More Adventures in Technology

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the phrase “easy self install” going back years. When I first got a DSL line for my computer (after surviving dial-up Internet access far longer than I should have put up with it), it took me several hours, moving the entire computer set up to a different phone jack (and a different room) and a long conversation with a technician in the Philippines to get the little modem working. I avoided making any changes, even when I began to feel the lack of home WiFi, for fear of being told to self install another modem.

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Avoidance didn’t work with Comcast, as cable boxes over the years either stopped working or were declared obsolete. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to change my own boxes (sometimes including searching out the nearest Comcast store front and hoping they had what I needed in stock), and I don’t think I’ve ever done it without at least one phone call to tech support. On occasion even that didn’t help, and I’ve had to sift through multiple web sites and forums to solve a problem.

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So a few months ago, when I called Frontier Communications in frustration over the latest Internet outage, I resisted the idea that my (by now antique) modem was at fault. The woman on the other end of the phone insisted there was no general outage (although two friends in my general area had confirmed that their service was out, too), but she said she would send me a new modem, which I could easily self install. Yeah, right.

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My Internet service was back to normal before the new modem arrived. I put the unopened box aside, despite a growing suspicion that the modem hiding in it probably handled WiFi (these days does anyone even make a modem that doesn’t?). I wasn’t going to invest several hours of frustration trying to find out.

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Then a couple of weeks ago I came home to find that my land line phone was dead. Even with my spiffy smart phone, I’m too old and set in my ways to give up my land line, even if most of the calls I get are ones I don’t answer (thanks to Caller ID). And worse, the problem on the land line was making my Internet connection hopelessly unstable.

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The phone went out sometime on Wednesday. It came back on Thursday evening, and went out again on Friday morning. So Saturday morning I followed the troubleshooting instructions on the Frontier web site, took my one remaining corded phone (which works when the power goes off and my cordless phone system won’t work—useful for calling the electric company) out to the connection box and plugged it in. Perfect dial tone. So I called Frontier and arranged a tech appointment for the following Friday (the soonest both a technician and I could be here at the same time).

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When I got home from work on Wednesday, a week after the initial outage, both the phone and the Internet were working perfectly. But I wasn’t going to cancel that tech visit, knowing full well that the moment I did, the phone would die again.

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new modem

Yay! WiFi at last!

Fortunately, the Frontier technician, a very nice and very competent young man named Seth, agreed, and quickly traced the problem to a bad wire in the phone jack handling the cordless phone base and the computer line. Once he’d fixed that, he looked at my ancient modem (circa 2010) and asked if I wouldn’t like a new one, a decent one with WiFi.

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So I handed him the unopened box Frontier had sent me, and he had the new modem installed and the WiFi working perfectly with the computer, my smart phone, and my Kindle within ten minutes. I’m absolutely sure it would have taken me at least two hours and a phone call—if I was lucky.

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And I am no longer the only person without WiFi in my house. Just think of all the gadgets I have done (quite happily) without because I didn’t have WiFi. Maybe I’d better lock up my credit cards for a while.

Writer Wednesdays: Favorite Phone Apps

The Wednesday Writers are back, with a new list of slightly wacky topics for 2017. This month we’re asking one another “what is your favorite phone app?”

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WW 2017

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It was the prospect of phone apps that pushed me to move to a smart phone after years of carrying a basic Tracfone in my purse. I insisted for years that I didn’t want or have any use for a cell phone, until I started commuting to a job thirty miles from home. Shortly after I found myself marooned on the side of the freeway at twilight, waiting for a Good Samaritan to happen by and tow me to safety, I bought that first Tracfone.

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I seldom used it. Didn’t give out the number. Didn’t even turn it on very often. And then one evening, twilight again, about a year and a half ago, my car stalled on the way to an RWA chapter meeting. And I found out just how hard it was to contact AAA, and to punch in my account number, on that little phone (my sister-in-law swears I somehow called her before I got AAA).

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There must, I thought, be an app for this.

