AUGMENTED REALITY

What’s hot? Fake reality, that’s what’s hot.

What’s really great about the technology business is the number of things you can do and make even if nobody wants them. Who knows? Somebody might buy it.

We thought the Netflix series show, “Stranger Things,” was pretty strange. Strange enough, for us to drop out and not return. But stranger still, some of the show’s characters, like “Eleven,” can drop into whatever you’re shooting with your smartphone. Characters from Star Wars can also drop in — your shopping trip can be guarded by Imperial storm troopers — and no one but you will know that you’re nuts.

They drop into the scene in 3D, like from the moon, from thin air, and they interact with each other. So that’s “augmented reality,” or AR as they call it. (If you don’t have an acronym, you don’t have a product.) You can get it now on Google’s Pixel 2 phone, and other phones are about to get it.

You can watch a demo of all this on YouTube.  Search for “Augmented Reality Demo on Pixel 2.” We always thought real reality was enough to handle.

Get Smarter

Computer games make you smarter. Bob has been preaching this in our column since the earliest days of computer games, going back nearly forty years. There is evidence to back him up.

The latest study is from the University of Montreal. They divided seniors aged 55 to 75 into three groups: One took piano lessons, one played “Super Mario 64,” and the third did nothing. What’s particularly unusual about this was that that past studies have focused on men and women in their 20s.

Only the game playing group saw an increase in their little gray cells, as Hercule Poirot used to say. Specifically, it was gray matter in the hippocampus, which London taxi drivers are famous for having more of, since it has to do with visual mapping. The hippocampus contributes to transforming short-term memories into long term memories. How much grey matter you have can help identify Alzheimer’s.

The Digital Assistants Get Into the Holiday Spirit

Amazon Echo and Google Home are ready for the holidays.

You can say “Alexa, play Christmas music,” and off she goes. Or try “Alexa: Read me ‘The Night Before Christmas.’” To go further, turn to the Alexa app on your phone, tap “Skills” and search on “iHeart Santa.” This gets you “North Pole Radio.” We found Santa’s voice annoying though, and he interrupts too often.

The Google Home smart speaker also has some holiday tricks. You can say “Hey Google, tell me a Santa joke,” or “talk to Santa’s hotline.” Here are some other fun things to say. The first two are from Star Trek:

“Hey, Google: set phasers to kill.” And, “Hey, Google: Beam me up Scotty.” Try “Where’s Waldo?” And the ultimate: “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?” Just to relieve the suspense, we’ll tell you: it’s “42.”

Bitcoin Scams

A woman lost $20,000 in a Bitcoin scam, according to a report by Malwarebytes.org. She Googled what she thought was the support number for Coinbase.com, the number one Bitcoin trading site, and got a scammer instead.

Bitcoin, in case you’ve just tuned in, is a form of digital money that doesn’t rely on banks. However, as with banks, there’s a database that keeps a record of every transaction. Instead of a central authority, it’s verified by almost two million computers. To hack into it, you have to hack all the computers simultaneously.

But you do have to be careful where you do your trading. We use Malwarebytes software, the paid version for $60, to add a layer of protection for three devices. Malwarebytes offers some tips for Bitcoin purchasers. One is don’t trade Bitcoin using PayPal. Get more at blog.malwarebytes.com.

Trade In Your Old Computer for a New Mac

It’s undeniable: Apple computers, though expensive, offer high performance. To get you on board, they offer good prices on trade-ins of other computers. Here are some sample quotes from Phobio.com/tradein/Apple: A Macbook Pro in good working order can earn you $2500 towards the purchase of a new Apple computer. A Windows PC or Chromebook can earn you up to $500 in a trade.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Most of the computers they accept for trade-in are Chromebooks. There are only a few Windows machines, the HP Spectre, LG Display and Lenova Yoga. We have an Acer Chromebook 14, but it’s smaller and older than those on their list and didn’t make the cut. That’s OK. It’s fast, reliable and light weight. Chromebooks now let you use Android apps as well as the Android version of Microsoft’s Office 365. We’ll just keep it.

Not That Kind Of Dojo

The anti-virus company Bullguard, which we’ve found to be reliable, has a new product called “Dojo.” It may not give you back your mojo, but it aims to prevent hackers from disrupting your smart baby monitors, thermostats, alarms and other appliances that talk to each other in the “Internet of Things.”

The Dojo looks like a rock. Once connected to a network, it will automatically detect any gadget connected to the Internet and stop anything that seems suspicious. A free Dojo app works with Android and iPhones. It costs $199 and includes 12 months free service. After that, it’s $10 a month.

And All That Jazz

We hadn’t listened to Pandora radio since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but we like their new “thumbprint” feature. It plays selections from all the stations you’ve created, so you don’t have to choose between them.

When you click “create station” at Pandora.com, and type in the name of an artist or composer you like, they’ll automatically create a station around it, and save it to your list. Ours includes the Tijuana Brass, Benny Goodman, Scott Joplin, Bach, Beethoven and Boccherini. Now we can listen to a playlist that includes all of those.

 

 

GET CLICKING BEFORE THE DEAL IS GONE

Okay, just writing about getting a new computer was enough for us. Joy went online and bought a new HP with an Intel i7 processor and 12 gigabytes of RAM. The old all-in-one has been cleared — we mean completely cleared — for drop-off at Goodwill. Perhaps someone will want to try putting in a Linux operating system.

The PC came from Amazon, in an “HP Envy Bundle,” a $650 deal which included a refurbished “HP 750-137cb” computer, a gorgeous 27-inch monitor, two Bang & Olufsen speakers with great sound quality, a wireless keyboard and mouse. The speed is incredible, the monitor is huge and as sharp as an expensive TV. And it has a two-terabyte hard drive. Joy copied more than 12,000 files from the old to the new computer in about ten seconds.

On the downside, this all came with no documentation whatsoever, just a card saying the user manual was probably pre-installed. It wasn’t. But Bob first taught Joy how to put computer components together back in 1993. She’s had a lot of experience since then and it was no problem.

As soon as Joy set it up, Bob wanted one. They don’t call it “Envy” for nothing. Joy went out into the Amazon world to get another one, which this time was listed for just $500, and … it turned out to be a fake listing.

