EAVESDROPPING WITH ALEXA

Twenty-two million Americans now have what’s called a “smart speaker,” a gadget that sits on a table or shelf and responds to commands. The numbers have doubled in the past year.

This is without doubt the hottest product out there and we expect the numbers to jump sharply again this year. The market leader, with about 72 percent, is the Amazon Echo; Google has about 18% and the rest is “other,” which includes Apple’s “HomePod,” and Sonos’ “Sonos One.”

Now the Amazon Echo not only listens to you, it can listen for you. In short, it can be an intercom. If someone turns on its “voice calling and messaging” feature, you can either call them or listen in. There have to be certain agreements here: You must have put them on your approved list and vice versa. This last should be a big sigh of relief for all involved, because otherwise you are bugging their house without bothering to get a judge’s order.

This is a lot like spying. You can “drop in” on a friend’s home if they have an Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Show. If they have the latter, you can not only hear what’s happening in the room, you can see whatever the device can see. You pay extra for eyeballs in the room; It’s $160 for the one with the video camera.

More than a year ago, Joy bought an extra Echo Dot for a disabled friend. In the Alexa app settings, she named the second device “Joy’s Second Echo Dot.” Then she tapped the speech bubble to turn on calling and messaging. Back home she said, “Alexa, drop in on Joy’s Second Echo Dot.” She then heard her friend talking with the helper who comes in twice a week. The sound was clear, as if she were in the room. It’s also like an intercom, in that she could have also talked back to Joy – if she knew Joy was there.

Time to play defense. If you don’t want anyone to eavesdrop on what you’re doing, you simply say to the device: “Stop Drop-In for my household.”

The intercom feature kicks into play usefully if you have Amazon Echo devices all over the house or business. You can drop in on the one in your child’s bedroom, for example, and call her to dinner. You would start that call by saying something like “Call the Echo in Jane’s Bedroom.” Go further afield: check on grandma, check on someone next door, check on the dog.

We’re still exploring the features of these devices. For instance, we just found out we can use Alexa to control the TV. Joy asked her to play the movie “Mother’s Day,” which is free for Amazon Prime members. It worked because we have a $30 Amazon Fire Stick plugged into the back of the TV. We then asked Alexa to pause the movie so we could write this column. She got confused and searched for a movie named “Pause.” But that stopped the movie anyway. The “Google Home” device can also send movies and videos to your TV; it has the advantage of access to the millions of shows and talks on YouTube, which Google owns. Amazon Fire TV also has access to YouTube videos, but in our tests, Alexa couldn’t find them.

Special Effects at Home

If you’ve ever been to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld or Disneyland, you’ll remember spooky ghosts floating through the air and 3D figures waltzing before your eyes. A similar kind of magic, from AtmosFX.com, is now available for your home. It requires no virtual reality headsets, starts at $7 and is called “animated decorations.”

On June 1, the company is coming out with a new set of animated decorations, but we’re held in check by one of those non-disclosure agreements for the time being. We can only say that they’re basically kid friendly; fans of a certain blockbuster movie will be thrilled to see 3D creatures projected onto their windows or TV. Okay, that’s enough hints. (Hate those non-disclosure agreements. Bob’s regular response is: “If you don’t want it disclosed, don’t tell us about it.”)

To watch these effects, you need a DVD player or a computer connected to a TV, monitor or projector. We first looked at the “Party Time” decorations, which bring you virtual balloons, confetti, fireworks and streamers. But what really blew us away was their Halloween set. Wacky pumpkins sing songs and tell stories from a virtual shelf. Moving shadows create mayhem in your windows. A creepy portrait follows you with his eyes from your TV screen; reminds us of Uncle Max.

Finding a Good Bridge Game

Bob has been playing Microsoft’s Bicycle Card Games for years. He likes it because of the graphics.  He also likes it because the Microsoft programmer who made it is probably the worst bridge player in the world, and is very easy to beat.

It’s a friendly game with friends, if you don’t mind that one of your friends is Sam Spade  and another is a guy who looks like he needs a shave.  But the game suddenly went kaput on us, showing a haze of colored blocks.  This set us off on a quest to find the best substitute.

Many people like “Bridge Baron,” but we hate paying $65 for a bridge game and the graphics are junk compared to Bicycle Card Games. We next considered the free game at 247Bridge.com, but it kept getting stuck on Bob’s computer. We also tried BridgeBase.com (which was too confusing), and the bridge game at Pogo.com. (Cards were too tiny). Then we tried Arkadium.com, but the players were really dumb. “Bridge Bandit” looked promising but the download button didn’t respond when we clicked it. The bridge game at Games.AARP.com was the same Arkadium we’d already tried. Worst yet was the free “Quick Bridge for Windows.” Our electronic partner bid three spades when he had almost none.

Just when we were ready to give up, we put the Bicycle Card Games CD into the computer one more time and it worked! By the way, it’s an old program and lists Windows 98 as the most recently compatible operating system. But it works on our Windows 10 machines. Amazon had only two copies left when we checked. The cheapest was $20; golden oldies still sell.

 

REMOTE CONTROL

EAST NARRAGANSETT BAY, Courtesy of National Geographic

Sometimes you need to access your computer from a galaxy far, far away. Or at least from the beach. We used to like TeamViewer, but it got too complicated. So now we like the free “AnyDesk.”

You can use this from any laptop, tablet or smartphone. In our tests, all went well. On a Chromebook, we used AnyDesk to control our Windows computer. It was only in the next room, but in theory it could have been far, far away. After clicking on the AnyDesk icon and typing the secret code, we clicked on familiar icons to browse the web, edit anything we had written, and play Peggle, our favorite game. In PowerPoint, we added a slide to our “History of Entertainment” presentation at the University Club. All was as if we had been sitting at our Windows desktop.

The code you need before you access another computer is found in the AnyDesk app on that computer. Those with short memories will want to write the code down. (We frequently can’t remember what we went into some other room for.) Fortunately, the code never changes. We emailed it to ourselves so we could always find it again.

