Thursday, June 30, 2016

Great Tool for the Tech Paranoid: Wireless Network Watcher

Do you know what devices are connected to your wifi network right now? How many people in your home, office or building, or your snoopy neighbors, are carrying phones, tablets, laptops, and other things which are connected to your wireless LAN? If you don't know, and you'd like to, a handy program from the always-excellent Nir Sofer, called Wireless Network Watcher, which is free, will tell you. The program is only 0.3 MB and it's malware-free according to VirusTotal and Web of Trust.

Video Streaming on the Go (Like to Watch While on a Plane Without Wi-Fi)

[From the NYT]
While many services still primarily deliver video as an active stream over an internet connection, a few have begun to offer an “offline viewing” option that lets you temporarily (and legally) download movies to your device for those times when you do not have network access. For example, Amazon Prime and Prime Video members can download certain titles in the Prime video catalog, but the offline viewing period varies based on the movie or television show. The $10-a-month YouTube Red service has an offline-viewing mode, too.
Netflix is among the services that do not currently have temporary downloads that play without an internet connection. (The company’s chief executive has said an offline option is under consideration for the future, though.)
Third-party subscription services like PlayOn allow you to record streams from Netflix, Hulu and other video providers on a Windows PC to play later on a mobile device. While these types of “time-shifting” tools can be seen in the same legal light as recording a show with a VCR for personal viewing, using them usually violates your terms of service agreements with Netflix and the other companies.



If you are traveling and want fresh material on your mobile device to watch on the road, you can also rent videos from Amazon Video, the Google Playstore, Microsoft Movies & TV or Apple’s iTunes Store. Depending on the store and title, you can find full-length movies to rent for as little as 99 cents and you do not need an internet connection to watch them after you download the content to your mobile device before you go.

Must Have App for International Travel: Mobile Passport

Mobile Passport Control (MPC) is an authorized U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) smartphone or tablet app that expedites the entry process for U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors by providing an automated process through the CBP Primary Inspection area. The app enables travelers with a smartphone or tablet to submit their passport information and customs declaration form as well as upload a self-photo prior to CBP inspection. You'll still need to carry your passport, but you'll avoid some long lines and save a lot of time.

Link to Explanatory and Download Site

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Amazon Quirk

Normally, if you buy $35 of stuff on Amazon Prime, you can get same day delivery for free. But, if you have an Amazon gift card, say because of a Kindle antitrust settlement, even though you bought over $35 worth of emitters and bubblers, the nominal charge is say $27 (because you have $8 left on the gift card), the same day free delivery option will not appear on the Order page. Just phone Amazon and they will have the stuff delivered that day for free.

Cava

If you want to be hoity toity and pretend like you are living or actually emulate the lifestyle of the rich and famous and spend $15 on Domain Chandon Brut or even more for a French champagne, be my guest. But our Wine and Spirits Department reports that, for $10, or even less, go for a Spanish Cava. You won't be able to tell the difference, and you even might enjoy the taste more. You can find it anywhere, Put another way, Cava is to sparkling wines and champagne what Yellow Tail is to chardonnay: The number one choice of our Wine and Spirits Department--by far.

Image result for cava     Image result for yellow tail

Celery Pricing Alert Warning

Celery typically is priced by the head and not by weight. However, a computer glitch was discovered this morning by an alert customer that the pricing had changed to by weight which more than doubled the price of celery, and made non-organic celery more expensive than organic celery. So, be careful for the time-being in your celery purchases. And if you eschew at the check-out the buying of your celery, and bring the issue to the attention of the store manager, you likely will get a free head of celery.

