IN PRAISE OF DISTRACTED DRIVING

Game of Groans

Think about an object, an activity, or a cultural phenomenon you really don’t like. Now write a post (tongue in cheek or not — your call!) about why it’s the best thing ever.


The subject of today’s sermon was a hard choice, a tossup between distracted driving and my other favorite, humiliating “reality” television. Distracted driving won the day because I can choose to not watch TV, but driving is unavoidable.

Growing up, we were limited to relatively simple, though effective distractions. They got the job done in their own, primitive way. Women could apply makeup at 90 MPH on their way to work. People would cram lunch down their throats while negotiating difficult stretches of road at high speed. Then, there’s the couples’ favorite: the knock-down drag-out fight to the death in the car on the way to Sunday dinner at Mom’s.

Ah, the good old days. Make no mistake, the classics are still with us. Makeup is ever in need of application. Drive-through eateries encourage entire meal consumption while in rapid motion. And who amongst us can deny having had at least a few fights-to-the-death while en route to a family get together? Isn’t that the entire point of such occasions?

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Please, let us not forget the first and best of them all — need I really remind you? — driving under the influence. Booze, dope, medication, exhaustion … whatever. The DUI never gets old. Nor does getting a blow job while at the wheel. Classics are classics for good reason!

Nowadays, though, we have increased our choices exponentially. You can weave drunkenly all over the highway merely by picking up your phone and putting pedal to the metal. You can watch a movie on your DVD player (it’s just for the kids, really), compile that overdue report on your laptop, play Angry Birds or text all your pals whenever you like as you navigate our national highway system. The possibilities are endless and the satisfaction? Well, for everything else, there are credit cards.

You can select your venue too. Small country roads allow you back up traffic for miles until desperate drivers will do anything to get around you. Alternately, you can weave blindly across as many as four lanes of ultra high speed traffic on the interstate during rush hour. Or why not choose a holiday weekend? You could cause accidents, near accidents, even a few fatalities and generally wreak havoc throughout a region. You might even make the evening news! Hard to resist the lure of that one, eh?

Uxbridge Cemetery

As we approach this Memorial Day Weekend, you too can be a statistic. So grab your cell phones, DVDs, tablets and laptops. Bring on the picnic lunch and your favorite nail polish, Wash it all down with a beer or six. If you die, you will merely be improving the quality of the gene pool, so let’er rip!

TIMING OUT TO ELSEWHEN

Now that home time machines are readily available, we can all start our days with a trip to another time and place, known to many of us as ELSEWHEN. It’s better than a second cup of coffee! Today started out a day like any other. Coffee. Make sure dogs get biscuits. Wash a few dishes in the sink. Just as I’m finishing up, my new machine blinks on and a vortex (also know as a wormhole) appears in the window. Time to travel!

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Setting up the machine is simple because it knows. All I have to do is focus on when, where and how long I want to be elsewhen and the machine does the rest. Radio Shack has come a long way. On the down side, if it glitches, I won’t be able to cash in on my warranty. It gives me pause.

Be aware: it’s dangerous traveling in time with a chemically muddled brain. You can wind up some weird places that are definitely not for tourists.

For those of us who are not particularly agile, you needn’t jump or climb into a vortex. Just stand close to it, then reach out mentally. Cool, huh?

If you are time traveling for the first time, here’s are some tips:

  • Don’t drink, smoke dope (even if you have a prescription!), or take any mind-altering substance before you travel elsewhen.
  • Skip the 14th century. The plague is depressing and you need vaccinations.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. A piece of hand luggage in a natural fiber (like canvas) is a sound investment.
  • Take a camera, extra memory chips and backup batteries.
  • Leave the cell phone home. A ringing cell can have unpleasant consequences.
  • Tell your family and/or friends where (and when) you are going to be away and when you will be back. If you need to be retrieved, it’s important to have backup.
  • Take a friend with you if your machine supports multiple travelers.
  •  Make sure to land on the ground in an open area. Google Earth and history books can be helpful in giving you good visualization capabilities. You don’t want to start your excursion with a broken hip or ankle.
  • Make your first trips close to now until you feel comfortable with the technology.
  • DON’T TRY TO FIX THE PAST. Very bad idea. Really terrible idea.
  • The future is scary. I avoid it and you should too. Whatever happened in the past, stays in the past (unless something went terribly awry). This is not true of the future.

Take lots of notes, pictures and have a blast. Talk to people Don’t worry about language barriers. The machine won’t send you anywhere without giving you appropriate language skills. You won’t remember them when you get home, but they will always be there when you need them.

Time machines don’t last forever, even the most expensive ones. They all have much the same life span as a cell phone … a year or two, max. Make the most of it while you can. Enjoy your travels and welcome to TIMING OUT of life!

It’s the best ride you’ll ever take.


PICK YOUR GADGET

HOW TERRIFIC WERE THE GOOD OLD DAYS?

Once upon a time, I cooked rice in a pot with a lid. I used a manual typewriter and if I wanted a book to read, I had to go to a book store or the library. Televisions received (maybe) half a dozen channels — fewer if you lived in the country — and none of them came in clearly.

For your listening pleasure, you bought vinyl records and played them on tinny record players or, if you were lucky, on a hi-fi. You had to defrost the freezer and when the temperature rose in the summer, you turned on a fan. And sweated.

When you were away from home, you were out of touch. Completely. Nothing beeped, rang, dinged or vibrated.

iPhone 4There were good things and bad things about those pre-gadget days. The best part was not having a cell phone or beeper because if you got on your bike and rode off with your friends, you were free. Until you came home. Which better be in time for dinner or you’d be in big trouble.

The other stuff? The first time I got my hands on a computer — really, it was a dedicated word processor — and realized I could correct mistakes without re-typing the entire document (again), I said to myself: “This is a better way.” Almost 40 years later, no matter how annoying computers can be, I haven’t changed my mind. It is a better way. No way do I want to return to carbon copies and changing ribbons. And endlessly re-typing drafts.