Another way to reach a far away computer is with “Chrome Remote Desktop” from Google. Download the app from the Chrome Web Store. It’s free and gets good reviews. However, we ran into a surprising problem when we tried it. From our laptop or phone, the only desktop listed for access was a machine we gave away a year ago. A screen message said it was “offline.” Boy, when you no longer have the machine, that’s really offline.

What struck us most and best about the new AnyDesk program is its speed. Back in  the days before time, controlling another computer could be clunky and slow.

Internuts

  • NEW MEXICO STATE TRAIL

    Huge List of Texting and Online Chat Abbreviations.” Search on that to find 1500 abbreviations for texting. “SMH” means “Shaking My Head.” “IKR” is “I know, right?” “511” means “too much information.” That’s one hundred more than 411, the phone number for directory assistance. “SWL” means “Screaming with Laughter.” FOMCL is “Fell off my chair laughing.” (Regular English is on its way out.)

  • 68 Year-Old Sings Highway to Hell.” Google that for an amazing performance. A woman in a dowdy sweater, long skirt and glasses takes those off to give a hip rendition of a rock song and wins the TV show “Britian’s Got Talent.”
  • 25 Essential Drives for a U.S. Road Trip.” It’s almost summer and time to hit the road. Google that phrase to find a photo slideshow from National Geographic Traveler’s Magazine. A run along the “Top of the Rockies Byway” looks pretty scary.

App Happy

A blind woman wrote us about the free “Seeing AI App” for iPhone and iPad users.  It helps blind people identify labels, signs, and currency. Using the camera in their device, it speaks what it sees. Besides recognizing U.S. dollars, Canadian dollars and Euros, it can tell you the color of objects.  It has a bar code reader, scene describer and text reader.

Laptops and Posture

We’re amazed at the popularity of laptops. They give us both a crick in the neck, and Bob totally refuses them. Experts say we’re right. Thank heavens. (Mark Twain said the definition of an expert was anyone who lived more than 50 miles away.)

If you’re a full-time laptop user, it can cause neck and back pain, headaches, and more. One solution is to attach a larger monitor to your laptop; they’re cheap these days and plug right in. (We found used Dell monitors as low as $45, when you add shipping, on Amazon.) Then plug in an extra keyboard and put the laptop off to one side.

When positioning a monitor, the goal is to be able to look straight ahead. To give it the right distance, you should be able to touch the screen without straining.

Reader Frustration

A reader wrote: “When using Firefox, if I do a search in either Bing or Google, the results come back in Yahoo!!!”

It turns out there are two versions of Firefox, and the reader had accidentally installed the version called “Mozilla Firefox optimized for Yahoo!” We suggested he uninstall Firefox and get the other version. It’s available at Mozilla.org and its free.

Also be sure your favorite search engine is set as the default.  In Firefox, click the three stacked lines in the upper right, the “hamburger icon,” and choose “options,” then click “search.” Next, choose Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo or whatever you like. In Chrome, click the three stacked dots, then “settings” and then choose something under “Search Engine.”

Disasterville for Grandma

Watch out for people who set up a Wi-Fi account for an older friend or relative in a retirement home. They may not think to connect the person’s phone to Wi-Fi.

Our friend in a retirement home didn’t notice when her phone was no longer connected to a Wi-Fi signal. So without realizing it she started using her data plan, which can cost a lot of money. Even worse, this guy changed her user name and password without telling her; apparently, he figured she would never need it anyway. He even set up a security question she’s never used or thought of before: “What is your favorite beverage?” (For us, it’s water.)

For his final foul-up, he spelled her name wrong for the sign-in. Don’t let this happen to you when you’re in a retirement home! Fight back! In a broader sense, don’t let technicians set things up and leave without telling you just what they did and why. Maybe you should even take notes; Joy does.

 

DRONE JOURNALISM

It used to be that aerial photography was available only to the richest newspapers. When Bob was the food critic for the Chicago Tribune, he remembers a photo shoot from a helicopter costing $10,000. Now with cheap drones, anybody can get an aerial shot.

It’s called “Drone Journalism.” Two researchers from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland have a new book by that name. Besides the usual tips, they point out that a journalist’s drone can be stopped by the government. Dictatorships are famous for this, but even the U.S. government sometimes calls a halt.

In 2016, Sioux Indians staged a major protest against a proposed oil pipeline in North and South Dakota. When the first dramatic aerial images of the police using water cannons against the demonstrators started to spread, the authorities quickly outlawed photo-taking by any fly-by devices.

Besides getting caught up on drone journalism, we learned that drones are getting very sophisticated. When the battery is about to run out, the drone automatically returns to its starting point to be plugged in. No-fly zones can be programmed in, such as military areas and airports. Some media outlets are expected to soon have drones on their rooftops, to be sent out on assignment at the touch of a button. Gotchya!

Taming Alexa

 Alexa, the voice inside the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show, has thousands of “skills,” like games and apps. Now you can make your own. It’s as easy as typing your name.

Start at Blueprints.Amazon.com. We started with the blueprint labeled “Custom Question and Answer.” All we had to do was replace their questions and answers with ours and hit “save.”  Now, if Joy asks “Alexa, who’s the best husband?” Alexa will say “Bob Schwabach is better than any husband who ever existed since cavemen walked the earth.” When she asks: “What does Bob need to buy?” The answer comes back: “A new blazer and some gray or navy pants.”  If one of us asks: “What’s the best thing to do now?” Alexa will say: “Give each other a hug.” (Note: This could be a setup.)

Besides these templates, there’s one for welcoming house guests, or you might want a  birthday trivia game (find out who knows the birthday boy or girl best). There’s another for a bachelorette party, family trivia, a quiz game and even a kind of celebrity roast for friends; Amazon uses what it calls “lighthearted burns.” (Example: “You should think about being an astronaut on a one-way trip.”) In the “Doubles Troubles” game, the default questions include “Who complains the most when they are sick?” “Where did you go on your first date?” Get these wrong and you’re in big trouble.

