Category Archives: (Hopefully) Helpful Hint

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Patched In

Ah, the first half of the month, when rents are traditionally due and software is often patched. But while these program fixes and security updates are meant to fix problems in software, they can sometimes create even more problems.

Take for example, the recent iOS 9.3.1 patch that was intended to fix the crashing-links problem — but inadvertently created a security exploit on some iPhones. Or Google’s patch last year that was supposed to repair the Stagefright-sized hole in Android but didn’t cover everything the first time around. You win some, you lose some.

Now, many people just get an update notice and install whatever software arrives with the notifications. Or they have automatic updates turned on — and pay even less attention. Patches are generally a good thing and designed to keep your computer and data safe. But if you’re the type that wants to know what’s going on your hardware (or what scary thing you’re being protected from now), hit up the support area of the manufacturer’s website for detailed notes.

Here are a few of the major players:

  • Adobe Security Bulletins and Advisories. Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader are two of the most hacker-targeted pieces of software out there, and so security updates to sew up those holes are issued regularly. Find your Adobe product on the list and click through for the details on each update.
  • Apple Security Updates. Apple makes a lot of system software, including OS X, iOS, tvOS, watchOS and all its in-house applications, and you can find information about everything security-related here. Links on the site also take you to the downloads and supporting documentation, in case you didn’t let your Mac update the software automatically (or your iOS device, for that matter).
  • Microsoft Security Tech Center. Thanks to decades of Windows, the Redmond giant is an old pro at the security-update game. The company celebrates with new bugfix releases on Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of every month. All the latest security bulletins are posted there so you can read up and see what’s getting fixed this time. (The site is a little techie, but Microsoft has a Safety & Security Center site written for less-technical home users as well.)

Additionally, Amazon’s site has a Device Support page for its various Kindle, Echo and Fire hardware, along with information about software updates.

All updated with nothing to read now? Microsoft’s next Patch Tuesday is next week, so you don’t have long to wait.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: ICE? ICE, Baby!

If you were in an accident or had a health situation, do you have a way for first responders to find your emergency contact or know important particulars about your medical history? If you don’t wear a medical-alert bracelet, you can have your phone handle the job of communicating life-saving information when you can’t do it, thanks to the category of “ICE” apps — ICE, short for In Case of Emergency.

The Health app, first introduced in in iOS 8, let you record and track your personal and health and fitness data. But even if you never look at the built-in step counter or share your calorie intake privately with your phone, you can use the handy Medical ID screen.

medIDYou can get to Medical ID by opening the Health app and tapping the Medical ID tab. The screen is sort of like an electronic medical-alert bracelet. You can list any major health conditions, medications you’re allergic to, your blood type and the phone number for your emergency-contact person.

Even if you have a passcode on your phone, someone can see your Medical ID info by tapping the Lock Screen, tapping Emergency and then tapping Medical ID. Granted, if you have privacy issues with any of this, don’t use it, but it can be helpful if you are unable to respond to an EMT or police officer.

While pure Android currently doesn’t have a built-in health app, you can find similar free or inexpensive medical ID apps in the Google Play store, like the $4 ICE for Android or the free iMedAlert app (which can even issue a GPS-based distress call). Android apps have a woolier reputation for security and privacy, however, so check the specifications to make sure any app you’re looking at doesn’t get grabby with permissions or store your data on their servers.

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If you don’t want to fiddle around with a separate app, there’s a basic hack you can do with just about any modern smartphone. Simply call up the Notes app that came with your phone (or any other word-processing app) and type out any emergency information you would want any first responder to know. Next, take a screenshot of that completed text and set the image as your phone’s lock screen image. Anybody who finds you (and your phone) can see the information — and as a bonus, the person would not have to know how to get to the iPhone’s Medical ID screen.

Again, if you have privacy reservations wth any of this, don’t use an app and get a medical-alert bracelet if you do have any conditions you need to identify. But if you just want to add the information to your phone where you already have so much of your life recorded anyway, it could just save your life.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Brief Cases

Don’t have time during the day to go deep with all the news flying around the Internet? Thanks to a number of news orgs, you can get a quick crib sheet of current events so you’re at least in the loop with what everyone else is talking about.

APFor example, the Associated Press’s AP Mobile app for Android and iOS routinely offers a daily list called “10 Things to Know for Today.” You get the quick headlines — and you can go back to the app and follow up the full stories later when you have more time.

Ten items too much of a commitment? Try the “5 Things You Need to Know” list from the website for a magazine called The Week. The print version of the publication, by the way, serves as sort of a weekly reader for adults to collect capsule summaries of the top national and international stories of the past seven days.