Roof Rats 5, Scorpions 3 (re Home Buying and a PS)

Most buyers of a residence will have an inspection done. While the inspection report looks to be thorough, and while they are better than nothing, generally they are not very good. One thing they rarely if ever cover is rats and scorpions, and even the obligatory termite inspection will not cover rats and scorpions. You should strongly consider having a firm that specializes in roof rats inspect the place. Here is also what you might consider doing when you are on the buy-side of the transaction: (i) Ask the seller if the house has been sealed for rats and scorpions; (ii) if the answer is "yes," end of story, but if the answer is "no," ask for a price reduction to cover the cost of a rat/scorpion sealing; (iii) if the seller agrees, you're good to go, but if the seller refuses, tell the seller you want the home warranty to include a guarantee against the presence of any rats or scorpions for the term of the home warranty with an appropriate remedial clause should rats or scorpions show up. As in any negotiation, you might not get all or any of what you want, but as in any negotiation, it doesn't hurt to ask.

PS: If you having your house sealed against rats, if you have any reason to believe after doing the trapping and smoke test that any rats might still be in your house, be sure to alert your sealing company. They will then do a partial seal, sealing up all but one or two remaining spaces which are then heavily trapped, to be sure no rats are sealed in before they finalize the sealing.

Protection Against Robo-Calls

[From the WSJ (June 29)]
We are in the midst of a robot apocalypse. Instead of wiping us out with liquid metal lasers guns, they’re crushing us with robocalls, those unwanted, pre-recorded intrusions into our private lives. You’re not safe anywhere, not even on your once-sacred smartphone.
I’m not talking about legal calls from the pharmacy about a prescription, or the school announcing a snow day. I’m talking about illegal ones, often scams, that promise free cruises, debt relief, easy money and many more little slices of the American dream.
Over 10 billion robocalls have been placed to U.S. phones since the start of 2016, according to YouMail, a provider of cloud-based telecom services including call blocking. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about them are up nearly 50% since last year. Tax scams like the one I received are also up this year, according to the real IRS, and have netted the bad guys over $40 million since October 2013.
It’s easy to say the robots have won. It’s easy to get angry at those who don’t seem to be doing enough about it. Regulatory agencies aren’t catching the perps fast enough. Lawmakers say a lot but don’t do enough. Those sleeping giants, the telecoms, don’t seem to be in a hurry to wake up and squash the problem. Yet the rise in robocall frequency is putting pressure on them all. Meanwhile we mere mortals are finding our own ways to fight back.
Weapons of Mass-Robocalling
Why my cellphone? I can understand targeting publicly listed home numbers, but I have never shared my mobile number online or handed it to some shady shopping site or payday lending service.
Katherine Hutt, at the Better Business Bureau, suggested doing a Google search of my cell number. You should, too. It appears on various sites—without my name but alongside hundreds of other phone numbers from the same area code. Scammers and telemarketers could have scraped these number lists, says Ms. Hutt.
The real reason for the recent robocall barrage? Technology. It’s so easy—and cheap—for scammers to dial thousands of numbers that they’re simply hitting more of us. They plug lists of phone numbers into software and fire off calls over the internet. The software also makes it easy to “spoof” numbers, falsifying caller-ID information so callers, even out of the country, can disguise their identity or location. Tax fraudsters even spoof theIRS’s own toll-free number.
This past Sunday night at dinner time, eight of my friends and family members all got the same robocall. It was annoying. And it was from me. All it took was a little googling to find a service to blast the calls. At least I warned them that there’s no such thing as a free cruise!
The Call-Em-All software I used required me to confirm that I was abiding by the law. It is illegal to make nonemergency robocalls, both telemarketing and informational, to any cellphone without the permission of the consumer. Yet you aren’t likely to be thrown in jail for making the calls; enforcement usually takes the form of civil violations punishable by fines. It’s an old-school way to fight a high-tech menace, and it’s hard to tell if it is working.
Resistance Isn’t Futile
Once upon a time, the FTC rode to the rescue with its magicalNational Do Not Call list. Those of us who put our numbers on the list—and you really should—only get some respite from unwanted telemarketing calls, however. In my own informal poll of about 400 Wall Street Journal readers, three-quarters said they still get calls despite being on the registry. Legitimate companies keep away, but scammers couldn’t care less.
Outsmarting the phone-spamming robots isn’t as easy as installing a spam filter, so here’s your best plan of action:
When robots call, don’t answer. Experts from the FTC and Federal Communications Commission told me that letting the systems know you’re a real person may get your number placed on a more valuable list of confirmed live humans. If you don’t recognize an incoming number, let it go to voice mail. If you pick up then realize it’s a robocall, just hang up.
Look up the number and report it. Copy the suspicious phone number and do a reverse lookup with an app like Hiya. A spinoff of Whitepages.com, Hiya has a large database of numbers used by scammers—much of it based on community reports. If you know it’s a scam number, report it in the app, then file an FTC complaint. The FTC says this aids in investigations.
Use a call-blocking service. Apps like Hiya, Truecaller and Nomorobo can alert you when a scammer calls, checking the incoming number against databases of phone numbers commonly used by illegal robocallers. On an iPhone, Hiya and Truecaller download their whole database to your address book—annoyingly, this might get synced across all your devices. That’s why I prefer Nomorobo, even at $5 a month.
Nomorobo creates a separate address book that updates every 15 minutes with the latest scammer digits. It has the best answer to fighting spoofed numbers as well. Previously available only on some home phones, the service tracks when a chunk of its customers are getting calls from the same number, then bans that number temporarily. It isn’t perfect, but its creator, Aaron Foss, says its 3% error rate is improving over time. Nomorobo, currently in a closed beta for smartphones, will be available to all in August.
Update your phone. Android devices currently allow pretty deep call blocking. This fall, Apple’s upcoming iOS 10 software will give iPhones new powers, too. You can already block numbers so that a caller goes straight to voice mail, but soon apps will be able to block callers in bulk—without dumping numbers into your address book to do it.
The Ammo of the Future
What if scammer calls could be intercepted at the network level? The FCC and FTC are hoping that’s what wireless carriers will do. Last June, the FCC said carriers could legally block robocalls and automated text messages, if asked by a customer.
The Telemarketing Guard from Canadian carrier Primus is the best example of how something like this would work. If a home-phone customer chooses to enable it, blacklisted numbers are challenged by Primus’s own robots before the phone ever rings. Time Warner, Verizon Fios, AT&T U-Verse and others have started offering Nomorobo to their home-phone customers.
Officials say U.S. wireless carriers have been slow to move. Currently, they put the onus of call blocking on users and phone makers. The problem with network-wide blocking is that you may miss calls you actually want, says Scott Bergmann, vice president for regulatory affairs for CTIA Wireless Association, the industry’s consortium. Verizon, VZ 0.15 % T-Mobile TMUS3.18 % and AT&T T -0.02 % said they are constantly assessing new technology, but wouldn't elaborate further.
Pressure from consumers and elected officials may give them an extra kick in the pants. Earlier this month U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y) teamed up with Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.) to introduced a bill that would require phone companies to provide consumers with free services that block calls. Over 600,000 consumers have also signed the Consumers Union’s petition to phone company CEOs to offer tools to block robocalls before they hit their phone.
Yes, as the FTC and FCC promise to crack down on more culprits and pressure is applied to the carriers to do more, we’re plagued by incoming robocalls. At least my persistent IRS scammers now go straight to voice mail jail.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Some Removal Ideas for iOS Devices and Facebook

