FREE AUDIO BOOKS

And now some good news. Several years ago, we criticized the book choices available for download from public libraries. The result was a spontaneous demonstration by angry librarians. (The whole idea of an angry librarian was beyond our ken.) “It’s not our fault,” they yelled in unison, “it’s the publishers!” Those publishers …. Really.

Well, times have changed, and now you can get thousands, maybe millions of free titles. The lode is so rich, we’ll probably let our “Audible” audio book subscription expire, much as we have enjoyed it.  Instead of paying $15 a month, or $100 for 12 books at a time, we’re exploring the free world, so to speak. We’re expecting an angry demonstration from publishers any moment now.

We started with “Hoopla Digital.” All you need is a library card and you only need to show it once. Go to HooplaDigital.com, put in your library card number and choose a book. Joy selected “Tortilla Curtain,” by T.C. Boyle. (The “C” in the middle stands for Coraghessan, a delightful old Irish name he came across one day and adopted.)  The website said she could listen for free for 21 days and the book would automatically return itself. There’s also a free HooplaDigital app for your phone. You can check out up to six items at a time.

Counting regular books and comic books, Hoopla has over half a million to choose from. We were amazed to find some real gems, including readings by a marvelous actor, Jonathan Cecil, who perfectly narrates many Bertie and Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse.

Overdrive.com has even more titles, more than two million, and a free app for your phone called “Libby” (kind of a quiet, polite librarian). We found many popular “book-club” books, such as “Hillbilly Elegy,” which we had already gotten at Audible.com. (Book Club books seem to be selected by a secret organization, and we mysteriously find that book clubs all over the country are suddenly reading the same book.)

Why use Hoopla Digital when Overdrive has more titles? Well, sometimes Hoopla has something Overdrive doesn’t. For instance, Hoopla has Agatha Christie’s “The Man in the Brown Suit” but Overdrive doesn’t.

If you’re interested in publishing your own book, consider “SELF-e.” When you’ve gotten it written out on your computer, go to self-e.libraryjournal.com and click “submit.” After submitting to SELF-e, your ebook may appear on the websites of participating libraries. If your book is selected by Library Journal, it will also be available in libraries across the U.S. and Canada.

Lots of Little Dinosaurs

You can play a game called “Jurassic World Revealed” with your voice alone, if you have an Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or Show. It also works with smart speakers like the Sonos One, that have Alexa built in.

The story inside the game was written by David Grossman and Joe Pinney. Grossman is famous among gamers for writing the classic video adventures “The Secret of Monkey Island,” and “Maniac Mansion.” More recently, Pinney has written Telltale Game’s “Game of Thrones” and “Jurassic Park.”

To play the game, you answer questions given to you by a journalist who is trying to find out what is happening to the dinosaurs. She pauses every couple of minutes to ask questions like, “Should we risk getting close enough to try to heal the dinosaur’s wound?” We said “yes,” and she said, “I knew I liked you.” We encouraged her to pull a tranquilizer dart out of the creature and then bandage the wound. If you saw the movie, still out in theaters, you may be a bit ahead of the game. The first chapter is free, then it’s $4 for the rest, or $3 if you’re an Amazon Prime member. (More than 100 million people are, for which they pay $99 a year and can then get free shipping on most items.)

Meanwhile, back at the dinosaur ranch … you open the Alexa app to get the game started on your speaker. Tap the menu (looks like three stacked lines) and choose “Skills.” Search on “Jurassic World” and tap “enable.” To start the game, say “Alexa, open Jurassic World.” If you have to leave the room or are otherwise busy, that’s OK. If she has to ask you the same question twice, the game automatically stops. Say “open Jurassic Park” to continue.

Texting from a Computer

Joy suffers from dry eyes, and a chief culprit is too much cell phone use. One way to avoid that is to use a computer for text messaging instead of a phone, whenever you’re home.

If you have an Android phone, try Google’s text messaging app on your computer. First tap the “Messages app” on your phone. Tap the hamburger icon (three stacked lines) and choose “Messages for Web.” Then go to Messages.android.com. You’ll see a big picture of a so-called “QR” code on your screen. Position your phone over it and tap “Scan QR Code;” you’re in. Your phone is now linked to your computer. You’ll see all of your saved text messages on your computer screen and can reply to them or type new ones from your computer keyboard. It’s a lot easier to do text messages on a big keyboard.