Safety for Phones

After we wrote about a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) for your computer, readers asked about getting one for their phones. Who needs it? Anyone who uses public Wi-Fi at airports and hotels.

A VPN encrypts everything, shielding you from hackers, computers that have key loggers (recording all your keystrokes) and prying eyes. Here’s an obscure reason: You might want to watch the American version of Netflix in a foreign country. A VPN can make it look like you’re logging in from the U.S.

Should you get a free VPN or pay for it? A free VPN usually has no legal obligations to protect your identity. They might sell your data to third parties; otherwise how could they stay in business? Those third parties might use your info to send targeted ads your way. Oh, no, they’re sending me a targeted ad. What if I actually buy something? If you’re not worried about that, check out these freebies: TunnelBear, Windscribe and Hotspot Shield Free. They’re rated best of the freebies by TechRadar.com.

Out of 100 paid VPNs tested, ExpressVPN came out on top, says TechRadar. ExpressVPN works in 90 countries and has a 30-day money-back guarantee. Prices start at around $7 a month. Hard to figure what would trigger a money-back deal.

DigitalTrends rates “NordVPN” number one. Its speeds are reliable and fast enough for streaming high definition movies. It works in 59 countries. Privacy buffs like the fact that it doesn’t keep records of where you go on the Internet and won’t answer if anyone asks. It costs $70 a year. (You pay more if you go month to month.) The free trial is tricky, however. If you tap to accept a seven-day free trial, it asks for a credit card, which will automatically get charged if you forget to cancel. If you decline the seven-day trial, it offers a free three-day trial with no credit card required. We always balk when a company asks us to put in our credit card number.

Internuts

  • Animaniac’s Lessons on Geography.” Searching on that phrase gives you a cartoon video with all the countries of the world run together into a delightful song. (Bob says there’s one mistake. Catch it if you can.) The song reminds us of one by mathematician Tom Lehrer, running through all the natural elements.
  • The Palace built by a postman, using stones from his route.” Google that to get the story of a 19th century Frenchman who built “The Palace Ideal” at night from stones he collected over 33 years. There’s also a YouTube video.  He must have had help because this thing is huge, with lots of statues and artistic touches. Kind of a masterpiece really.
  • The Five Best Smart Phones Under $250” is an article at Techlicious.com. They favor the Motorola g6, which has a better battery than the iPhone 8.
  • WorldFitnessLevel.org estimates your fitness level after you answer some questions from a Norwegian university. (You can answer in English.) Then they give you your fitness age. It’s good news if it’s the same or lower than your real age. (Special Bob tip: If you want to lose weight fast, go to Antarctica; you’ll burn about 12,000 calories a day just trying to maintain normal body heat.)

 

 

STAY CALM AND SNUGGLE DOWN

Cozy up and get under the covers. “Calm,” is an app for your computer or phone and helps you fall asleep by telling you bedtime stories or providing music, nature sounds, and meditation lessons. We feel sleepy just talking about it.

Their latest story is a Grimm’s Fairy Tale that claims to be the first one ever produced by artificial intelligence. It puts robots to sleep. Besides that, there are 80 stories written by actual humans. New ones come out almost every week. A couple of those are narrated by Stephen Fry, who played the helpful butler “Jeeves” in the “Jeeves and Wooster” TV series. We listened to “Blue Gold,” about the lavender trade. The only way it could have been calmer was by adding the scent.

Though most of the stories were new to us, there are also classics, such as “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “The Wind and the Willows,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and a scene from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” An item called “Ferris Bueller’s Teacher” is narrated by Ben Stein, the guy who played the economics teacher in the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He reads Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” That should put you under.

There’s a free trial at Calm.com/trial. After 21 days, it’s $60 a year.

Locked Out

A reader says she couldn’t remember the log-in for her old Windows computer. In other words, she’s locked out. Here’s a way to get back in:

If you do a Google search on “what to do if you forget your Microsoft user name or password,” you’ll get a link to reset it. There’s only one problem: what if you didn’t set up a free Microsoft account? In that case, you can return your computer back to where it was the day you bought it by using the recovery software built into Windows.

Our reader has a Toshiba laptop, so we searched the web for “Toshiba recovery mode” and it came right up. In every case, recovery is just a matter of turning on the machine and holding down some key until the screen changes to recovery mode. Search on “recovery mode” and your brand of computer to find instructions online.  Of course, this wipes out any photos or files. But that should be no problem: you backed up all that stuff to a thumb drive on a regular basis, right?

What if it’s your phone you’re locked out of? (Another reader problem.) The solution? Reset it. For LG phones, turn off the phone first. Then hold down the power button, the home button and the volume down. Then follow the on-screen instructions. For other phones, look up “reset” and your phone’s make and model. Resetting a phone makes it happier and more content.

Multi-Tasker Heaven

After almost every column we turn in, Joy turns to Bob and says, “Wait, we forgot to mention something!” Of course, we forgot to mention something, that verifies that we’re human. To indulge her, we’ll tell you something we forgot to put in last time. It has to do with browsing the web with the new version of “Opera,” a rival to Internet Explorer, Edge, Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome and other browsers.

The Opera web browser lets you watch videos in a mini-window while you continue to work on your computer. That’s multi-tasker heaven. At this moment, Joy is watching a video about the “Holistic Holiday at Sea,” a vegan cruise. Normal people might watch a ball game or golf. She can do this while working on a Word document. Bob can’t do this because he has to focus on the column.

After you enable “video pop out” in settings, you’ll see a tiny icon at the top of any online video. Clicking it pops the video out into a small window that floats over the screen. It remains visible whatever you’re viewing or working on.

Dumping Magic Jack

We loved the idea of Magic Jack: You can use your old landline phone for only $39 a year. But it had one major annoyance: most of the time, the line was dead.

That wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds, because we had calls automatically forwarded to our smartphone. It blocked all spammers after we installed the free “TrueCaller” app. We returned to a service called Vonage, which costs $21 a month with taxes. That’s a lot more than Magic Jack, but at least the line never goes dead and the call quality is better.