Here is one app, two iPhone features, and one iPad feature many people would prefer not be there. Removal is easy.

Facebook's Suggested Friends: Facebook's Suggested Friends category is usually full of casual acquaintances, old friends from high school and other random people.
Lately, however, you may have seen random suggestions of people you don't know, yet somehow vaguely recognize. It turns out, Facebook is using your phone's location to match you with fellow Facebook users who are nearby. There's a lot that could go wrong with this feature, and it's a bit creepy. To turn it off, just disable location services for the Facebook app on your phone, thereby preventing the social network from trying to play matchmaker.
Reachability on iPhones: Reachability moves the screen down so that you can more easily tap, swipe or otherwise interact with something at the top of the screen. With a double-tap on the home button, the current screen slides halfway down the display. If you don't like or but it keeps popping up by accident, go to Settings > Accessibility and turn off the toggle switch for Reachability.
Shake to Undo on iPhones: Shake to Undo is another feature many dislike but which pops up by mistake. It pops up on certain apps -- Mail and Messages most frequently for me -- and asks if I want to Undo Typing. To disable it, go go to Settings > Accessibility. You'll find Shake to Undo a few lines above the Reachability setting discussed previously.
Multi-Tasking on iPads: To disable the slide-over and split-view features on your iPad, go to Settings > Multitasking and turn off the toggle switch for Allow Multiple Apps.

