Saturday, December 31, 2016

Black and White Panoramas Are Too Easy , Even Underwater

I've finally gotten around to editing my PNG stills from November 2015.  I spent a month aboard the vessel Golden Dawn with fellow divers Howard and Michele Hall, and Douglas and Emily Seifert, and Raine Irving. 

I had just started experimenting with shooting panoramas before that trip, and I shot some underwater panoramas with almost no knowledge of how to do it correctly.  Since then, I've learned proper techniques.  The software these days is amazingly easy to use. 

I've also had to learn Adobe Lightroom to organize and edit my images (I've been a long-time Apple Aperture software user for my image library needs).  Lightroom is great, as most photographers already know.  You can create panoramas from within Lightroom, which makes the process very easy.  Before this, you had to convert your images to JPGs, then use a program like Autostitch to create panoramas, then fit those images into your workflow and library somehow.  It was clumsy. 

I've tried using Google's Nik Collection, and it is ridiculously easy to use to create great-looking images. Again, you can use Nik Collection's tool within Lightroom. 

Here's an underwater panorama of a lush coral reef in Papua New Guinea, converted to black-and-white using Nik Effects's Silver Efex Pro.  It's too easy -- so easy it's not that interesting to use.  Art should be hard.  With Nik Effects, creating a "look" just involves pushing a button.  It's  art.  But it still looks good.  And it's easy!

Buying a Replacement Charger for Your Device Without Being Gouged

Have you ever had a device and lost or broken your wall charger (wall wart)?  If you call the manufacturer, they may charge you $25 to $30 plus the cost of shipping to send you a replacement charger.  This is ridiculous.  They probably get the chargers for less than one dollar each.  Charging a customer 25 to 30 times more is outrageous!

My wife is a dentist, and she has a $500 light called a Lumident.  A couple of weeks ago, she showed me the charger for that light, which had been damaged by someone rushing around and banging it around.  She had called the manufacturer, and they wanted to charge her about $40 to ship out a new charger. 

I looked on the label of the damaged charger, and it had the following information on it:

Input 100-240Vac
Output 8.4dc 1.2A
And a symbol that shows the positive (+) side is INSIDE the power connector, and the ground or negative (-) is on the outside of the power connector (power plug).

This was the important stuff.  This tells me that the charger works everywhere -- US, Europe, Japan, etc (Input 100-240Vac).  More importantly, it told me that I needed to find a charger that has an output of 8.4 Volts, and puts out 1.2 amp.

Looking online for "8.4V charger", I saw dozens of AC adapters that were designed to charge Li-ion batteries, and were rated for 8.4V.  All of them were only rated for 1 amp, not 1.2 amp.  I went ahead and bought one from Amazon, and one from Ebay.  The replacement ones looked exactly like the Lumident.

The one from Ebay was supposedly from a US seller -- but instead, it turns out that the seller lied and is shipping the charger from China.  Two weeks later, I am still waiting.

The one from Amazon arrived promptly as promised.  Here's the label:

I tested the voltage on both chargers.  The original one put out 8.4Volts.  The new one put out 10.4 Volts.  I've noticed that most chargers put out a slightly higher voltage than what their label states.  This is fine; most electronic gadgets can accept slightly higher voltages to work.  The opposite is not always true.

The power connectors looked different, but they actually had the same measurements, and the inside wire was indeed positive.

I was concerned that the new power adapter put out only 1.0 amp, but then I saw my wife's Lumident gear.  It turns out that the chargers are not meant to power the light directly, but to charge the battery packs that then power the lights.  This is great.  This means that a charger rated at 8.4 Volts will charge the battery packs, no problem, even if it has a lower current (amperage) flowing out of it.  It will just take more time.

If the charger was used to power the light directly, then using a charger rated at 1.0 amp rather than 1.2 amp might mean that the light is not as bright as it should be.  This would have been a problem.

I did not notice the other information on the original charger, which would have made things easier if I had.  If I had noticed, then I would not have been concerned about the current (amperage) of the replacement charger at all.  Anything near 1 amp would have been fine.

Class 2 Battery Charger
Smart Charger for Li-ion BAttery Pack
Charge 2 cell Li-ion battery, rated 7.4V, max 30Ah, min 1.2Ah...

The original charger is labelled as a smart charger.  This likely means that it turns itself off after fullying charging a battery pack.  With the replacement charger, the user might need to unplug the charger after noticing the battery is fully charged, or put the charger on a timer.

Hopefully the above helps someone replace an AC charger without paying a ridiculous amount.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

How to Stop Automatic Updates to Your iPad

Update May 7, 2017:

I have a router that takes the wifi hotspot signal from my cell phone, and creates a stronger network for my summer house.  Unfortunately, my iPad mini 2 has now downloaded OS 10.3 updates twice now, and I've deleted the updates twice.  That's cost me about $30, as each update uses up 1.2Gb of data.  This is really awful of Apple.  This new router won't let me set access control so that no devices can be stopped from accessing the Apple update website. 

I researched a bit more, and here are two more ways to prevent Apple auto updates.  These are from forums -- thanks forums! 

a.  To disable iOS auto download, you will have to do one thing or the other:

- Connected to personal hotspot but not charging the iPad
- Charging the iPad but turn off WiFi

b.  There's a 3rd way, stuff your iPad with data (music, photos, videos etc) until the remaining free space is down to only a few MB. Silly solution but it'll definitely stop iOS auto download because of insufficient free space.

I did b above, and hope that it works.  Here are some more tips on item b: Download some large vids.  Delete a vid when you need more space. size around 100meg.  Garage Band is 500meg.  Microsoft free office apps are rather large too. 

Bad, Apple!  REALLY BAD, as my father-in-law would say.  REALLY, REALLY BAD!