Some readers have written us about how much they love their Magic Jack and we’re glad it works for them, but obviously we have not performed the right rituals to appease the phone gods. Fortunately, there’s a free trial for both services, so you get to decide on your own.

Stop Listening

Your apps may be listening to you. They do it to send you targeted ads. (Someday, they will come after you in your sleep.) Maybe you like those ads, but if it bothers you, here’s what to do:

Go to “Settings” on the iPhone and tap the suspected app and see if it accesses your phone’s microphone. If it does, then it could be listening and taking notes. For an Android phone, go to “Settings,” then “Apps,” and tap the app you suspect is listening. Scroll down to permissions and check for microphone access there. We could find only one app on our phone that had access to the microphone. That was for learning German, which requires Joy to speak into the mike to check her accent. Ja! (She has a friend opening a restaurant in Munich.)

(subhed) Internuts

  • 32 Unknown Facts.” Search on that phrase or go to 1Funny.com to find some unusual stuff. Rats can last longer than camels without water. A raisin dropped in a glass of fresh champagne will bounce up and down continuously from the bottom of the glass to the top. So they say.
  • OpenPaymentsData.cms.gov/search. Is your doctor getting payola? According to a study cited by NutritionFacts.org, most physicians in the United States get gifts and trips from the pharmaceutical industry. Ironically, cardiologists, whose practice centers around diseases that can largely be prevented and treated with lifestyle changes, receive the most payments of all. The national mean for the value of those gifts is around $3,200. Our own doctor received only $200.

 

 

AT THE OPERA

A reader told us she’s tired of being tracked. We suggest using the new Opera web browser.

It’s free and you can get it from Opera.com. Once on board you will have a built-in “Virtual Private Network,” or VPN, as the techies call it. It automatically encrypts all your data so hackers can’t get to it, which makes it safe (at least until the counter-attack) when you’re using free Wi-Fi at the airport or a coffee shop.

For your phone, there’s “Opera Free VPN,” from the iPhone or Android app stores. Besides safeguarding your data, it lets you into places you might otherwise not be able to go.  For instance, some videos are restricted to certain countries. We’re looking at you, Germany. According to Ublockvideos, 85 percent of all these web restrictions apply to Germany. We have no idea why.

To turn on the VPN in Opera on your computer, click the big red “O” in the left corner and choose “settings,” then “privacy and security.”  You’ll notice a blue “VPN” badge in the corner of your screen. VPN toggles on and off. It goes off for sites like Google Maps, that needs your location to figure out your best route, but you can toggle it on again. Opera has a great reputation for speeding things up. However, using a VPN will slow it down a tad.

We were never Opera fans until now, because we didn’t like the look of it. Our email always seemed a bit hard to read. Now everything looks great, a lot like Google Chrome, with one big addition. Off to the left are icons for Facebook Messenger, What’s App, Bookmarks, History, taking a screenshot and “Personal News.”  Personal News has built-in sources, but you can add your own and remove theirs.

A caveat: On some websites where you’re asked to fill out a form, only Microsoft Edge or Internet Explorer will do. Joy ran into this problem trying to submit a grant application for a local grad student, who ended up winning a $15,000 award from the women’s organization, P.E.O. She tried three browsers, but only Edge worked.

Grabbing Videos Online

Some of the videos we see on Facebook, like “The Evolution of Dancing,” are so good we want our non-Facebook friends to see them. But they can’t log in because they don’t have Facebook accounts. What’s a browser to do?

We tried a screen capture tool that’s part of Corel Video Studio Pro, but that’s a $70 program with a lot of video editing power you don’t need for a simple capture. For $40, you can get Movavi, which we found easy to use. Define the area you want to capture by highlighting it with your cursor, or capture the whole screen. The sound comes in automatically and you can add a voice-over if you wish. There’s a seven-day free trial, but the videos you capture during the free trial will have the Movavi watermark in the middle of the screen. It didn’t bother Bob but it bothered Joy.

Back to “The Evolution of Dancing.” Turns out if we had just Googled it, we would have found it on YouTube, rather than doing a screen capture. In the future, if you see something you like, it doesn’t take long to see if it’s also on YouTube.

Internuts

  • Cow Rescued After Hurricane.” Search on that term to see a one-minute video of a calf raised as a pet after it nearly drowned. The family dog, who was also rescued from the flood, helped nurture it back to life. Warning: this could be heart-warming; Joy had tears in her eyes.
  • The “Netflix Shows Most Searched for In Your State.” Search on that phrase to see what’s popular. In Alaska and Oregon they like “Star Trek: Discovery.” Most popular in California and Texas is “Ingobernable,” which is about a politician in Mexico. New York and 15 other states like “Orange is the New Black.”
  • Common Coffee Mistakes.” Search on that term to find an article from BusinessInsider.com. Mistake one is not buying it fresh, like bread. Another is keeping it longer than a month.
  • Cartoonist Shows Why You Should Say Thank You Instead of Sorry.” Much better results!

 Reading Apple files on a Windows Machine

Paragon Software is giving away free software for looking at Mac files on a Windows machine. Go to paragon-software.com/home/apfs-windows to download it. Then connect a drive that has Mac files on it. Then, in Windows Explorer you’ll be able to see the Mac files that are normally undecipherable.

From iPad to Facebook

A friend of Joy’s was having trouble getting photos from her iPad onto Facebook. Here’s how:

First tap “Photos” on your iPad. Second, look along the bottom of your screen and tap one of the categories you see, such as “albums.” Third, tap on a photo you want to share on Facebook. Fourth, look at the top of the photo. To the left of the trashcan is a square with an up arrow. Tap on that up-arrow to copy the photo to Facebook or some other part of the universe.

Reader Concern

A reader was worried because the power button on her computer wasn’t working and she was afraid if she turned off the computer, she’d never get it on again. Why not leave it on until the new part arrives from Dell?