XIV: NOT Investment Advice, But Something to Consider

[IMPORTANT PREFATORY NOTE: This is NOT to be taken as investment advise or relied on in any way. Nor is this a recommendation of any kind as to what to do or not do. It merely is a description of an approach that some are following. Past results should not be relied on as to what will happen in the future]

Suppose you have a portfolio made up of 5 different mutual funds, and that, as of last Thursday, each mutual fund had a value of $20 and your total portfolio had a value of $100. Then, after the Brexit vote was announced, each of your mutual funds dropped in value by $2 or 10%, so your total portfolio now has a total value of $90. Reputable financial advisers will give the excellent advice not to panic, stay the course, and don't worry, because the market will recover. And nothing in this post should be taken as contradicting or rejecting that advice. But, there is a different approach one might consider, and here it is:

Suppose you can find something to invest in that, as the market settles down and recovers, it will rise in value but at a much higher rate than any of the mutual funds you hold. For example, suppose there is something you can buy that, when those mutual funds go up by 3%, that thing will go up by 30%. Thus, if you can find such a thing, you could sell two of your mutual funds, put $36 in that thing, and get back to where you were completely with just a 3% rise in the market but a 30% rise in that thing.
Looked at that way, you could sell out all your mutual funds which would prevent any further decline in their value, and still get back to even with the same 3% rise in the market and 30% rise in that thing. And then, when you get back to where you were, you can sell the thing, stay out of the market completely, and wait for that thing to go back down again to a point where it's again an attractive buy.

I cannot tell you there is any "thing" that would act like the "thing" described above. But, what I can tell you is that XIV was at 27+ the day before the Brexit vote and Monday was at 20+ and Tuesday morning was back over 22. If you look at historical charts, you will see that XIV often remains above 30 during times of calm and while the market is doing good, but will go down into the low 20s and even lower when markets are volatile and selling prevails (e.g., XIV went down to 17 following the market decline that began last August and persisted until earlier this year, and then went up to the high 20s and low 30s before the Brexit stuff when it 20.3).

Again, to repeat and stress, this is NOT to be taken as a recommendation to buy XIV. It is simply giving some historical information which might explain why some people are out of the market entirely except when they have bought XIV and are waiting to sell it, why others have remained in the market but lightened substantially the amount they have in the market having bought XIV and are waiting to sell it, and why others have bought XIV and are waiting to sell it without having substantially lightened the amount they have in the market (i.e., they used spare cash to buy XIV). And please note that, in all these instances, at the moment these people bought XIV, they immediately thereafter put in a GTC sell order or a ladder of GTC sell orders so that the sell(s) will happen automatically without monitoring XIV on an active basis. These sell orders typically have been in the 25-29 range, although on occasion they have been known to go up to 32.

[IMPORTANT FINAL NOTE: This is NOT to be taken as investment advise or relied on in any way. Nor is this a recommendation of any kind as to what to do or not do. It merely is a description of an approach that some are following. Past results should not be relied on as to what will happen in the future]




Charitable Giving Accounts

An easy and efficient way to handle your eleemosynary (charitable) responsibilities is to set up an institutional charitable giving account. Such accounts are easier to set up than checking account and all the major financial institutions (such as Fidelity) have them available. You contributions to them are immediately tax deductible, and then you direct, whenever you want, disbursements be made from that account to any IRS 501(c)(3) entity. Fidelity does all the record keeping and disbursing for you. And you not only can set up and replenish your account with cash, you can do so with stock, mutual fund shares, bonds (even non-publicly traded bonds), and, yes, bitcoins (whatever they are). The link below will give you Fidelity's explanation of its charitable giving account.