I bought an iPad mini 2, along with a Lifeproof Fre case, and I love it.  The Lifeproof case lets me take the iPad pretty much anywhere, without worrying about it.  I can read the New York Times online edition in a hot tub, for instance.  I used the Galileo maps app on the iPad on my recent month-long driving trip through South Africa, and the app was an  incredibly useful tool.  With Galileo, I knew where I was even without any kind of data connection.  It even tells me where I am if I am indoors, away from seeing a GPS signal. 

I'm stunned, however, about how Apple forces its updates on users.  It's nearly impossible to turn off the automatic updates.  The updates, which routinely are over 1 Gb in size (a huge file), will update in the background as long as the iPad detects that it is connected to the internet.  Again, unless you are a pretty technical user -- it's impossible to turn off the automatic updates!

I just spent a month at my summer house in Washington State, and I get the internet there using my smartphone as a wifi hotspot (among other things).  When the iPad downloaded an update, it could have cost me up to $40 each time!  The iPad did this about three times this past month.  I've noticed that when using my cell modems now, my Macs and iPads suck up more and more data.  I used to be able to using only 500Mb or less of data in a month up there (doing just emails and web browsing, no Netflix viewing or file downloads and uploads).  Now if I am not super careful about making sure that automatic updates on all machines are turned off, I can go through 500Mb in one day EASILY.  That's $20 per day (using a Google Fi phone, that is only $5 -- one good reason to use Google Fi unless your location doesn't have good Sprint or T-Mobile data access). 

This is perhaps the most annoying and dictatorial feature of Apple's that I've encountered.  The update downloads secretly in the background.  There's no way to prevent this unless you alter settings in your router.  When the update is on the iPad, a message comes up every time you turn on the iPad, asking if you want to update.  It's sneaky.  If you hit the wrong button in a rush or not thinking this through, you will give permission for the update to go ahead at night.  It's a psychological trick that Apple is using to get its users to allow the updating of the machines.  It's sneaky.  It sucks. 

I've turned off all updating on all my machines, especially my Windows machines.  I am just too tired of updating to a new operating system, and then having to spend two days getting my old programs and apps to work again.   I keep as little personal information on these computers as possible, back them up religiously, don't use them for banking, etc.  I have one and only one machine that I do keep updated fairly regularly.  All my machines have the theft software Prey and Undercover for Mac installed on them.  If someone steals my iPad, for instance, I have little personal information on there, can track it using Prey, and can wipe it remotely.  I use my iPad for Galileo (incredibly awesome mapping software that shows you where you are, on a detailed map, all the time as far as I can tell, without having to use wifi); newspaper reading, book reading, etc -- NOT banking and financial stuff. 

I went online, and here are the web pages that solved this problem for me:

From the above: 
  1. Open the Settings app and go to “General”
  2. Choose “Storage & iCloud Usage”
  3. Go to “Manage Storage”
  4. Locate the iOS software update that is nagging you and tap on it
  5. Tap on “Delete Update” and confirm that you want to delete the update*
  6. Disconnect from wi-fi to avoid the software update downloading itself again

This did not work for me: 
Automatic Updates are enabled by default, so you'll need to turn them off. This won't help with the current update, but it will stop you from getting these messages in future. So the first thing you should do is dive into settings and turn Automatic Updates off:

  1. Tap Settings.
  2. Tap iTunes & App Stores.
  3. Set Updates underneath "Automatic Downloads" to Off.
This will prevent iOS from downloading updates in future, although you'll still need to deal with the update you've downloaded.
I've decided to try the nuclear option -- but I was unable to do this at our home, while using my cell phones as wifi hotspots.  Here's the "nuclear option" from 

Option 4: Blocking the Apple Software Update Domains on a Router / Gateway

The last option is to block the update domains on whatever router or gateway the iOS devices are using to connect to the internet. This is a rather dramatic approach and can lead to many unintended issues, plus it will stop the ability to download any software update from Apple at all entirely for all devices through the network until it’s reversed. Because there is no way of preventing software updates through settings however, this is the approach that many managed enterprise and educational facilities take with iOS devices.
For those who want to go this route, preventing access to the following domains does the trick:
Each router and gateway is different, so you’ll have to set this up on your own.
Again, if you do this, no device on the network will be able to install any update from Apple at all, nor check for available updates. Don’t do this unless you know exactly what you’re doing and why, it’s truly only an option for advanced users, network administrators, and sysadmins who need to manage devices on their own without the constant update reminders.

Read the comments at the above website.  People are incredibly frustrated and angry about Apple pushing these automatic updates on them.  I sure am.  
Here are some comments: 
I’d say that Apple has become Microsoft, but even Microsoft is less aggressive with the software updates than Apple now. That it downloads and uses bandwidth repeatedly without permission is shocking, especially given bandwidth limitations in the world and even in the USA which has 3rd world internet infrastructure in much of the country.
Apple needs to default to NOT automatically downloading anything, and NOT automatically installing anything. I can’t tell you how many people I know have just pressed buttons on their iPhone they see as they pop up and then have a problem and regret updating!

Yes unfortunately if there is space available on the iPhone, the iOS update will redownload itself continuously if on wi-fi overnight or unattended. You delete it, wake up and it’s back. Delete again. It’s back. Rinse, repeat. Great user experience.

They have to stop doing this. It’s insane and I am so mad right now. I was using my phone for doing a time lapse today. I have been recording the whole day. Before I started I got this stupid reminder and I clicked no because I don’t want to update and after that i put my phone in airplane mode. Then I started my recording and now for just 20 min ago I checked the screen and that stupid pop up was there again and it had stopped my time lapse. I lost 3 hours….. I was doing a 12 hours recording. Apple can no be trusted anymore. It always something new with them. They call this a good experience? Even if you delete the update it comes back. Like someone said here. The whole point with to delete something is because you don’t want it.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Boo On These Bad Websites and Marketing Emails

I defend my email inbox fervently.  I started doing this when I realized how much time I was spending by reviewing and deleting marketing emails that were useless or unwanted.

