How To Get More From Alexa

By Tracey Dowdy

A recent story in the New York Times, Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You, makes the argument that most Alexa users aren’t using the virtual assistant to its full potential.

According to research, most of us use our virtual assistants for simple tasks like playing music, checking the weather or setting a timer rather than utilizing one of the 30,000 “skills” (third-party apps) that Alexa features.

If you’re overwhelmed at the prospect of navigating 30,000 potential skills – and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be? – Skill Finder can help. Launch it by saying, “Alexa, open Skill Finder” or “Alexa, tell Skill Finder to give me the skill of the day.” Skills are broken down into categories or can be searched by popularity.

It’s easy to add an event to your calendar with the Quick Events skill. Just say “Alexa, add dinner with Rose tomorrow at 8pm.” If you aren’t specific in your request, Alexa will prompt you with questions like, “What date?” or “What time would you like to add this event?”

There are lots of skills for foodies. Add the Best Recipes skill to find ideas based on what you have on hand, using up to three ingredients – it even allows you to narrow the results to breakfast, lunch or dinner; The Bartender skill provides lists of ingredients, amounts and instructions for hundreds of cocktails; and My Somm will tell you which wine to pair with what’s for dinner.

If cooking’s not your thing, no problem. Alexa has both Pizza Hut and Domino’s skills, and ordering is as simple as saying “Alexa, tell Pizza Hut to place an order,” or “Alexa, open Domino’s and place my Easy Order.” Plus, you can still track your Domino’s order through its Tracker feature.

Starbucks recently added a skill, so now you don’t even have to open the app on your phone to order ahead.  Just enable the Starbucks Reorder skill and link it to your account, though you’ll need to have ordered via your mobile device in the past in order for the skill to work. Alexa can place an order at one of the last 10 Starbucks locations you’ve visited in person, check your account balance or even switch between your last five mobile orders.

If you need a ride to go pick up that Starbucks order, you can order an Uber or a Lyft with Alexa just by saying, “Alexa, ask Uber to get me a car,” or “Alexa, ask Uber to get me a car.” Lyft goes one step further and will allow you to ask the cost of the fare. “Alexa, what’s the rate for a trip from my house to the train station?”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Instagram Tips and Tricks

By Tracey Dowdy

Instagram has become the seventh most popular social media app in the world with approximately 400 million active users per month. Whether you’re new to Instagram or you’ve had an account for a while, these tips and tricks can help you make your profile more engaging for your followers.

Get notifications when specific people post

If you follow a large number of accounts, your favorites may get lost in the crowd. To turn on notifications for individual accounts, go to the user’s profile, click the three dots in the upper right-hand corner and select “Turn on Post Notifications” from the menu that appears. If you want to turn the notifications off, follow the same steps.

Remember, you’ll need to allow notifications:
On iPhone/iPad: Go to “Settings,” then “Notifications.” Select “Instagram” then “Allow Notifications.”
On Android: Go to “Settings,” select “Apps,” then “Instagram,” and select the option to show notifications.

View posts without the risk of accidentally liking one

Ever lurked on someone’s Instagram and accidentally liked it? Avoid the risk by setting your phone to Airplane mode. The trick is to switch after you’ve opened your feed, otherwise the posts won’t load.

Rearrange filter, and hide the ones you don’t use

If you’ve ever scrolled past multiple filters you never use to get to the one you like, you’ll love this tip. To reorder or hide individual filters, create a new post and start editing. Scroll to the far right of the filters option and select “Manage.” To reorder, hold your finger down on the three grey lines on the far right of the filter you’d like to move and drag it to a new place in the list. To hide filters you don’t like or use, de-select the checkmark on the right.

Insert line breaks into your bio and captions

You may have noticed Instagram doesn’t give you an option to press “Enter” or “Return” when you create your caption. There is a simple workaround – just press the “123” key in the bottom left corner of the keyboard, and the “Return” key will appear in the bottom right corner.