That’s a new twist, something we never encountered before. Amazon did have one more Envy bundle, but for $1300, twice the price we paid. It had fewer features and no monitor. Is there a moral to this story? You bet: sometimes the Internet lies to us. Bob decided to see what kind of deals would be available after Christmas.

How to Transfer Stuff

A reader writes that he has yet to transfer his stuff from an old computer to the new one and did we have any suggestions. There are several ways to go.

You could use a service from Office Depot or Staples, or go online to HelpHelpNow.com. Or you could use the $15 program, “PC Mover Express.” It transfers your files and favorites from your old computer to your new one, and offers free support over the phone. In the past, we’ve tried the more expensive “PC Professional,” which is supposed to transfer programs too, but that didn’t work well.

Transferring programs is the problem, of course. Transferring files is easy. But if you want your old favorite programs on the new computer, you better hope you still have the original disks or registration codes somewhere. If you don’t, quite a few companies will let you load in a new copy of their product if you registered the old one. Call or go online and ask.

Getting back to your files, it’s best to keep them backed up to a private account, using Google Backup & Sync or some other backup program. Then when the time comes, go to Drive.Google.com to find them all again. (Last year, Google’s computers used as much energy as the entire city of San Francisco, and it was all renewable.) If you use Office 365, your files are automatically backed up at Microsoft’s OneDrive.com.

When you’re ready to give away your old computer, there’s Laplink’s “Safe Erase,” for $15. It lets you wipe everything including the Windows operating system, or just your files and personal data. The inheritor of your old computer can put on the free Linux operating system, which many techies like, or turn it into a Chromebook. Learn more with a query to the web. The Web knows all.

So What’s New With You?

Odd stuff comes in for review around this time of year. Things we never asked to see, from companies we never heard of.

— We got an electronic “Blackboard” from MyBoogieBoard.com. The $45 board has its own pen for writing on what they call liquid crystal paper. It’s reminiscent of those wax tablets we used to get as kids. It takes handwriting and holds onto it. It’s now Joy’s magic to-do list.

The board is 8.5 by 11-inches, ultra thin and ultra light. To clear it, push a button to erase everything at once. For erasing just part of what’s there, push another button and the tip of the pen becomes an eraser. She likes it.

— We also got a telescoping rod with a rare earth magnet attached to the end. It came from MagnetPal.com. The purpose is to let you easily pick up anything magnetic you dropped and can’t reach or can’t find, like a ring of keys. The magnet can be removed from the rod and used to hold anything you want on a magnetic surface. It’s about the size of a thick pencil eraser and powerful enough to hold a monkey wrench. It’s only $25.

This captured Bob immediately. He used to make prints of magnetic fields back in junior high school. Rare earth magnets are more powerful than plain iron ones and magnetism itself is a force one trillion, trillion times stronger than gravity. For instance, the next time you are out in space having a good time exploring the galaxy, watch out for Magnetars, which are small dense stars held together by an intense magnetic field. The field is so powerful that it could pull the iron out of you blood cells from twenty thousand miles away. Be careful out there,

A Bit More On Bitcoin

We were in an elevator the other day when a young guy said to his girlfriend, “I wish I could take a time machine, I’m so obsessed with it.” “Are you talking about Bitcoin?” Joy asked. “Yes,” he said. She said she was obsessed with it too, and his girlfriend laughed.

There are now Bitcoin clubs all over the country, probably the world. We looked up one and it had 1200 members. They hold meetings, though we hope not everybody shows up.

According to the website Decentralize.Today, Bitcoin is now the 6th most valuable currency in the world, after the South Korean won, U.S. Dollar, British Pound, Euro, and Japanese Yen.

 

SELECTING YOUR NEXT COMPUTER

This is the time of year when we get our most frequent reader question: What computer should I buy? It’s also the easiest question we ever get: Whatever you buy, you’ll almost certainly love it.

The questioner usually wants a laptop; in fact it’s almost always a laptop. It’s a good choice for most people. Bob dislikes them intensely because of the crowded keyboard and small screen. Joy likes them because they’re portable. So, okay, one of the factors to consider in making your choice is weight; not your weight, its weight. As we used to say in the newsroom: keep it light and tight, and sometimes also trite.

So this gets us down to choices right away. Are you going to carry it around a lot? Are you going to carry it around at all? If you’re not, so-called desktop or tower computers are nearly always cheaper and you can choose you own monitor and keyboard. You’ll need to add those and they’re both cheap these days. Desktops also have room for adding extra disk drives and memory.

What do you want to do with it? If it’s going to be mostly for writing, browsing the web, social networking and a few games once in awhile, you might like a Chromebook, which runs on Google’s Chrome operating system. The advantages are low cost — as low as $149, but can go up to a thousand for heavy users — and everything’s online. In short, no software to buy or load, it’s all out there online all the time.  Another advantage is no viruses or so-called malware, because every time you start it up, Google scans for problems and fixes them. Last year for the first time, Chromebooks outsold Macbooks.

But what if you’re a gamer? We mean, a really serious game player. You know, the big screen action and adventure games. The action is fast, the scene changes need to be as quick as those in a movie and the sound quality should be top notch. This type of computer is usually a desktop, and companies that specialize in them have exotic names, like Corsair, AlienWare and CyberPowerPC.

Gaming computers often come with color lights on the cases and some of them are even liquid-cooled to handle the chip heat thrown off by hot chips. These cost big bucks, several thousand dollars usually, and you may want to add extra monitors so the players can see what’s coming at them from the periphery.

If you like to do a lot of photo and/or video editing, you want a fast central processor and lots of memory. Make that tons of memory. It would also be nice to have solid state drives instead of spinning disks. Solid state means that inside nothing is moving except electrons. Response time is essentially instantaneous. If you’re editing video or creating special effects, you want that.

This same situation, but not as drastic, applies to music editing. Those are specialized computers, however, and if you’re into musical performances it’s another ball game and you already know about it.

So back to the real world and ordinary users: A few hundred dollars will be sufficient for something nice and fast enough for normal people. If it’s a PC over $600 it should have an Intel i5 or i7 central processor  or their equivalent from other chip makers, like AMD. The more RAM, the better — four to eight gigabytes are the usual choices. More RAM (Random Access Memory) lets everything run faster. New computers often come with huge hard drives. These have reached almost silly proportions, like going into the terabyte (trillion bytes) range, which no one born on this planet has any need for but is pumped up there as a sales tool. Okay, movie buffs can dump their collections into these drives, but there’s really no need.