NYTThe New York Times has a witty New York Today daily briefing you can get by email or read on the web, and it includes stories of local interest, traffic and transit updates — even the weather forecast. In its wide selection of email newsletters for which you can sign up, The Times has morning and evening briefings with top stories around the country and world. There’s also an afternoon update, and early headlines from Europe and Asia. The NYT Now app for iOS grabs the top stories out there for a quick look.

Want spoken words instead of written ones so you can multitask? National Public Radio’s NPR Hourly News Summary gives you a quick five-minute recap of the current state of the world and it’s updated about every 60 minutes. You can listen to it on the NPR website or stream it through NPR News apps for Android or iOS.NPR

If you don’t have five minutes, the BBC World News website has a One Minute World News video update, though the short commercial at the beginning is an extra 15 seconds.

And if you need a little more on the video, check out Reuters TV, which you can watch in a web browser, as shown below. Go to the site and it gives you an instant newscast with whatever if going on in the world at the moment. If you have an Apple TV or iOS device, you can also use the Reuters TV app, which asks how much news you want to watch — 10, 15 or 30 minutes — and then instantly whips together a newscast of the day’s top stories based on that amount of time.

Now, if only we could get the news to be actually good…

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(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Variations on a Theme

We spend a lot of time in our inboxes, don’t we? If you want to add a few personal touches to the browser window to brighten things up a bit, you can. (Well, most of the time, unless you are a hardcore iCloud Mail user.)

In general, you do not have to settle for the default settings for background and text size with your preferred webmail service of choice. True, iCloud webmail is a little boring, but Microsoft’s Outlook.com, Yahoo Mail and Google’s Gmail all let you add a little bit of personal choice to your inbox. Hit up your settings and  pick a new theme or color to admire while you wade through the daily onslaught of mail and spam effluvia.

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Want to go farther with customization? Perhaps, far, far away? Gmail users who ride the Chrome browser and love Star Wars have some options here. With its new Choose Your Side campaign built around the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens film release, Google has tricked out a number of its apps with little Star Wars touches and Easter Eggs.

swmapFor example, plot a driving route in Google Maps and see your position dot get turned into the Millennium Falcon! Have your YouTube progress bars converter to shimmery lightsaber animation! Fill your Google Calendar with Star Wars-related dates! Yes,  Google has added Star Wars goodies to Android Wear, Chrome, Chromecast, Gmail, Inbox by Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Now, Google Search, Google Translate, Waze, and YouTube.

To use it, you need to sign up with a Gmail address at google.com/starwars and choose your allegiance: Light side or Dark side. The Star Wars skinning works across Android phones and tablets, iPhones, iPads, Chromebooks, and desktop standard versions of programs for Mac OS X and Windows; note that the Forcification of the Chrome browser, Gmail, and YouTube can only be experienced on the desktop.

If you get bored with it all — or hate the movie — and want to ditch the whole thing, go back to google.com/starwars. Drag your avatar back to the center of the screen and click Back to Default to have your Google apps return to their regular state. Google will automatically turn off the Choose Your Side skins and return to its regular appearance by February 1, 2016.

Oh, and one last Easter Egg, if you haven’t done it already: Open Chrome or the Google search app, type in “A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away” and hit the Enter key. You know you want to.

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(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Trailer Park

The heart of the Geek Movie season traditionally runs from late spring through the summer, with the superhero films and action flicks rolling into theaters for the warm-weather months. There are exceptions, however: The adaptation of the final installment in the The Hunger Games series arrives later this month and there’s a little flick called Star Wars: The Force Awakens that opens in mid-December. Still, the last two months of the year traditionally see the serious films, aiming for Oscars and more viewer attention span with people taking time off around the holidays. If you’ve lost track of what else is on the way to your local cineplex, here are a few sites to keep you in the loop.

ComingSoon.net not only features trailers for a huge selection of upcoming theatrical films headed your way, you can get sneak peeks for upcoming TV episodes, home video releases on DVD and Blu-ray and even videogames. ComingSoon.net also has the latest Hollywood box-office figures as well as industry news and is really a one-stop shopping trip for entertainment information. Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and RSS feeds keep you up to date.

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imtApple’s iTunes Movie Trailers collection focuses mainly on theatrical films, but also sports exclusive clips and early previews. The site also has a Twitter feed and RSS to alert you to new material, plus a Top 25 list. You can view the trailers on the Web, but if you have an iOS-based gadget, you can use the official iTunes Movie Trailers app. You can also watch through the Apple TV’s app. Both feature a calendar view that places each trailer on a grid, which can be helpful for planning your weekends.

YouTube, repository of almost all online video, has a trailers section with links to a lot of clips – and YouTube channels from other trailers sites.

If your tastes run toward more independent efforts, check out the IndieWire site. It does cover the mainstream movie and TV culture, but gives the smaller productions a bigger share of the spotlight.

