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Getting around Italy by Train
By Alan Zisman © 2018-09-18
We love Italy and go there whenever we can - though it's more of a ordeal getting there from the West Coast of Canada than, say, the UK. We just got back from our 10th trip this week. Much to the surprise of some folks we know, though, we've never rented a car - when we're there, we get around on foot much of the time, and when that won't work, we go by train.
The Italian train system goes to all the big cities and most of the small towns. (Not all of them - once in a while we have to take a bus. But not usually). And train service is reasonably comfortable, reasonably quick, and reasonably inexpensive - about half the cost of comparable British service, for instance.
There are some quirks - magnified by language, though the Italian train system tried to offer its services in English alongside Italian.
A few things to know to get started - most of the trains are part of a nationalized country-wide network run by Gruppo Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane under the name Trenitalia. There is some competition from ItaliaRail - but they only operate between major cities. There are some local, independent rail lines, like the Circumversuviana line that goes between Naples and Sorrento, with stops including Pompeii. But most of the time, you'll be dealing with Trenitalia - and that's what I'm going to focus on.
Trenitalia offers three levels of trains: Regionale trains are the local trains - they run, mostly within a single region, as the name suggests - stopping at many small stations along the way. Slowest, due to the frequent stops, but also the least expensive option. No reserved seats. You can buy first class or second class tickets - first class has 3 seats in a row, second class has 4 seats in a row, but otherwise there's not much difference. (Not all trains have first class seating available).
Intercity trains make fewer stops at small stations - making for a faster run at a higher price. Generally, tickets include reserved seating on these trains.
'Freccia' trains (Italian for 'arrow') offer the fastest service - only available between major cities. You pay extra for the extra speed. For instance, you can travel from downtown Rome to Venice in 3 hours and 45 minutes on a Frecciargento ('Silver Arrow') or Frecciarossa ('Red Arrow') for €50-75. Or you could take 11 hours (including 2 changes) on a series of Regionale trains for €42. Or 6 hours on an Intercity train for €57. I know which I would choose!
You can book trips online and in advance - I'm told that tickets can be discounted if bought online and in advance (and also if you purchase round-trip tickets). I've rarely done this - My travel plans are rarely so carefully organized that I want to commit to a specific train long in advance. (You may be otherwise). However, I do find Trenitalia's online scheduling information very useful and refer to it often - both before travelling and while I'm in Italy. It lets me know if there is train service where I'd like to go - and if so, how often it runs. If there are a couple of trains each hour, then I can be pretty flexible in my planning. If there's just one train in the afternoon and one in the evening, though, I want to make sure I get to the station on time!
Trenitalia's website is available in English: https://ca.trenitalia.it-inter.com/ - you can customize it for your country, prefered currency, and language. New feature (Sept 2018) - you can now enter Italian city names with your choice of the English language name or the Italian name: Rome vs Roma, Florence vs Firenze, Venice vs Venezia, etc. Previously, even if you were using the English language version of the website, you needed to use the Italian version of city names.
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The role of VPN usage in the brave new internet
The popularity of VPN usage is growing in a constant pace. In fact, this piece of software
that was once used by "high tech people" and experts is now a commonplace go-to for all
sorts of users. If you're in China and want to WhatsApp your friends back home, you revert
to VPN. If you are in Russia and want access to non-censored content, you use a VPN. If
you want to download certain files anonymously, you… double click on the HMA! logo on
your desktop. From occasional use to permanent use, there are reportedly hundreds of
millions of people across the world who choose to use a VPN.
Some of the uses for a VPN are not the ones I encourage. If someone is masking his IP
through a VPN because he commits whichever cybercrimes, that's wrong. If someone is
using hacked materials that breach copyrights and stay on the down-low through his VPN,
that is something I would often condemn that. Some of the potential uses of a VPN are positive,
though, at least in my book.
With the end of Net Neutrality era, no one can really feel too safe over the internet. If your
government is in preference of commercial bodies over citizens, you cannot accept them to
do anything but protect themselves. A VPN is a way to protect yourself from several things,
for a very cheap price. Here are some of the risks eliminated or mitigated by usage of a VPN product:
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A few website-building questions
By Alan Zisman © 2018-04-21
I got an email this morning - Steve, of Adirondack Wildlife Refuge & Rehabilitation Center, wrote that he found my 'article on Netscape Composer on line, and found it very informative'. Hehad a pair of questions:
1. When creating links from images or symbols, how do I set up the the link, so that it will open into a new web page, without closing the page the link is set up on?
2. Is there anyway to insert a slideshow or video into a web page?
The Netscape Composer tutorial was one of several tutorials that I'd posted online to help people working with that - and other - free software.
Netscape Composer is way, way out of date. It was replaced by the open
source Kompozer - though even that hasn't be updated since 2007. That
said, I continue to use Kompozer for web page creation - and I'm going
to assume that's what you're wanting advice about.