Finally, does the brand matter? Not much. In fact, it matters so little, that we normally would pay no attention to the brand. If you’ve heard of it, they’ve been around for a while.

Kindle Unlimited

If you read a lot, and listen to audio books, here’s a way to save money. It’s called Kindle Unlimited, and you get it from Amazon.

Kindle Unlimited is like a lending library. For $10 a month, you can take out ten books at once. If you don’t like a book, return it and choose another. Return them all as often as you like and get ten more. There are more than 20,000 titles that are also available as audio books. You don’t need a Kindle to read a Kindle book, you can download the app to your phone, tablet, or computer.

Amazon Prime Lending has a similar program and it’s free for Prime members who pay $99 a year for lots of other perks, such as free shipping and many free movies. But Prime Lending has only a thousand titles.  Kindle Unlimited includes 1.4 million books to choose from. However, many best sellers and hot new releases are not included, nor are some major publishing houses. There are no books from Hachette, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins or Penguin for example.

Internuts

NewYorker.com/cartoons/random gives you a random assortment of New Yorker cartoons. (We all know the cartoons are the best part.)

— “Bitcoin meetups.”  Search on that phrase,and add your town. We found Bitcoin clubs ranging from 300 to 1200 members after a reader asked us about them.

— “Scientists Design $100 Muon Detector.” Search on that phrase to find how to make your own elementary particle detector.  Muons are formed when cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, but since they only last 2.2 microseconds, they are hard to detect. You can count 50 times as many muons in an airplane as you can at sea level. Of course that means you’re being hit by 50 times as many but you won’t feel a thing.

— “Abuzz Mosquito.” Search on that phrase to join a group of mosquito mappers. There are 3,500 species of mosquito, but only around 25 spread disease. “Abuzz” is building a sound library and has already captured close to 1,000 hours of buzzing using phones. With that, they can map mosquito risks.

— “Google Family Link” lets parents limit phone time and lock the phone at bedtime. They can also lock the phone if it gets lost and reset the password.

Shopping Tip

Have you ever noticed that when you return to an online shopping site, the price you saw before is now higher? Some shoppers use “incognito mode” so the site isn’t aware they’ve viewed that page before. To enter incognito mode in Google Chrome (the most common web browser), hold down the “Shift” and “Ctrl” keys and tap the letter “N.” In Firefox, click on the three horizontal lines in the corner and choose “New Private Window.” On the Mac, hold down the “Cmd” key, then “Shift,” then tap the “N” key.

 

 

NO CAT CALLS PLEASE

Half a century ago Andy Warhol predicted that someday everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. He forgot to mention pets.

Now there are websites devoted to making your pet stand out from the crowd. Bowser or Fluffy can even star in their own story book. And of course you can post videos — with background music and sound effects. Don’t worry that people will think you’re some kind of nut, a recent report says 65 percent of pet owners post news of their pets twice a week. Where do they post? On pet social networks, of course.

If you search on the phrase “How to Make Your Pet a Star in Social Media,” you’ll get lots of advice. ABC News has “Expert Advice on How to Make Your Pet a Social Influencer.” The L.A. Times published a piece on making your pet an Instagram star. Some of these tips involve making money. “Jill the Pomeranian” has more than 6.1 million followers on Instagram and does publicity for movies.  A New York City talent agency, “Pets on Q,”  manages animals who star in commercials, have huge followings on Instagram and can arrange book deals. We offer a sample title of our own:
“Getting Beyond Woof.”

Petlandia.com creates story books for kids with their pets in starring roles. Each is $30. There’s one about two dogs “em-bark-ing” on a trip from “Mew York” to “Hollywoof” via “San Franbiscuits.” (Do not get sick on this page.) You choose the dog illustration that most looks like your dog, cat, bunny or other, then choose the adventure you want it to star in and tell the site the pet’s name. Ready-made story: “Curley Meets Grumpy Cat in Petlandia.” Later to be a series.

Places to start your cutie-pie’s adventure: Catster.com; Dogster.com; Dogalize.com; Petbrags.com; LoveMyPets.com; Cuteness.com — which has a cute butt contest; MyDogSpace.com; Unitedcats.com — and on into the night.

UpdateA global hunt has been launched to find a specialist to help make more pets online stars. See the job description: Petlandia.com/usa/work-with-us/

Which Apple Product?

We went with a friend to the Apple store because she wanted to play a Windows program. Yes, it’s looney, but stick with it. Her question was whether she should buy a Macbook and put special software on it so that she could run an old Windows program. This was important, she said, because her favorite bridge game, from JackBridge.com, is for Windows only. Why not buy a Windows computer then? Not part of the answer; she wanted a Mac.

This is a doable thing, but just barely. The problem with putting Windows on a Mac is that you have to buy a program like the $80 “Parallels” software plus a copy of Windows, which starts at around $70, for a total investment of $150. In our experience, using Windows on a Mac is clunky. It’s cheaper and more sensible to buy an old Windows XP machine for playing those old games. We bought one for $70 a couple years ago and it’s very fast and trouble-free. If you don’t go on the Internet with it, there should be no problem.

So our friend ended up buying a new iPad, because her old iPad Mini 2 ran out of storage space and a memory stick she bought stopped working. (Not to mention there are rumors that Apple will stop offering updates for the iPad Mini 2 and the iPad Mini.) The cheapest iPad at the Apple store is $329 and has 32 gigabytes of storage. The most expensive one, the iPad Pro, is $799. Its processor is the same as the new Macbook’s, so it can handle what’s called “augmented reality” and other super tricks of the digital future. She’s loaded so she got the expensive one — in a rose-tinted case.

We bought an iPad too, the cheapest one. Our iPad Mini 2 became an ultra thin doorstop when Joy cleaned it with alcohol. The Apple Store employee said they recommend “Whoosh” screen cleaner, which is also good for your glasses. So we bought some Whoosh for $10 on Amazon. Works great.

Getting back to bridge games, our favorite is an old Windows program too. It’s part of “Bicycle Card Games,” which has a dozen card games and works with all versions of Windows. Amazon sells a used version for $20, or new for $45. It’s a great way to learn bridge, since the program won’t let you make illegal moves and the hands go by quickly.