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phone apps 1So about a year ago, I finally marched into the local Verizon store, bought an expensive phone (an LG V10), and signed up for service. Among the first apps I downloaded were AAA and my car insurance company. Thankfully, I have yet to use either one of them.

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I still don’t make many phone calls with my cell phone, but I have learned to text. I give out the number now. I get robo-calls, which I have learned to recognize and ignore.

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But I certainly use the phone, the little computer I carry in my purse or park on my kitchen counter. I check my email and Facebook with it when I’m away from my computer (or my Internet connection goes down), but I don’t use Twitter or Instagram. I’ve never even opened any of the games that came with it. I don’t have any music on the phone, and I don’t watch videos. I use the Kindle app now and then, usually when I’ve forgotten my Kindle. Last summer I used the RWA Conference app quite a bit, and it’s still on the phone.

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I use the calendar all the time, and I’ve developed an obsession with the Google maps timeline feature, since the day I was startled to discover that the phone knew where I was. Most of the time. For some reason the maps app is convinced that my phone wanders off from time to time, usually at night, and apparently without me. But as long as I keep an eye on its roving, I find it a useful record of where (and when) I’ve been from day to day.

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My bank app makes it super easy to deposit my weekly paycheck from my kitchen counter. And speaking of the kitchen, I no longer keep a grocery list on the refrigerator door, where I all too often left it when I went out to shop. Now everything goes on the QuickMemo app as soon as I think of it, and I always have my shopping list with me.

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But I think my favorite app is the camera. My last Tracfone included a camera, but I never phone apps 2used it because I had no way to transfer the pictures out. (There probably was one, but the useless operating manual kept it a dark secret. It also claimed it could reach the Internet, but I never succeeded in making that happen.) The camera on my smart phone (far better than the digital camera I never remembered to carry with me) takes beautiful pictures and easily sends them to email addresses, Facebook, or someone else’s phone. I’m pretty sure I haven’t figured out half of what that camera will do. But I always have it with me, and I frequently remember to use it.

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What do you use your phone for? Any great apps I should know about?

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For more favorite phone apps, visit this month’s Wednesday Writers: Tamra Baumann, Pamela Kopfler, Priscilla Oliveras, T L Sumner, and Sharon Wray.

It all started with the dryer . . .

On August 20, my clothes dryer died, in the middle of the day’s last load of laundry. I wasn’t surprised. The dryer came from Montgomery Ward, years before they closed in 2001; it was at least twenty years old, probably older. I’d already gotten a couple of extra years out of it by replacing the main belt. The washing machine sitting next to it still worked, but it was just as old. Aha, I thought. My birthday is coming up shortly. I will treat myself to a new washer and dryer.

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I shopped around, but there really isn’t much of a price range on appliances. I picked out a pair of machines from LG (I already had an LG refrigerator and an LG smart phone, why not go for something in the middle?) and ordered them on August 26.

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Delivery was scheduled for the morning of Friday, September 2. After numerous calls and a long day of waiting, the truck showed up about 6 p.m. The dryer was installed without problems. The washer had a slight dent, but by then I didn’t care. Sending it back seemed much more trouble than a dent.

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Unfortunately, the washer wouldn’t drain, producing a puddle on my adjoining kitchen floor. The installers, whose competency rating was sliding rapidly downhill, blamed the problem on the drain hose. They chopped the end of it off and told me all would be well. It wasn’t. More water on the floor. The installers went out to their truck, made a phone call, and assured me someone would come fix it Monday morning.

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I didn’t believe them. The drain hose explanation made little or no sense. The next day I went back to the store and spoke to the saleswoman. She checked with the delivery company and the service department—no record of any call or any help scheduled for Monday. And no one thought the hose explanation made sense.

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So I went home and called the best appliance man I know, who said, “Nonsense. Your drain is blocked. You need a plumber.”

