Category Archives: (Hopefully) Helpful Hint

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: The Personal Picture Show

2103 is in the home stretch and Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s are all looming. With the holidays come lots of family events and seasonal parties where photographs will be taken — but not necessarily pictures you want to have posted outside your circle of family, friends or co-workers. You’d also like to see all the pictures everybody else took without having to dig through your mailbox or wander all over the Web.

So how do you keep your party and family photos visible only to the people you want to see them, all without having to email buckets of pixels? Sure, there are always shared photo albums on Facebook or Google+, but some people aren’t so comfortable with the privacy on social-networking sites these days, no matter what controls you have over who sees your stuff.

But you have other options, specifically sites and services designed for group photo sharing. Although features and steps vary from site to site, you can basically set up a private, members-only Web page or photo feed and only the people you have approved can see or post pictures to it.

For example, you have online file services like Dropbox or Microsoft SkyDrive. Here, you post photos online and dole out links for people to click and see the pictures in your own little personal area of the site.

You’ve also got the mega-photo site, Flickr, as another option if you have an account there or want to set up a free one for the occasion. Say you’ve got a big corporate holiday party and you want everyone there to be able to share their photos with each other, but not necessarily the outside world. One way to do it: use Flickr’s groups feature. You can make a new group page on Flicker for the party or event (call it Holiday Party 2013 for argument’s sake) and invite friends to join the group by email. Once they accept your invite, they can all upload their own photos to the private group page. Flickr also lets you post photos by e-mail, so if you’ve created a Flickr account for the event, you can give the email address out to friends and let them post pictures to the page from their smartphones — even while the event is taking place.

streamshareIs your family is all hooked into Apple and iCloud? If so, you’ve got the option of shared photo streams. You can create shared streams on iOS 6 and iOS 7 devices, Macs and Windows computers, but you need an iCloud account on the participating computers and gadgets. You start by selecting some photos to share, creating a photo stream and sending e-mail invitations to friends and family. You can allow these “subscribers” to post their own photos and videos; they can also comment and “like” your pictures in the stream while uploading their own to the mix. When people share photos in the stream, others can download and keep them.

Sure, hoisting images up to SkyDrive, setting up a Flickr group page or creating an iCloud shared stream may take a little extra work up front. But if you want to keep those photos in one place and all in the family, it’s worth the effort.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Super-Size It!

Tablets have made it easier to stay online wherever you are and those bigger screens are a lot easier to read than squinting at a smartphone — or even a phablet. But even with the more expansive screen real estate, you may find the tablet type a little small for comfortable reading. And the thinner font in Apple’s new iOS 7 has irritated a lot of people, who find it too spindly to read comfortably.

If you find yourself wrestling with iOS 7 on your iPad — or even iPhone or iPod Touch — hit the Settings icon on the home screen and go right to the General line. Tap General, and then Accessibility. In the second section of settings on the screen, you have options for:

  • Larger Type. iOS 7 uses Dynamic Type technology that can resize on-screen text to your preferred default. Turn on Larger Dynamic Text here and move the slider to the size you want. Apps that uses Dynamic Type should pick up your chosen size automatically.
  • Bold Text. Back on the main Accessibility menu, you find an option called Bold Text. Flip it on, let your iPad restart itself and lo-and-behold, your system font is bold. You can reverse the setting by coming back here and turning off the Bold Text switch.
  • Lots of other stuff. The Accessibility menu has more options for general legibility, including an Increase Contrast option, a Reduce Motion control (in case those floating backgrounds make you queasy) and On/Off Labels that add little notches to the virtual switches in case you can’t see the green color that means the setting is turned on.

iOS 7 has many other accessibility tools, including a  screen-zoom magnifier, a spoken-word function called VoiceOver, the ability to invest the screen colors, closed captioning for videos, mono audio and many more assistive functions.