App Happy

“InvisibleHand” from GetInvisibleHand.com (a tip of the tam-o’shanter to Adam Smith). It notifies you of price drops on shopping, flights, hotels and rental cars. The name comes from the famous statement by 18th century economist Adam Smith, who said  the invisible hand of the marketplace does a better job than government in allocating goods and services. Has anyone in the government ever read his book: “The Wealth of Nations?”

Defense

We got a new self-defense gizmo sent in for review. It’s that time of year. We used to get a lot of these things but over the years we have offended so many companies with bad reviews, that we don’t get many review thingies anymore.

This one is a pepper spray with a light and a phone call. Bob is a small fan of pepper spray. One time he demonstrated it to a visiting friend and his kids, by spraying a short squirt on the door.  That was enough to make us all leave the apartment for a while.

This one is called TigerLight “D.A.D 2” and lets you do a practice “spray” where nothing comes out. That’s fortunate, since the real stuff is awful, though not deadly. According to a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department study, the D.A.D. 2 stops 96 percent of attackers. (But officer, what about the other four percent?)

Well, we don’t do much attack stopping in L.A. so we just looked at the company claims. They say the spray is six times stronger than the one used by U.S. Marines and can hit an attacker up to eight feet away. The extra gimmick they have is a button to alert any similarly armed friends within a mile of you. The connection works through your cell phone. Said friends also have to have downloaded the app that lets them get the alert.

There were a few glitches in setup. After creating an account, the only way to exit the setup screen was to hit cancel. After logging in, it said “Wellcome,” instead of “Welcome.” We also saw “truns” instead of “turns.” There were no instructions on how to insert a battery in the device and in fact we were never able to do it. We’re suspicious of companies that can’t spell.

 

 

GIVING WINDOWS ONE MORE TRY

A reader said he missed the free period for getting Windows 10. No he didn’t. If you want it, you can still get it for free until December 31.

Here’s how: Search the web on the phrase “Customers who need assistive technologies can upgrade to Windows 10 at no cost”  or click here. You may feel guilty for getting a free upgrade if you don’t use “assistive technologies.” But it says right there on the website that such technologies include text enlargement. Heck, we already do that by holding down the “Ctrl” and “plus” keys.

The upgrade is not required, by the way. Out in farm country they used to say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and maybe they still do. Not every upgrade is an improvement and some in past years have made things worse. But  Windows 10 is said to be more secure than earlier versions and we’ve been using it. Our feelings are mixed.

After a couple of years with Windows 10, our main computer got increasingly buggy until one day it presented a black screen. So we restored it to its original state, which meant going back to Windows 7. As soon as we did that it automatically upgraded itself to Windows 8, which may be Microsoft’s most hated operating system. But we’re used to it and struggled on. Recently, it began slowing down again. So we figured Windows 10 couldn’t be any worse, and installed the freebie.

We immediately got a message telling us that Google “Backup and Sync” couldn’t find our “Documents” folder. That happens to be the one where we keep everything we write. It said the attempt to sync the files “may result in file duplications or collisions.” So we fasted and promised never to do it again and ignored the warning and went ahead. Everything is OK so far, but there may be other surprises ahead. Stay tuned to this station.

Too Good to be True

A reader found what looked like a great deal from Woot.com: a refurbished HP laptop computer with a touch screen and a huge 320 gigabyte hard drive for only $180. He asked our opinion. We said: Get cautious..

We have nothing against refurbished computers. Often they are just extras that were never used. But just because something is on sale doesn’t mean it’s up to date. One of the things to consider is the processing speed. This one had an Intel “i3” processor, which came out about five years ago.  You can go to CPUBoss.com and compare the speed of the processor advertised with the one you already have. If you don’t know the speed of the one you have, download the free “Belarc Advisor” to find out, or Google the model number and add the words “tech specs.” The pokey Windows computer we bought in 2012, the HP Pavilion 23, is slightly faster than the “bargain” our friend saw. Another thing to consider is size. An 11-inch laptop may cause eye strain, unless you go into settings and change the resolution. Bottom line: You get what you pay for. Well, usually.

Going Too Cheap

You may recall that we bought the Alcatel Pixi Pulsar smart phone for $22 for our 98 year-old friend, Ida. It worked well for her for about six months, but sometimes wouldn’t connect  to the Internet. So did another Pixi Pulsar we bought for ourselves for testing purposes. The lesson: Sometimes you can get too cheap.

We recommended a new phone for Ida, but not a new phone service. Through TracFone, Ida pays only $20 every three months for 180 minutes of talk time, 180 texts and 180 megabytes of data. That sounds like a miniscule amount of data, but since she rarely connects to the Internet outside the range of her home Wi-Fi signal, it’s plenty. As a replacement for the Pixi phone, we suggested LG’s “Rebel LTE,” which is $40 from Amazon or $30 from Walmart.

“LG” is now a leader in phones, TVs and other products. The Rebel is twice as fast and twice as reliable as Ida’s Pixi Pulsar. It also has twice the storage space — eight gigabytes instead of four. She loves it. Did you ever wonder what “LG” stands for? Bob knows. Because he’s been covering this field for so long, in the early days he met with reps from the company and back then it was called “Lucky Goldstar,” to encourage good fortune. “LG,” get it?

Facebook Tip

It’s often annoying to see politics and other stuff on Facebook. Here’s how to prioritize.

On an iPhone, in the Facebook app, tap the three horizontal lines at the bottom, tap “settings,” then “News Feed Preferences.” There you can choose what you want to see first. On your Android phone, in the Facebook app, find “News Feed Preferences” by tapping the three lines in the upper right and scrolling down quite a bit. On your computer, at Facebook.com, look for a tiny triangle in the upper right corner, right next to the question mark, or two icons over from the globe. Click it, and then choose “News Feed Preferences.” Now you can choose what you want to see first.

App Happy

Elevate” is a free app for brain training. It has fun exercises to improve your reading, writing, memory and other skills. According to an independent research company, Elevate users tested 69 percent better than non-users on grammar, writing, listening and math. The games are fun, and a day’s training session only takes about five minutes. What the heck, it’s free.

