bumble on Wikipedia, but here are the basics: Users are required to register through Facebook. Women must initiate any contact with a male match, or it disappears in 24 hours. Swipe your finger to the right to “like” a match, swipe left to disregard. If you have a great conversation, you can bookmark or “favorite” it.  You can search for a “BFF” or “best friend forever” instead of a mate. For $10 a month, you get extra features, like the “beeline,” which lets you see a list of users who liked you, and “rematch” which lets you look at expired matches.

Internuts

  • The Surprising Thing Flight Attendants Say You Should Never Do on an Airline.” Google that phrase for an eye-opening article from Inc. Magazine. In sum, never drink their coffee or tea; it’s made from the airplane’s onboard water system and has been shown to have E coli bacteria. One flight attendant said the maintenance crew, seeing that it failed their health test, pressed a couple of buttons and presto change-o, it passed!
  • Eight Questions to Ask Someone, Other Than What Do You Do?” Search on that phrase to find some great suggestions from the Harvard Business Journal. How about asking: “What are you looking forward to?” “What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?” “Where did you grow up?”

 

 

 

PLENTY OF TIME TO PANIC

The HP desktop computer we bought on Amazon less than two months ago wouldn’t start. For a few hours, we panicked. The solution? Unplug the machine. Hold the power button until the little light on the back of the computer goes off. (That’s if it’s a desktop computer, the type sometimes called a tower.) This frees the computer from hibernation mode. Viola, as we say in fractured French! It’s fixed!

For several hours before that, we thought we had a dead computer. HP’s troubleshooting site told us to hold down the power button, but we didn’t do it long enough the first time. (HP said nothing about making sure the light had gone off before we released the power button.) While panicking, we had time to kick ourselves for not having created a recovery USB drive. We have one now, in case something serious comes up later.

Normally, you just tap F11 as your machine is booting up to enter recovery mode.  (Or press whatever key your computer manufacturer has chosen. Google the words “recovery” and your brand of computer. For Macbook recovery, tap three keys –“Command,” “Option,” and “R” when you hear the startup chime. Now you can’t do any of these magic keystrokes if the computer doesn’t come on in the first place. So go to square one and use your recovery disk or drive.

To create an emergency recovery drive to bring back a Windows 10 computer from the dead, type “recovery” in the search box and then click “create recovery drive.” It will prompt you to insert a blank USB drive, also called a thumb drive or memory stick. When we did that, it automatically backed up all our files as well.  In Windows 7, type “create a system repair disc” into the Windows search bar and follow the prompts. They’re easy. To create a recovery USB drive for a Macbook, download the “OS X Recovery Disk Assistant” from Support.Apple.com.

Hey, Baby

Alexa, the voice inside Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot, now does text messaging and calling. Just say “Alexa, send a message.” Or, “Alexa, call so-and-so.” (No, you don’t call them a so-and-so.)

So Joy said: “Alexa, send a message.” “To whom?” Alexa said. “To Betty,” said Joy. Next, she dictated the message: “Hey Betty, how’s it going?” So Alexa sent a text message that read: “Hey baby, how’s it going?” Who knew that Alexa was sexist.

For now, Alexa’s text messaging only works with Android phones, but the messages can be sent out to any phone. She can also do phone calls. Joy said, “Alexa, call Bob,” and so she did. This could be handy if you fell and can’t get up, or can’t reach your phone, or you’re really lazy.

To set it up, go to the Alexa app on your smartphone. In the lower left of the screen, tap the icon that looks like a speech bubble. It stands for “Conversations.” From there, click to enable text messaging.

Internuts

  • MillionMileSecrets.com has tips for frequent flyers. We discovered you can use your airline miles to get a ticket for someone else, rather than pay a fee to transfer the miles to them. Just sign in, book a flight, and fill in your loved one’s name. Otherwise the airline will ding you for a substitution fee.
  • AtlasObscura.com has The Greatest Finds of 2017. They have these lists going back for several years and for different categories. For example, you can check for new animal species found, and new archaeological sites like underwater cities.

A Bit Of Coin Here and There

On an individual basis, the people of Jacksonville Florida hold more Bitcoins and other crypto currencies than any other place. They hold an average about $31,000 per person according to StatusMoney.com. The next closest city is Memphis, then Albuquerque, Charleston and Alpharetta, Georgia. New York is number 10, with about $7,000 in crypto currency per person.

But as a percent of the entire crypto currency market in the U.S., New York is number one. It has about seven percent of the market. Chicago is second, followed by Jacksonville, San Francisco and San Antonio. China has banned it, but Australia has made it legal currency. In South Korea, you can buy Bitcoins at 7-Eleven stores. Denmark has announced it is in favor all currency being digital. In Arnhem, the Netherlands, bitcoin is legal for all transactions. (Bob says this is a really interesting city, especially for World War II history buffs.)

Converting a PDF

A reader wondered how to convert a PDF to a Word document without buying a conversion program.

“PDFs” are files with photos and text that are locked in place. But you can edit them using free websites such as PDFtoWord.com or PDFtoExcel.com.

When you get to PDFtoWord.com, ignore the words “free trial.” That’s a free trial of the premium version from NitroPDF. Just click “select your file” and choose the PDF you want to edit. They’ll send you an email with the converted document in under a minute. It worked perfectly in all but one of our tests.