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I couldn’t argue with that. The house is sixty years old, and I knew the plumbing wasn’t in good shape. In fact, plumbing-5I’d wondered if I might come home one day and find the ceiling on the floor after a pipe broke in the attic. So I called the plumbing/electric/air & heat contractor that I’ve used in the past, and they sent a plumber out on September 6. The drain was blocked, all right, and he couldn’t do anything with it.

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On September 9, another Friday, three weeks after the demise of the dryer, a senior plumber came out with a pipe camera, and the project began to spiral.

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No hope for the pipes draining my kitchen and utility room. They would need to tunnel under the house and replace the broken sewer line, running a new one across the back yard to join the old one. The city inspector would expect all the plumbing to be in working order, so he’d better check to see that the water heater in the attic was up to code. Good news: the relatively new water heater was fine. Bad news: the ancient pipes were not, and looked ready to burst any time. Worse news: since the inspector would look at everything, that included the guest bathroom, where nothing had worked for years.

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Verdict: total re-pipe of the house, two tunnels under the foundation, two new sewer lines. The job would take a week or so. Not exactly the birthday present I was hoping for.

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The diggers started on Monday, September 12th. The contractor’s pest control guy came by and gave me a plumbing-4price for rodent-proofing the house (I didn’t want poison in the attic, and they don’t use it) and spraying for termites. Both needed, still on the to-do list.

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That night it rained, almost three inches. When I looked out the back door of the garage, the partially dug tunnel was full of water. Literally. Up to ground level. To my amazement, the diggers had the water pumped out and were back at work by mid-morning, but there was mud everywhere.

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Meanwhile the inside plumbers got started, Nutmeg the cat began her exile to the only room in the house that had no plumbing and a door that stayed closed, and the electrician came out to look at my sixty-year-old circuit box. A total disaster, everything in it fused solid. Along with several other problems, including new GFI outlets throughout the house, that job is also now on the to-do list, above the pest control.

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On September 19, the re-pipe was finished and the washing machine was hooked up and draining, through the sewer line that was laid but neither covered nor attached to the main sewer line. The diggers had moved on toplumbing-1 the tunnel on the other side of the house, and everyone waited for the city inspector.

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Still waiting for official word from the first inspector on Friday the 23rd, and now a second inspector, from the water district, wanted his turn, but not until next week because it was raining. And he only worked part time. Meanwhile the contractor’s office was asking the job supervisor about the rest of the money (we both said, “When it’s finished!”) and the sheet rock repair man came to cover all the holes the plumbers had made (and a few they hadn’t).

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Sheet rock guy was back the next day. So was the rain.

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On Monday the 26th, the painter came to tidy up all the sheet rock repairs, and the tile man came to repair the damaged tile where a new faucet and shower control was being installed in the hall bathroom (along with a new toilet—by now I was saying, “Oh, sure, why not?” to just about anything).

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More waiting until both inspectors gave their final approval—and posted it to the computer system where the plumbing-3contractor could see it. The diggers made quick work of refilling the tunnels and trenches (leaving my back yard awash in dirt, but some things can’t be helped. I’ve bought a pair of rubber boots), and on September 30 the plumber finished work on the hall bathtub and shower.

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On Sunday, October 2, a friend from out of town stopped in, and I was able to say, for the first time in years, “Bathroom? Down the hall and to your right.” It wasn’t decorated yet, but everything worked. I hung the new shower plumbing-2curtain and arranged the new towels, and I had a bathroom that functioned.

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On Monday, October 3, the job supervisor came out. We walked around the yard, looked at the indoor work, and I wrote another check.

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I figure when I’m finished (if one is ever finished fixing up an old house) I will have spent just about as much as the house cost us in 1976 (it was twenty years old then). I still have to have the electrical and pest control work done, and there’s still a lot of mostly cosmetic work I’d like to do. But my plumbing problems are over.

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And it all started when the clothes dryer died.

Techno Fun, Again

When I walked into my office this morning, something was chirping. Sounded just like a cricket, but it was in fact the dying protest of the Uninterruptible Power Supply tied to my computer. The big black brick hadn’t actually worked in some time, but at least it had been quiet. No more. Turning the UPS off stopped the chirping, but of course it also shut down the computer. Having proved that, I prepared to crawl under the desk and do something about it.