Hide photos you’ve been tagged in

Anytime someone tags you in a photo or video on Instagram, it’s automatically added to your profile under “Photos of You” unless you opt to add tagged photos manually. To see what posts you’ve been tagged in, go to your own profile and click the person icon below your bio.

If you want to hide a post you’ve been tagged in, click the three dots in the top right screen and select choose “Hide Photos.” Choose the posts you want to remove from your profile, then select “Hide Photos” at the bottom of your screen, then “Hide from Profile.” The posts themselves won’t be removed or hidden from Instagram but it will remove them from your profile and make them inaccessible.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Did You Like or Follow Fake Accounts on Facebook?

By Tracey Dowdy

It’s no longer a question whether or not Russian hackers influenced the 2016 Presidential Election. The motives and scope of the influence may be up for debate, but its presence on social media is a fact. Facebook in particular, was targeted, with fake Russian accounts purchasing over $100,000 in political ads.

To its credit, Facebook has posted a tool in their Help Center to help users determine if a page they have “liked” is connected to a fake news site. According to the site, Facebook is taking action to be more transparent about the foreign interference in the 2016 US Elections. “We’ve taken down fake accounts and Pages by the Internet Research Agency and have shared this information with Congress.”

If it turns out you liked or followed one of the identified fake accounts, don’t feel bad – you are not alone. Over 140 million people are estimated to have viewed Russia-linked propaganda during the 2016 election. Even if you didn’t like a page, you likely saw one of the 3,000-plus ads posted on Facebook that have since been tied to Russian accounts. The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, were linked to approximately 470 fake accounts which Facebook assures us have since been shut down.

Reportedly, a Russian company, The Internet Research Agency, known for trolling comments on social media and news sites, is behind these fake accounts. Back in September, Facebook staff members addressed the Senate and House intelligence committees investigating the Russian intervention in the presidential election. In a blog post, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos, stated that Facebook is also cooperating with investigators for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russian tampering in the 2016 election. “We have shared our findings with U.S. authorities investigating these issues, and we will continue to work with them as necessary.”

Foreign interference has not been limited to the American election. Facebook has also reopened an investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on continuing membership of the European Union, promising to look for accounts linked to Russia that have not previously been reported on.

“We have considered your request and can confirm that our investigatory team is now looking to see if we can identify other similar clusters engaged in coordinated activity around the Brexit referendum that was not identified previously,” says Facebook’s UK policy director, Simon Milner.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Children’s Books That Transitioned to the Big Screen

By Tracey Dowdy

I love the line from The Princess Bride, “When I was your age, television was called books.” Aside from being a classic “old guy” line, it’s also the way many readers feel when their beloved books end up on the big screen. Movie adaptations are a great way to help kids who aren’t book lovers connect with a character and pique their curiosity. After all, everyone loves a good story.

One of my daughters insisted on reading the book before she saw the movie, so she could compare. Another loved seeing the movie first, then going back to the book to dig deeper and see what was missed.

Whether it’s the details omitted in order to keep a Harry Potter book from lasting longer than a Hollywood marriage, or going back and falling in love with your favorite characters in whole new ways, exploring books that became movies is a lot of fun.

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction classic is the story of Meg Murray, her brother Charles Wallace, and her friend Calvin O’Keefe, who set of on a grand adventure through time itself to rescue her father. It’s a powerful story of love and friendship with a strong female protagonist. (Book/Movie – Coming March, 2018)

Jumanji – Jumanji holds the record as being the first movie my daughter Ceilidh ever sat still for – it’s that good. The movie – and the book it’s based on – tells the story of kids drawn into a magical game with real world consequences that can only be undone if the game is completed. The movies based on the original book stray from the original plotlines and characters, but they’re all a lot of fun. (Book/1995 Movie/2017 Movie – In theatres)

Wonder – Because of a facial deformity, August Pullman has always been homeschooled. Wanting to be treated like a “regular kid,” Auggie talks his parents into let him start 5th grade at public school and the book allows us to see his struggle to fit in with peers and the rest of his community. Wonder is the inspiration for the anti-bullying movement Choose Kind. (Book/Movie)