Link to Fidelity Charitable Giving Account Description

Monday, June 27, 2016

Deadwood 2

If you haven't seen Deadwood, you are the second luckiest person in the world next to the person who has not seen The Wire. Some might say Deadwood is better than The Wire, but no one who has seen both would deny that these are the two best shows available for stream binging. While the language in The Wire is wonderful, you need to have closed captions on to get it all. Deadwood suffers from no such infirmity, which makes it truly educational as you will find yourself using so many of the perfectly scripted nouns and adjectives in your everyday life. You'll might even start imaging how other dramatic works might be redone to be even more entertaining and capture a wider audience. Illustratively, once you see Deadwood, you'll never be stuck with the bland "To be or not to be" as it is, but instead your mind will be transported to hear it as it might be: "To be or _______ not to be, that is the _______ question ___________" (adjectives and noun omitted so as not to spoil this for those who have yet to see Deadwood). Deadwood is available for no charge on Amazon Prime, or for a charge from Vudu or  DVD from Netflix or Amazon.

End Streaming Adultery With Must-Have Binge TV Watching App and Gear

Sick of your significant other skipping ahead and watching your favorite streaming shows without you? Or even worse, doing so and then blurting out what happened in episodes you have not seen yet? Of course, such conduct should be considered events of departure and grounds for termination of the relationship. But, wait! There's a better approach. You can lock those streaming adulterous miscreants into a faithful TV-viewing relationship with a high-tech pair of series commitment rings, thanks to U.K. ice cream brand Cornetto. These special rings that connect to streaming apps, and use near field communications to block access to TV shows you both watch unless your partner is nearby—thus putting an end to sneaking around with services like Netflix while feigning fidelity. The app is called You Again. And you can read the discussion about all this in a recent episode of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.
Image result for netflix commitment rings

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Travel Insurance

As my spiritual guru, Haruki Murakami, taught me: “Some things in life are too complicated to explain in any language.” One of them is travel insurance. Here's the bottom-line: You can cover just about everything and anything (including canceling on pure whim), you can do so at 100% coverage or almost any smaller percentage of coverage, you can vary the deductible, and you can alter the terms of coverage (to include or exclude medical treatment and evacuation or to include or exclude cancellation coverage).  The various options you choose will have a substantial impact on the cost. But there is one inescapable truth: You need to read (which is not hard) and understand (which can be quite difficult) the fine print with extreme care so you know what you are getting and what you are not getting.

Upscale Sippy-Cups

Sippy cups are a must, not just for young-uns, but everyone young, young-at-heart, and old. They make spills history, to the great relief of anyone responsible for keeping a home clean. Until now, adult sippy cups were acrylic, which might have been off-putting  to some. But now, for under $10 from Crate & Barrel, they come in glass and aren't even called sippy cups ... they are called To-Go Tumblers. They are dual-walled for terrific insualtion. And for a couple of bucks, you can get a pair of straw cleaning brushes.



Link to Crate & Barrel Website

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Wireless Connection Tool

One of my laptops is currently having a problem with its wi-fi connection. It keeps dropping the wireless connection, but I have as yet not managed to work out why. So today I went searching online for diagnostic tools to help me isolate the problem. One such useful tool is Wireless Connection Info, from the always-excellent Nir Sofer and his Nirsoft site. It's a tiny download of less than 0.1 MB. It doesn't need installing, is malware-free according to VirusTotal and Web of Trust, and works just fine on Windows 7, 8 and 10. Keep it handy. You never know when you might need such a thing. It tells you all sorts of information about your wireless connection, and might just help you spot the source of an issue.

Link to Wireless Connection Info Download

New Costco Citi Visa Credit Cards: Part 2 (Problems and Workarounds Explained)

After several email exchanges and telephone conferences, we finally got a call back from a knowledgeable supervisor with whom we were able to discuss all the issues with the new Costco credit cards. If you have a problem, you might check here first to save yourself a lot of time. Here's the deal:

1. Because of all the problems so many Costco customers are experiencing with the new Citi cards, the wait-times to talk to a rep often exceed 30 minutes.