I have completely filtered out a very few people and companies that refuse to honor proper email etiquette.  However, I don't like filtering out emails completely.  I won't see important emails relating to my services or account, for instance.  It's a nuclear solution that I would prefer not to  use.  Companies should realize this and respect customers' requests, and send only emails that really are important. 

Companies should spend make sure that their emails don't annoy their customers -- obviously, if a customer gets an email and wishes to unsubscribe, it should be easy, not hard.  Below are some marketing emails that I've received in the past month that illustrate BAD email practices.  Shame on these companies.

First up are the banks with which I have a relationship.  I have unsubscribed out of all their useless, time-wasting emails --  yet I am still get them.  These are not important emails, yet the banks and companies send them regardless of my email preferences, stating that these are important communications.  Really?

Here's an example from Comcast.  Their excuse in sending me this unwanted email (I've unsubscribed from all marketing emails from them) is that "This is a service-related email. Comcast will occasionally send you service-related emails to inform you of service upgrades or new benefits. " There's no way to unsubscribe from this email.  It supposedly is a "service upgrade or new benefit."

Frankly, that's bullshit.  This is a marketing email that is not of importance to their customers, and it wastes their time.  Comcast is disregarding their customer's preferences and blasting out this email hoping to make their customers sign up for electronic statements.  This email is solely to save Comcast money, so they don't have to send you paper bills.  It's deceptive -- they call it "Eco-billing" trying to make it sound environmentally friendly.  Shame on you, Comcast.  Not only are you sending me emails despite my requesting to not be bothered by your marketing emails -- but you are exploiting an environmental message to further your own agenda.

Another mistake that companies make is not realizing that customers often have multiple email addresses, some of which are aliases.  For example, one diving company keeps sending emails to one of my email addresses, which is an alias.  I can't log on and unsubscribe using that email address -- it exists purely to forward emails to another email address.  Therefore, when this diving company sends me its breathless marketing emails, and I try to unsubscribe -- I can't.  This diving company sent emails to four or five of the emails that I have or had in the past (and which forward to my main email address these days).  I had to go onto the web, use a browser (normally I use Thunderbird, an excellent email program), log into five email accounts, unsubscribe from there (so the diving company sees that the unsubscribe email is coming from the right place), and then log out.  Very annoying.  Most companies who hire professionals to do their marketing allow me to unsubscribe with just one click.

I got this email today, perhaps one of the worst examples of a bad email.  I had to filter emails from this company out completely, because I am absolutely unable to unsubscribe. The email I received had an "unsubscribe" button, but when I clicked on it, I was taken to the company's home page, which required me to log in!  I have no account with this company -- I had simply hired a painter, who then used this company to send me these incredibly annoying emails.

BAD Thumbtack!

How is a customer supposed to be able to unsubscribe?  You provided the "unsubscribe" link in your email, but it doesn't do anything!

Add caption
Clicking on "Unsubscribe" in the above email took me to the Thumbtack login page -- not a page telling me that I had been unsubscribed.  I have no choice to unsubscribe whatsoever. 


As a last example, Hyatt kept sending me marketing emails.  I went to my email preferences three times to unsubscribe from all emails from Hyatt, and each time, Hyatt  would send me another marketing email the next week.  It was ridiculous.  I finally wrote them to complain.  

They wrote back.  I'm glad that they wrote back, but their answer and behavior sure shows that they just "don't get it."  

Here's what they wrote: 
We understand the inconvenience caused over the recent e-mails that have been sent. You may opt out from promotional information e-mails from Hyatt and for your convenience we have already deactivated the option of receiving promotional emails on your Gold Passport account number LDDDDDDD. However, since we are undergoing program changes, we would like to communicate the changes to our members so that they are aware about it and can reap maximum benefits of the program.

So, I took the trouble to unsubscribe from their marketing emails (I was getting two or three per week, way too many emails!).  Looking back, I got Hyatt emails November 1, 3, and 7 -- far too many.  

The reason Hyatt feels that they can ignore my email preferences and continue to blast me with emails is given above: "since we are undergoing program changes, we would like to communicate the changes to our members so that they are aware about it and can reap maximum benefits of the program."  Ridiculous.  If a customer unsubscribes from your spam emails -- leave him or her alone! 

Here are just a few of the emails sent to me by Hyatt in the past two weeks.  
 I received this on November 7:


And this one on November 3...

And this one on November 1: 

Hey Hyatt -- your marketing department is sending out way too many emails, and not honoring unsubscribe requests!   

Oh, I almost forgot the best part of my Hyatt experience.  After deluging me with emails to the point where I had to write to complain, they sent me a final message (before I filtered them), asking me to fill out a survey!  Hyatt just does not get it.  

I am not a rabid anti-email person.  I like getting, and I request, marketing emails from companies that truly respect my privacy and respect email etiquette.  These companies show their respect for email etiquette by their actions, not just their words. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Miscellaneous Thoughts, Tips, and Recommendations:

First, some humor:
Things that don't make sense (WTF?):
a.  Pandora seems like the most annoying music service ever dreamed up  Because it is not allowed to play a song that is specifically requested, it will play every song EXCEPT the one you want to hear.  WTF? 

b.  I have a friend named Tom.  He is a brilliant guy, who earned a PhD in linguistics, knows all kinds of computer stuff, and has osme of the least common sense that I know.  One of the things that he bragged about, the last time I saw him, was that he was one of the first people to sign up for  As a result, they gave him a free lifetime membership.  Hey -- does this not show little faith in your product?  WTF? 

c.  If you call a restaurant and order take-out, then you pay once you get there and your food is ready.  Why, then, are you forced to pay in advance if you order takeout at a restaurant in person?  This puts the customer at a real disadvantage.  The restaurant can take all the time it wants, because it already has the customer's money.  I've had this happen to me several times now.  I've ordered takeout in person at a restaurant, been forced to pay upfront, and then sat around for 40 minutes waiting for the food that was promised in 20 minutes.  Now, if I am in this situation, I sit in my car or call from the sidewalk outside the restaurant, and order using my phone.  It solves the problem.  If the order takes too long, I can always leave.  I've never had to do this, but I also don't see why I should have to pay upfront when ordering in person.  