If you have an iPhone, see the article from Mashable.com, “Five Ways to Text from Your Computer.”

That Tiny Screen

Text on a phone’s screen is often too tiny to read. There’s a fix.

On your iPhone or Android phone, go into “Settings” and tap “Accessibility.” On the iPhone, “Accessibility” is under the “General” tab. There you’ll see options for font size and display size. You can also turn captions on, to get captions on videos. Wow, what a huge difference, and we do mean HUGE.

On your Windows computer, when you’re on the web, you can hold down the “Ctrl” key and tap the plus sign to enlarge anything you see there. On a Mac, hold down the “Option” key, tap the “Command” key and then the plus sign.

 

 

 

SMART TV OR SMART STICK?

A friend of ours is thinking of getting a smart TV. We asked her: Isn’t your TV already smart?

A smart TV is one that can connect to the Internet, which hers can. Perhaps she is thinking of a super smart TV, the kind with voice control. These days, many Samsung and LG TVs have microphones built into their remotes. The LG “ThinQ TV,” $380 for the 43-inch model, lets you use either the Alexa or Google Home devices for voice control. Ask for games, the weather, some scenery to jog into, or your favorite photos from Budapest; ask for a sports score without interrupting the movie your daughter is watching, and it will show along the bottom of the screen. You need to pay an extra $50 for the remote control that responds to voice commands; you knew they’d get you on something.

What about movies and instructional videos? According to TomsGuide.com the Roku stick or Roku player has more channels for video and music than any smart TV on the market. We have the $30 Roku Express, the cheapest version. Besides Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Vimeo, it has some obscure stuff, like “Free to Choose” TV. Many cable channels, like the History Channel, Lifetime, and HBO, are available for a monthly fee ranging from $3 to $15. If you only want a couple of channels, that’s far cheaper than cable TV.

The only drawback of the cheapest Roku stick is there’s no tech support. For a while it  couldn’t find our Internet connection, which was annoying, but Bob gave it a stern talking-to and that straightened things out. We also use Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire Stick. All seem equally good, but Roku has the largest line-up of channels. Some of these can’t be had from cable companies. Joy recently discovered they have some recent movies for  free in the “Roku Channel.”

Bottom line: If you need to buy a new TV anyway, might as well go for a smart one. The dumb ones are no longer for sale. If you don’t need one, buy a stick.

Windows on a Chromebook

A reader with a Google Chromebook, a kind of laptop that runs Google’s own operating system, says it would be absolutely perfect if it also ran Windows programs. If you’re real tech-y, you can probably do it.

Try Codeweavers’ “Crossover on Chromebook.” This is a free program still in the testing phase – what is sometimes called a beta version. However, you can download it and it claims to let you install any of 15,302 Windows programs, without needing to install Windows itself. It didn’t work for us, but it didn’t interfere with anything either. So it seems safe to try and you might have better luck.

We tried installing Microsoft Office 2010, and it looked like it installed, after a lot of hoops we had to go through first, including copying the set-up file from a CD to a thumb drive to the downloads folder of our Chromebook. But it wouldn’t launch.  The same was true of “Steam,” from SteamPowered.com, a popular program for running games. Failure to launch.

This was all for experimentation. We find we don’t need Windows programs on our Chromebook. Sure, they’re comfortable and familiar, and we use Windows computers more than we do our $193 Chromebook from Acer.  But there are so many free versions of the apps we use most that we just trundle on.

For instance, we can use the free Word Online, Excel Online or PowerPoint Online, all from Microsoft.  We can do photo editing at Photos.Google.com. We can find games in the Chrome app store. Sites with free games are plentiful but sometimes they are high risk for viruses and other intrusive software, so we won’t go there.

Your Name Here

A reader said he is a bit annoyed with Google policies and is thinking of getting out of Gmail. Okay, it’s easy to set up a Yahoo, AOL or some other account instead. But what about sending off email with your own name, such as JD@JoeDoe.com?

If you have your own website, an email address may come with it. We looked at Wix.com, one of the leading, easy-to-use website builders. A Wix website is free but they charge $4 a month for an associated email account, which will have “wixsite” in the name—unless you pay extra to get your own special address. GoDaddy.com gives you a personalized email address for $2 a month. You don’t need to make a website, and you get spam filtering, anti-virus protection and five gigabytes of email storage.