We also like the free PDF editor at FormSwift.com. Joy used their eraser tool to erase parts of a poster for her Woman’s Club, leaving in the border and logo, and substituting a new event. It was easy to use and free.

The Office 365 version of Microsoft Word will also convert a PDF to a Word document. Launch Word and open a PDF. It converts automatically.

 

 

HOW BOUT FREE PHONE SERVICE?

A reader latched onto his wife’s old Samsung Galaxy phone, now that she has a new one. At first he thought he needed a cheap phone service to go with it. We suggested a Tracfone plan for $7 a month — $21 every 90 days for 60 minutes of talk time. But he decided to go even cheaper: use free Wi-Fi to make calls.

If you use Google Voice, Google Hangouts, Skype or some similar service to make calls, you don’t need a dedicated phone service. Search on “How to Make Phone Calls and Texts from your Smart Phone without Cell Service,” which leads to full instructions at HowToGeek.com. (Gotta love that name.)

But what about the landline? You know, it’s what we used to call “the phone.” We still have one of those. We like the big handset, the big buttons, and the ease of putting people on speaker phone; then everybody can hear our private phone calls. We use Vonage, which uses the Internet to make calls. Our monthly bill is $13, but with taxes and fees, it costs $22 a month. Call quality is excellent, and all those governments are delighted by the extra fees.

Our reader also likes Magic Jack, a Vonage competitor. Like Vonage, Magic Jack comes with a device that connects a landline phone to the Internet. All landline calls are then made over Wi-Fi (wireless). The Magic Jack device is free for new users during the first 30 days. That means you can sign up to try it out without paying anything. If you keep it, you pay $35 for the device and get 12 months of phone service for free. After that, it’s $39 a year or $89 for three years. You can probably use your old landline number, but it’s not guaranteed. (Ours was available, the reader’s was not.) There’s also a Magic Jack app for your cell phone, so landline calls can be automatically transferred there.

We use our Vonage service to automatically transfer calls to our cell phone after just one ring. This is so we can use the free cell phone app “True Caller” to block junk calls, of which we get many. (Wait. You mean you don’t want to hear our pitch for a free trip to the Bahamas plus a way to reduce your electric bill?)

Mini Home

Anyone who bought a Google Pixel 2 phone recently also received a free “Google Home Mini.” We already had a Google Home speaker and an Echo Dot from Amazon but we bought a phone and got the Google Mini anyway. We like it.

We put it in the bedroom, where we can set a sleep timer. You just tell it “Hey, Google, play Beethoven” for 30 minutes.” This works more often than not. Or, you could say:  “Play music until 11 p.m;” the device knows what time it is. The sound quality isn’t as good as what you get on the $129 Google Home, and unlike Amazon’s Echo Dot, there’s no way to connect an external speaker. Ah well, these are hard times for techno buffs.

But it’s fun to ask questions. Joy asked: “ Hey, Google, how are you?” She answered that she was cold and told us a fun winter fact: The biggest recorded snowflake ever found was 15 inches across and eight inches deep. It landed in Montana, where they understand cold. Since the device knows where you are, it would presumably change its response for someone in Arizona or Florida. We’ve asked her to recite a poem. She likes Robert Louis Stevenson, but we’ve also heard Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

The Google Home device is about the size of the Dot, and has a similar price, $49 vs $50. One trick they can all do, if you have an Amazon Fire stick or a Google Chromecast: “Play Stranger Things on Netflix,” or any other of the many titles that are on there. Your TV should then turn on and start playing the Netflix show. Or you can move things along by saying things like “Skip 30 seconds.” Who wants to put up with the pokey pace of the original show? These are modern times.

Animated Effects

If you use Adobe Final Cut Pro to edit videos, you don’t have to learn all the ins and outs of the program to add animation effects. FxFactory has a program called “Animated Elements,” a $49 plug-in that works with Adobe’s program to create the effects for you.

Go to FXFactory.com or look them up on YouTube to see a demonstration of geometric shapes, fireworks and 150 other customizable effects to make anything in your video stand out. In the demo we saw, dancers had stars above their heads, skiers had swirls and movie titles danced.

Internuts

  • Italki.com lets you learn a language by practicing with native speakers.
  • Silvernest.com helps find roommates for baby boomers and empty nesters in Colorado, California, Florida and Arizona.

Memory Stick Security

A common ploy to get spy software onto a company or government network is to drop a memory stick in the parking lot or a corridor. Curiosity is normal and when someone picks it up and plugs it into their computer to see what’s onboard, it can add a virus within a second. Of course, it might just be one of your colleague’s thumb drives with personal notes. How can you not plug it in to see?

You can encrypt your own memory sticks and flash-drives. Some come already prepared. We like the “Data-Sur 2 Personal,” from iStorage. It adds military encryption so no one can see whatever you’ve saved there. We saw eight gigabyte versions for sale online starting at $57. You can save a lot of money, of course, if you’re willing to do the encryption yourself. Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Enterprise come with “BitLocker,” used for that purpose. Others can use “Veracrypt,” though you’d better be prepared for some difficult instructions.