About 12 years ago, I got my first rice cooker. I had a Chinese friend and she said that if I cook rice often and like it a lot, I simply had to have a rice cooker. “What’s a rice cooker?” I asked. And she told me. My first rice cooker did exactly what you’d expect: it cooked rice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy latest rice cooker is also a slow cooker and will perfectly bake cakes, steam veggies and who knows what else. Mostly, I use it to cook perfect rice, every time, without needing to stand over the stove-top with a timer. It’s my all-time favorite kitchen appliance. I can imagine — remember — life without it, but it’s better with it.

Televisions are much better than they were and certainly the quality of the video is light-years ahead of those old TV sets. I’m not convinced the quality of television shows is better. My 1000 channels gives us about half a dozen channels we really watch. Just like in the old days, but now we can record stuff and zap commercials. That’s big! Commercial clusters have gotten increasingly annoying and intrusive, but DVRs and TIVOs let us ignore them. It’s an ongoing war between viewers and corporate owners.

TV equipment at home

The best part of today’s television are movies. Sure, we got movies in The Old Days, but they were usually of poor quality, frequently interrupted by commercials. As often as not, they were chopped up by bored engineers who mindlessly removed chunks of film. A lot of the movies I saw as a kid, now that I’ve seen them again … it really is seeing them for the first time.

My least favorite modern development is the ubiquitous mobile “device.” You can’t really call them telephones because they aren’t any good at making phone calls. They do manage to be extremely intrusive. You never get to genuinely disconnect from the world because buzz, ding … it’s the phone. A text? A reminder of something you need to do? Whatever it is, most people are electronically leashed.

It’s just like 1984 … only we did it voluntarily. Pity because we’ve surrendered our privacy. We gave it away for toys.  We’ve lost the rapture of silence, the pleasure of being far away and out of touch. Sure it’s nice having emergency communications, especially when you are on the road, but I’m not sure it was a good trade. We need time to be disconnected, unreachable and unavailable. A time to recuperate from the endless noise of the world where we can rediscover ourselves and enjoy the moment undisturbed.

That being said, I can’t imagine going backward and doing everything “the old way.” I love computers. Probably that’s why I have so many of them. I love my Kindle, my big screen high def TV and so many other things. Life is easier with technology. Maybe what I’d like back is just being young. I wouldn’t mind a bit of that.

CAN YOU HEAR ME? ARE YOU THERE?

iphone-white

Going obsolete – or maybe going backwards.

I miss telephones on which you could be sure you had a connection that wouldn’t drop randomly and on which you could actually hear what someone said to you and know they could hear you, too. “Can you hear me? Hello? Are you still there?” It’s like 1915 all over again, only without wires or accountability.

We have all this fancy equipment … but you can’t be sure that a simple phone call will go through. What’s wrong with this picture?

CHARGE! – Marilyn Armstrong

To keep the world running, I have to charge things that recharge and keep a stack of AAA and AA rechargeable batteries ready to go.

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My world — the entire world and now, my heart too — runs on batteries. Mostly rechargeable batteries, except for my pacemaker which needs new batteries every 4 or 5 years (I think) and I do hope the batteries are very high quality.

Add 3 laptops, 2 Kindles, a couple of tablets, cellphones, 5 (6?) cameras, voice recorders, mouses (mice have fur and make squeaky noises, mouses attach to your computer), a wireless keyboard, a GPS, various clocks, flashlights, who-knows-how-many remote controls, electric razors, tooth cleaning machines, and a mind-numbing array of miscellaneous devices I can’t remember off-hand.

I have never lived in a house that had enough electrical outlets for things like lamps and televisions, much less a way to accommodate these chargers. So, I own power strips.

They are everywhere, snaking around corners, between dressers, behind the sofa, on each side of the bed and of course near each computer. They are also hiding in a lot of places you might never think to look. Throughout the house, in every room, power strips keep chargers charging and electrical devices functioning. From high-end hubs with surge protection to whatever was on sale at Walmart that day, every one is full or nearly so.

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Most power strips are designed by people who don’t use them. I have reached this conclusion based on the design that presumes you will never have anything larger than a lamp plug that needs a socket. Not even a vacuum cleaner cord fits properly, much less a power supply.

Typically, power strips don’t leave room to fit more than 2 or 3 chargers in a strip designed for half a dozen plugs. There’s no allowance for odd-shaped power supplies that will use half a strip.

 

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I don’t understand why chargers have to be so inconveniently shaped, or why they can never make a 3-pronged plug that will fit into an outlet without a fight. Why do most chargers require that you insert them at the end of the strip. No one ever seems to consider that there are only two “ends” and only one without a cord in the way. There’s some kind of Murphy’s Law that say if you are going to need two wall outlets, both devices will need to be on top or on the bottom.

I have 2 electrical sockets in the bathroom and 2 devices that require electricity. Only one can fit. The other socket is always unusable. The one charger blocks both outlets. Always.

The first day we moved into this house, two events occurred that have since defined our lives in the Blackstone Valley. The toilets backed up and the power went out. The toilets backed up because the crooks who sold us this house parked their van on the septic system’s outflow pipe and crushed it. The power went out for the usual reason: heavy rain, high wind, and lightning. Getting to know my neighbors meant figuring out how to find an electrician and plumber before I’d unpacked.

I don’t notice how dependent we are on batteries until I’m packing for a vacation. Half a carry-on is allocated to chargers … just for things we use while we travel: laptops, accessories, a pair of Kindles, his and her cell phones, mouses, portable speakers and more. I used to pack this stuff carefully. Now I just shove the chargers and wires in a bag and untangle as needed.

High tension wire, golden maple leaves framed by an azure sky.

If you think our civilization can survive anything, ponder this. All our stuff depends on batteries and electricity. Without electricity and batteries, life as we know it would end in about a week or two, at least in cities. It might go on a little longer in rural areas. After that?

Life will be a jungle in where every man, woman, and child will fight to the death for a working AA battery.