Internuts

  • Chicago Humanities Festival.” Search on that phrase on YouTube.com to find some interesting speakers. All such festival has their duds, but this gives you a chance to sample. If they’re still dull after three minutes, kill.
  • 25 of Oscar Wilde’s Wittiest Quotes.” Search on that phrase to find some good ones: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Or: “True friends stab you in the front.” Bob always liked “I’d love to agree with you but then we’d both be wrong.”

 

DOES DONALD TRUMP KNOW ABOUT THIS?

Earn.com lets you make money giving out your email address. You decide how much it’s worth. If you’re a big shot, or you think you are, you could charge $100 per message.

That’s what Ben Horowitz does. As of last January, he’d made over $8,000, which he donated to a charity called “Black Girls Code.” He’s one half of the consulting firm Andreessen/Horowitz. Marc Andreeson founded Netscape, the first web browser, and is otherwise a general hot shot. We’re not sure what Horowitz does. (Just kidding. Horowitz sold a software company to Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion, and was a major investor in Skype before it was sold to Microsoft. He consults.)

After signing up at Earn.com, we wondered if this would be a good way for would-be authors to find publishers without going through an agent. We typed in “Penguin Group” and got an associate editor at Penguin Random House. We contacted him for $1, though he has yet to reply. (The contract gives him seven days, then it’s kaput.)  We only have to pay if he responds. He’s looking for interesting people to write books about business challenges.

The site makes suggestions on whom to contact, such as Deloitte Corp. or Google. So we contacted Sean Melis, a consultant in Deloitte’s Australian office, for $1. He lists himself as knowledgeable about artificial intelligence and the so-called “blockchain” undergirding the Bitcoin crypto currency. We asked him about that. We’re the first to pay him to answer a question, but he sounds smart. He said the most exciting thing about the blockchain is “the decentralized future it paints.”

It’s all done in Bitcoin, which can be translated back and forth with dollars. We got 84 cents just for signing up and completing a profile; it’s stored in Bitcoin. If Bitcoin shoots to the moon, it may be worth $8 someday. Wow, party time. We decided not to keep the money we earn, and chose “Folding at Home” as the recipient, one of five choices; they do disease research.

Businesses are using Earn.com to send paid surveys to senior engineers, executives and other presumably smart people who otherwise couldn’t be bothered to reply. For example, we could send a mass email to 50 Stanford students and professors for $10 per reply.  The recipient gets a note like: “Complete this survey and get $10.”

We looked over their lists to get other ideas. A venture capitalist list lets you send a mass email for $50 per reply. It includes over 20 firms with over $25 billion in investable capital. The “Angel Investor” list lets you get replies from 50 angel investors who have written checks for at least $10,000 within the last two years. There are other lists for startup founders, “blockchain personalities” and others. This could go on and on, and probably will.

Pesky Email

A reader asks: “How do you know if someone has opened your email?” A question that has occurred to all of us.

If you use Microsoft Outlook or the premium version of Gmail, which is part of the $5-a-month “G-Suite,” you get an option to ask for a receipt. For the rest of us, there’s a free extension called “Boomerang for Gmail,” from BoomerangGmail.com. It’s boomerang time!

With Boomerang, you can have your email sent again automatically, if the person hasn’t opened it within two days, or whatever time period you choose.  Even better, you can put off looking at email you know you have to look at eventually.

Suppose a bill comes in. It isn’t due now but you don’t want to forget about it. Tap the boomerang icon in your Gmail window and it won’t reappear until the time and date you chose.

Apps for Going Vegan

Joy hasn’t given up her leather jacket, but she’s a certified friend of the furry and a vegan.  Here are some vegan apps we just learned about.

  • Forks Over Knives” is a $5 recipe app for Android and iPhone. The recipes we’ve tried so far have been great, and they make it easy to add ingredients to a shopping list. The app includes soups, side dishes, salads, decadent desserts and more. There are free recipes at ForksOverKnives.com
  • VeganXPress, $2 for iPhone, tells you what’s vegan at chain restaurants and fast food places.
  • Bunny Free from PETA.org tells you if a product is cruelty free. In other words, it didn’t make some bunny go blind for being used to test cosmetics.

Why go vegan? See NutritionFacts.org and FreeFromHarm.org.

Sneaky Apps

Joy’s friend Frieda commented one day that Joy was getting a lot of text messages. She wasn’t. Every half block or so, her phone would tootle. But it wasn’t text messages, the sounds were from dozens of apps that sound off every time something new comes in. Don’t let this happen to you!

Go to settings on your phone and find the “Notifications” area. There’s a setting for each app to allow only silent notifications. In the new “Oreo” version of Android, there’s a setting to “allow notification dots.” Each app has a dot in the little picture of it on your screen; you see it if there’s something new to report.

Cheapest Day to Fly

According to Kayak.com, a travel site, the cheapest day of the week to fly out somewhere is Friday; Monday is the most expensive. Friday travelers average a $100 savings, whether they’re flying in the U.S. or abroad. Monday is the cheapest day to come back and Thursday is the most expensive. The odd thing is, this pretty much holds no matter whether you’re coming or going.

 

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT

We just played “Animal Trivia,” “World Foods Trivia” and “What’s Your Nickname” without touching a phone, computer or board game. We used Google Home, the digital assistant. We paid $130 when it first came out but now there’s a new version called the “Mini,” which you can get for $49. This matches the price for Amazon’s “Alexa.”

Holiday shopping is on the horizon and people are going to be making decisions and price is often the deciding factor. So are there differences? You bet. Most would consider them slight, Bob thinks they’re enormous. Bob prefers Google. Joy on the other hand, thinks Alexa has lots of advantages. Whaddaya gonna do?

She particularly likes an Alexa game called “Yes, Sire,” in which you try to rise in the King’s estimation. Don’t rise too far or too quickly, however, or he’ll start to worry and have you executed, too many wrong decisions and you’ll be exiled. This is pretty much like real life. Perhaps you’re not really cut out for the King’s court.

Alexa is the market leader right now. Most reviewers have gone on record as preferring it, which makes Bob suspicious that advertising revenue might be influencing some decisions. They say this Amazon device is the cat’s meow, or maybe its pajamas. This baffles Bob. He feels Google wins in a walk. The main advantage — and it’s a big one — is that Google Home can access YouTube, which Google owns. So you get to hear whole pieces in classical music and whole albums of musicals and Broadway shows, even choosing between performers. Alexa gives you pieces in pieces.