Night at the Museum – The entire Night at the Museum movie franchise sprung from a simple children’s picture book. Larry is a new security guard for the dinosaur exhibit at New York’s Museum of Natural History. But, when he accidentally falls asleep at work, he awakens to find only one bone and has to enlist the help of the other guards to help him find the rest of the dinosaur bones. Just like the movie, all the exhibits come alive at night. (Book/Movie)

Mrs. Doubtfire – Since their parent’s divorce, Lydia, Christopher and Natalie bounce between their mom, Miranda, and father, Daniel. When Miranda advertises for a cleaning lady who will also look after the children until she gets home from work, Daniel gets the job, but he’s disguised as Madame Doubtfire. The book is darker than the movie, so beware that Robin William’s hilarious antics in the movie are overshadowed by the bitterness between Daniel and Miranda in the book. I’d recommend it for older children, as its more realistic portrayal of divorce isn’t necessarily appropriate for younger children. (Book/Movie)

Princess Bride – Everyone’s favorite “bent” fairy tale, The Princess Bride tells the story of farmhand Westley who, accompanied by his companions Fezzik, Vizzini, and Inigo Montoya, must try to rescue his true love, Princess Buttercup, from nasty Prince Humperdinck. (Book/Movie)

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Friday, January 19: Must-Have Apps for 2018



When:  TODAY, Friday, January 19, 2018
3:00 – 4:00 pm ET
12:00 – 1:00 pm PT
Join host @TheTechDad and the #MobileLiving team at 3 pm ET (12 noon PT) TODAY as we chat about Must-Have Apps for 2018!
We love those little programs that bring us news, weather, movies, games and much, much more. But how do we stay on top of newly-released apps and how do we separate the must-haves from all the rest? Join us as we explore all the latest offerings and find out which apps will make a difference in the year ahead!
RSVP and attend the chat for a chance to one of TWO Google Home Mini assistants or a UE Wonderboom Portable Bluetooth Speaker!

(Click here to learn more about our Twitter chats. You must RSVP and attend the party to be eligible for a prize.)

  1. Email (subject line: MobileLiving) indicating your Twitter ID.
  2. Spread the word and RT this link on your Twitter feed:
  3. Join us on TweetDeck or HootSuite (#MobileLiving) on Friday, January 19 between 3:00 – 4:00 pm ET.
  4. Tell your Twitter followers!
PRIZE WINNERS will be announced during the Party!

Talking to Your Kids When YouTube Stars Cross the Line

By Tracey Dowdy

YouTube star Logan Paul is just the latest in an increasingly long line of YouTube stars who’ve been accused of offensive or even potentially illegal behavior. PewDiePie was accused of posting anti-Semitic videos, beauty blogger Zoella came under fire for homophobic comments she posted on Twitter years ago, and Michael and Heather Martin, the parents behind the DaddyOFive channel, were accused of emotional and physical abuse of their children. The Martins pleaded guilty to neglect and have been placed on five years of supervised probation.

Now, Paul has been called out for disrespectful behavior after uploading a video that contained a dead body hanging in Japan’s Aokigahara (Suicide) forest.

The problem is, other than the Martin’s supervised probation, none of these YouTubers have seen significant fallout or lost followers to their channel. In fact, Logan’s followers – the “Logang” as they call themselves – have rallied around him. While some followers have said he’s gone too far, his subscription numbers haven’t really changed, meaning he’s likely picked up quite a few new ones since the scandal hit. The majority of his income – $12.5 million last year – comes though ads on his channel, despite the fact YouTube takes 45% of revenue generated.

What’s downright offensive and crosses the line for an adult can seem like “no biggie” to a kid. When research shows teenagers find YouTube influencers more relatable than traditional celebrities, how do you teach your child to discern right from wrong? Or how far is too far, when celebrities like Paul inspire such loyalty and feel like friends to their audience?