1.  Ship USPS First Class with Tracking:
Let's say you wish to ship something via USPS First Class Mail (which is a great service!).  As an individual, you can't get tracking of First Class Mail packages by going to the post office or putting stamps on the package.  You also can't ship packages over 13 ounces via First Class Mail. 

If you use Paypal, however, you can send packages up to 15 oz via First Class Mail, and those packages provide tracking.  I love shipping packages using USPS since I just put the package in my mailbox. 

Here's a link to use to ship USPS using Paypal, even for non-Ebay transactions:

2.  Buying replacement bulbs for old flashlights, and saving 10,000%! 
I have an old underwater flashlight that I now use for getting my dogs out of the backyard at night, and the bulb blew out.  Here's what the user guide said:

"In an emergency, use a common PR-size bulb approximating 10V in place of the high-intensitybulb #0042.58.  Any standard PR base bulb for batteries can be used." 

Online, the replacement bulb for the light was over $11 plus shipping.  That was far more than I wanted to pay for an old flashlight to be repaired. 

I went to Bulbtown online and called them.  Here's what I learned. 

The "standard PR base bulb" was the very common P13.5S base (flange is 13.5mm).  Bulbtown has videos for their PR bulbs showing the measurements which are useful and easy to understand. 

Bulbtown had various PR-type bulbs.  They all had the same physical dimensions, but they differed in their voltage rating. 

I ordered the following bulbs, all of which were about 10 cents each:

PR16: rated at 12.5volts.  Bulbtown stated that this would be a bit dim. 
PR20: rated at 8.63V.  Bulbtown stated that this would be brighter.  The customer service representative there stated that it is fine to have 8-C cells (12V) powering a bulb rated 8.63V. 

The rep recommended Krypton bulbs for my flashlight.  I ordered:
KPR12 - 12V
KPR18 - 7.2V

When I got the bulbs, I put the halogen PR20 in the flashlight, and it worked fine.  I have not tried the others. 

I hope that this post saves you some money the next time you need to replace a bulb in a flashlight.  Ten cents for a bulb!  Shipping did add $8, and I was disappointed in how long it took Bulbtown to get the items to me.  They waited a week for some reason, then blamed a hurricane for the second week that it took to get to me.  I looked up the timeline, however, and they had my order for a full week before the hurricane hit.  The order ended up taking about 20 days to reach me from the time I placed the order. 

3.  Tower Inflatable Standup Paddleboards are AWESOME: 
I love my Tower inflatable standup paddleboard.  It weighs only about 30 pounds and is very heavy duty.  It's made from material that is similar to what is used in inflatable boats.  I have an Avon inflatable boat in my garage that is over 30 years old, and it still works fine. I used it for diving in the mid and late 1980s around Monterey, San Diego, and in Baja -- and the material is just fine.  The paddleboard should be around for a long time also. 

I liked the first Tower so much that I bought a second one.  Here's a link to what I bought:

Tower Paddle Boards Adventurer Inflatable 9'10" SUP Package
Price is $699 on the Tower site, but less on Amazon. 

Tower's customer support is awesome.  I took my paddleboards to camp at a river with low water levels, joining some old friends with kids.  They all had plastic kayaks, which weighed much more and took two people to carry.  My Tower SUP was much lighter, by contrast, and made it down most of the river, even in water less than six inches deep.  I did take out the back fin, and the SUP did get stuck in some very shallow areas where the kayaks were able to float past. 

I (well, my friend Doug) had to hack through a metal screw fitting that held the back fin in place on the paddleboard.  I ended up misplacing the back fin, and I needed a new fin screw also.  I wrote Tower, described the situation -- and they generously sent me a new back fin and screw.  The new screw is plastic, so it won't corrode like the old metal one.  I am a happy camper and a fan of Tower Paddle Boards

Moose, our chocolate lab, likes the SUP particularly well and could hardly be persuaded to get off -- even with the temptation of a thrown tennis ball, which normally gets him to do ANYTHING. 

Oh, I almost forgot the most important point to this post.  The great thing about the Tower SUPs is that you can deflate them for travel, and inflate them once you get to your destination.  Tower supplies a hand pump, but I would discourage anyone from using the hand pump to inflate a SUP.  I tried using their hand pump to pump up a Tower SUP in my basement, over a period of several days.  It was exhausting, and I never got there.  I had to give up!

I then did quite a bit of research.  The first thing to know is that a $15 foot pump from Target or Walmart will NOT do the job.  These pumps are designed to inflate plastic inner tubes and other toys, to about 2 pounds per square inch (psi).  Tower SUPs need to be inflated so that they are very rigid, which is a bit over 10 psi. 

Most consumer hand and foot pumps, and electrical pumps, are designed to fill up toys to about 2 psi max (plastic Intex inner tubes, air mattresses, etc).  I went to West Marine and bought a professional foot pump that is used to pump up inflatable boats.  This pump works great; it takes about five minutes to pump up a Tower SUP to rigidity.  It cost about $70. 

There were some electrical pumps that might work -- but NOT the Coleman ones from Target.  Any pump must be able to pump up to 10 psi. 