The trick for the things you're wanting to do is that you need to edit
the actual HTML code - Kompozer doesn't let you do any of those things
in its main 'Normal' (word processor-like) interface. If you look down
at the bottom-left of the Kompozer window you'll see several tabs -
clicking on the 'Source' tab will show you the HTML code for the
HTML code can seem intimidating - and I'm not going to try to teach
you to edit HTML code from scratch. Luckily, most of what you need
will simply require copying and pasting code from other sources....
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You Can Connect Your Android Device to Your PC or Mac - but be prepared for a few 'gotchas'!
By Alan Zisman © 2017-09-25
There are a lot of things I like about Android - the operating system used by the majority of the world's smartphones and tablets. I use both Android and Apple's iOS (and both Windows and Mac computers), and there are a number of things I prefer about Android.
One of them is how users can connect their Android phone or tablet to their Windows or Mac computer using the USB charging cable and transfer photos, music files, movies and documents from their device to their computer or from their computer to their device using the same file management apps and techniques you might use to transfer files to a common USB flash drive.
Apple would prefer you either plug in your iOS device and then use its cumbersome iTunes software or subscribe to its iCloud service and use that as an intermediary between your iOS device and your computer. Either way is awkward.
Transfering files, photos, music, (etc) between your Android device and your computer is simple and straightforward - at least if you're more or less comfortable with file management on your PC or Mac. And it may 'just work' (as Apple fans like to say) for you when you connect your Android device and computer.
In that case, you can skip the next section and jump down to here. Congratulations!
But in most cases, there are a couple of geeky steps you have to do first. The good news is that the first step you'll only have to do once. The bad news is you may have to do the second step every time you plug in your phone.
The First Step - Enable USB Debugging
It seems like Google, Android's developer, assumes that only software developers will ever want to connect their phone or tablet to their PC or Mac. So they make users jump through a few peculiar hoops before their phone is ready to be plugged in.
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Want to play DVD videos in Windows 10? There's an app for that
By Alan Zisman © 2019-09-19
Windows 7 included an app named Windows Media Centre. It played video DVDs - along with other media functions - just fine. Along the way to Windows 10, though, it got dropped with the result that many people with Windows 10 on their computers insert a video disc into their DVD drive and are surprised to find it doesn't work as expected.
I suppose the thinking is that most people are getting their video content from on-line streaming services like Netflix or from YouTube. Nevertheless, lots of use still want to watch a movie from a disc on our computers now and then.
(Many laptops no longer come with built-in DVD drives, especially small and compact 'ultra-book' models. I plug an external USB DVD drive (about $40 at Staples) into my Windows laptop).
Some people may find that DVDs play just fine - some manufactures routinely include a third-party media player on their models. And if you've upgraded your computer from a copy of Windows 7 or 8 that included Windows Media Centre, you'll see a new Windows DVD Player app installed.
If you don't have the Windows DVD Player app in your installation of Windows 10, Micrsoft is happy to sell you a copy for US$15 from the Windows Store - that suitcase icon on the bottom taskbar. It's bare-bones but it works. At least a lot of the time. (Note - it doesn't play Blu-Ray discs).
There's a better - and free - solution, however. My recommendation: go directly to VideoLAN's free VLC Media Player. Note however, that there's a Windows Store version which doesn't play DVD or Blu-Ray discs. Don't get that one. Instead, download and install the 'classic Windows' version from VideoLAN's website.
VLC Media Player plays a huge variety of media file types and discs - audio and video. It can save streaming music and movies, and convert between file types. As a result, it has a lot of options and can look confusing. Here's how to make it work quickly and easily when you insert a movie on disc.
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Can a $50 tablet be any good?
- I get an Amazon Fire HD 8 on sale
By Alan Zisman © 2017-07-28
When Apple announced its original iPad in 2010, it was yuge! The next big thing. Proof that we were now in a post-PC age. Maybe you were slow to get a smartphone, but you could still prove your cool by being early to jump on the tablet bandwagon.
(Embarassing admission - I bought a 1st-generation iPad the weekend they became available - paying CDN$1066 for the most expensive model - 64 GB of storage/WiFi+cellular data and a keyboard. It was also the only model still in stock on Day 2 of availability. Was I cool, or what?)
No surprise, various Android-powered tablets soon came to market, though none have been mega best-sellers. Fairly soon, smaller tablets, with 7 or 8 inch screens, joined the original 10 inch models. More recently, Apple began to sell an 12 inch 'iPad Pro' model.
But after initial success, tablet sales have slumped. Vendors have been disappointed to discover that tablet buyers seem content to hold onto to older models longer than smartphone users, who've tended to get a new phone every two or three years. That iPad 2 you bought in 2013 is still working just fine, thanks.