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Aha, I will use the flashlight function on my wonderful all-purpose smart phone that I hardly ever use for actual phone calls. That’s when I discovered I had left my phone on the kitchen counter, thirty miles away. So I found a real flashlight, crawled under the desk, and fumbled among the cords (hey, when did I unplug the monitor?) until I had the UPS disconnected and the computer running. (The UPS weighs approximately a ton, by the way.)

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That’s about when I discovered that the third ceiling fixture in my long narrow office was flickering madly. The middle one, a fan that hasn’t been turned on since I started work there in 2003, lost its light function some weeks ago. Fortunately the light above my desk still works. For how long is anyone’s guess.

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It hasn’t just been at work, either. A couple of weeks ago my dryer stopped cold (well, no, actually, it was quite hot, and smelled like burning lint, and I’m probably lucky it didn’t catch fire) in the middle of a load. I bought it from Montgomery Ward (defunct since 2001) sometime in the early 1990s, so I really can’t complain about its life span. I bought the matching washer at the same time; it still works but I’m pretty sure its days are numbered. So I strung a makeshift clothesline on my back porch (where even tee shirts take two days to dry in the coastal Texas humidity) and did some research.

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My new washer and dryer will arrive on Friday. The same size as my old machines, with much bigger drums and no agitator in the washer. I have no idea how to run them. There are no knobs or dials on either one, just a few dozen mysterious little touch pad things. I hope they come with good instruction books. I don’t think a “quick start guide” is going to do the trick. But by the weekend I’ll have plenty of laundry to experiment with.

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Yesterday I got a letter from Comcast telling me that they’re going to upgrade my cable boxes at no charge! Well, except that I have to figure out how to go on line, or through the TV, or by telephone (no, not that, anything but trying to find a human to talk to at Comcast) to arrange the exchange, or unspecified dire things will happen to my TV channels. Of course I’ll lose everything I’ve recorded on the DVR, so I’d better plow through that before the deadline sometime in October. Given the failure rate of my cable boxes over the years, some of them failing to ever work at all, it may be worth it to pay for a service call. Last time I did it myself it took me two hours to get the color right on the DVR. No, it did not hook up exactly like the old one. Let the technician figure it out.

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And as for my forgotten phone—for many years I carried a simple Tracfone with me, because I drive a lot. Only once, about a year ago, did I need it for a road emergency, and trying to phone AAA on that little phone, at twilight, was what convinced me to buy a smart phone. There must be an app for this. Indeed there is, although I hope I never have to use it. (Fortunately the car started after a few minutes.)

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So I was much relieved to arrive safely at home this evening. As with umbrellas and windshield wipers, one really misses a cell phone when it isn’t there. After only a few months with my smart phone, I feel surprisingly disconnected without it, even when I don’t need it. Tomorrow I won’t leave home without it.

Another Adventure in Technology

I have a long-standing habit of sleeping with the radio on. I think it started when my late husband, who snored like an air hammer, traveled for research and I discovered that I needed background noise to sleep. (Or do much of anything—I have friends who love total silence, but I have the TV or radio playing all the time, whether or not I’m paying attention.)

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I used to leave the clock radio on my nightstand set on the NPR news/talk station, but a few months ago I realized that the political news was giving me nightmares (that happens even in the daytime these days) or making me wake up angry. I switched the radio to the classical music side of Houston Public Media and slept much better.

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I knew HPM planned to sell the classical broadcast channel and take the classical music feed to a digital stream, but it took them months to find a buyer. Finally the announcement came: 91.7 would become an inspirational station in June. KUHA Classical Music would only be available through digital streaming, via computer or assorted other Internet-capable devices (none of which live in my bedroom) or by HD radio.

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Trying to find a replacement choice on my faithful clock radio, I soon realized that there are no “easy listening” (whatever that means) stations in Houston. Amazing. Of course as of this month there will be no over-the-air classical music station, either, a sad fact for the fourth largest city in the country.