As for Android, this may vary from version to version, but in Jelly Bean 4.3 on the Nexus 7, tap into your Settings and hit Accessibility. Here, you can turn on features like:

  • Large text
  • Magnification gestures
  • Spoken passwords
  • The TalkBack screen reader
  • Text-to-speech output
  • And more!


Of course, if you’re reading ebooks on your tablet, you have controls within your book app’s settings to bump your font up to a happy size independently. So now you can sit back, give your eyes a little bit of a boost, and save all that peering-at-the-fine-print stuff for cellular-data contracts, social-media privacy policies and tax forms.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Keep Informed With Twitter Alerts

Twitter, in addition to serving as a personalized news service for people who like to follow the feeds of their favorite Web sites, newspapers and TV stations, recently introduced its own emergency alert system. Although it’s not to be confused with the government’s Wireless Emergency Alerts, more than 100 Federal, state and local agencies are participating in Twitter Alerts as well.

To sign up for an alert from an agency like NOAA or FEMA, visit the page of participating organizations on Twitter’s site. Click the ones you want and fill in your information. You’ll get alerts by text message, push notification and as entries in your news feed.


In addition to Twitter, you probably some news and weather apps on your phone as well. Most newsy apps let you set up notifications on your phone when they have important information to push out — things like wildfires, winter storms, traffic problems or breaking news events. Apple has information about using Notifications in iOS here and Google has similar information for Android here.

Red Sox or Cardinals fan? Yeah, you’ve probably got your alerts set up already, even if you’re watching the games.


(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Government Tools

Along with fashion, tech gear and exciting entertainment options popping back into the news after a relatively quiet summer, Congress is back in session. Love them or hate them, the legislative branch of the government make the laws around here, but the process can sometimes be a little confusing and unwieldy. If you want to know what’s going out there in Washington, here are a few resources that may help:

  • Congress for Android and iOS is a free app that lets you find your Congressional representative, checkout new and active legislation, see who’s sponsoring current bills, keep tabs on the social media coming out of his or her office and see how people voted on bills and laws.
  • cspanIf you’d rather listen than read about what’s going on. The free C-SPAN Radio app for Android, BlackBerry and iOS delivers audio streams of Congressional speeches and hearings, as well as public affairs programming. You can also hear author interviews from the Book TV folks over there on C-SPAN 2.
  • On the Web, you can look up past and present bills, resolutions and other legislative information in the Thomas database on the Web. Named after Thomas Jefferson, you can search the text of bills, download copies of said bills, check out roll call votes and contact members of Congress if you have something to say. The database has a number of other extras, including the original text of The Federalist Papers.

The inefficiency of Congress is nothing new, but at least with apps and other sources of information, it’s much easier to get information — and even participate in the democratic process itself. We the People, indeed.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Write On

Let’s face it — English was not everyone’s favorite subject in school. Some people loved it, but others found daily classes about grammar rules, spelling, punctuation and all that little type-y stuff as about exciting as watching Windows 95 defrag itself. Sure, voice calls and video chat are modern forms of communication here in the Internet broadband era, but even then, a lot of interaction between people still takes place in written form.

If you feel insecure about your writing and grammar skills — maybe English wasn’t your thing in school or maybe English wasn’t even your first language — there’s help online. Take, for example, new Tech Writing Handbook, courtesy of the gang at


The Tech Writing Handbook is divided up into 11 chapters and one appendix. The manual guides the reader through the process of writing documentation — starting with research and building from there. The book also discusses adding photographs and other visuals to accompany and enhance your writing. Even if you don’t actually do any writing yourself, the manual is worth a look just for the logical steps it presents on how to explain a topic or task. In exchange for your contact information, you can also download a printable PDF that you can also keep on your tablet for those offline moments.


