There IS an App For That!

Sometime late in 2015 my car stalled, at a busy intersection at dusk, and I discovered just how hard it was to call AAA from my little Tracphone. (Fortunately, the car started after a few minutes, and I managed to cancel my call for help.) There must be an app for that, I thought, if only I had a phone that did apps.

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So a couple of months later I went to the local Verizon store and bought myself a very smart phone; among the first apps I downloaded was AAA. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

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Last Thursday, after driving my usual 30-mile commute into Houston for work and running some business errands, I came out of the post office to a car that refused to start. Not so much as a grumble. Turn the key to utter silence.

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Sudden battery death is not unheard of in the heat of a Houston summer. Maybe that was all it was, a simple fix, even though the battery had been checked recently when I had the oil changed. No need to panic. After all, I was in the parking lot of a post office, at 11:45 AM. There are definitely worse times and places to have car trouble. And I had my phone, and the AAA app.

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So I called Jo Anne to tell her I would not be back in the office for a while. Four minute discussion of options, which boiled down to the obvious “call AAA.”

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But why call when I had that smart app, right? Surely the app would be quicker and more efficient.

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Not so fast. When I opened the app, it asked for my PIN. Seriously? I have a PIN for AAA? I tried the default PIN I usually use when forced to come up with four digits, but that didn’t work. So I backed up and tried again. This time it asked for a password. Of course it did. And my original smart phone probably knew the password, but I had to replace that phone a couple of months ago, and the new phone didn’t have a clue. Nor did I.

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By this time a nice woman picking up her mail had noticed my problem and offered me the phone number for AAA. I had that, of course, right there in the app, but I had accepted a challenge. I was going to conquer that app in the air-conditioned comfort of the post office, in case I might need it some night on the side of the road.

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I circled around the app again and put in my AAA membership number. Aha, now it knew me, but it still wanted a password, so I went through the whole password reset routine, which involved the browser, the web site, and three emails.

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At long last, with a new password, I got into the business section of the app. That presented its own challenges. The phone’s GPS had sent a not-too-accurate location, and I had to ask a postal clerk for the correct street address. Then I discovered that I couldn’t just type “Toyota” into the vehicle description boxes—they all work on drop down lists. I finally managed that, and got an immediate response and an estimate of about an hour.

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Happily, it didn’t take nearly that long. After receiving one call from the subcontractor (who rattled off her standard message so fast that I had to ask her to repeat herself) and another from the driver, I saw a truck pull into the parking lot and stop behind my car.

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The driver, a big cheerful Latino guy with a tear in the right leg of his uniform trousers, hopped out of his truck and handed me a cold bottle of water. He checked the battery with some high-tech gadget and pronounced it perfect. Probably the starter, he said, sliding the driver’s seat back so he could wiggle into my Corolla. He then performed a magical feat involving the gear shift, and the car started. There was about a fifty-fifty chance that it would start again if I turned it off, he said.

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I didn’t like those odds, so I called Jo Anne. After stopping by her house so her helper could come out and get the mail I had picked up (I didn’t think to ask her to bring me my lunch, which is still sitting under my desk), I headed south to the Toyota dealership in League City, where they quickly discovered that the problem was indeed the starter (gee, it only lasted 240,000 miles—how many starts would that be?), which they had in stock (not always the case with parts for a 2004 Corolla). While I waited, I pulled out the phone yet again, made a couple of calls, opened the Kindle app, and downloaded the book I was currently reading. The book opened to where I’d left off on my Kindle the night before, and I read until the car was ready.

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My phone was expensive, and the monthly service isn’t cheap, either, but it sure comes in handy when I need it. Between the phone itself, the AAA app, my email, the texting app, and the Kindle app, I definitely put it through its paces on Thursday. I never leave home without it.

 

More Techno Fun

Yesterday morning I found my computer waiting for its password—it had updated and rebooted during the night. That always makes me a little nervous. The computer is eight years old and often slow. A while back it took me two hours and a lot of experimentation to get it back on after an update, and a few weeks ago an update wiped out my Quicken file (I’ve been more careful about back ups since then). This time there were no update-related problems.

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But when I opened my email, I found some very strange messages. Two were automated “not taking queries” responses from agents I have not queried. There were a couple of “you can’t post here because you don’t belong to this forum” emails from RWA forums that, indeed, I do not belong to. A couple of bounce notices from old email addresses. I later found spam emails, apparently coming from my email address, on a couple of lists I do belong to, and at least one friend received a spam link from me.