Just for a random test of their capabilities Bob recently asked Google Home to play some Kurdish folk music, referring to the tribe which occupies parts of Iraq and Turkey. He figured that would be pretty obscure but Google Home started right up with a bunch. Alexa said “Sorry, I couldn’t find any.” In previous “conversations” or whatever you want to call these interchanges, we found that in questions about the number of deaths by various causes, the number of  highway miles or forests and a host of other obscure but possibly interesting information, Google Home came up with answers, but Alexa did not. It’s early days of course, and we’re sure Amazon will have an explanation that boils down to saying “it’s early days.” We’re not anti-Amazon, by the way, we use it all the time; we’re just pointing out strengths and weaknesses here.

A really significant difference is that Google Home can cast YouTube programs to your TV. You need one of the smart TVs and a $35 Chromecast for that. Tell Google what you want and you can watch a lecture, TED talk, college course, and even a movie if it’s in the YouTube selection list. We’ve done this and you just have to ask: “Hey Google, play a chemistry lecture on our TV.” If this is too exciting, you might prefer astrophysics.

There are some personality differences. When we ask for a specific game to play, Google often says “I don’t understand.” It works better to say “Hey Google,  play a game,” and then choose one of the suggestions. This is fun for kids and educational for grownups. In playing “Animal Trivia,” we learned that goldfish can remember stuff for three months, gorillas have unique nose prints and the hair of a Yorkshire terrier never stops growing. Who knew? In “World Food Trivia,” we learned that slurping down noodles in Japan is not rude but shows you enjoyed the meal.

Recently, Google rolled out 50 new activities for kids, including lots of stories. You can say “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” or just “tell me a story.” We listened to “The Tired Alien” and “The Chef Who Loved Potatoes.” Say “Flip a coin”  to solve a dispute.  Google Home can also play soothing bedtime sounds such as babbling brook, thunderstorm or country night.

You can get much of the benefit of Google Home, however, by installing “Google Assistant” on your iPhone or older Android phone. It already comes on later model Android phones.

“And,” as Kurt Vonnegut liked to say, “so it goes.”

 Internuts

  • YouTube BBC Teach” Search on that phrase to find YouTube videos aimed at high school and elementary school students. We learned about Mary Anning, a paleontologist who made some new discoveries in the Jurassic fossil beds along the English channel.
  • This is very commercial but we’ll pass it on anyway: Meggalife.com lets you earn points for your retirement account at E.F. Hutton every time you use the site to do anything online, such as browsing the Internet or sharing photos. Partial revenues generated from their ads are deposited into a trust fund managed by Hutton and redeemable at age 68.

App Happy

  • Noisli” is a $2 app for Android and iPhone that offers background sounds for relaxation or productivity. Go to Noisli.com to try them out or listen for free. We like the thunderstorm best.
  •  Canva” is a free app for making online greeting cards and Facebook posts. The art is out of this world. Change the wording on a template to make it your own.
  • “Amazon Music App,” free for Android and iPhone, strikes up the band. Tap the word “Alexa” within the app and tell her to play music for sleeping, music for cooking, music from the 1940s or your favorite decade, or a specific song. To get the app, search on  “Amazon Music for Windows” or “Amazon Music for Mac.”
  • Infiltr” is a free app for iPhone/iPad that gives your photos intense colors. It’s similar to the popular 99-cent app “Color Splash,” but you don’t have to draw a mask around the image, which can be a lot of work. You can see how it works on YouTube. It also changed the depth of field but we weren’t awed.

 

SEE IT LATER

Pressed for time or feeling sleepy? “Pocket” is a free app for saving articles and pictures to look at later. The app is available for Windows, Macs, phones and tablets. That’s everything but billboards.

To get started on your computer, go to GetPocket.com and install it. If you use Firefox as your browser, it comes with it. Once installed, you can click the tiny picture of a pocket in the upper right of your screen any time you want to save an item for later viewing. To find the stuff you’ve saved, click on the pocket and “view list.” It might also save whatever you’re looking at right at that moment at the same time, but live with it.

So the app starts with an empty list of things to read. If you don’t have anything saved yet, click the “recommended” list for some pre-selected articles. There was one from The Guardian titled “Owning a Car will Soon be a Thing of the Past,” and another from the NY Times on “Why I Almost Fired My Doctor.” (Bob feels the same way about his doctor.) Lots of stuff there. All in all, it’s a handy thingy.

Does Capitalization in Email Matter?

A reader writes that an email bounced back to him as undeliverable. He immediately wondered if he should have capitalized the “A” in the address. We wondered too.

In Gmail and nearly all other email providers, capitalization makes no difference. You can send a test message to yourself to prove it: try typing your name in the address in all caps (capitals). Viola,  as they say in fractured French. It goes. If you don’t use Gmail or one of the common providers, however, it could make a difference. Whatever you put before the “@” sign, such as JoeDoe@whoopi.com might matter. But anything you put after the “@” sign doesn’t. You could write it WhOOpi.com if you wish. If you’re in doubt about what or when, don’t capitalize anything.

We tried to find out why our reader couldn’t make contact with the person he was writing. After a little digging (so to speak) we found out the recipient was dead. At least there was an obituary for him; so that was kind of an indicator. (As film director Carl Reiner commented in an interview recently: “Check the obits every morning. If you’re not there, have breakfast.)

 High Demand Jobs

Freelancer.com checked almost half a million job postings on its site to find the ones most in demand.

Number one was for people familiar with Adobe‘s “InDesignprogram. This is used to create layouts for magazines, newsletters, books, brochures and posters. Next in demand were people who knew how to use “3D Design,” “Creative Design” and “HTML5.” Jobs in 3D Design are up 29 percent, and many are in education. Jobs for people who know grammar were 12th in demand. We’ve noticed that.

There are also a lot of jobs for those who know how to program the Arduino board. This is a cheap (like $35) pocket size computer invented in Italy and Bob recently bought one for Joy. In September, the World Maker Faire brought over 90,000 Arduino enthusiasts from 45 countries to the New York Hall of Science. (We weren’t there.)