What name should you choose? You can’t have JD@JoeDoe.com because JoeDoe.com is taken, but your own name probably isn’t, if it’s not common. Find out if your name is taken by Googling it. For example, JohnSmith.com is taken but JohnSmithy.com isn’t.

Internuts

  • Patch. com brings you short pieces of local news, including video. It began in 2007, was bought by AOL in 2009, and is back with the original owners. They turned their first profit in 2016 and have 23 million users, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Yardzen.com offers landscape design online. It uses augmented reality and 3D renderings to design outdoor spaces. Once you’ve got your design, they can connect you with someone who can implement it. Or, you can do it yourself.
  • Skincancer.org, the home of the Skin Cancer Foundation, tells you the best hats, the best sun blocks, the best sun glasses and so on. A press release we got claims that the Maui Jim glasses are the only high-end sunglasses to get their preferred rating.
  • Supercut of 300 dancing scenes.” Google that phrase to find a seven-minute video clip. The downside is you see only two or three seconds worth of some of the best dances. Don’t blink.

 

 

SAVE THE JUICE

“Save the juice. Save the juice.” That comment is from a sign in Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The rest of the of the sign rhymes, with the added line: “Turn off the lights when not in use.” Frugal guy, Edison.

So taking that advice up to modern times, we took out our wallet, blew off the dust, and cracked it open to the tune of $10 to buy a timer for our phone charger. According to AccuBatteryApp.com, you can’t overcharge your phone’s battery, but leaving it plugged in too long is bad for its health; the battery degrades.

Well, we do that a lot, and decided to take measures to overcome our lack of self- control. We bought the “Century 12-Hour Mechanical Timer,” $10 on Amazon. Here’s how it works: Take your phone adapter and plug it into the mechanical timer. Plug the timer into the wall. If you only want 15 minutes to top it off, you can do that. The timer lets you choose any setting up to 12 hours. You could also use it to automatically turn off appliances, like your iron.

If despite all efforts and years of meditation you find that your phone runs out of battery much more quickly than anticipated, go to “Settings.” Your phone will show you which apps are using the most power. Go to the “Notifications” area to stop some apps from sending alerts. For example, we don’t need to hear from LinkedIn every time someone has a job anniversary. If you have an iPhone, don’t leave a frequently used app by just flicking it away. It uses less battery to let it run in the background, so the phone doesn’t have to load it all over again when you need it.

Making Movies

A reader wrote that she upgraded to Windows 10 and could no longer get Windows Movie Maker to create a DVD. We suggested she try the version of Movie Maker made specifically for Windows 10. Then we discovered an oddity.

On one page of the Microsoft site, they say there is no Movie Maker for Windows 10. It goes further, warning that if you download one, it could have malicious malware or viruses. On another page of the same website, they praise Movie Maker for Windows 10, with a link to download it. As with government agencies, apparently various departments – and people, don’t talk to each other.

We’re adventurous, so we went ahead and downloaded it anyway from the Windows Store on our computer, which also offers a “pro” version. Our reader tried it too, but ran into a problem. She couldn’t add the music she usually adds to movies. We suggested converting them to another format using the free “VLC Media Player.” If you click on “Media,” then “convert,” you can change one format into another.

Microsoft suggests using the Windows Photo app for creating videos instead of Movie Maker. Good advice and we agree. It lets you add captions and even 3D effects, and it’s easy to export or share your creation online. For offline, we used the free DVD burner from Ashampoo.com, “Burning Studio Free.” Movie Maker comes with some great choices for music but it’s not well designed. For example, there was no way we could start the music after we put together the video. So we did it all over again and made two videos. It was easy to use.

Slim Down

Google gives you 15 gigabytes of free storage space. But how can you tell when you’re filling up? This way:

Go to Drive.Google.com and move your cursor over the words “upgrade storage.” When we did it, we learned that we were using 14.5 gigabytes out of the allowed 15. Our Gmail is hogging most of that space, around 12 gigabytes. We dumped three gigabytes by deleting large emails; it’s the attachments that eat up the space. (Always remember to keep your messages — as we used to say in the newsroom — light, tight and trite.) Your Gmail trash empties every 30 days, as does your spam folder, so you can skip that part.