Need more help in wrestling the English language to the ground? Consider:

  • Purdue Online Writing Lab
    Brought to you by the English Department at Purdue University, the main Online Writing Lab page rounds up 200 free resources that cover writing (and teaching writing). You can also find information on research, grammar and mechanics, using style guides and more. You do not have to be a Purdue student to use the site.
    Although it’s linked to a $15 offline grammar book, this site is a useful for its explanations of grammatical rules, including punctuation. It also has links to a blog and online videos explaining grammar usage.
  • Grammar Girl
    Need short, friendly tips to help your writing and find answers to questions like, “can I start a sentence with a preposition?” or the whole “who and whom” quandary? Call on Grammar Girl and she’ll help you out.
  • Grammarly Instant Online Grammar Check
    Have something you’ve already written and want it proofread? Grammarly is an online scanner that claims it can find and correct over 250 types of grammatical mistakes. It’s a paid service with fees currently starting at $30 a month, but you can try it free for seven days. If you don’t have a proofreader or copy editor reading behind you, Grammarly could come in handy.

These are just a few of the resources out there. You can find many other sites to help you out, like other grammar guides and online dictionaries — and mobile app versions as well.

Need a break from your studies? Chill out with a little classic Schoolhouse Rock.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Keep on the Sunny Side

herpderpThe Internet is a vast expanse of many things, including free speech in certain parts of the world. But the line between free speech, hate speech and those one-strand-away-from-being-a-houseplant trolls can get muddled, or even trampled, at times. Unmoderated comment areas have been known to pull in people who have nothing better to do than pick fights and be offensive, mixed in with those who actually have thoughtful additions to the discussion at hand. Mashable has even pondered why Internet trolls in general exist.

The comments section of YouTube however, has gotten a reputation for being a particularly wretched hive of scum and villainy in the Troll Department — it’s even generated its own set of memes. Case in point, General Mills having to turn off YouTube comments on a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial child because of the virulent racist screeds scorching the page. (Remember, if it’s a video, you posted, you can review or disable comments yourself.)

So, what else can you do?

For one, with a simple Web browser extension of your choice, you can block YouTube comments from appearing. Some of these extensions work by just disabling the comments field, while others scan the comment text for things like typos, profanity, all caps and other troll poopnoise – and then filter out the more obnoxious stuff.

The extensions that can block comments (as well as on-page advertising) include:

Chris Finke’s YouTube Comment Snob for Firefox and Chrome scans the comments and hides offensive ones that trip its filters.

If you want a more entertaining — or even educational — option consider a script or extension that replaces YouTube comments with something more enlightening.

  • Herp Derp changes all the comments to the most excellent herp derp, but you can still read a comment by clicking on it; for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera.
  • NietzscheDerp for Firefox and Chrome also replaces YouTube comment text, but with quotes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche instead.
  • Fans of theoretical physics (or The Big Bang Theory) might like the FeynComment script for Firefox and Chrome. As shown below, it replaces YouTube comments with quotes from Richard P. Feynman.


If you are tempted to read comments around the Web, sign up for the Don’t Read Comments Twitter feed that occasionally pops up to remind you not to go there. And if you find yourself just spending too much time on the social-media sites in general, consider one of those browser babysitters that limits your time or even blocks you from going to certain sites during the workday. The Productivity Owl gets it done for Chrome and LeechBlock does similar minding for Firefox users.

Some people like the comments section, warts and all. If you’re one of those folks, go have fun. You’ll never run out of material. But for those who are easily offended, or who just want a civil discussion, you have options. As Nietzsche himself once said, “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler,” but the same could be said about certain unmoderated Internet comments.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Picture a Better Passport Photo

If you travel internationally, you need to update your United States passport every 10 years — and this means getting a new picture taken. If you hate going to those little passport-photo places and want to have more control over what you look like on your official government documentation, you can take your own pictures with a digital camera (at least here in the US, anyway; check with your local government if you live elsewhere).

While you can take your own photo, but not just any snapshot will do. The State Department has the official passport rules and guidelines on its site, as well as a photographer’s guide and a photo composition template.