Start by talking about YouTube’s “anything goes” culture. If the internet is the Wild, Wild West, YouTube is Westworld. The key to success on YouTube is amassing followers and the key to gaining followers is the same principle as gaining market share anywhere else – by doing things that make you stand out from the crowd. Analysts call this the “attention economy,” and it doesn’t matter if the attention is good or bad, just as long as it drives traffic to your web pages.

Next, talk to your kids about boundaries and respect. The perceived anonymity that gave birth to Internet trolls is the same disconnect that allows YouTube influencers and their followers to engage in questionable and downright dangerous behavior. Take all the challenges we’ve seen. Some, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, resulted in positive, real world change and advances in ALS research. Others, like the Cinnamon Challenge or the Salt and Ice Challenge, start to cross into dangerous territory. Don’t get me started on the guy who cemented his head in a microwave or the man participating in a Ghost Pepper eating contest, who subsequently spent 23 days in the hospital. It comes down to respect – respect for themselves and their own bodies as well as respect for others and their feelings.

Teens lack the ability to comprehend long-term consequences and, fortunately for influencers, fans have short memories while they’re big on forgiveness. Unfortunately, in the real-world, people are rarely as gracious or forgiving and teens may not be prepared or even have considered the after effects of their behavior. When influencers like Paul make poor choices, it all settles down in a couple of weeks. In high school, the stigma often lingers.

Above all, don’t minimize your teen’s feelings. Remember what it was like to be their age and make poor decisions and look up to individuals your parents didn’t approve of.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Apps for Your Preschooler’s New Device

Tracey Dowdy

Did your preschooler get a new tablet for Christmas? Developers figured out pretty quickly how popular devices like iPads and Amazon Fire tablets are with kids and have done a great job adapting both the hardware and software for little hands and big imaginations.

There are thousands upon thousands of apps to choose from, but which are worth the space or cost? The following apps are parent-recommended and among the most popular with the preschool set. You can have peace of mind knowing your preschooler is learning and exploring in a safe environment.

Based on the hit PBS KIDS series, PEG + CAT Big Gig is a musical app that invites kids to play along with Peg, Cat and their friends in the worlds familiar to viewers – the farm, Pirate Island, the Magic Forest, and the Purple Planet. Through music, kids will identify numbers, count up and down by ones and twos, and repeat patterns. Kids can sing along with lyrics on the screen, compose their own songs, and record and playback their music. ($1.99 – iPhone/iPad/Android/Amazon)

Puzzles challenge your child’s cognitive skills, encourage problem-solving, and develop spatial awareness. Shape Builder Preschool Puzzles is a fun collection of 173 puzzles, designed especially for preschoolers. Each puzzle has between 5 and 10 pieces, Once the pieces are dragged and dropped into place and the image is revealed, sound effects play and a voice recording by a licensed speech therapist says the object’s name. Shape Builder LITE is a free version you can try out if you’re not sure your child will enjoy it. ($3.99 – iPhone/iPad/Android)

TeachMe: Toddler features Mimi Mouse, who teaches six preschool-appropriate skills: letters, phonics, numbers, shapes, colors and counting. You can customize the games by choosing the subject and even the questions; review your child’s performance history for each subject; and kids are rewarded with stickers that can be added to a selection of scenes and exported as wallpaper or emailed to family and friends. Alternatively, you can have the child earn virtual coins and set up your own reward system for reaching milestones.  ($0.99 – iPhone/iPad)

What preschooler doesn’t love monkeys and snacks? Monkey Preschool Lunchbox features seven different games with a loveable monkey that teaches preschoolers about colors, letters, counting, shapes, sizes, matching and differences. Each game is designed to flow into the next for unlimited play and each successful game earns animated reward stickers.  Kids will pack lunch based on the color of foods, put puzzles together, spot the differences, search for the fruit shape hidden in a picture, play matching games and more. ($1.99 – iPhone/iPad/Android)

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.