If you want to go after your large emails with an axe, but don’t know where they are, type “size:5242880” into the search bar at the top of your Gmail screen: It will bring up every email larger than five megabytes. You can replace the “5” with any number you want and that will determine the starting size of the emails that come up. If you click on the drop-down arrow, you can choose dates.

We chose 2005 to 2014, and deleted large emails from way back when. We also uncovered some great forgotten photos, which we downloaded to a separate file on our computer and posted them to a Facebook page. If you get a warning from Google that you’re still getting near the upper limit of storage space, transfer stuff to Flickr, Dropbox, OneDrive, or iDrive. They all give you lots of storage for free. Or, if you want to keep it in Gmail and Google Drive, you can get 100 gigabytes for $2 a month, or $20 for a year’s worth.

App Happy

Portal AR, Step into Scotland.” If you have a phone with “AR,” which stands for “augmented reality,” this app will take you on a tour of Edinburgh Castle or whiz along the North Coast on a motorcycle. Other than the novelty of it all, we found the tour wanting and would not have tipped the guide. There are YouTube videos about Scotland that are much better. Despite all the buzz about augmented reality, most of it is really disappointing. We liked the Rick Steves videos. He has a great one on Edinburgh.

 

TAPING THE DOC

We often leave the doctor’s office scratching our heads. It’s not because we have lice, it’s trying to remember what he or she said. So now we put ‘em on tape. (We don’t really use tape any more, we record them on Joy’s cellphone.)

One doctor we recorded baffled us even after we played him back. So we fired him and got another. But the recording helped us get on a new track, so to speak. We think his problem was a one-track mind.

We started out with “Smart Recorder,” free from the Android app store. It automatically skips periods of relative silence, so if you want to use it to record talks with your spouse at night. However, that may also include snoring. Tap the share icon to send a recording by email or text, or upload it to Google Drive, Dropbox, Facebook Messenger and many other storage places. Joy uses it to record her favorite yoga videos from TV. She plays them back when Bob is using the TV. Bob mutes the TV so she can hear the dulcet tones of the yoga master.

But what about converting a recording to text? It’s time consuming to listen to a long one, faster to read it. The free “Otter Voice Notes,” for iPhone or Android works well, instantly transcribing what you hear. You get 600 minutes of recording and transcribing per month for free or 6000 minutes for $10 a month. It makes some errors, but we’ve found that all the automatic transcription programs make errors and they’re not real bad ones; you can always figure out what was meant. A big advantage is you can search on a particular word or phrase to go right to the part you want.

If you need to transcribe a recording in to or from any of 30 languages, there’s “Just Press Record,” $5 for iPhones. Though it’s for iPhone, you can transfer the recording to PC or Mac, or upload it to iCloud. There’s also “Voice Memos,” a free app that comes with the iPhone.

Internuts

  •       The 100 Best Science Books of All Time.” Search on that phrase to find some  impressive lists, one from ListMuse.com and the other from oedb.org. ListMuse ranks “Origin of the Species” by Charles Darwin number one, and “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter,” by Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman number two. Oedb.org goes after more popular science books: Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” makes the number one slot in the astronomy category. Number two is “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” by Mary Roach, dubbed “America’s Funniest Science Writer.” Under psychology, they list one of Joy’s all-time favorites, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” by Oliver Sacks.
  •   The Best Paying Job in Every State.” Search on that phrase to find an interactive map from Time Magazine. Hover on a state to see the highest paying job. The highest one we saw was $964,000 from New Jersey’s clean-energy firm NRG Yield. Another biggie was $495,513 at Infinity Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Closer to reality was $115,353 from Murphy Oil in Bono, Arkansas.

Clean Keyboards

We read recently that the average cell phone has 25,000 germs per square inch. Computer keyboards are in the same germy ballpark, so we tried out a washable see-through cover we can type on. The one we tried is from Cherry, a German company that makes good keyboards we have used before. 

This is the sort of problem that matters in situations where many people use the same keyboard, such as at schools and libraries. You can get soft plastic keyboard covers for a huge variety of laptops and desktops, including major brands like Dell, HP, Apple and Lenovo. We saw plenty for $15 at ProtectCovers.com.

The cover gives the keys a rather ghostly appearance, making them harder to read. This is no problem if you’re a touch typist, and just need to glance at them now and then. Joy is a typing speed demon, but sometimes has to hunt and peck a few keys.  If you hunt and peck, you’ll need good eyesight or a strong light to see through the plastic haze.