 

ROKU – BETTER THAN EVER AND JUST AS CHEAP

Every once in a while, someone invents something that makes life a little brighter. 

Enter the Roku, a little streaming device that runs off your WiFi so you can stream movies, TV shows and other channels both free and subscription-based on your television. The price is right: the entry-level model is $49.99, and even the top of the line is less than $100, cheaper than a modest game system.

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The Roku comes in different flavors though they all work the same way. Advanced models offer additional bells and whistles including an earphone connection through the remote control. In our case, there is no point in getting an advanced model. Both our television have just one high-definition port and it’s already in use by the cable box. Also, we have wireless Sennheiser headphones hook-ups for both televisions.

plugs roku and headphones

Roku is small, the size of a little bar of soap. Connecting is simple. I did it alone and despite a few humorous moments caused when I didn’t notice I’d accidentally turned off the power strip, it went smoothly. Roku is as easy to install as the ads promise. It works. And keeps working.

Plug A into B, B into C. Insert batteries (2 AAAs, included) into the remote. Turn on the TV and follow the prompts. The single item the instructions don’t cover is reminding you to switch your TV input to whatever input you are using for Roku. This was easy on the newer TV in the bedroom where inputs on the back of the set are labeled. The bigger (older) TV in the living room makes you guess, so you have to click through the inputs until Roku appears. Mostly, you need to know to take this step or you will sit there staring at an empty screen, wondering why you aren’t seeing Roku.

roku to TV + headphones

The instructions promise installing the Roku will bring out your inner geek. My inner geek is not hidden. I just don’t like hardware. In my secret heart, I believe electricity is waiting for the right moment to spill out of the walls. I don’t trust hardware and I believe the feeling is mutual.

Regardless, I set it up and by golly, it works. This was my second installation, so I’m two for two. Yay me. It took about half an hour, most of which involved getting the wires out of the way and finding a place to put Roku where it is accessible yet close enough to plug into a power strip. Compromise was required. I wish manufacturers would include longer power cords longer on electronic devices. They are all — including Roku — about a foot short of convenient.

Despite advertisements to the contrary, there are only few free services. Almost everything is either subscription (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime) or pay-per-use (Blockbuster On Demand).

I was pleased to see that improvements have been made to the remote. The older version works, but it’s awkward and not very responsive.The newer unit has dedicated keys for major channels (nice!) and the unit is much more responsive. I wonder if I can get a newer remote for an older Roku? I’ll have to check.

The “search” capabilities are primitive using the remote, so search on a computer and put everything you want to watch on wish lists. Use the remote only to make selections. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Be aware: You can’t install Roku without a computer. To activate your unit, you must enter a generated code from the television into your account on the computer. 

Closed captions are available on almost everything. Some old television series and movies don’t have them, but that’s true on cable too.

roku and headphones

Is Roku going to replace expensive movie packages from your cable or satellite company? Maybe. It depends on your viewing habits, your technical aptitude, creativity and how your cable company has structured their prices. They don’t make it easy to delete pieces of your package. However, if you currently can’t afford movie packages from your cable or dish provider, this is affordable and easy to use — as easy as they say it is and getting more versatile every day. You will find that Netflix streaming video does not include most popular movies. For that, you need to sign up for their DVD service too … and I won’t do it. I’m not really thrilled with Netflix, by the way. Just thought I’d mention that. I’m tempted to try a different streaming service to see if it’s any better. I’m an Amazon Prime member and while their free selection is smaller than Netflix, it is higher quality.

You need one Roku per television, but you don’t need a different account for each Roku. One account for a household, no matter how many televisions you have, is enough.

Roku is great addition to your entertainment package, especially for the price. It delivers the goods, is more than worth the money, whether you buy the economy model or top of the line. Whether or not it can replace other services is subjective.

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REVIEW: THE DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET

After the Kindle HDX washed out, I had a hole where a small, portable web-capable device should be. With hospitalization soon, I wanted to be able to do small footprint basic computing. My laptop is great, but too big and heavy for a hospital bed.

I’ve been using the Dell Venue Pro 8 every day for the past few weeks. I no longer find myself shouting at it — big improvement. The real problems were solved when Dell installed new drivers. The rest of the issues have gone away as I’ve gotten to know the hardware and operating system.

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I remain underwhelmed by Windows 8. It offers no advantage over Windows 7, at least to customers. My son pointed out it offers value to Microsoft by making everything proprietary. It blocks you from using applications not made specifically for Windows 8. Considering the whole advantage to Windows has always been its universality, this is a strange, self-destructive direction for Microsoft. They have a new CEO. Let’s see if he gets the company back on a sensible course. Otherwise, this will likely be my last Windows device. Sad, after such a long relationship.

Technically, you can run standard Windows applications on any Windows 8 machine, tablet or otherwise. Practically speaking, it’s not true. Some things run. Most don’t. The Venue 8 only lets you install by download, which eliminates a lot of my software by default. Most of the other applications I use on Windows 7 don’t run on 8 — or run so poorly it isn’t worth the effort. It’s ironic. Just as Apple is opening up their platform to all kinds of applications, Microsoft has gone the other way.

The tablet’s native software runs well. The email app is fine. IE runs smoothly. You better like IE because you won’t be using Firefox or Chrome — neither runs on the tablet. I’m not a big gamer, so the lack of games doesn’t bother me as much as it aggravates others, but still. Aside from Solitaire, there are no games. You can’t even get a download of Scrabble. That’s rough.

Photography apps? None worth the effort. I won’t be taking a lot of pictures using the onboard camera (which works pretty well), or uploading photographs to the tablet — even for viewing. There’s no USB port, no slot for an SD card other than one micro card which is an extension slot for memory.

If you want to play games, read books, watch movies, listen to music? The Kindle Fire HD (the old version, not the HDX), is just $139 from Amazon. It’s a far better choice for entertainment. Not as good for email and other Internet activities … but for entertainment, it’s a winner.