2. Contrary to having been told earlier that the feature was not working, Citi has no feature in its phone system to give you an estimate of the wait time. Citi has promised to consider our strong suggestion to add such a feature to its phone system.

3. You cannot process a payment on any Windows computer except through IE. Citi is aware of the problem, and has been for a while, and is working feverishly to fix it, but there is no target date. Citi has promised to consider our strong suggestion to put a notice on the payment page alerting users to the problem. In the meantime, here is the direct number to do an automated payment by phone: 1-888-521-5096. We did not suggest putting this number on the website so that it would faster for you to get through, although because it's an automated system, you should get through immediately.

4. The website will just go off-line at random. Citi is aware of the problem, and has been for a while, and is working feverishly to fix it, but there is no target date. Citi has promised to consider our strong suggestion to put a notice on the home page alerting users to the problem.

5. Unlike the way it worked with Amex, where you had multiple cards but just one credit card number, Costo forced Citi to issue a different card with its own number to each family member. As a result, you might get confused by some things. Here is what you need to know: (i) You will designate one of the numbers as the Default Primary; (ii) that number will appear on your website; (iii) you can set alerts on that number but not any of the others; (iv) even though you can't see the other numbers on your website, anything that happens on the other numbers will automatically appear under the Default Primary number; and (v) while you cannot even link a non-Default Primary number to the website, if you wish, you can set up a separate online access account for the non-Default Primary numbers. If this all sounds too stupid for words, both Citi and I agree with you completely. Citi (CitiBank or CB) has promised to consider our strong suggestion to stand up to Costco, even if it means doing a CBexit and take its credit cards system back again and make Citi great again!

Scorpions Part 3

By this time, your spouse or significant other likely has become quite proficient in her nightly scorpion hunt with a black light. For the outside hunt kills, any kind of simple bonker will do. But for inside hunt kills, our Pest Control Department recommends the X-Long 36" Flex-Cable Pick-Up Tool 4-Finger Claw End Retriever Snake by Pro Tools, which cost just $4.99 on Amazon Prime. Not only is it easy to use and attractive and effective, it makes for a wonderful anniversary or birthday present or just a spur-of-the-moment present of appreciation, and you will take great joy in how much it will be appreciated. Here is what it looks like:

Image result for claw end retriever

Friday, June 24, 2016

Joys of Elephant Garlic

Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) looks like a giant garlic clove. Although it is not a true garlic, and is more closely related to a leek, it will give your dishes a true garlic taste. Here though is the key: Because of it's enormous size and easy removal of its skin (you don't need a special garlic peeler (highlighted in an earlier blog post)), you will be able to dice large quantities of it much faster and easier, which if you're making fresh gazpacho (recipe highlighted in an earlier blog post) on a daily basis now as you should be, you know how great that is. It's no more expensive than a regular garlic and is available at your regular grocery store (you don't need to go to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or Safeway, three stores we are boycotting, to find it). Here is what it looks like in comparison to a regular garlic (that more properly might be referred to as a puny garlic):

Image result for elephant garlic

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Best Father's Day Card Ever

Because only one father in the world was entitled to get this card, no one else has ever legitimately seen it. So, with great humility, I share this card:


Problem With Citi Credit Cards (Including New Costco Card)

If you have a Citi credit card (such as an American Advantage Mastercard or a Costco Visa card (as shown below for your convenient reference)), and you handle your accounts online, please note the following: (i) Citi made a website change as to how payments are made; (ii) if you use Chrome, the payment page might not work; (iii) the payment page might work with IE or other browsers; (iv) if you call Citi to report the problem, you likely will have an extended wait time to get to talk to anyone; (v) you likely also might be treated rudely; (vi) don't bother asking to speak to a supervisor; (viii) don't bother suggesting that they give an estimate of the wait time as every reasonable company does; (ix) don't bother telling them you don't want to hear any more about how many customers they have and how many calls they have to answer; and (x) don't expect any accommodation for the burden they put you through trying to be helpful. That said, you might or might not believe them that they are aware of the issue and are working on it. If you do, I'd be happy to do a little horse trading with you.

 Image result for citi credit card aadvantageImage result for citi credit card visa costco