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Drat. Spoofed again.

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So I dove into the depths of AOL to change my password. I suspect the spoofing had nothing to do with my password, but it doesn’t hurt to change them, and the one I’ve been using, probably since the last time I had some minor disruption in service, was hard to type. I stuck a couple of unrelated words together and had a new password. My computer and the cloud based email system were fine with it.

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My phone wasn’t.

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I put the new password into the generic email app that the Verizon salesman set up for me two years ago when I bought the phone, and was informed, in no uncertain terms, that it was incorrect. Tried again. And again. The very definition of stubborn stupidity, repeating the same action and expecting a different result. I did not get a different result, no matter how often I tried.

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I checked AOL help and found nothing useful, but after spending way too much time on the problem, the passing mention of an AOL android app finally clicked. I found my way to the app store, downloaded AOL, and was back in my email immediately. (And in the evening I figured out how to stop the old app from demanding authorization every time I woke the phone up.)

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What strikes me as funny about the whole thing is that not much more than two years ago I’d never read an email on a phone. I didn’t have a phone that could handle the job. I didn’t know what I was missing, but now I do. The thought of not being able to access my email through my phone has become completely unacceptable.

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I’ve seen no more evidence of email spoofing since I changed the password, whether that was really a factor or not. My Amazon Fire tablet, which until recently was demanding a password every other time I opened my email, sometimes telling me it was wrong, and then letting me in anyway, still doesn’t seem to have noticed the change. So I have three ways to get to my email—too bad my email isn’t more exciting.

 

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.

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.

How Smart Should My Phone Be?

Do I need a Smart Phone, or will I only be embarrassed when the gadget turns out to be smarter than I am?

I resisted getting a cell phone for years, back in the day when people still thought of them as “car phones.” Back then, my car was very nearly the only place where I could get away from the phone. There were rare occasions when it might have been handy to have a phone in my purse, but I didn’t give it much thought.

When I started commuting to work, thirty miles each way, in 2003, I thought about it more seriously, and after I had car trouble on the Gulf Freeway one evening in early 2005, I gave in and bought a TracFone, a simple little device that could make calls and not much else. I rarely used it. In fact I rarely turned it on, and I didn’t give the number to anyone but Jo Anne, the friend I work with.

old phone 2A couple of years later, TracFone sent me an upgrade. Apparently there was some change in the — heck, I don’t know what changed, but I needed a different type of phone, and they sent me one. Every year I pay a minimal amount, about $100, for service, and they give me more minutes, of which I use very few.

Two years ago I upgraded on my own to a much nicer TracFone model. One might even call it a moderately intelligent phone. It has a larger screen, with colors and icons. I can leave it on and it only rarely makes calls on its own. It supposedly can access the Internet and my email, but I have yet to figure out how. The instructions it came with are utterly worthless, and those available on line not notably better. But I can make and receive calls and text messages, although I rarely do. I have more than 6000 minutes on my account. If I have to call AAA for help, I can. As far as phone service goes, what more do I need?

But I’m being tempted by Apps, and all those things people do with their phones these days. My phone has a calendar, and notes, and probably a lot of other not very useful built-in functions, but not enough memory to download Apps. It has a camera, but no way to get the pictures off the phone, at least not that I can find. (I have an actual camera for that.) I don’t want to send pictures of my lunch to Twitter anyway. I don’t want to read books on my phone (my Kindle is small enough!), but sometimes it might be handy to hop on the Internet and look something up, or read my email when I’m away from home and computer.

I have many friends, most of them younger than I am, who seem to carry their whole lives on their phones, even some who never take the Bluetooth gadget out of their ear (apparently because any incoming phone call would be more important than the live human beings in the same room). I don’t want that.

On the other hand, tonight I got an email from my car insurance company offering an App that might be genuinely useful. It wasn’t the first time I’ve wondered if I’m really missing something. I’m frequently surrounded by people my age and older who seem to find their smart phones genuinely useful.

Smart phone? IPad? Kindle Fire? I don’t know what the heck I need. No, I know I don’t actually need any of them. I’m trying to decide what I want. Maybe I should make up my mind before I’m the last person alive without a “mobile device.” Maybe I just have a growing case of gadget envy.

What works for you? Advice and suggestions welcome!