As for the photo requirements, here are some of the highlights:

  • Hand-held cellphone selfies are not allowed. The government wants professional quality pictures here.
  • Take the picture in front of a plain white or off-white background.
  • Make sure the photo presents the full head from the top of the hair to the bottom of the chin. You need to present a full-face view, facing the camera, without hats, sunglasses or other things that cover your head and face. If you normally wear eyeglasses, you can wear them, but you have to make sure there’s no glare in in the picture.
  • Use a neutral expression — no goofy faces or wacky grins — and be looking straight at the camera. Facial-recognition software likes neutral expressions.
  • Also, you are not allowed to use image-editing programs to “digitally enhance or alter your appearance in any way.” That means no overdone beauty-magazine cover retouching, zit removal or wrinkle smoothing. Just touch yourself up beforehand and take another photo.
  • The final photograph needs to be two inches tall by two inches wide — and you need to have two copies of the image. You also need to have your head centered within that space the height of the head and the eyes within a certain measurement within those two inches of photo. Full details are on the State Department Web site.

The site even has a free photo tool (shown below) that lets you prepare an existing photo on the computer for use with a passport. You basically start up the Flash-based app and select a photo stored on your computer. You can resize and rotate it if needed and crop it to 600 by 600 pixels. There’s a template on the page that helps you get the head size and proportions correct. Once you get the picture sized and cropped, you save it, print it and send it in with your passport application.

passporttoolAnd remember, if you haven’t renewed your passport in awhile, as of 2007, the State Department has only been issuing what it calls “U.S. Electronic Passports” — the kind with a computer chip embedded in the back cover. The chip stores an electronic copy of the same information printed inside the passport’s pages, including your photograph. As the State Department Web site states:

The inclusion of the digital photograph enables biometric comparison, through the use of facial recognition technology, at international borders. The U.S. e-passport also has a new look, incorporating additional anti-fraud and security features.

Curious about those electronic chips and records? Read up on the official US Electronic Passport FAQ. And then have a lovely trip overseas with your personally approved passport photo, the one you won’t be ashamed to show off at the border or customs counter.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Get More Out of Webmail

Want to make Webmail feel more like desktop mail when you’re checking your personal account at work or on a different computer? Sure, you can format messages in rich text and make folders in most services now, but here are a few other tips for managing your mail more efficiently through your Web browser.

1. Use keyboard shortcuts.

  • Gmail. Google’s mail program comes with one level of shortcuts that work automatically and another level that you have to turn on within the Gmail settings. The automatic ones are things like navigational controls for jumping around between messages with the arrow keys, that sort of thing. To turn on the second level of shortcuts, go into your Gmail settings by clicking on the gear-shaped menu icon, selecting Settings and tuning on the option for keyboard shortcuts. Once you save the changes, you get a couple dozen more shortcuts for composing mail, moving through conversations, archiving mail and so forth. Press the keyboard’s ? key to see a list of all the shortcuts.
  • Yahoo. Yahoo has all kinds of shortcuts for using Yahoo Mail, including those for composing messages, working with message lists and navigating.  Press the keyboard’s ? key to see a list of all the shortcuts.
  • In Microsoft’s Webmail service, which used to be Hotmail, you can use the built-in shortcuts, or if you’re coming from Gmail or Yahoo, you can use those instead. When you’re in,  Press the keyboard’s ? key to see the shortcuts and get to the settings.


2. Drag and drop those attachments.

Most Webmail programs now let you do it this way instead of clicking the attach button and navigating through your hard drive to find the file you want to send. Gmail has more information here and Yahoo’s mail-attachment tips are here. still uses the Insert button, but you can choose to stick them on as “Files as attachments,” Pictures inline” or “Share from SkyDrive.”

3. Use integrated online storage for big attachments.

Speaking of the “Share with SkyDrive” option — got a 30-megabyte file that’s too big to attach to a normal message? The big three Webmail service all have integration with other cloud services. Microsoft’s SkyDrive can do the heavy lifting for mail attachments with and other mail programs. If you have Gmail, you can insert that big attachment that lives on your Google Drive to your Gmail message. Yahoo Mail recently linked up with Dropbox for similar big attachment handing.