Bob seldom shuts down his computer unless the system forces a restart for an update. Before the environmental crowd starts pounding on our door, we got some specifics on the electricity cost from MichaelBluejay.com. He pointed out that an iMac left on in sleep mode would have an electricity cost of $6 a year if actively used for only two hours. A Windows computer would be similar. Bob has always maintained this was the case, but never in polite company.

 

FACING FACEBOOK

As a special treat for our regular readers, we have nothing to say about Facebook. Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

Virtual Reality at the Mall

“Virtual Reality” has been over-hyped as a way to experience a movie or game. But it may be about to bring you into the mall.

At the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles last month, six people at a time were allowed into a special room containing a virtual “Alien Zoo.” Those who made the trip viewing other-worldly animals said the 12-minute journey was something like being inside “Jurassic Park.” Participants, wore goggles and backpacks, fended off aliens and in general had a whopping good extra-terrestrial time.

The company that set it up is “Dreamscape Immersive,” backed by 21st Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Nicolodeon and AMC. Steven Spielberg, director of the movie Jurassic Park, is a big investor.

They’re not alone in this one small virtual step for mankind. Rival outfit The Void features two VR adventures: “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” and “Ghostbusters” at shopping malls in Florida, New York, Utah, California, Toronto, London and Dubai. At their web site, TheVoid.com, you can watch video clips of people walking around in their gear. We heard some startled screams. Don’t know if that was because of the exhibits.

Heaven knows, something has to be tried to get the shop-till-you-drop crowd back into the malls, and this may be it. But you can sell more than shoes and shirts this way. Some schools are also starting to use VR.

“VictoryVR,” from VictoryVR.biz, is creating science lessons for kids using virtual reality headsets. The “Chemistry Wonderlab” app can be downloaded for $10 from the Windows store, but that’s just the ticket cost, so to speak. One of three headsets are also required: “Mixed Reality” for $399, the Oculus Rift, also $399 or the HTC Vive ($499).  In Chemistry Wonderlab, kids visit an antique truck museum where the chemistry of rust is explored; then it’s on to “Trickybeard’s Cave” for chemical elements. Another app called “Mendel & the Mystery of Genetic Traits” is a VR comic book by candlelight. The company says it helps kids retain 60 percent more than they would from an ordinary book.

We took a look at these apps in the Microsoft Store on Windows 10, and ran smack into the requirement page. Besides a headset, you need a powerful computer. Ours has 16 gigabytes of RAM and a fast Intel i7 processor. But even that is not good enough. Microsoft says we’d need a better graphics driver and perhaps a better graphics card.

The Lenovo 750, at $1500, would do the trick. So would the HP Spectre x360 15, Dell Alienware 13 and the Microsoft Surface Book 2. The Surface Book 2 is the most expensive of those on the recommended list, at $2500. For headsets, if you want to go all the way, the HTC Vive Pro just came out and is said to fix the problems of other systems: You don’t get tired halfway through an intense experience.

How about on the job training in virtual reality? “Matrix Academy” is training hairdressers through VR. At the other end of the cosmic scale, a VR outfit called “8i” worked with Buzz Aldrin, who recorded messages for scientists training for Mars missions. The training was in Hawaii, which might be slightly different than Mars.

Internuts

  • Underwater rooms at the Manta Resort, Pemba island off Tanzania

    Names.org tells you the origin of names, gives you a timeline of their popularity and adds lots of fun facts. The peak popularity for the name “Joy” was the late 1950s. “Robert” or Bob is of British origin and means “bright fame.” It reached its peak bright fame in 1947 and is the third most popular name of all time after James and John. “Joy” is most popular in Oklahoma, where her mother was from.

  • 11 Tell-Tale Signs your Accounts and Devices Have been Hacked” is a Gizmodo article. “Unexplained credit card charges” seems like an obvious one, but a sudden, serious slowdown of your phone or computer might also mean you’ve been hacked, and someone else is on the line.
  • The World’s 30 Most Impressive Hotels.” Search on that term to find an article in Popular Mechanics on ice hotels, palaces, forts, tree houses, caves, you name it.
  • “Pancreatic Risk Calculator.” Google that phrase to calculate your chances, or choose any other problem, such as breast cancer or heart disease.

App Happy

  • Netflix Party” lets you watch a movie with remote friends. It keeps you at the same place in the movie and lets you chat by text message off to one side.
  • “Chompers” keeps kids entertained with stories, riddles and dental directions while they are brushing their teeth for two full minutes. If you have an Alexa Echo or Echo Dot, your kids can say, “Alexa, start Chompers.” To get the app, or hear the episodes, go to gimletmedia.com/chompers.

Great Radio

There are thousands of “podcasts,” also known as online radio shows, so how do you choose? Here are a couple to try out if you’ve already been to Planet Money and Freakonomics Radio, our two favorites.

  • Panoply.fm has a “By the Book” podcast where two friends try to follow a new self-help book in each episode, often with hilarious, sometimes disastrous results. We listened to the one on “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” which sold 50 million copies and even led to his and hers salad dressings.
  • Song Exploder” lets musicians break down their songs and tell you how they put them together. Find it at Player.FM.

Which is Safer, Android or iPhone?

Apple’s iPhone has long maintained a reputation for tighter security. Download an app from their app store and you can be sure it’s OK. Now Google is challenging that.

According to a report by Engadget, Google says downloading Android apps is now just as safe as the iPhone. In 2016, the probability of downloading a harmful app over a year’s time was less than half of one percent. In 2017, the probability was reduced to one-fifth of one percent. There are currently two billion Android devices in active use. There are about seven billion people, counting babies and toddlers.

 

 

WHO’S THAT DOWN THERE?

This is one of the weirdest cases we’ve ever heard of from a reader. A woman wrote to say that anyone replying to her emails was redirected to a hacker.

We tried writing her back, and sure enough, we saw her email address change before our eyes. An extra letter was automatically inserted. We didn’t put it there, we just hit “reply.” Off it went to the hacker. The next time, we hit “reply” we carefully erased the “send” address and put in the one without the extra letter.