And the recent popularity of larger-screen smartphones (first Android, belatedly iPhone as well) has pretty flatlined the market for 7 and 8" tablets - Apple, for instance, seems to have stopped updating its 8" iPad Mini line, suggesting it's only a matter of time before it stops selling these models.
As for me, I replaced my original iPad with an iPad 3 a few years later. Half the storage and no cellular data, but a lot less expensive than what it replaced - especially since I bought it second-hand. My generation one model was - like lots of first generation technology - slow and no longer supported by new operating system and software versions.
But I found I wasn't using the replacement iPad that much - instead, I was reaching for my laptop. It was more powerful and let me do things - like creating this blog post - that I couldn't do easily - or some cases at all - on a tablet....
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A tale of two smartphones
By Alan Zisman ©2017 May 22
Coke or Pepsi. Windows or Mac. Italy or France. Some rivalries just keep going on, with folks taking sides and not much changing, year after year.
The same is true for the two smartphone behomoths, Google's Android and Apple's iOS. New hardware for each keeps coming out, more or less annual software updates. From my perspective, less and less reason to feel obligated to stay current on either hardware or software - smartphones and now a 'mature' product category with most new features rating a best a yawn.
I've tried to remain conversant with both Android and iOS. But while I own both Mac and Windows laptops (though I use my Mac laptop more), up until recently, I've only owned Android smartphones. (I have owned other iOS devices - an iPod Touch and a couple of iPads, though).
Recently, though, I was tempted by an eBay.ca email offering a refurbished unlocked iPhone 6 at an attractive enough price that I purchased one. As a refurbished phone, it warned that "the device has noticeable scratches or scuff marks on the casing and screen", but that the "phones are tested and in working order." Being unlocked, it would work with pretty much any cell phone provider; I could take it travelling and use it with a foreign SIM.
The iPhone 6 is no longer new or top of the line - Apple released it in September 2014, keeping it on sale through to September 2016. Today, Apple's online store offers for sale their 2016 iPhone 7 models alongside 2015's iPhone 6s. But two year-old technology seemed just fine to me - it can run up to date versions of Apple's iOS software and apps and provide reasonable - if not cutting edge - performance.
That's similar to my Android phone - a Nexus 5x, built by LG to Google's specifications. It was released in September 2015 and replaced (by the Google Pixel) in October 2016. Like the iPhone 6, it's no longer officially available, and unlike most Andoid phones it can run the current version of Google's Android software.
The Nexus 5x has a bit bigger screen - 5.2" to the iPhone 6's 4.7" and as a result is a bit larger. It's got a plastic body, while the iPhone 6 is sleeker with glass and aluminum. Put them both in cases, though, and they don't look too different from one another.
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Okay, not exactly a blog posting, but I've been offering a series of technology workshops at Vancouver's Brock House - each with a webpage summary + links that others may find useful:
-- Introduction to Android
-- Introduction to Windows 10
-- Files and Folders and Drives (Oh My!) - an introduction to file management
-- Introduction to Digital Photography
-- Introduction to Facebook
-- Introduction to digital security for Windows users
-- Better Travelling With Technology
-- Using the Internet better - email
-- Using the Internet better - the Web
Windows 10 doesn't make it straightforward to use international characters but....
By Alan Zisman ©2016-09-19
Have you ever wanted to flambé Windows?
If your computer is set with to use the US English keyboard and you wanted to type words like, oh, flambé, that may be just what you want to do.
In Canada, both English and French are international languages, so many English Canadians find a need for characters that don't appear directly on the computer keyboard. Even unilingual Americans may want to appear more sophisticated, typing foreign-derived words like café or mañana.
If you're using a program like Microsoft Word, you may have found the menu or ribbon item to insert 'special' characters. But if you're using some other piece of software, it may be less obvious.
(If you're using a Mac, you're allowed to chuckle - at least if you realize that on a Mac, when you hold down a letter such as 'a' or 'e' or 'c' or 'n', like magic, a set of alternative versions of that letter will pop up, letting you choose à or é or ç or ñ or what-have-you. At least most of the time. You did know that, didn't you?)
In Windows, it's never been quite so easy. Way back when, I encouraged folks needing to use accented or international characters to track down a chart of ASCI key codes, pick out the ones they needed, write them on a sticky note and paste it onto their computer display. Hold down the Alt key then, using the number keypad on the keyboard (remember those?) type a zero followed by the three number code. Lift the Alt key and bingo! - the desired characted appears. For instance, Alt+0224 = à.
There were other ways to get the same thing - in 2001 I wrote a tutorial titled 'Getting Easy Access to International Key Characters' describing how installing the International English keyboard might make some users' lives a bit easier.