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I tried classic rock (The Eagle), I tried contemporary adult (Sunny 99.1, Mix 96), I even tried Music Choice on the TV (classical or jazz available, but the TV lit up the bedroom like an air field). The obvious solution, which I’d been avoiding, was to buy a new radio.

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I’d been casually researching HD radios for months. First problem: about 85 percent of them are car radios. Apparently that’s where the market is strong, and new cars come with these new radios. (I drive a 2004 Corolla, and the old radio works just fine.) HD clock radios are expensive and, from the reviews I read, hard to program and not entirely reliable. Another slice of the market contains very expensive units meant for home entertainment systems.

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Then last weekend I took another shot and stumbled over a table top FM HD radio from Insignia on sale at BestBuy.com for $29.99. Amazon had the same radio for its regular price of about $50 (still pretty reasonable for HD). Both sites showed good reviews. I still didn’t know whether I’d get decent reception (I live about thirty miles from downtown Houston), but for thirty bucks it was worth a try. When I went on line to order, Best Buy told me I could pick up my radio at the local store that afternoon. Wow, no shipping charge, instant gratification.

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Gratification, indeed. Great reception, terrific sound. The radio takes fifteen or twenty seconds to find the station when I turn it on, and shows reception bars like a cell phone on the little panel that also shows the artist and title of the music that’s playing. I have no idea how the technology actually works, but then turning on a radio and having music come out is pretty amazing, isn’t it? (As Arthur C. Clarke said, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.)

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I found a web site with a list of 52 HD radio channels available in the Houston area. There I rediscovered The Wave, a smooth jazz station that I loved until it went off the over-the-air band a few years ago, now digital on 96.5-2.

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So thanks to Houston Pubic Media and the disappearing classical music channel, I know have an HD radio, on which I’m playing smooth jazz all night.

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You might be surprised to learn what’s playing on all those extra channels in your area. Check out hdradio.com to find out if HD radio is something you want.

Car Talk

I bought my faithful Toyota Corolla in March 2005. For our eleventh anniversary, I bought it a new catalytic converter. I would have preferred a less expensive gift, maybe a nice car wash, but stuff happens.

The check engine light came on last Thursday evening as I was driving home from work. When it came on last June, the folks at the local dealership replaced the gas cap. Two weeks later it came on again, and they replaced the (rather more expensive) charcoal canister. So I figured another piece of the emissions system had cratered—after all, the car has more than 205,000 miles on it—but yellow lights on the dashboard make me nervous, so I was happy to catch a ride with a friend over the weekend—thanks, Gerry—rather than make a hundred mile round trip to a writers’ meeting.

Monday morning I took the car to the dealership, sat in the waiting room with my back to the TV, and read on my Kindle. I didn’t even wince when the service rep showed me what it would cost to replace the catalytic converter. I haven’t made a car payment since 2010, and the occasional repair costs are hardly unexpected.

The service rep came back an hour later with the news that they couldn’t put the car back together again without replacing a badly corroded oxygen sensor—and the nearest replacement was in Plano (I live near Houston, Plano is near Dallas). The car should be ready tomorrow, she said, and would I like a shuttle ride home?

Hardly. I had a lunch date, and more importantly, I work on Tuesday. I needed a car. Well, they didn’t have rental cars any more, but she could call Enterprise for me.

Excuse me? You took my car apart, you can’t put it back together until tomorrow, and you want me to rent a car from Enterprise? With whom may I lodge a complaint, please? Let me talk to my manager, said the service rep (a very nice young woman, by the way). Amazingly, the manager found me a loaner within minutes. Sometimes it pays to complain.

All she needed was my drivers license and proof of insurance. Another lesson in what I don’t know about my new phone: I had downloaded my car insurance app, and could actually display my insurance card on the phone, but I had no idea how to email it to the office computer so someone could print it out. Had to hike the length of the service bays to retrieve the paper card (completely forgetting to grab my garage door opener—good thing I have the spare in the kitchen!).