Here are some pumps I found that will likely work to inflate a Tower SUP.  I have only tried the foot pump:

WEST MARINE: Bravo Foot Pumps: I believe that I bought the heavy-duty one for $69.  The PSI rating of these pumps is not in the specifications on the website, unfortunately -- but I did get mine from West Marine, and it is yellow and gray -- and works great.

Sevylor 12 Volt 15 PSI SUP and Water Sport Pump:
The listing states: High-pressure pump inflates up to 15 psi for rigid SUP boards

There's an adapter that allows the use of portable air compressors that can go to very high PSIs, as much as 150 psi.  I use one of these portable air compressors to pump up my car tires.  This adapter valve allows one of these pumps to fill your SUP.   However, I imagine that you have to be super careful to watch that you don't overinflate your SUP, and I also imagine that these portable air compressors won't put out enough air and may overheat before the job is done. 

Slingshot SUP High Pressure Inflator Valve: about $25

Here's a good post on pumps for SUPs:

4.  Tip on Charging a Garmin Using a Car Charger and Regular USB Cable Rather Than the Official Garmin Charger: 
 If you have a Garmin nuvi (car navigation unit) and have tried to charge it with a standard mini USB cable, it may not work.  I tried this a few times in my car with a car charger, and at my office off a wall charger.  The Garmin would go into a "connected to computer" mode and would not go into its regular driving mode.  I discovered that the charger must put out 2 amps -- the same as a charger for an iPad.  Most car and wall chargers put out only 500 milliamps, not enough.  Find a USB charger that puts out 2A, and this will charge the Garmin as well as let it operate normally while charging. 

5. is a great site to get a newspaper or magazine subscription:
I have always had trouble trying to figure out how to do things related to my Wall Street Journal subscription.  Their account website is horrific, terrible, impossible to use. 

I gave up in frustration and subscribed (getting a great deal in the process) at

This website and their customer service is awesome!  They offer subscriptions to all kinds of magazines and newspapers, and give great deals.  Most subscriptions are for the general public. 

When we went on vacation in July, we simply called studentmags, spoke to a nice,  helpful customer service representative, and VOILA!  she was able to look up our WSJ account number and suspend delivery while we were on vacation.  She even extended our subscription for the days that we were gone.  That's the kind of customer service that is rare to find these days.  www.studentmags is AWESOME! 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Payment Services: Paypal Sucks, Square is Getting Better

Paypal sucks.  I have written about this before, but I have had two new experiences that have made me try to find other ways to transfer money and accept payments from customers.  There are few alternatives to Paypal out there.  There's also a lot of misinformation out there.  In the results from a Google search, most posts about competing payment services are outdated. 

So here's my big tip for the day: if you are a seller of goods or services, or have a need to collect a payment from someone -- try Square.  I've been using Square for a few years now, and they've been great. 
Square has a new feature so those of us who run small or home offices can collect money without having to ask for credit card information.  In the past, this was a problem.  If you were like me, you had clients all over the world that would like to pay you using a credit card.  Paypal would not work for them for many reasons (plus, Paypal really, really sucks  -- read below and in my previous blog post).  If you used Square, then you had to ask for the client's credit card information, address, and other information -- then pull out your iPad or iPhone, and laboriously enter the information in the Square app on your iPhone.  The app was confusing.  The clients did not feel comfortable giving out their credit card numbers.  I generally only used Square a couple of times per year. 

Square has improved greatly.  I recently sold a lens to a photographer in Washington DC.  She told me to send her an invoice -- using Square.  I researched how to do this, and discovered that I could create an invoice using Square using my desktop browser.  Finally, I could use my Mac rather than my iPad!  I sent her an invoice from Square to her email address, and that was it!  I did not need to get her credit card information, or even her physical address (but of course I did ship her lens to her address).  She paid the invoice to Square, and Square put the cash (minus their 2.9% plus 30 cent fee) in my bank account the next business day.  Wow -- simple, efficient, and awesome.  Kudos to Square!

When Paypal hosed me recently, I spent hours researching other payment services.  I even tried Google Wallet.  In short, do not waste your time on other services, other than Square!  Paypal is the only established peer-to-peer payment service out there these days, unfortunately.  It's the only established player in this space, and people feel comfortable with it.  As one website writes:  There’s not a single payment service out there that offers the international reach, merchant services and overall ease that PayPal does.

Here's what I discovered:

Venmo: I signed up for an account, and then I discovered that Paypal has bought Venmo.  One down.  I am trying to find an alternative to Paypal!

Amazon Payments: It appears that this service is no longer is a peer-to-peer service. I believe that this is set up so folks selling on Amazon can set this up to accept payments on their websites.  It is not the right peer-to-peer funds transfer service that I was looking for. 

Google Checkout:
from the web: Google Checkout was discontinued on November 20, 2013.  The company offers a new solution for certain payments called Google Wallet.

Google Payments: was there even a Google Payments, or is that a figment of my imagination?  There must be, since Google's emails to me (see below) mention Google Payments several times.  Yet, doing a Google Search today (October 23, 2016), I can't find a single mention of Google Payments.  It's eerie to think that something like Google Payments can be just wiped out by Google. 

Google Wallet: I signed up for an account with Google Wallet.  Google Wallet used to be part of Android Pay, but now it's different.  Here's what said about it:
"...The slimmed-down Android app (Google Wallet) is now more focused on mobile payments between individuals rather than businesses. In other words, it's a direct competitor to our Editors' Choice Venmo. It works, but it's a shame Google Wallet had to strip out so many features to find its current focus."

Here are some notes I collected about Google Wallet:
"Send money to anyone in the US using an email address or phone number. It's fast, easy, and free to send directly from your debit card, bank account, or Wallet Balance. You can do all this in the Google Wallet app, or, if you’re on desktop, you can also send and request money in Gmail.