Today I learned a trick for Windows 10. (It may work in Windows 8 as well). It makes use of the fact that Microsoft designed that operating system for both standard desktops and laptops as well as for touchscreen models like tablets. iPads and Android tablets include built-in virtual keyboards - and even if you don't have a tablet, a Windows 10 system offers an optional virtual keyboard as well.
And that virtual keyboard can be used to insert all those accented or otherwise modified letters.
Wi-Fi woes (hopefully) solved
By Alan Zisman © 2016-06-06
Can you remember a time before pervasive wireless Internet access? I can. June 21, 1999, Apple's Steve Jobs introduced Apple's consumer laptop - the iBook - during his keynote address at that season's Macworld conference.
Alongside the iBook, he announced 'one more thing': AirPort - a (relatively) popularly priced Wi-Fi router. To demonstrate both the sturdiness of the iBook and the possibilities of wireless Internet, Apple VP Phil Schiller, iBook in his arms, jumped off a tower - iBook running and online. (Watch the iBook/AirPort introduction here - Steve Jobs' 'Look, no wires' is at about 14 minutes. The Phil Schiller jump is here).
As is often the case, Wi-Fi was not invented by Apple - Wikipedia dates it to 1991's WaveLAN; by 1991 there was a Wi-Fi Alliance to certify compatible products. But prior to Apple's announcement, Wi-Fi networks were rare and hardware was expensive. While Apple's 1999 pricing seems expensive now, the US$1599 iBook (wireless AirPort card an extra $99) and $299 AirPort router were consumer-friendly at the time.
A decade and a half later, Wi-Fi is faster, more secure, and seemingly everywhere: in cafes and fast food restaurants, hotels and airports, businesses, schools, parks (!) and homes. It lets users bring their laptops and tablets and get online with their cappuchinos. Or connect their smartphones and get around the limited amount of data on their mobile plans.
It's easy to take it for granted as long as it works.
Often enough, though, that isn't the case.
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Choosing the “Best” Technology for You
© 18 May 2016
Everywhere you look, you may be prompted to second guess what brand of technology you’re using. From television ads to discussions at the dinner table or around the water cooler, someone is probably telling you that you’re using the worst operating system, an inferior phone, or even the wrong browser. The debate surrounding technology is nothing new and it’s not likely to expire anytime soon. So, how do you know if you’re really utilizing the best of the best? It may not be so much about what is truly the best piece of technology, but whether or not it suits your needs.
Feel conflicted and bombarded by ads or a well-intentioned, but “know-it-all” friend? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Here are some things to consider when choosing the “best” technology:
Many people feel as passionate about their operating systems as they do their favorite sports team and if you say something bad about it, you’ll probably get an earful. Then, there are some people who are simply either Apple or Windows type folks (always have and will always be) and can’t or won’t be persuaded to think otherwise. However, if you’re in the middle and don’t have a strong alliance towards one or the other, you’re really allowing yourself the freedom to choose which operating system is the best for your needs.
A great place to start is by making a list of what you you want from a computer, whether it be a laptop or a PC. Will it mostly be used for bookkeeping or are you really into art or music projects? Take your time, read reviews, be selective about the advice to you take, and choose wisely. Your computer should satisfy your needs for at least 3 years and maybe longer, depending on how up-to-date you want/need to be.
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Some thoughts for an Android newbie
By Alan Zisman © 2016 February 10
A friend of mine, is on the verge of getting his first Android device - an affordable 2012-model Nexus 7 tablet. He was late to the mobile scene, getting an iPhone - which he loves - about 6 months or so ago.
I sent him an email with my thoughts of things he should know - particularly some of the differences between Android and iOS (the operating system running on Apple's devices). Here's what I said:
1) Just as having an iPhone means setting up an Apple account and using Apple apps - iTunes, iPhoto, App Store, etc, a key part of the Android experience is connected to Google - you need to set up a Google account (though you can use non-Google email addresses); get apps from the Google Play Store. A variety of Google apps - Google Maps, etc. are included on every Android tablet and phone.
2) iPhone/iPad users may sync their device with their computer using iTunes. There's no Android equivalent. If you plug an Android device into a Windows PC, it will appear as an external hard drive - you simply copy music files into the device's Music folder, photos and videos into the equivalent folders on the device, etc. Mac users need to download and install the Android File Transfer app onto their Mac: https://www.android.com/filetransfer/ to do the same thing.
3) Android tablets and phones with the 'Nexus' name offer 'pure' Android; most other devices add custom shells to Google's Android - this has two results: first, there will be differences between what you see on the screen of (for instance) a Samsung phone and a Motorola phone, though increasingly the differences are getting smaller. As well, most non-Nexus models have to wait a while - sometimes a long while - for updates, as special versions of each update have to be created for each of the literally thousands of customized versions of Android that are out there. (Nexus devices are updated immediately as long as the hardware is supported).
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