The Dell Venue Pro 8 is solidly built. It feels great in hand. It seamlessly connected to Netflix. Watching movies is easy. You can listen to music on Amazon’s Cloud Player, but it’s not straightforward. Microsoft really wants you to use its own software … but I find it confusing, complicated and lacking documentation or instructions, ultimately incomprehensible. It’s inexcusable to provide so little support.

The (free) copy of MS Office installed without a hitch. I don’t know if I’ll get out much use from it. That’s not what I bought the tablet for. I found a bunch of other useful small applications. Solitaire, a clock, calendar, alarm and stopwatch and installed them without incident. I uninstalled a few things too. Installation and uninstallation is really easy. And fast. If only there were more apps!

The speakers are great, though not terribly loud. Which is fine. I can use earphones if I need it louder. For such a little tablet, the graphics are fantastic. I watched “Jack Reacher” on Netflix and enjoyed it. My website looks great.

The cameras (1 front, 1 back) work but the lack of editing software limits their usefulness. It would be okay for Skyping — probably — but I don’t Skype, so it’s moot. The video camera seems fine as does the voice recorder, though I have little use for either.

It’s got a lot of bells and whistles, some of which I might use yet it’s missing important basic tools. Not being able to edit its own photos is bad, but not being able to upload my photos at all? Worse. All for the want of a USB port.

It’s good for reading (Kindle and maybe other reader apps), watching a movie on Netflix. I don’t know about other services but you can’t watch Amazon Prime. Or I can’t figure out how.

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It’s good for quick emails. I’m disinclined to write much on a virtual keyboard. I can  do small amounts of web editing but wouldn’t want to do more. But not because the tablet won’t. It loads this website fast and switches to editing mode with no problem.

The Venue Pro 8 is too small for web editing. It’s too small for a lot of things. My son has a 10″ device and he can do a lot more. The “OK” boxes and other targets on-screen are tiny. Even using a stylus, I miss as often as I hit. Fine editing is out of the question. That is not the fault of the tablet. I chose this size. I knew it would have limitations. I was right.

There are no after market accessories — yet. Well,  there’s one, but it doesn’t work. I bought a secondary market keyboard — blue tooth — and returned it. It wasn’t broken, but you had to enter a generated key code. You couldn’t see the code because the virtual keyboard popped up and blocked it. By the time you got the keyboard out of the way, the code was gone. The codes are good for only 30 seconds. I don’t understand why they designed it like that. Just provide a printed code. Why make me jump through hoops to sync a keyboard?

Dell sells a keyboard that apparently works, but it’s $99. Too expensive. I’ll do without. I don’t know how well any blue tooth accessory will install. If it includes a “time out” code, it won’t. It’s a tactical rather than technical problem, but it stopped me.

If anyone wants to point out how I could use my iPhone, may I remind you I find an 8″ tablet too small. Do you think the iPhone would be better? Think before commenting.

Summary

What I like:

  • Great graphics
  • Excellent sound
  • Good camera and video (but no editing tools)
  • Free Microsoft Office, email and other workaday stuff
  • Fine build
  • No problem loading websites
  • Fast boot time; almost instant
  • Long battery life and short recharging cycle
  • Comes with a charger.

What I don’t like:

  • No USB port
  • No SD card slot
  • The cord is too short. Really, would it have broken the bank to add a foot and make it reach my desk from the electrical outlet? Serious inconvenience
  • No documentation. The PDF is just generated data. Useless
  • Windows 8.1 sucks
  • The graphical Interface feels like a bunch of pieces stuck together without a cohesive concept.

Related articles:

DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL | Serendipity

TECH SUPPORT – WHERE “BAD” IS THE NEW “GOOD”

Bad customer and technical support is the new good. You only think it’s bad. The problem is your attitude. Or so they’d have you think.

YOU CAN RUN, BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE

Death cust servAll the big technology companies are working hard to save a few bucks. The competition is fierce. Every penny counts. Since executives won’t accept lower pay nor will stockholders accept lower returns, it’s customers who fill the cost-cutting gap.

In the race to be the cheapest, tech companies stopped including chargers with devices. No manuals. No system software. No reinstallation software. Short power cords that don’t go from an outlet to a desktop. No connector for printers, speakers or whatever. Everything you need to finish setting up costs extra.

Customer service was the first thing to go. They hired people who don’t know anything, don’t understand or speak English. For all I know, they don’t understand or speak Spanish either. They aren’t trained, don’t know the products. And since manufacturers no longer include documentation, you don’t have the option of taking care of it yourself.

No company — not cameras, computers or software — includes documentation. I became obsolete years ago when the industry decided no one reads the manuals. So they fired the tech writers, put some generated information in an online PDF. They figured customer service techs would handle the fallout. But they don’t. Many of us would be happy to fix minor glitches but have no alternative to spending our time on the phone, frustrated and angry.

THE PLAN IN ACTION

You can’t say they didn’t have a plan. The big corporations indeed had a plan. A bad one.Customer Service waiting

It was so bad, it was immediately adopted by everyone. Globally.

It’s not a Microsoft problem, a Dell problem, or any company’s individual problem, though some are more awful than others and a few are notorious. It’s a cross-industry problem, affecting virtually every organization in this country.

Bad is the new good. Because good is remarkable.

WOULD IT KILL THEM TO INCLUDE A MANUAL?

CustServCartoon In every industry, business, service — service support stinks. It doesn’t matter where you go. You’ll get the same lousy service. It’s the great leveler.

Sometimes, you get lucky. The guy or gal you connect with actually knows the product and you think “Wow, that wasn’t bad! Maybe it’s improving.” The next time, it’s the same old, same old.

AMAZON – THE BRIGHT SPOT

There is a bright spot. Amazon and Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon) still have terrific customer service. That could change any time on the whim of a company exec, but for now, it’s great.

It’s no accident I shop through Amazon. They offer really good service. You have a problem, they go out of their way to make it right. You need to return something? They don’t question you, make you jump through hoops.

I wish I could buy everything from them.

DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Not long ago, I chronicled my adventure with Dell Customer Disservice and Dell Technical nonSupport. A few days later, I wrote ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION, GET A SIMPLE — WRONG — ANSWER. The following day, my Dell Venue Pro 8 tablet arrived. Such a little package. Well, what did I expect? It’s just a wee bit bigger than a Kindle.

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Why Do I Always Have Be the Fixer?

Yesterday was computer fixing day. My son used to be a professional computer repair guy but has apparently forgotten everything he ever knew. He handed me his laptop. Seven hours later, it was running pretty well, though it could use a full reload of the OS which I’m not going to do. Still, I think it’s at least a working computer.

With all the jokes they make about Old People and computers, how come I’m the ONLY one in this 3-generation household who understands how computers work? How come, huh? I wanted to beat the kid (all 6’4″ 240 lbs of nearly bald 44-year-old kid) to death with that 15″ laptop. I’m definitely getting old and cranky.

Back to the Review (Already In Progress)

The Dell Venue Pro 8 is well-built. It has a lovely, solid, silky feel. It easily connected to the Kindle application and Netflix. Without a hiccup. Chrome, on the other hand, would not work and I gave up. Some battles aren’t worth the effort. The (free) copy of MS Office installed without a hitch too. Eventually I found a variety of other useful applications, a reasonable version of Solitaire, a clock, calendar, alarm and stopwatch and installed them too. I uninstalled a few things I didn’t have any use for. Installation and uninstallation is really easy. And fast.

The tablet wasn’t working quite as it should. It dropped its Internet connection each time it went to sleep and it wasn’t sensitive enough to touch.

This meant – OMG!!!! – another call to Dell’s tech support. I didn’t hesitate. I have learned that thinking about it will make the inevitably horrible experience even worse. Moreover, I have no intention of keeping the tablet if it isn’t going to work properly.

The problems weren’t big ones, but they were annoying. Mostly I like the tablet. Good speakers, exceptional graphics. Watched “Jack Reacher” on Netflix. Not bad. The sound isn’t as loud as I might like, but the quality is excellent and it has an earphone jack. The cameras (1 front, 1 back) work pretty well, even in low light. I haven’t tried the video camera or the voice recorder yet. Overall, it’s got a lot of bells and whistles I might really use (be still my heart).

Tech Support Again (Oy)

I am not going to go into details. Suffice to say, I was on the phone with this doofus for 4-1/2 hours. When the conversation started I had 2 relatively minor issues. After he fixed things (reinstalling the drivers, etc.), the tablet was dead. Unresponsive. He said he wanted to try one more thing. It was getting late, past dinner time and I said, “No, I’ve had enough. Either you put me on with someone who actually knows what needs to be done and can speak English well enough for us to understand each other (this guy not only didn’t speak English, he didn’t understand it either) or I swear I will return this tablet to Dell, explain that YOU are the reason why and never, ever buy anything from Dell again in this lifetime.” Which, if I didn’t get my blood pressure under control, might not be very long.

He threw in the towel and passed me to a Supervisor. Who spoke and understood English. And knew how to get the tablet up and running.

The secret of getting a dead Windows 8 computer up and running is 3 successive cold reboots. Third time, it goes into “self-repair and diagnostic mode” — the new version of Safe Mode.  Which doesn’t require a password. So finally, I was able to adjust the setting after which it began to connect automatically to WiFi. Problem solved.

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Next, I insisted I make the table NOT password protected. Which is when I discovered Windows 8.1 is still — as all Windows have been — a hack over DOS. It was comforting in a weird way. There was the old DOS prompt in its little black window, like an old friend. It meant I was not really learning a new OS. I was just learning to work around the changed GUI. I felt better.

Eliminating Password Protection

For anyone who wants to get rid of password protection in Windows 8.1, here’s how to do it:

(1) Use Search to find the command prompt. Start typing “Command” and before you hit the second “m,” you’ll see command prompt as a clickable link. Click it.

(2) Type: control userpasswords2

(3) Up comes a little window, a little window you’ve seen on every version of Windows since 3.1.

(4) UNCHECK “require all users to have a password,” then enter your password as requested. Exit all the way out and reboot. That should do it. Sometimes you have to do it twice.

Win 8.1 has the identical sub-structure as every version of Windows. Control panel, menus, SysConfig, Uninstall. It’s all there, buried a level deeper under a new — pointless and unattractive — user interface. You can change the interface using “Personalize” and make it less ugly.

My over all opinion of Windows 8.1 remains unchanged. It is not an improvement over 7. If anything, it’s a step backward. It requires significant relearning without offering any noticeable advantage to users. After you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to work with, but it’s unnecessary and adds an unfamiliar layer to what ought to be simple.

Summary

What I like:

  • Great graphics
  • Excellent sound
  • Surprisingly good camera and video
  • Useful apps that work and most of them are free
  • Feels nice to the touch with a fine build quality
  • Good battery life.

What I don’t like:

  • The cord is much too short. Really, would it have broken the bank to add a foot and make it reach my desk from the electrical outlet? This is a serious inconvenience, not a quibble
  • Horrible documentation. I’ve seen the PDF and it isn’t much more informative than the leaflet. It’s not that Win 8 is difficult. The documentation is totally inadequate
  • I don’t like Windows 8.1. Now that I can use it, it’s a lot of flash and dash. It isn’t an improvement over Windows 7 — quite the opposite. Sorry dudes. I still don’t understand why you took a good OS (Win 7) and made it harder to use
  • The graphical Interface is neither tablet or user-friendly. It doesn’t feel integrated or smooth. More like a bunch of pieces stuck together without a cohesive concept.

WHY I DON’T LOVE CELL PHONES

Everyone loves their cell phone except me, or anyway that’s how it feels. I know there are other people like me who are not enchanted with the technology, but it’s dreadfully unfashionable to express an anti-cell phone opinion.