"When you receive money, you can quickly cash out to your bank account using your debit card, and get access to your money within minutes.

"You can send money to or request money from anyone in the US with an email address or phone number through the Google Wallet app, on Gmail, or at"

I personally found all of Google's choices confusing. Google Checkout?  Gone.  Google Payments?  Wiped out without a trace.  Google Wallet is indeed still around (and I tried it, leading to the type of corporate snafu that I try to avoid assiduously).  It apparently has gone through several remakes; Android Pay was spun off from Google Wallet.  Whatever. 

I found that Google Wallet was not a very good service, to say the least.  Their representatives gave me misinformation, and the process was handled poorly.  I give more details below. 

Paypal Really, Really Sucks: 
Before we get to Google Payments or Wallet or Checkout or whatever -- I would like to offer some more experiences (all bad) on Paypal.  In short, Paypal really, really sucks.  I wrote about them in a previous blog post, but these are new discoveries of how bad Paypal sucks. 

First, anyone who is concerned about computer security should use a VPN on open Wi-Fi networks.  I use Torguard's VPN and discuss it in a separate post.  It's very easy to set up.  I signed up to Torguard (it costs $60 per year but is often discounted), downloaded their VPN software, and open their app when I need to.  That app routes all my data through one of their servers.  Your data should be encrypted as it goes through their servers from your laptop, and it is thus supposedly protected from prying eyes that may have hacked an open Wi-Fi network like Starbucks or an airport. 

Obviously, if using a public wifi hotspot, I'd want to access my Paypal account through a VPN, for the best security.  Why in the hell would Paypal not allow this? 

I logged into Paypal from an airport, through my VPN network, and Paypal would not let me enter my account.  They later froze my account and would not let me transfer funds in or out until I supplied identifying information.  I was out of the country for a month and had no access to the funds in my account.  When I returned, I tried verifying my information, and it was impossible to do -- Paypal refused to accept my phone number and would not believe that I was the owner of the account.  I gave up -- the last thing I want to do is talk to Paypal's useless customer service people.  The account was a secondary, personal account so I only had about $60 in there.  After several months, Paypal sent me a message saying essentially that I could no longer use the account, but I could transfer the funds out of there.  I read in a post that Paypal's terms of agreement compels Paypal to release your funds after 180 days. 

This is simply ridiculous.  Folks who use a VPN to protect their data, like their username and passwords, are not allowed to log into Paypal?  If I am in a Starbucks or at an airport using a public Wi-Fi service, then Paypal is forcing me to use a lower-security method to log into my Paypal account.  Paypal disallows me from using a VPN, which protects my data when using a public Wi-Fi hotspot. 

Wait, here's another way Paypal sucks. 
I've been selling old gear on Ebay and accepting Paypal for several years now.  Suddenly in one month, I coincidentally got two customers, who had bought items from me, stating that their "purchase was not authorized", which resulted in a "chargeback."  A chargeback is a situation where a customer disputes a charge with their credit card company rather than directly through Paypal, or maybe it is both the former and the latter.  Regardless, if a seller gets a chargeback claim, Paypal screws the seller. 

Here's a scenario from a forum:


 If anyone has ever filed a charge back on your Paypal account, and the chargeback was won by the buyer, you had BETTER go check your Paypal account, they keep the fees they charged and take that amount from you along with the amount you were originally given. I don’t believe it is an oversight.   for example,I sold an $1185.00 item,paypal paid me $1150.33 and took thier fee of $34.67,but when the chargeback was found in the buyers favor,they took $1185.00 from MY paypal account,and CONVENIENTLY forgot to refund me the $34.67.  Oversight? or Class actionable?   How many millions of chargebacks have they done this with? 

end quote

Any seller who loses a chargeback claim -- and generally you will lose, all the seller has to do is state "item not as described," will then be charged a $20 chargeback fee from Paypal.  From what I understand, Paypal is passing on a chargeback fee from a bank or credit card processor. 

In my situation, a buyer purchased a hard drive off Ebay from me.  I shipped the item and tracked it.  I then left for a trip.  When I came back two weeks later, I discovered that the buyer had refused to accept the package (likely, he changed his mind after buying my item) and had filed a chargeback claim, stating that the purchase was unauthorized.  I was lucky that the buyer actually refused the package -- other Ebay sellers generally have the same thing happen (have to refund any payments, pay chargeback fees, etc.) and the buyer keeps the item (for free). 

Paypal refunded the entire amount to this buyer, and charged me a $20 chargeback fee.  THEY ALSO KEPT THEIR PAYPAL FEE of nearly 3%!  This is simply outrageous. 

As an example with numbers, the above hard drive sold for $100.  I paid $3.90 to ship the item out; the item came back to me.  I had a 20% restocking fee on my Ebay listing to protect against buyers who change their mind without good reason, but Paypal never asked about this policy or considered it.  They simply immediately refunded this buyer the ENTIRE amount that the guy had paid (he was a fraudulent type of buyer; his Ebay user name was paulsamuels1132 or something like that, but his real name was Pranit Sampei).  I was out the cost of shipping, the loss of the item's use for two weeks, and was not able to charge a restocking fee.  On top of this, Paypal charged me a chargeback fee of $20 plus their commission. 

Let's do the math as a seller:
You sell a $100 item. Paypal gets a nearly 3% fee for collecting the money.  You get $97 for the item. 

The buyer pays $100.  You send the item out.  He refuses delivery of the item and files an "unauthorized purchase" claim with Paypal or his credit card.  He gets back his entire $100. 

The seller initially receives $97 of this sale (I am simplifying this).  Paypal retains $3 (its nearly 3% commission for transferring the funds).  When the buyer files a chargeback claim, Paypal gives the buyer the entire $100 back.  Paypal then charges the seller $20 for the chargeback claim. 