And if you’re feeling nostalgic and have a few hours to kill, visit the Archives at Movie-List.com to see many of the Generation X Classics as they were first presented in trailer form. Airplane!, Escape From New York, Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, WarGames…they’re all here in one convenient place, waiting to take you back to the 1980s, when movie tickets were cheap and a bucket of popcorn was affordable.

And with the trailer buzz for Star Wars: The Force Awakens still echoing, how about a nostalgic trip over to the trailer for the original Star Wars from the mid-1970s? It certainly had a more low-key unveiling back in its day, and it and perfectly illustrates the power of the John Williams soundtrack — by not actually having the iconic score rumbling around in the in the background.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Ask Me (Almost) Anything

Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are the Charlie’s Angels of personal virtual assistants, each with their own strengths and weaknesses in the battle to do good. As assistants go, none of them are very old: Siri first arrived in iOS 5 in 2011, Google Now debuted in 2012 and Microsoft’s Cortana stopped being a Halo entity and rolled out to Windows Phones in 2014; she landed on Windows 10 this summer.

In less than five years, though, assistant software has gone from fielding basic questions (“What’s the weather today?”) and handling a good-natured HAL 9000 joke now and then to opening apps, doing currency conversions, identifying songs, finding pictures from specific events and more. No pushing buttons here: Thanks to the voice commands “Hey, Siri,” “Okay Google” and “Hey Cortana,” you don’t even have to lift a finger to get results.

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So, what commands can you use these days for Siri, Google Now or Cortana? These sorts of lists just keep growing and growing:

And, in a pinch, you might be able to just ask your assistant:

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(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Lock It Down

Operating systems and websites have gotten increasingly nosy cover the past few years — dipping into your contacts, peeking at your email, tracking your location and that sort of thing. While the increased personalization can be helpful for virtual assistant software, some people just don’t want their address books rifled through, or targeted local ads following them around the Web. If you side with the latter, it’s time to dive into your privacy settings and tighten things up.

Microsoft has been taking a lot of heat over privacy concerns in its Windows 10 system the past few months, and the company even made a statement on its blog recently. Microsoft, however,  is far from the only one diving into your data, though: Google, Apple and Facebook have all had their own privacy flaps over the years.

By default, the Windows 10 system settings are all up in your business — especially if you used the Express option during setup — but you can go back in later and  change your settings. Keep in mind, icing your info may hinder Cortana or your Bing results, but it’s your decision. Like most major companies, Microsoft has its privacy policy posted on its site, along with a privacy FAQ page and details about privacy within certain functions of Windows 10, like text input or using Cortana.

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Google has several services you may already use, like Gmail and YouTube, so check out the Big G’s privacy policy, your Google account settings and the site’s security tools.

As for Apple, check out the company’s privacy policy and fine-tune your settings in OS X and iOS as you see fit.

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And Facebook, perhaps the King of User Privacy Freakouts, has its own Data Policy posted online. The site also has a Privacy Basics guide to make sure you can control what you share with other people, if not Facebook itself.

Oh, and Happy National Cyber Security Awareness Month!

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Start Me Up, 2015 Edition

The return of the Start menu was one of the things that made many a Windows 8 Haters stop griping about Microsoft and take a look at Windows 10. Yes, a variation of that handy little button is back, baby, hanging out in the lower-left corner of the screen.  But if you’re used to the text-based list of items like in Windows 7, Vista and XP, this new-fangled Windows 10 Start menu looks and acts a little bit different.

How different? For one thing, it takes up more space when you pop it open, because Microsoft has shrunk down the old Windows 8 Start screen (the one with the little colored self-updating live tiles) and stuffed it into the Start menu. You can tap or click a tile to open its app, like Weather, Photos or Mail. You can ditch or resize the tiles within the Start menu as you see fit. So that’s nice.

PTJ_StartMenu

For a lot of people, the Start menu was where you went every day to, well,  get started — by opening your programs. The Windows 10 Start menu has a variation of the old All Programs menu found in previous editions, except now it’s a vertical list of little app tiles. Links to the File Explorer, system Settings and logout/shutdown button are all here in the new Start menu, too. And as with previous versions of Windows, you can pin your favorite and most-used items to the Start menu so they are always nearby. You can even combine pinned apps into a group.

Windows 10 brings along some new things as well. For one, Cortana is hanging out down there at the bottom of the screen, waiting for you to ask her stuff. Think the Windows 10 Start menu is too small and you miss the expansive Start screen of Windows 8? You can go back to the Windows 8 days when Start takes up the whole screen by changing your settings. You have options.

No matter if you’re coming from Windows 8 or an earlier version of Windows, elements of the Start menu will look vaguely familiar. For those who avoided Windows 8 and clung to XP or Windows 7, popping open the Start menu in Windows 10 can feel  just like coming home again — albeit to a slightly bigger, colorful redecorated house that talks back to you.