Demand for jobs in HTML programming is growing because it’s the replacement for Adobe Flash, which Adobe is killing once and for all in 2020. (Steve Jobs hated it.) HTML jobs surged 22 percent to 9,980.

Bitcoin topped Freelancer’s “Fast 50” report on emerging skills, up 82 percent. Cryptography is up 59 percent. Microsoft jobs are down 41 percent. Pinterest jobs are down 35 percent, Twitter jobs are down 27 percent. Google Plus jobs are down 35 percent.

Website management and business card creation are in the top ten. Demand for jobs in Arabic is up 11 percent. For more info, Google “Freelancers 50 Fastest Moving Jobs.”

The Best Way to Unlock Your Phone

We sign in to our Android phone by tracing a pattern. Like most people, we chose something simple.

The person next to us at the grocery store could probably guess our pattern with a quick glance over the shoulder. According to a study by the US Naval Academy and the University of Maryland, 64 percent of participants could guess it on the first try with barely a glance. Eighty percent could guess it if they got two chances. By contrast, a personal identification number (PIN) was guessed by only 10 percent on the first try, and 25 percent after many tries.

You could use your fingerprint. Joy eagerly registered her fingerprint when she first got her Android phone. It worked great at first, but later was hit or miss. The key is to register more than one finger. After re-registering all five fingers, they were all usable for unlocking the phone — most of the time.

Take A Deep Breath

Plume Air Report is a free app for Android and iPhone from PlumeLabs.com. It provides a daily, monthly and yearly rating on the pollution level in 430 cities.

Beijing has a 208 number and the comment “extreme pollution.” Worcester, Mass., gets a seven. Little Rock, Ark., is 33; Los Angeles, 37; Phoenix, 53; Orlando 37; Mexico City, 113 — on the day we checked around. These numbers fluctuate day to day. Winter is often higher because the cold air just sits there. You can get government reports from EPA.gov/outdoor-air-quality-data.

If you want to walk around the neighborhood and examine pollution street by street, they sell a device for that, called the “Flow.” They’re taking pre-orders now, with deliveries expected next summer.

The Numbers Report

Drivers use their cell phones in 88 percent of trips, according to ZenDrive, a San Francisco start-up. That doesn’t count cell phones mounted on the dashboard or built in to the car, so the figure is likely well over 90 percent. Traffic deaths nationally were on average 102 per day last year; 37,461 for the whole year.

SMILE

What? As if 900 crypto-currencies were not enough, we now have “Dentacoin.”

You guessed it, Dentacoin is for paying dentists. At the moment, you can only pay two dentists with this digital currency, one in Bulgaria and the other in London, but the wheel, and the planet, turns.

These digital currencies, also called “crypto” or “e-cash” are a way of getting out from under bank fees, inflation, security risks and of course government control. Eeek, as they say in the treasury. We are fast approaching a thousand varieties and there’s no reason to expect it to stop there. Shades of early America, when banks in all the states used to issue their own currency. Except they could keep printing money. Bitcoin tops out at 21 million coins.

The rise of these alternate currencies was predicted in 1999 by Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman: “I think the Internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that’s missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable ‘e-cash.'”

Well, with Bitcoin transactions and other currencies like it, there are no intermediaries, and computer encryption software can keep it more secure than any other kind of transaction. Joy says these are secure, but Bob notes that Bitcoins have been stolen out of “secure” Bitcoin wallets before. If you buy at Coinbase.com, you’re given a special code. Don’t lose it or share it.

Though dozens of stores now accept Bitcoin, it doesn’t make much sense to buy it only to purchase goods in the U.S. Here it is often bought as a speculation. (Can you short it?) In other parts of the world, it can help people avoid confiscation of their property by dictators, and can establish property titles. (Seventy percent of the people in the world who own land have a tenuous title to it.)  It does this by creating so-called “smart contracts” which are generated by transactions automatically.

Dentacoin is a start-up in the Netherlands, and is finishing  its first “initial coin offering” on November 1. It’s currently used by a clinic in Varna, Bulgaria and another  clinic in London. There have been so many of these rival currencies that Forbes magazine did a cover story and called it “The Emperor’s New Coins.” In the meantime, prices keep going up.

The CEO of  CruisAIDer, a German company, which makes  dental power carts, says Dentacoin makes his supplies cheaper. “Up until now we were stuck having to change between currencies to source the materials we need to manufacture our Powercart.”

Joy invested a small amount in Bitcoin but Bob did not. As for the rival coins, it seems a bit scary just yet, though investing in the Blockchain, through Ethereum, might make sense.  As with most things in life, buyer beware.

Internuts

  • A Wonderfully Satisfying Compilation of Handmade Pop-Up Cards.” Search on that phrase to see an amazing display of pop-ups. Skyscrapers, carnivals, animals and more rise off the flat page. See also PeterDahmen.com.
  • SADD.org is the website for “Students Against Destructive Decisions.” It has thousands of chapters nationwide and tips like: When teens are in a dangerous situation, they should have a special code, like “222.” Sending a 222 by text to a parent could mean: “Please pick me up now.” A Liberty Mutual study sponsored by the organization showed that one third of students and 27 percent of parents think it’s legal to drive under the influence of marijuana if marijuana is legal in that state. It isn’t.

Artificial Intelligence No Longer Needs Us

The game of “Go” has been around for at least 2500 years. It is complex and difficult. How complex? Well, the number of possible moves is 10 to the 761st power. which is 10 followed by 760 zeroes. To put that into some kind of perspective, the number of moves in chess is 10 to the 120th power, and the number of atoms in the Universe is estimated at 10 to the 80th.

In 2016 a Google computer program, “AlphaGo,” used artificial intelligence to defeat a human player for the first time. In May of this year it defeated a world champion player in Korea. Recently, an improved version, AlphaGo Zero, defeated the previous AI program.

There is a remarkable difference between the two programs. The earlier one learned to play by watching and improving on the 30 million moves made by players in thousands of games. The improved version had no information, it learned by trial and error. On the first day it lost every game. After three days it won most of the time. After 21 days it defeated its own earlier program. After 40 days it won all the time.

The implications of such an artificial intelligence program are deep and profound.

The Inventor’s Computer

The “Pi-Top” computer is for inventors and programmers. It has a slide-out keyboard with a treasure trove of electronic components in a compartment underneath. They’re  kept in place by magnets. An earlier version is used in 1500 schools.