This was beyond annoying for the reader. Friends thought she was getting their email but those messages all went to the hacker instead. She first tried getting help from “Geek Squad” from Best Buy. They worked on the problem for more than three hours, but couldn’t fix it. She next tried Verizon’s tech support, but they were no help either. We suggested she go to helphelpnow.com and talk to Kenny, who has helped us many times. He fixed it in seconds, she said, removing the fake account the hackers had set up. Of course one mystery remained: why would a hacker want to get her emails in the first place?

Over three billion Yahoo email accounts were hacked in 2013, which the company admitted in 2016. Most held onto their accounts for the convenience of it. We use  Gmail, as does most of the world.

Ad Blockers

Websites are full of ads, and without an ad blocker they can be slow to load. But ad blockers themselves can cause problems if they use too much computing power, thus slowing down your machine. The ad blocker, “Ublock Origin,” is a good one, because it blocks ads without getting in the way.

Ublock Origin is an extension for the Chrome browser and an add-on for Firefox. We Googled it, and the Chrome extension came right up. To test it out, we went to Yahoo.com and in seconds, it blocked 29 ads. On Firefox, we searched on the phrase “Ublock Origin Firefox” to find it.

TrueCaller

NBC Nightly News recently did a story about phone spoofing. That’s when a hacker calls someone you know and makes it appear the call came from you. In their test case, a hacker-expert called the interviewer’s mom, disguised his voice and got her social security number. He got it because a picture of her son’s face showed up on her cell phone screen. Naturally enough, she thought she was talking to him. We use the app “TrueCaller” to identify these kinds of fake callers. TrueCaller is kind of a fanatic about identifying spam; it labeled the Wall Street Journal a spam caller because they were asking us to renew our subscription. (Maybe “TrueCaller” was right, it’s an outrageously expensive subscription.)

How it works: As a call comes in, the app turns red if it’s a spam suspect. It’s up to you to accept, decline, or block it forever. We find it handy for receiving and making calls. But to check voice mail, we tap the regular Android phone icon.  For some reason, we don’t see any voice mail messages come up in TrueCaller.

Playing Android Apps in Windows

Joy lost her smartphone somewhere in the apartment. Is it just us, or do other people, somewhere in the world, also lose things in their own homes? For now, she’s having calls forwarded to Bob’s phone. But what about all those fun apps?

“Bluestacks,” a free download from Bluestacks.com, allows you to use Android apps on a Windows computer. It includes the Google Play store, making it easy to search for the apps you want. Joy downloaded her new favorite, “Aaptiv,” which brings her personal trainers for yoga, strength training, rowing, running, elliptical machines and a host of other categories (free for the first thirty days, $99 a year if you continue). She also downloaded “Word Chums,” a free app that’s like Scrabble on steroids and has better sound effects.

She also tried running apps on our Google Chromebook. Word Chums and Aaptiv worked fine. Another one she tried did not.

Internuts

  • Archive.org is famous for its “Way Back Machine,” offering old versions of current websites. But it also has free games, movies, audio and TV. Click “movies” for hundreds of free classics, such as “His Girl Friday,” and Charlie Chaplin silents. Click “audio” to get free audio books and old-time radio. Old-time radio programs include The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Dimension X, Our Miss Brooks, and many other classics. Click “software,” then “Internet Arcade” for 607 retro games from Atari and others. They look clunky today but they were hot stuff in their time.
  • JoinAllofUS.org is the website for a million-person study being conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the next ten years. Joy just joined, which involved filling out an extensive health questionnaire. She’ll be contacted soon to make an appointment for a blood test and various measurements, for which she’ll earn $25. Later, she’ll have her genome sequenced. NIH is trying to create the largest health data resource ever, to better understand health and disease.  Partners include a subsidiary of Google and scientists from leading universities.
  • RRAuction.com has some unusual items come up for bids. Steve Jobs’ employment application sold for $174,757. At the time, he was an 18 year-old freshman at Reed College in Oregon and listed his major as English Lit. He misspelled “probable.” We don’t know if he got the job.

ALEXA, START MY DAY

The battle between Amazon’s “Echo” and Google Home never ends. Which is all good for us.

The other day we turned to Google’s smart speaker and said “Hey Google, play ‘La Bamba.’” That launched a playlist with some of the best rock ‘n’ roll of all time. Joy could hardly stop dancing and return to the column.

Alexa has her own new tricks. For instance, you can give her several commands at once without having to say “Alexa” each time. We said, “Alexa, turn the volume to 7.” A second later, we said “Call Bob,” and Bob’s cell phone started to ring.  We also plied it with questions. “Alexa, what’s the population of North Korea? What’s the population of South Korea?” Note that we only had to say the opening command “Alexa” the first time.

To set this up, tap the Amazon Alexa app on your phone. Then tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) and tap settings, choose your device and scroll down until you see “Follow Up Mode.”  In settings, you can also set up what you want to hear when you say “Alexa, Start My Day.” This can be a fun way to start your wakeup.

We have ours set up to give us the weather and the latest podcast from Planet Money. The first time we tried it, we heard about Grace Owen, a New Hampshire woman who got the lowest Social Security number ever issued: 001 01 001. Grace appeared on “What’s My Secret?” and guess what, that was her secret.

Google Home Strikes Back

We tried a similar new feature for the Google Home smart speaker called “Routines.” You can start by saying, “Hey Google, How’s My Day?”

This launched a weather and traffic report, followed by news briefings from National Public Radio, Fox News, Anchor News, Bloomberg Business News, Score Sports and the BBC Minute. Joy said “Hey Google, skip” during the sports briefs, but not before hearing about March Madness, whatever that is. This was all pre-set; we provided no instructions.

To learn how to customize this daily report, we went to our computer and searched on “Set Up and Manage Routines on Google Home.”