Without bothering to remove the cover, dab a little cleaning liquid on it to remove germs. Use a 10 percent bleach, alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide solution and your keyboard will be almost as clean as a surgical table.

This kind of cover would have prevented the destruction of our Macbook, which had orange juice spilled on it. It could also prevent messes by kids with smeary fingers. You can also get covers for computer mice.

Smart Glasses

Remember Google Glasses? They were tiny computers that fit into your eyeglass frames and sent information to a tiny corner of your lens. It turned out they were more useful for industry than consumers. However, we just got news of Kopin Corporation’s “SOLOS,” a kind of smart glasses for athletes, especially bikers and runners.

The glasses have tiny speakers that provide turn-by-turn directions. (Joy gets lost easily.) But you can also take calls or play music, without having to look down at your phone. An in-ear headphone is included.  There’s a lot of data displayed in the corner of your right lens, in an area the size of a human pupil. Athletes can see their elapsed time, speed, pace, cadence, heart rate, etc. The SOLOS work with any Android, iPhone, or smart watch. They’re $499 from solos-wearables.com.

App Happy

In a CPR class, Joy learned how to do chest compressions in an emergency. The hospital suggested timing the compressions to the beat of “Staying Alive,” a song made famous by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. (A recent study by the University of Spain suggests the song “La Macarena,” but we can never remember how it goes, thank goodness; it’s hard to get it out of your mind once it starts.)

But what if you don’t remember when to use compressions and when to call for help or breathe into the victim’s mouth? Use a CPR app. That’s how we came to download “Real Time CPR Guide.” It’s free in the Android  app store. “CPR Assistant” is similar in the Apple app store.

The CPR course instructor who developed the Real Time CPR Guide said that students have told her over the years that in times of stress, they can never remember what to do and therefore choose not to perform CPR. This app talks you through it. It mentions seven situations for using it: heart attack, choking, sickness, electrocution, drowning, smoke inhalation and poisoning. If none of those fit the situation, tap “other.”

We tapped “heart attack” and noticed you can tap a link to call for help. The app tells you what to do if the victim has a pulse and can receive a rescue breath every six seconds or doesn’t have one and needs chest compressions at a rate of 100 per minute. Compressions can also work for choking if the Heimlich maneuver has failed.

 

THE WEB

What’s on the web? Everything.

Without buying an antenna or paying for a subscription to Netflix, Hulu or Sling TV, all you need is an Internet connection. Out there on the cosmic web are tons of entertainment, and also some instruction – just recently a woman delivered her own baby watching instructions on YouTube.

One of the most popular shows in the known universe is now on the web. Search for “Twitch Presents” to pick up 500 episodes of “Doctor Who.” Never heard of it? You’re out of touch. This show has been running, with a few breaks, since 1963 and regularly draws around 100 million viewers per episode worldwide.

Why the Twitch? Twitch.TV was initially intended for watching people play video games. What? You call that entertainment? Well, last year 258 million viewers on all kinds of websites tuned in to watch competitors play video games against each other. By way of comparison, 204 million viewers tuned in to watch pro football in the U.S. Of course that’s a not a fair comparison; our brand of football isn’t played in most other countries, so that’s sort of us versus the world.

The same is true for Dr. Who, a science fiction show about a time traveler. It airs in 36 countries, so most people are “out there,” you might say, and that’s the power of the worldwide web.

Laser Printer Woes

A reader was printing a picture with a laser printer when it stopped. The paper had wrapped itself around what’s called the fuser roller and wouldn’t come off. Over the phone, a tech support guy from Okidata helped him get the little fragments of paper removed. However that didn’t fix the problem. So he ordered a new fuser for $195 from Amazon.

Some further explanation might be useful here. Laser printers use a mixture of powdered ink and glue. The mixture that is deposited on the paper must then roll past a “fuser roller” which is heated and melts the ink/glue mix onto the page. The result is very nice — when all goes well.

The replacement is expensive, so it’s worth paying attention to the kind of paper you feed in to print your picture. Glossy photo paper produces a nice finish but the coating used on some photo paper can melt from the heat of the fuser roller and then it gums up the roller and tears the paper. You can also print on sheets of clear plastic and it produces a really brilliant effect when you shine a light through the finished picture. But once again, the problem is some plastics will melt from the heat of the fuser and then that’s two hundred bucks down the drain. Some papers and plastics will say “laser safe” on the package, some won’t.