Some things about doing mail on the Web will always be different than managing your messages with a dedicated desktop program, but Webmail does give you a lot of freedom and perks of its own. And just think how far it’s come since the original HoTMaiL’s official launch back on July 4, 1996, with its free two megabytes of storage.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Pass Me the Remote Control

“See the Start menu button? Okay, click that and go to Control Panel. No, Control Panel, over there. Do you see it? Yes, you have Control Panel, just look a little closer…”

Anyone who’s done technical support for a friend or family member over the phone has probably felt some frustration about not being able to see the computer’s screen to better assess the problem and guide the user along. Although they can often be overlooked, remote assistance tools — which let you see the other person’s screen and even take over control of the computer through your Internet connection — can make it easier for helper and helpee alike.

helpbunnyTapping in via remote assistance is not as hard as it used to be, thanks to new software and services. For example, Google recently added a Remote Desktop feature to its Google+ Hangouts group video-chat service.

There’s a little bit of set-up involved, but a guide on PC World walks you through the steps. The Remote Desktop function had been previously seen as an extension for the Chrome browser, so that’s a possibility as well for helping out from afar as well; Google has info on using it here.

If you don’t use Google+ hangouts, or the Chrome extention, the Windows operating system has its own Windows Remote Assistance feature that’s been around for at least a decade and also lets you tinker with someone else’s computer over an Internet connection; questions about it are answered here.

Mac OS X has a few ways to share the screen (including with the Messages app) so you can see what’s going on and better direct your support. Apple has its own instructions for screen-sharing in OS X 10.8 here.

Third-party remote desktop apps like LogMeIn or TeamViewer, but these can be pricey if your needs go beyond the freebie editions. There’s also a whole category of remote desktop apps for mobile devices as well, so search your app store if you want to go that way.

Because it involves surrendering control of the computer, a remote assistance solution should only be used between trusted parties — and at least one of those parties needs to know what it’s doing. Remote assistance is obviously better for diagnosing software problems that it is for hardware issues, but if you just need to tweak a setting or find a “lost” file that accidentally got saved to the wrong folder, it can be a great tool for wielding your Jedi Master technical expertise when you’re not even physically in the room.


(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Time-Saving Sites

The Web is a vast place, full of information, but sometimes it takes longer to dig up the answer you need than you’d like. You do have other things to do, after all.

Take, for example, canceling services and subscriptions. Who wants to wade around in the customer-service section of a company’s site or be stuck in a caller queue for half an hour? Instead, stroll over to the WikiCancel site, which claims to be “the most current subscription, contract, and account cancellation guide.” Here, you can find links and information about canceling all sorts of things in one convenient location — it’s like one-stop stopping. Not all services are covered – for example, the page for quitting your TiVo service still needs to be written – but the site invites volunteers to contribute and write up a few cancelation instructions themselves.


Privacy on social media Web sites is another multi-layered topic that can vary based on what social media sites you actually use and take time to suss out. If you want to quickly see your privacy settings for a bunch of common social-media sites, visit the MyPermissions page. This free service basically creates a giant visual bookmark right in your browser that lets click through to the privacy and permissions settings for sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Instagram, Flickr and more. Once you click into your privacy settings for each page, you can make sure they’re set to the level you want for your accounts. There’s also a mobile app version for the iPhone.


(On a side note, Lifehacker also has a page called The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy that’s worth a read just to keep up with the ever-changing world of how much of your information Facebook gets to share with advertisers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has its own guide to protecting your privacy from Facebook’s new Graph Search feature as well.)

Having trouble getting Facebook — or any other online service — to load in your browser and wondering it it’s you or them? If that’s the case, visit the Is It Down Right Now? site, which keeps a running tab on the uptime of many popular Net sites and services. You can also check the status of other Websites by entering enter its URL into a box on the page and a fresh site-status test will be performed.


If all goes well, you save a few minutes here and there, get some quick answers and move on to more exciting ways to spend your time on the Web.