I am not a fan. It’s not because I’m stodgy and old, though I’m probably both those things among many others. It’s because they are good for almost everything except their original purpose. Making phone calls. The audio quality is pathetic. They disconnect randomly and often. I need reading glasses to see anything on the screen. I could forgive everything else if I could make a phone call — or receive one — and know I’d be able to communicate with the other party with a reasonable likelihood of staying connected all the way to the end of the call while hearing and being heard.

iphone-whiteIronically, our old cell phones, the big klutzy brick like ones we had back in the 90s, were better telephones than the iPhone or any other phone you can get now. They connected, stayed connected. You could hear the person on the other end and they could hear you. The batteries lasted for days, not hours and you could get a signal anywhere. You could have conversations that didn’t include a single “can you hear me?” How amazing is that?

Today’s phones are miniature entertainment centers. But I don’t need an entertainment center. I need a portable telephone. So I can talk to people when I’m away from home. Is that too much to ask?

As for taking pictures on my phone, why? I carry a compact point and shoot wherever I go. It has a superzoom and takes high quality pictures. I like cameras. I have a lot of them. I don’t need my phone to be a camera. Or a movie theater. Or to listen to music. The whole “listening to music on your cell” is weird to me. The speakers are so tinny, why would you want to use them for music? I need a telephone.

I know the younger generations would rather text, but they were born with pointy little thumbs. Alas, but I have big, cumbersome, slow thumbs designed for grasping tools, an advanced monkey version of thumbs.

So I don’t like cell phones, or more accurately, I don’t like the cell phones they make these days. They are light, small and totally adorable.  And useless for making phone calls. Which is the only use I have for them. For everything else, I have computers, cameras, readers, GPS, radios, CD players. DVD players, televisions and little music players.

Does anyone actually use their cell phone to call anyone anymore? Just wondering.

THUMBS DOWN ON KINDLE FIRE HDX – THUMBS UP ON PAPERWHITE

Amazon launched the new generation of Kindles at the end of September 2013. I spent time perusing these latest greatest Kindles. They were supposed to be pretty much the same as the Fire HD, but with better graphics, battery and sound. A few other perks like really great support and cameras front and back. Gadget junky that I am, I resisted until December, but my Fire was slowing down. Probably from all the stuff I was doing on it. Mind you, it never stopped working but it didn’t work quite as fast or smoothly as it had. When Amazon dropped the price by $50 before Christmas, I bought it. It came with 6-month financing at 0% interest. Nice.

The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX has a new, improved interface for email and the calendar is better too. I know the audio and video were technically better, but they weren’t noticeably different to me. The audio and video on the Fire HD are great and if the HDX is a little better, it’s not a big difference.

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I loved my Kindle Fire HD. I figured I would love the new one even more. And I did. For a day. Maybe two. That was when I realized the battery was draining phenomenally fast. At one point, I was on the phone with Kindle support complaining about the battery — and it was dropping at about 1% every two or three minutes. She said video uses up a lot of battery and I said I’d been able to watch movies on the Fire HD, but at this rate wouldn’t make it through a movie on the HDX without plugging it in.

In about 40 minutes, it dropped more than 50%. I plugged it in before it went flat. It also drained while it was not in use — sleeping — at approximately 5% per hour. Reading — not using audio or video — drained it at 15% per hour. As the battery hit less than 20%, it became unresponsive. Customer support suggested I let it drain all the way and recharge it. Which I did.

No improvement. Part of the problem is you can’t turn off apps except by forcing a stop. This is an awkward process which merely slows (but doesn’t stop) the battery from draining while the device sleeps. If you are using the HDX, it chews through the battery at warp speed. You can actually see it drop.

Back at customer service, she suggested I return it and try a different unit. I had an itchy feeling in my brain the problem was NOT my unit, but a design issue. I’d been reading reviews. Too many people complaining of battery problems to be just a coincidence. I noticed the reviews before I bought but couldn’t believe Amazon would knowingly market a seriously flawed product. The Fire HD didn’t get weeks from its battery as does a plain vanilla Kindle, but it gets a solid 12 hours. That’s twelve hours of actual use. On the HDX, you’d be lucky to get 4 hours of simple reading. Nonetheless, after being assured I could return it if I didn’t like it, I agreed to try another one. A couple of days later, the new HDX arrived.

The second HDX was worse than the first. Not only did it eat its battery, but it took forever to connect to WiFi — and sometimes wouldn’t connect at all — a problem I hadn’t had on the first unit. In a house with 9 working computers, I knew it wasn’t my WiFi. It was the device. The connectivity problem persisted even when plugged in. And even when it found the WiFi, it would rarely open a website, even Amazon. This pushed me over the edge. I’m not eager to return things. I hang on to all kinds of things with which I’m not entirely satisfied, but I couldn’t afford to do it this time. I need a working Kindle.

Maybe I could have lived with the awful battery performance, but not with the useless browser too. After less than a week, I called Amazon and said “That’s it, I’m done.” In the meantime, in a fit of totally unwarranted optimism, I had given my Fire HD to my daughter-in-law and couldn’t bring myself to ask for it back. I wouldn’t have gotten it anyhow because she really likes it.

Which left me without a Kindle. Not good.

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I bought the Paperwhite — the model with WiFi, not 3G. It arrived yesterday. I set it up late in the afternoon. It went live as soon as I plugged it in. At blinding speed it connected, displaying all my books and documents sorted into categories I’d created on my original Kindle. The Paperwhite reminded me why I fell in love with Kindles.

It’s a great reader. It has a just a few bells and no whistles. It’s light, small, easy-to-use. It has a touch screen, virtual keyboard and its own light, but retains many things I loved about the older Kindles, mainly that it’s a wonderful device on which to read a book. Paperwhite is a dedicated reader, not a tablet. Flat, non-reflective surface — easy on the eyes. Adjustable fonts and lighting that won’t wake your spouse. It weighs almost nothing, even with a cover.

I settled in to read last night. For the first time in a long while, I could focus on a book. The Fire HD was a fine tablet, but it was forever teasing me away from reading to play a game, hear a tune, or watch a movie — things I can do on my laptop.