Paypal then withdraws $100 from the seller's account.  But wait -- Paypal only ever paid the seller $97 for this transaction.  What happened?  Here's the deal -- Paypal KEEPS ITS COMMISSION/FEES even in a chargeback claim.  It wins either way.  If a seller loses a chargeback claim -- and in my experience a seller almost always loses, regardless of how fraudulent the buyer is -- Paypal still keeps its commission and passes on chargeback fees to the seller.

Paypal's practice in this situation is absolutely unethical.  I am surprised that it has not been hit with a class-action suit about such practices. 

I have not included sellers' losses from shipping fees, or Ebay commissions on sales (which are refunded in full in such situations, as far as I can tell). 

Lastly, Paypal makes it difficult to see what the fees that they charge you.  Chargebacks don't show up in your activity reports.  I've looked and looked. Items relating to chargebacks were impossible to find, anywhere I looked, in all activity, transaction, and report sections.  Again, outrageous. 

My Experience with Google Wallet (or is it Google Payments) Leaves Me $115 Richer!
I tried Google Wallet.  But I will not try them again. 

I went through the process of registering Google Wallet's required details, such as providing my bank account information.  I then made the mistake of SENDING $115 to the buyer rather than ASKING for that amount.  It was a bit too easy to do, and there was no way to cancel the transaction.  Ouch! 

I immediately contacted a Google representative via chat.  He told that
Google would cancel the transaction, and that it was OK if the balance in my bank account was low -- the $115 to be sent would NOT be withdrawn from my account -- the transaction was cancelled.  I therefore, for safety's sake, withdrew funds from my account to the amount of $5 -- after making sure that this would be OK with the Google representative.  However, contrary to what the Google representative said, Google Wallet then withdrew the $115 from my account. 

My bank charged me an overdraft fee and told me that I should put a stop payment on the account.

I disputed the charge, and I put a stop payment for any payments to Google. Google then wrote me:

"From: Google Payments
Date: 6/15/16, 2:47 AM
To: norbertwu
Google     Safe & Secure

Hello Norbert Wu,

For your security, we've disabled your Google Payments account so no one else can use it.

You requested that an unrecognized charge to your bank be returned to your Checking  • • •  = ddd account linked to your Google Payments account.

To help our investigation and to unlock your account, sign in to and verify your information. Otherwise your account will stay locked.

Google Support Team
Google Wallet     you have received this mandatory email service announcement to update you about important changes to your Google Payments account.
Learn More | Help Center | Privacy Notice | How to recognize suspicious emails
Google Payment Corp., P.O. Box 1568, Mountain View, CA 94042   "     

I wrote Google, explaining the situation:

" Dear Google:
    A few days ago, I tried to request money using Google Payments for the first time.  I mistakenly SENT $115 instead of requesting it.  I immediately contacted Google via chat and the Google rep cancelled the transaction.  It shows as cancelled in my order history.  The Google rep confirmed that if my balance in my bank account was around $5, the $115 to be sent would NOT be withdrawn from my account -- the transaction was cancelled.  I therefore, for safety's sake, withdrew funds from my account to the amount of $5.  Contrary to what the Google representative said, Google Payments then withdrew the $115 from my account. 

    My bank charged me a fee and told me that I should put a stop payment on the account.

    They have disputed this $115 charge and now I received the following message from Google:

    "Hello Norbert Wu,

    For your security, we've disabled your Google Payments account so no one else can use it.

    You requested that an unrecognized charge to your bank be returned to your Checking  • • • ddd account linked to your Google Payments account.

    To help our investigation and to unlock your account, sign in to and verify your information. Otherwise your account will stay locked.

    Google Support Team"

    This is all very frustrating.  I assume that the Google rep gave me the wrong information, and that Google Payments will be issuing a credit to my bank account (or would have, had I not disputed). 

    I am sure that the above will play out.... however an app developer has refunded me $14 and I have not seen it in my transaction history as of yesterday.  And I can't get to my account now. 

    Also, how do I get a copy of my chat?  Is this something that I can with a click or do I have to cut and paste the text of the chat? 
Signed, Norbert Wu

 Steve Laydon at Google wrote me back:
  On Wed, Jun 15, 2016 at 10:18 AM, wrote:


        Hi Norbert,

        Thanks for contacting Google. Since we weren't able to complete our conversation via chat, I wanted to follow up over email.

        I'm sorry to say that our specialist has determined that this account must stay closed due to violations of our Terms of Service. (Per the Google Payments Terms of Service, Google Payments Corp. reserves the right to change, suspend or discontinue any aspect of the Services at any time, including availability of the Services or any Service feature, without notice and without liability.) I'm afraid that my team can't discuss the specific circumstances of this or any account closure.

        Your previously pending transactions have been canceled. Authorization confirmations for these transactions may still appear on the transaction summary for the payment method you used, but your account hasn't been charged. Such authorizations should be removed within 10 business days (14 days), depending on your bank's schedule.

        If you have any more questions, please reply to this email. I'm happy to help!


        Steve Laydon
        The Google Support Team
        Google     Google Help Center
        © Google Inc., 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA 94043 USA     Google+ Twitter
So that was it.  Classic big corporation snafu, where their own representatives give misinformation, and the customer is then stuck with a bad situation requiring hours of chat and written correspondence to fix.  In this case, my bank refunded the $115 that Google wrongly withdrew from my account (and the overdraft fees), and Google refunded the payment also.  So I am $115 ahead! 

Hey Google, if you want to review this account, then be my guest.  I have $115 waiting here for you if you want it.  But if you do contact me, then I might say this:
I'm sorry to say that I've determined that I want my account to stay closed due to Google's crappy customer service and misinformation. I'm afraid that I do not wish to discuss the specific circumstances of this or any account closure, or how Google Payments wasted my time.  Thanks for the $115!  It barely covers one/twelfth of my time spent on this. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Using Smartphones Overseas: Google Fi Works Great!