Some of the “Routines” are best for after work. For instance, you can say “Hey Google, let’s go home,” and the Assistant will give you a traffic report, send text messages, read unread texts, and play whatever you’ve chosen, whether it’s music, news, a podcast or nothing. It will even broadcast to all the Google Home speakers at your home that you’re on your way.

Once you get there and settle in, the doorbell might ring. If you have one of these three security cameras – Nest Cam, Logitech Circle, or Tend Secure, you can say “Hey Google, who’s at the front door,” and see the person on your TV. But that also requires the $35 Chromecast plugged into the back of the TV. It also requires that at least one of those security cameras be focused on the front door.

Getting help for a Google Home speaker is easy. When we were on their support website, a small window popped up allowing us to chat with a Google employee. This one was a guy named Ian, from the Philippines. Later, he sent us a replay of our chat by email and added that if we replied to it, he would deal with any other Google-related issues. (By the way, there are 7,614 islands in the Philippines.)

Big Clipboard

The 2013 and 2016 versions of Microsoft Word have an extended clipboard feature. So instead of copying just one item and pasting it in, you can copy dozens and later choose the ones you want from a list.

Here’s how: In Windows 7 or 10, copy something from the web or elsewhere and it automatically saves in the clipboard. To copy, highlight the item with your mouse and hold down the “Ctrl” key on your keyboard while tapping the letter “C” to copy it. On a Mac, hold down the “Cmd” key and then tap the “C” on your keyboard.

Now, in Microsoft Word, change the settings for the clipboard. (You only have to do this once.)  Click the “home” button, then click the little arrow next to the word “Clipboard” in the upper left of your screen. If you want the list to show up whenever you have Word open, click “options” at the bottom of the clipboard and choose “Show Office Clipboard Automatically.” When you’re ready to paste, choose the one you want from your list.

Bob has long used multiple saved clips to use with emails. You can make a standard sign off, with name and web site, or address or whatever. It can be good for canned replies: “Thank you for contacting us,” etc. He has long admired the canned response that the late Sen. Metzenbaum of Ohio used to send to people who wrote him with wild accusations and comments: “Dear Sir or Madam: We think you should know that some crank is sending out letters signed with your name.”

 Internuts

  • Bookstore.gpo.gov is the U.S. government bookstore. They used to have bookstores in many cities, but now it’s just Washington, D.C. You can order online, and the range of topics is enormous; Bob has long been a fan of their titles. Under the “Best Sellers” category, there’s a tax guide for individuals and a book on protecting your family from lead exposure in the home. They also have ebooks.
  • Search on the phrase “Mesmerizing Wind Patterns” to find a page from LaughingSquid.com. It pictures a globe showing wind patterns and speed. Turn the globe to see various regions. Click on one to get precise wind speeds and directions. Scroll down the page to see another map of ocean currents, and an animated visualization of every meteorite recorded since 861 A.D.
  • Search on the phrase “Kingsoft Office Free” to find a free word processor, spreadsheet, and PowerPoint program similar to Microsoft Office.

 

 

HERE THERE BE TYGERS AND ALL MANNER OF STRANGE BEASTS

One of our frequent correspondents had a near miss.

That’s a near miss from disaster when he got a phone call telling him his PayPal account had been compromised and he owed $340. The caller said they could fix the problem for $299 but they needed to take control of his computer. They said they needed his bank account number too, so he gave it to them.

There was a lot of background chatter on the caller’s end of the line. The red flags went up, the rockets exploded and the bells started ringing. He turned off his computer, told the caller he just had a power outage, hung up and moved everything from his checking account to his savings account. Then he removed the software the callers installed. Whew. This is a pretty savvy guy we’re talking about, so this can happen to anyone.

So here’s the message: Never, we mean not ever, give control of your computer to someone you don’t know and trust. And … there’s no reason on Earth they need your bank account number. In fact, once he did that, even though he took alarm and took the right defensive action, the same people still call him. They figure they have a live one.

What is to be done, to be done, to be done?

We have had similar run-ins over the years. On one occasion, Joy gave control of her computer to someone she thought was from Microsoft. On hearing this, Bob, who has the same level of suspicion as a CIA agent who’s also paranoid, said hang up the phone and do it now. Joy had to reformat the computer afterwards.

So, when you have a problem with the computer, be it large or small, where do you turn? The stores that offer tech services have a natural conflict: they charge quite a bit for doing not much but the real profit is made in selling something additional. So the guys and gals who do the tech work often find it easier to tell the person seeking help that it’s better to just reinstall Windows. We’ve had this from two people we know just in the last couple of weeks. It’s a never -fail fix, somewhat expensive, but everybody comes out happy. Of course, there’s the additional expense of replacing the programs that got wiped out when you reinstalled the operating system.

We have tried the sites that provide contacts with freelancers who sell various skills and have various levels of expertise. The results have varied. There are lots of these sites. Last June, Forbes Magazine had an article called “79 Websites to Get Freelance Jobs Fast.”

These sites are legitimate and the freelancers do the work but results vary. Years ago, we went to a website called CrossLoop and by chance got a guy who was terrific on computer problems. The web site is no longer in operation. The guy’s name is Kenny. We’ve never met him but he’s who we recommend when there’s a problem. He’s at helphelpnow.com. We’ve also gotten great help from Esther, a website expert, at EstherRosie.com. By the way, we get no percentages on this or any other kind of payback from anything we write about; we want to go to “Reporter Heaven” when the time comes.

Going on Wheel of Fortune

Joy wanted to be a Wheel of Fortune contestant and they ask you to upload a one-minute video. So she got up early one morning and did it, putting her Android phone on a shelf, making sure the camera was facing her, and tapping the video button. It worked fine, though she had to try four times to get it under one minute.

The video was automatically uploaded to Photos.Google.com. From there, she put it on YouTube (unlisted) and shared the link with Wheel. Unfortunately, the next step proved impossible.

The directions said to upload a headshot. But she kept getting “upload fail.” She tried three different browsers, two kinds of photo formats, three resolutions, and used two different computers. Finally, she tried submitting her application with just the video and no headshot, and that worked fine. We’ll let you know if she makes it.