Perhaps this is what I should have bought in the first place. I cannot recommend the Kindle Fire HDX, but hey, if you want a reader? The Paperwhite is fantastic.

ROKU – THE LITTLE STREAMING WIFI UNIT THAT CAN

Every once in a while, someone invents something that makes life a little brighter. Let me introduce you to the Roku.

Roku is a little streaming device that works off your wi-fi connection so you can stream movie and premium channels, free and subscription-based to your television. I wanted  to get Netflix and Hulu Plus, but I don’t like watching movies and other stuff on my computer and have no use for a pricey gaming device. I have a living room with comfy chairs and a big screen. That’s where I want to watch movies and television.

The Roku comes in different flavors — although they all work the same way. More expensive “advanced” models offer additional or augmented options, such as high-definition streaming, gaming, and earphone connections through the remote control.

In our case, there wasn’t much point in getting a very advanced model. Our high-definition television is an older model and only has one high-definition port — is already occupied with the connection to the cable box. So we weren’t going to be able to take advantage of Roku’s 1080P capabilities and we have no interest in gaming.

The price is right: the entry-level model is just under $50 (currently on sale for $39), the next model up — the one we bought) sells for around $50 right now. The top of the line is under $100, less than any gaming device. It’s small and connecting it is so easy that I could do it without help (though there were some nervous moments).

Basically, you plug A into B, B into C, C into D then follow the prompts. The instructions promise that this will bring out your inner geek. My inner geek is not hiding. I just don’t like dealing with hardware. I still don’t really believe that electricity isn’t going to spill out of the walls.

I got it put together and by golly, it worked. Despite appearances, there are only a very few free services. Most of the services are by subscription. I already belong to Amazon Prime, so I had one to start with. I wanted Netflix and was willing the pay the $7.99 a month for it. I haven’t decided about Hulu Plus yet. I figure I’ll jump into this slowly. Roku really is as easy as they promise. It works. And keeps working.

The bad news. It is what it is and that’s all it is. It is not configurable. There are no options to make it easier to use for people with special needs. There’s no help for the hard of hearing or visually impaired or anyone else who isn’t nimble of finger, sharp of eye and keen of ear.

The “search” capabilities are primitive and don’t deserve to be called “search capabilities.” The tools, such as they are, are clumsy and slow. Although there has been some improvement since I originally bought and installed it, the improvement is not substantial … and in some ways, actually makes it more difficult to use. It’s at best klutzy and at worse, brings out my resentment of poorly designed software.

It’s easier to find whatever it is on your computer than go back and pick it up on the television. Keep your laptop handy because you’ll need it. Closed captions are available on some channels, not others. You can’t set it so that any channel that offers closed captions will display them. You have to turn captions on for each channel individually. Not all stations offer close captions at all. Shame on them.

All that being said, the Roku is a fine piece of equipment for the price. It does what it promises. It’s worth the money, whether you buy the ultra economy model or top of the line.

Is it going to replace your expensive movie packages from your cable or satellite company? Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends on your viewing habits, your technical aptitude, creativity and how your cable company has structured their prices. They don’t make it easy to delete pieces of your package. However, if you currently just can’t afford movie packages from your local cable or dish provider, this is a godsend. It’s affordable, easy to use (really as easy as they say it is) and it works.

Roku needs a better, more sophisticated user interface and a more efficient way of searching. There is a great deal to watch but finding it isn’t easy. Practice helps. It takes a while to get used to it. I’m fine on Amazon because I can set up my watch list on the computer and it is automatically available on Roku. You can also set up favorites and preferences for Netflix via the computer (easier than doing it directly on the Roku). I believe Hulu offers a similar option. You need a computer to get the most out of the Roku, but most of us have a few of them.

Standard set up couldn’t be much simpler.

Roku Instructions

Eventually, I will figure out how to find what I am looking for more efficiently. I figure Roku will also make a few improvements to the interface. In the meantime, it beats out the competition by several country miles (unless you are absolutely married to iTunes) and the price is more than reasonable. You get a lot of bang for your buck.

You need one unit per television, but you don’t need a different account for each Roku. One account works on all your devices: Roku, gaming devices, computers, tablets, telephones, and so on. It’s a pretty fair deal, especially compared to the price-gouging of traditional providers. Check them out. You may find it is exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

It’s on sale all over the place right now for Christmas and it’s a great gift for yourself or any friends that have a WiFi connection.

Gallery

REVIEWING THE KINDLE FIRE HDX

Amazon launched the new generation of Kindles at the end of September 2013. I spent time perusing these latest greatest Kindles. They are much like the previous generation with the following differences:

  • Higher resolution graphics
  • More memory and memory options
  • Faster processor
  • Longer battery life
  • Easier (more) Amazon cloud storage
  • Simplified (better) support
  • A front-facing camera for Skype and similar applications
  • Different, more intuitive, menu structure
  • New placement of speakers and buttons
  • Even better sound quality
  • Comes with a charger.

There are other difference, but these are the ones that concern me.

When the HDX first came out, my Kindle Fire HD was working fine, but as months passed it began to stutter. Stuff wouldn’t download. Too many audio books and movies. Too much music. I kept finding more ways to use the Kindle and 8 GB of memory was insufficient.

When they dropped the price by $50, it became less expensive than my original Kindle HD Fire. After a dark night of the soul about spending the money, I bought it. It came with 6-month financing at 0% interest … a nice touch.

I depend on my Kindle. It’s not an optional piece of equipment. I have hundreds of books I can read only on Kindle so in the end, there wasn’t much choice. I was going to get the new Kindle.

I’m convinced Kindles are the biggest bargain in tablets. My granddaughter has an iPad which theoretically has more functions. For my purposes, it isn’t as good. Not only does it cost two to three times more than the Kindle, but the sound quality, screen resolution and color are not as good. The difference in sound quality is particularly obvious. I don’t know how Kindles get such great sound from tiny speakers, but listening to anything on the Kindle Fire HDX is a pleasure.