So I left in a loaner, a very nice 2015 Corolla. Took me several tries to change the all-digital touch screen radio from the Christian music station to NPR. Positioned the mirrors. Played hunt and peck with the A/C (it was 84 by afternoon). But I picked my friend up for lunch on time.

That was two days ago. I eventually figured out how to manage the air conditioning, but my success with locking and unlocking the doors with the little push button thing was pretty much random. The loaner was quiet and comfortable and a pleasure to drive, but I was happy to get my faithful car back this morning. My spare garage door opener is back where it belongs, I know where all the radio buttons are, and my car is happy again.

At least until it needs new tires.

Spring Forward: Techno Thoughts

This morning I wandered around the house setting various clocks and appliances to Daylight Savings Time. There are two types of electronics in the house: those that reset themselves (clock Clockradio, computer, cable box, cell phone, Kindle) and those that don’t (microwave, wall clocks, older clock radios). I even have one clock that’s programmed to reset itself on the wrong dates (manufactured shortly before the cycle changed a few years ago). I’m one of those people who actually like DST, because it means several months of driving home from work in daylight, but I’m always surprised by how many timepieces a person who does not wear a watch has scattered around her house.

I took a step—make that a leap—into the twenty-first century about a month ago, when I finally bought myself a smart phone. I’d carried simple little talk/text phones, powered by an annual payment to Tracfone, in my purse for years, on the theory that I spend too much time driving to be without one. Last fall when my car stalled at an intersection at twilight I discovered just how much trouble it was to call AAA on that little phone (and even more when my car started ten minutes later and I had to call them back and cancel). There must be an app for that, I thought.

So last month, with my annual renewal with Tracfone drawing near, I made up my mind to buy a new phone. I don’t make a lot of calls or send a lot of texts; I had App Envy. I wanted one of those marvelous little computers my friends (and seemingly everyone on the planet) carry around in their purses and pockets. After considerable time spent researching on line and bothering my friends (What phone do you have? What carrier? Show me how the darn thing works), I walked into the Verizon store a few blocks from my house expecting to come away with a great big iPhone.

Two hours later I walked out with a great big LG V10 android phone (I have now been sucked into the Googleverse, with a new Gmail account and Chrome replacing the faltering Internet Explorer on my PC), and a very vague idea of how to use it. A month later, I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’m really enjoying it. Last night I even took it in the bedroom with me and answered a couple of emails. I know that sounds perfectly normal to many people, but it’s a real change of pace for me.

The phone is clearly smarter (or at least more technically adept) than I am, and it keeps old phone 2surprising me. After a week or ten days, it started sending me (not terribly accurate) notifications of how long it would take me to get to work. I’ve just discovered the Timeline in Google maps that shows me exactly where I’ve been every day since I bought the phone, which, at this point at least, is entertaining. When the battery usage shot up, I discovered that it’s important not to leave the Chrome app running. I don’t know what it was looking for out there in cyberspace, but it was sure using a lot of battery power to do it.

Being one of those people who actually do read the instructions, I found the user’s manual for the V10 on line and downloaded the PDF file to my computer. It’s over 200 pages long (30 pages fall under the title “Safety”—that’s worse than the side effects on pharmaceutical ads, and I have not read them), and parts of it have actually been quite helpful. I’ve been back to see the (extremely helpful) Verizon salesman twice. (”You’re doing great,” he says, politely refraining from adding “for an old lady.”)

I’ve learned how to download apps (for my bank, my auto insurance, and of course AAA), how to use (some) widgets, and even how to dictate text messages and emails (now I know where all those hilarious auto-correct jokes come from). I’ve made a few calls and exchanged text messages with a friend (heaven help me, I even read one at a stop light—I’m turning into one of those people). I’ve received two spam calls, neither of which I answered. I’ve learned that I have to charge the phone every morning.

Next step, the calendar and memo functions. One of these days, I’ll be as dependent on my phone as everyone else.

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