Using a smartphone overseas has gotten a lot easier. 

In the past few years, I've kept a Google Nexus 4 smartphone (Android) in my workshop, ready to go with me on any trip overseas.  Once I arrived at my destination, where I'd spend a couple of weeks to a month, I'd head to the airport's phone store, where the store staff would give or sell me a SIM card.  This SIM card would let me use my Nexus 4 phone on GSM networks.  It is a quad-band GSM phone, unlocked.  In simpler terms, this phone works on just about all cell phone operator's networks throughout the world, but on the slower 3G networks.  In the US, GSM operators are AT&T and T-Mobile.  Verizon and Sprint phones were CDMA, not GSM, meaning their phones would generally not work overseas. 

Most overseas operators use GSM technology.  With an unlocked GSM smartphone like the Nexus 4, I could put any operator's GSM SIM card in my phone, pay for data and voice/text package, and within a few minutes (thanks to the expert staff), my phone would be ready to go.  I could get email on the phone, make calls, and browse the Internet.  I could even use the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. 

(An unlocked phone is not tied to a particular carrier.  A phone that is locked will ONLY work on AT&T's network, for instance, unless AT&T gives you a code to allow you to unlock your phone). 

The above has worked for me for the past few years.  Nearly all good Android phones, like Motorola’s Moto G and Google's Nexus phones (made according to Google specifications by companies like LG and Asus) are unlocked and are quad-band.  Newer phones are able to run on the faster 4G LTE network -- but I won't discuss this here. 

The one thing that I'd like to get across with the above is that anyone traveling to South Africa, Papua New Guinea, or the UK (all places I've recently spent weeks and months in) can bring a quad-band, unlocked smartphone, buy a SIM card, buy a data/calling package in that country, and be set.  I've gotten emails on a boat sailing in the farthest reaches of Papua New Guinea -- amazing. 

On my recent trip to South Africa, I brought my trusty old Nexus 4 phone.  However, I also brought a Google Fi phone.  Anyone who travels internationally a lot should consider buying a phone that works with the Google Fi plans. 

Google Fi phones are designed to work in 130 countries around the world.  I bought a Google Fi phone (a Nexus 5X phone) to use in South Africa.  It worked great.  I landed in Dubai and London during my flights, turned on the phone, and was able to use the phone in all three countries almost immediately. 

Google Fi phones are world phones, meaning you can use them all over the world, in over 130 countries.  You just turn on the phone and it generally starts working.  You can use your Google Fi phone in the US, then go to China and use it without any hassle, and other countries like Taiwan and South Africa, England, etc.  Someone can call you on this Google Fi phone (a US number) and it will ring you in China.  It is a full-featured Android phone. 

In the US Google Fi phones use both the Sprint and T-Mobile network.

Here are the rates and countries that Google Fi phones will work in:

The rates are extremely reasonable.  Each month you pay $20 for voice and texts in the US.  If you use data, you are billed only for the data that you use, at $10 per Gb.  Calls to and from China are $0.20 per minute; for instance.  When I used this phone in South Africa, calls were $0.06 per minute. 

It took quite a bit of experimentation to figure out how to use these phones to call within South Africa and back to the US.  Here's what I figured out:

1.  Nexus 4 phone with local Vodacom SIM card.  The key to using a phone to make calls internationally is to realize where the SIM card in your phone has originated.  With a local SIM card in my Android phone, I needed to dial phone numbers like I was using a local South African (SA) cell phone.  For some reason I needed to dial the country code (27) first, then the number in South Africa.  I stupidly bought a data-only package at the Johannesburg Airport (JNB) when I arrived, so I had to use Google Hangouts Dialer to make phone calls.  Here's what I did. 

For instance, there's a hotel near Johannesburg Airport.  The website lists its phone as "Phone: +27 11 394 5555" (not the real number).  Another hotel, near Kruger National Park, had its phone number listed as "011 27 087 550 5555." 

To reach these numbers in South Africa using my Nexus 4 phone, I needed to dial (using Google Hangouts Dialer):  "27 11 394 5555" or "27 87 550 5555."  I did not dial any "0's" at the beginning of the numbers. 

My friend Andy had my Google Fi phone at times.  This was a US number in the form 831-789-5555.  For me to call him using my Nexus 4 (with a local SA SIM card), I had to dial "00 (the SA code to call internationally) then the US country code, and then the US phone number, e.g. "00 1 831-789-5555."

Note that if I am using a US landline to call a SA number, then I need to dial "011" in the US to indicate that I am calling overseas, then the country code of 27, then the phone number.  Because my Nexus 4 had a local SA SIM card, to call the US, I needed to first dial the international code of "00" and then the US area code and number. 

2.  Google Fi Nexus 5X phone. 
The Google Fi phone was activated in the US.  It had a US phone number.  Whether I used the phone dialing app or Google Hangouts Dialer, I did the same thing. 

To call a number in South Africa, I had to realize that my Google Fi phone was US-based.  Therefore, to call a hotel with the number "+27 11 394 5555", I had to dial "011-27 11 394 5555".  In other words, I called by dialing the international US code of 011, then the country code for SA of 27, then the SA phone number.  I normally did not dial any initial "0's" in any phone number. 

My Nexus 4 phone with the local SA SIM card had the phone number of 079 082 8403.  To call this phone using my Google Fi phone, I dialed 011 27 79 082 8403. 

Calling a US number, like home, using my Google Fi phone was simple.  I just dialed the area code and phone number!  I was able to do this, again, because the Google Fi phone "thinks" it is based in the US.  

I hope that the above helps travelers trying to figure out how to call within a country or back home when traveling internationally.  The key is to figure out where your phone was activated and where your phone thinks is "home."