The “Pi” in the name refers to “Raspberry Pi,” a credit card size computer that can be attached to a monitor or TV and accept input from a keyboard and mouse. People can use it to learn how to program. It made a splash when it came out a few years ago for $25, and the latest version, Raspberry Pi 3 is $35. Some use it to play old Nintendo games, or for network-attached storage.

But it takes a bit of tech know-how to conquer Raspberry Pi, or a lot of tutorial-watching on YouTube. The Pi-Top modular laptop makes it a bit easier by bringing together all the components you need and then some, such as the inventor’s kit. It’s not cheap at $320, but for a laptop, it’s not bad. The display is 14 inches, and it comes with its own software bundle for web browsing and creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

The Pi-Top website mentions possible projects. Make a music synthesizer, with your own beats and rhythms. Make your own Space Race game, using LEDs, resistors, copper wire and programming code. Or invent a robot that interacts with you. Use LEDs, proximity sensors, and a microphone to create an Android friend.

The Pi-Top.com website makes it sound easy. But take a look at the user forums before taking the plunge. There you’ll learn of frustrations and triumphs.

 

 

 

MACHINE LEARNING

All right, we know that someday the robots are going to take over. So you might as well get with the program. Make it a partnership. We don’t mean robots like you see in sci-fi movies, walking around with shiny metal limbs. Anything that’s controlled by a program is a robot. So most robots aren’t visible in the ordinary sense of the word, they’re just part of the system.

A machine can respond to body movements, facial gestures, or just leaving the scene. The very fact that you’re not there can be an instruction. Bob recalls talking to an engineer who had just come from an automated factory in Kentucky. It made small electric motors, like the kind in vacuum cleaners and sewing machines. The factory floor was all dark. You could just see red and blue tiny lights blinking. After all, the machines didn’t need light, why waste money on lighting?

This kind of thing is increasing and there’s a joke about it that goes like this: The factory of the future will only need two attendants: a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to bark when the man falls asleep.

So Google is going to teach us how to operate machinery without even going to the factory. The dog will be out of a job. Go to TeachableMachine.withGoogle.com. They’ll teach you how to do it. No charge. It’s a great introduction to “machine learning,” which is already a hot career field.

Machine learning powers supercomputers such as IBM’s Watson. It’s used in facial recognition software and you see it in photo apps. Other areas include robotics and medicine. Then there’s Siri, Alexa and Google Home, or any system that uses voice recognition. It’s all machine learning.

To create your own machine learning demo, you don’t need to install anything. Just go to “Google’s Teachable Machine” and start. You will need a computer that has a built-in camera, which most do now, or you can buy a clip-on camera for older machines; they’re cheap.

In less than a minute, we trained Google’s website to show a photo, play a sound, or talk to us. When Joy moved her arm across her computer screen, she got a white cat waving its paws. When she was still, she got a fluffy Pomeranian dog. When she pulled her bangs back, a rabbit appeared. We played the air guitar to get a music clip, drummed on the desk to do a drum solo and put a thumb to our lips to get a trombone.

Now all of these results are pretty useless, but their point is they could just as easily be a result that produced some other action or even many actions. But we had to “train” the machine first. That meant holding down the “train” button on the website while waving our arms or whatever gesture we wanted to associate with a photo, a music clip or a voice. We made the voice say “Way to Go!” when we flexed our muscles.

As an aside here, it struck Bob that this could be an immediate response to danger. When they bad guys come in pointing a gun at you, just throw up your hands in surrender and that action will immediately call the police, seal the doors, release the sleeping gas or whatever.

If you want to go further, there’s Wekinator.org. They offer a free online course, “Machine Learning for Musicians and Artists,” from Goldsmith University in London. (It’s $20 a month if you want college credit.) It’s quite techie, but it might just launch a new career. They say it’s the only such class oriented towards art and music.

Internuts

Photographing the Unseen: Winners of the Nikon Small World 2017.” It’s astonishing to see what the hologram on a credit card looks like when you bend the card, and the eye of a Daddy Long Legs, the skin of a sea cucumber, a bit of mold on a tomato. The world of the small is magical and beautiful, in most cases.

NextDoor.com allows people in your neighborhood to post items for sale, small jobs, and so on. For instance, when we looked, someone was looking for a driver to take their car to Arizona — a nice way to avoid rental cars on vacation.

The Numbers Report

Healthline.com claims there are 156,000 apps dealing with health and wellness. Start now and you may live long enough to check them all. The Food and Drug Administration regulates around 200 health sites. This reminds Bob that they also annually check about the same number of possibly dangerous chemicals in everyday use. There are roughly 81,000 of those, so it may take a while.

Given the situation, it’s really going to be up to your own judgment. Fox News reported that developers of three wellness apps, including the popular Runtastic, created by an Adidas subsidiary, as well as MIT’s spinoff “Cardiio(sic) and “My Baby’s Beat,” by Matis, paid combined fines of $30,00 for overstating their claims.

BMC Medicine, a medical journal, reported that apps claiming to determine the right insulin doses for diabetics provide no protection against, and may even contribute to, errors. Remember: Doctors don’t know everything, and neither does the web.

Oreo Cookies

The new Android system, called Oreo, is rolling out to phones over the next several months. Nexus and Pixel phones get it first. Is there anything worth getting excited about? Techlicious.com has a great article on this, with all the details. Here are the highlights we think worth mentioning.

“Dots.” In the corner of each app icon, such as the Facebook logo, you’ll see a dot if there are notifications for you. If you’re tired of seeing the same notification when you swipe down from the top of the screen, you can snooze it for 15 minutes or longer. You also get more control of how you’re notified. You might want Facebook alerts to vibrate, rather than show on the so-called “lock screen” of your phone, the screen you see when the phone has been idle for awhile. Or your app might ping you. Or you can just tell it to shut-up.

Set the Wi-Fi Assistant to automatically connect to the highest quality and safest Wi-Fi networks. Suspect Wi-Fi areas, such as airports, won’t connect automatically.

Wherever you connect, your data is protected because its transmitted through a Google-operated virtual private network. To enable this feature once your Oreo update has arrived, go to “Settings,” then “Google,” then “Networking,” then “Wi-Fi Assistant.”