The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX has a new interface for email that’s smoother and easier to use. The calendar is greatly improved. There are plenty of free games from Amazon. If you have a Prime subscription, you can watch a wide selection of movies and TV shows free too. You can also borrow books. Moreover, you can “buy” many books for $0.00. Sometimes these sales run for only a day or too, but there are new deals every day. And finally, you can lend your books to Kindle-using friends and family.

This is an incremental upgrade to the Kindle Fire HD. The HDX is a wonderful tablet, but so is the original Fire HD. You can still buy the Fire HD (new from Amazon) for $139. For many people, it will be more than adequate. The main advantage to the HDX is the faster processor and additional memory. If you use your Kindle a lot, you’ll notice the difference.

This is a remarkably complete, fun entertainment center in a lightweight, purse-sized package. It’s almost too much fun offering a plethora of pleasantly distracting choices. It’s also a better reader. The page color is a softer; adjusting screen brightness is easier.

You can store everything on Amazon’s cloud servers. If you delete a book, you don’t lose it. You can remove items from the device, but they remain accessible as long as you have WiFi. Serious road warriors may want to get a Kindle with 3G.

You can do most things you would want to do on any tablet on the Kindle. You won’t be editing pictures or writing your novel, but I don’t think you’d be doing that on any tablet. Or at least I wouldn’t. For those things, I want more RAM, a hard drive, an application with legs and a full-size keyboard.

Big thumbs up for overall quality, sound, video, and speed.

Buy a cover that offers some protection and keeps dust out. Most let you prop your Kindle like an easel to watch a movie or listen hands free. Many (most) covers turn the Kindle on and off when you open or close it. Covers are affordable.

Fingerprints are a peril of all tablets. Keep a stash of lens wipes handy. Good for the Kindle, cameras, computers and eyeglasses. Don’t bother with a protective screen; it’s a waste of money.

The on/off button is less difficult to reach, though its placement on the back of the unit wouldn’t be my first choice. I’d prefer all the controls in front. And I find the charger connection tricky. The edges of the HDX are beveled, so the plug is not straight, but slightly angled. You have to be very careful when connecting it; it would be easy to damage the connector. They need to find a way to make the connector straight, not angled. It isn’t a deal breaker, but it is annoying.

The Kindle Fire HDX wakes up instantly. Zero boot time.

I got the one with the ads. They only appear on the splash screen before you unlock it. What’s the big deal?

If you own a Kindle, you are in the Amazon universe. Amazon is so integral to my life anyway, that’s fine with me. I’ve been buying books, appliances, music, movies, housewares, coffee, cameras, computers — everything except clothing — from Amazon for years. If you feel you need to spend two or three times as much for a tablet for the privilege of buying exactly the same stuff elsewhere, hey, that’s what Apple is all about.

THE INTERCONNECTNESS OF ALL THINGS

sunset with hawk

The late great Douglas Adams (who shared my birthday, March 11th — I’m sure that means something, but I have no idea what) created a character that I dearly love. Dirk Gently (also known by a number of other names, including Svlad Cjelli), was the owner/operator of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. It operated based on the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” I believe in Douglas Adams and Dirk Gently. We all operate, knowingly or not, on the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

More than half the posts I write — including this one — are born while commenting on someone else’s post.

We are intricately and intimately linked. I wonder if we take for granted how bound to others we are in this strange cyber world we have created. I have read and heard much talk about the isolation of each person, alone and lonely with their computer. It has been put out there as a metaphor for the estrangement of people from each other, the symbolic isolation of individuals in the technological world.

I don’t think it’s true. For me, for many of my friends, for my husband, isolation would be life without the Internet. Without computers. For anyone who suffers a chronic illness, for those of us getting on in years who can’t get out as much as we want and whose friends have died or moved far away. For young people whose studies, work, happenstance or life choices have settled them long distances — continents and oceans — distant from old friends and family, electronic communications are a godsend. Skype – and programs like it — make it possible to see the faces we love.

96-Moon-Small-34

If we cannot share a hug, we can share face time. Electronic communications are fast or instant. Texting, IM, TwitterFacebook, even YouTube let us share in ways that were science fiction just a few years ago.

Without my computers, I would be truly isolated. The fibromyalgia, arthritis and heart condition make getting around difficult. Without electronic connections, I would be a squirrel up a tree without fellow squirrels to hang with.

This post was inspired by Dawn Hoskings on whose post I was commenting when I realized — again — how lucky I am to be living in a world that lets me enjoy virtual travel and participate in a larger world. I’m glad — proud — to be part of a community of bloggers, a community of friends around the world. And deeply grateful. How about you? I’d like to hear your stories.

Satellite Communications

FOR ONE CENT PLAIN

I got an email from AT&T. It was alarming. I was overdue on my bill! They were going to report me to collection agencies, send it to all those companies that decide whether or not you deserve to have a credit card or a mortgage.

I was surprised because I paid the bill. On time. Online. I know I did.

Obverse side of a 1990 issued US Penny. Pictur...

So, after resetting my password — it doesn’t matter how many times I set my password … the next time I go to AT&T’s website, I will have to do it again — I looked at my bill. Somehow, I had underpaid the bill by a penny. One cent. $00.01

In retribution for my oversight, AT&T is going to sic the collection agency on me. I deserve to pay big for this lapse in fiscal responsibility.Though I actually think it was their error, not mine, but let’s not quibble.

Paying the bill!

Paying the bill!

There are many battles to fight in life. One must pick amongst them lest one be overwhelmed. This giant corporation is going to destroy my credit for want of a penny. This is what happens when computers run the world and no people monitor what they are doing. I’m sure this was all automatically generated. I am equally certain if I’d called them, they would have cancelled the bill. AT&T has pretty good customer service. But that would take even more time and effort. I fondly believe my time, even retired, is worth more than a penny.

So I paid the bill. I wasn’t actually sure my bank would let me pay a one cent bill, but they did.

One cent. Just one cent. Mind boggling.