Killer Course

Google is offering a free crash course in machine learning. That’s the kind of learning a computer does when it learns by watching rather than from explicit directions. As Yogi Berra once said: “You can see a lot just by looking.” Quite so. That’s how a Google computer beat a world champion in the game of Go and that’s how the future “Terminator “will figure things out.

Machine learning doesn’t happen automatically; it requires a savvy program. If you’re interested in learning, search on the phrase “Machine Learning Crash Course,” and look for the Google link. The prerequisites are mastery of entry level algebra and proficiency in programming, especially coding in Python. There are free tutorials in Python on YouTube, and we also like the paid lessons at Lynda.com.

 

The Numbers Report

  • According to researcher Dscout, the average person touches their phone 2,617 times a day. Heavy users touch theirs 5,427 times a day. By touch, they mean every tap, swipe, type or click. The company recruited 94 Android users and installed touch monitoring software on their phones. Those people are now in rehab.
  • Shareaholic.com reports people are clicking on links they get from Google more than the ones from Facebook and other social media sites. This is a shift. For the past three years, most people used a Facebook link or similar social site to get to another website. Facebook lost 12.7 percentage points in share of visits between 2016 and 2017 while another social site, Instagram, saw their share increase ten times. Of course, Facebook owns Instagram.

 

 

DEVELOPING A TWITCH

An old friend in the computer gaming business called to pitch a new product. The product was interesting though not yet ready for prime time. But his call opened a window we hadn’t looked through in many years.

We hardly ever mention computer games anymore, because it has become a specialty in its own right and is too narrow for this column. And yet, they’re still out there. More than half a million people tune in daily to Twitch.TV, where they can watch other people play video games. Ten million have downloaded the app to watch Twitch on their phones. Sound pretty stupid? We tuned in (because we have to) and it was actually interesting. In fact it was more interesting than a lot of the TV shows we’ve looked at for ten minutes or less. You can also tune in to watch artists draw the characters and scenery that go into these video games.

This harks Bob back to the early days of personal computers, when the popular machines were Commodore and Atari, and the conventional wisdom from the far-seeing pundits was that personal computers would never amount to much and were only good for games. They didn’t understand what was happening, of course. Bob’s own managing editor told him it was just a fad. What strikes us about conventional wisdom was how conventional it is, and that the wisdom part usually drops off the edge of an intellectual cliff.

Well things went along, and two students at Harvard designed a spreadsheet they called “Visicalc” that would run on Radio Shack’s TRS-80 personal computer. A guy in the dorm had one. But he transferred out and took his computer with him, so they were stuck with writing it for an Apple, another guy in the dorm had one.  Radio Shack went bankrupt, Apple became a giant. Many things are subject to chance.

Painting with Bob Ross

Games lost their prominence but continued to live. They’re out there now; go to the web site Twitch.tv and watch. You think this would be a really boring thing to do? You think wrong. There are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of games going on. In the corner you’ll often see a picture of the player. You’ll hear their excitement, and feel it too. Get the monster, find the treasure, be a hero, or heroine.

The program our old friend was pumping is a new arrival, still in “beta” testing, as they say.  It’s called “MobCrush;” you can download the app or go to MobCrush.com. Gamers who play programs associated with movie studios, game companies and other commercial enterprises can earn anywhere from $15 to $2500 an hour, depending entirely on how many viewers they can pull in. The minimum payout starts with around 5,000 followers.

So the kid who won’t go outside because he or she is playing video games could have earnings potential. A guy we know says his daughter, an artist, has over 10,000 followers. Well, that’s ten thousand potential customers. Dead artists can also pop back. An old PBS show, “The Joy of Painting,” with Bob Roth, streams live, so to speak, on Twitch.TV. He died in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of viewers continue to watch the show. Other artists can be watched on Twitch by typing “creative” in the search box at the top of the screen. The Japanese “Manga” style is popular.

Battery Life

We killed the battery in our old laptop by leaving it plugged in all the time, though after seven years it might have caught something deadly anyway. Battery death can happen to phones too, in just two to three years. The key is don’t over-charge.

A free app for Android phones called “AccuBattery,” from AccuBattery.com, gives you an alarm when the phone you’re charging has reached the 80 percent level. According to the app maker, charging to the 80 percent level instead of 100 triples the battery life.

Though modern phones are protected from overcharging when you plug them in all night, some experts say their batteries last longer if you turn your phone off after charging it completely. Another tip: Don’t let an Android or iPhone go completely dead. The battery will last longer if you charge them when they still have around 20 percent left.

By the way, a new battery for our old Windows 7 laptop cost $27 on eBay. We gave the old computer away, and warned the person not to do as we did, leaving it plugged in. It should run on the battery alone a couple of times a month. When we’d had the laptop a few years, it no longer stayed charged for six hours but started sighing at two.

Extension Extermination

Adding too many extensions to your web browser, whether Chrome, Firefox or something else, slows it down. Here’s how to remove them:

In Chrome, go to chrome://extensions and click the trash can next to any you don’t want. Sometimes, however, the extension still has access to your account, even though you deleted it. Go to MyAccount.Google.com and click on “Sign in and Security,” then “Apps with Account Access,” to see which apps can access your account.

In Firefox, click the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) in the upper right corner of the screen. Then choose “Add-ons.” Here you can disable any you don’t want or add new ones.

In Safari, pull down “Preferences” from the Safari menu. Then choose “Extensions” and “remove.” In Microsoft Edge, click the three dots in the upper right corner and then “Extensions.” In Internet Explorer, click the “tools” button, then “add-ons.”

Internuts

  • Cob house coziest place.” Search on that phrase to find a so-called “cob” home with a 25-foot high solar dome in Norway. The family grows almost all their food in an amazing greenhouse.
  • WagnerStudios.org has some great Calvin and Hobbes’ snowmen comics. Joy sent the link to her nephew, who’s a big fan. More at GoComics.com.