Paying With Your Phone

Joy was out lunching with friends, but forgot to bring her credit card, so she had to pay a friend back. If she’d had “Android Pay” linked to a card, she could have paid with her phone. Android Pay isn’t the most popular method of paying with a phone, so what is?

According to research firm eMarketer, it’s the Starbucks app for Android or iPhone. This year, 23.4 million people over age 14 will use that app to buy something at Starbucks. In second place is Apple Pay, used by 22 million people. “Samsung Pay” is used by 9.9 million people. A big reason why Starbucks is ahead of the pack is the rewards and offers you get by using it. We need a “Panera Pay;” Joy likes their salads.

One thing we didn’t realize: To use Android Pay, you don’t have to open the Android Pay app first. You just hold your phone over the payment terminal for a few seconds until you see a check mark. However, it does help if you have “NFC” or near field connections turned on. Go to settings, and look under “Connected Devices.” You can toggle it on or off.

When Android Pay first came out, there were a lot more steps involved. Now it’s easy but the first time we tried it, our phone was in the locked position, so we had to enter a pin. But the second time, since we’d recently tapped on our phone, we just flashed it over the terminal.

The Numbers Report

“Let’s Uber,” is an increasingly popular phrase. This year, 48 million American adults will use this ride-sharing service at least once, an 18 percent jump over last year, according to research firm eMarketer. But rival service, Lyft, is growing faster.

Lyft is expected to grow by nearly 41 percent this year, with nearly 30 million Americans using it. Some drivers sign up for both services.

App Happy

  • Google Arts and Culture” (also on the web) has high resolution images from collections around the world. Included are the Frick collection in Washington, D.C., the Royal Museum in Belgium, the Doges Palace in Venice, and the out of the way Kroller-Muller Museum in Gelderland, Holland. Bob says an interesting aspect of visiting this museum, which has the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh paintings and drawings, is the sign in the parking lot which tells you to watch out for wild boars when you get out of the car. He didn’t see any.
  • Yousician” gets rave reviews for teaching you a musical instrument for free. But we found it difficult to strike a note on the piano at the precise time a little line moved over that note on our phone screen.

 

THE BIG DISCOUNT

Patient refusing prescriptions.

So we went to the drugstore to pick up Bob’s post heart-attack prescriptions and the pharmacy clerk said she looked around and knocked $135 off the price. That cut the bill in half. She should go on our Christmas list.

What she did was look at our prescription list and then went to her phone to check that against an app called “Good RX.” This must be pretty new stuff because we just heard of it last week. We heard of it but we’re not as sharp as the gal at the pharmacy and we didn’t install it on our phone. We thought: come on, how much could this save you?

Good RX gives you coupons for lots of pharmacies, just about any you can think of. You can print them out or show them on your phone. Savings run up to 80 percent. You can also print the coupons directly from your computer by going to GoodRX.com. So this cut our drug prices without requiring an Act of Congress.

Free Science

Sci-hub.org is a free searchable online database of 67 million scholarly articles. They’re made available to you by a 20-something Kazakhstan grad student named Alexandra Elbakyan. Another site offering free articles from journals is LibGen.io; it carries all kinds of copyrighted material for free. Similar sites are cropping up quickly.

As you might expect, the publishers’ rush to the courthouse could rival a cattle stampede. Ordinarily the cost for downloading an article is $30 apiece, which adds up pretty quickly. Free is a very attractive price and everyone in the scientific community seems to be using these sites because they’re quicker, easier, and let’s not forget the free. The loudest complaints have come from Elsevier, a Dutch company that is the largest publisher of scientific papers,

What about copyright laws? And what about payments to the authors? Well there are no payments to the authors; Elsevier doesn’t pay the scholars anything. Because of the constant pressure to publish in the academic world, researchers are usually happy to be cited more widely.

But what about Elsevier’s copyrights? Could Ms. Elbakyan, and others running copyright-free web sites, be arrested and extradited back to the U.S.? Almost certainly not. This may come as something of a shock back here in the States but many countries have no laws governing foreign copyrights. Ms. Elbakyan’s website is hosted in St. Petersburg, Russia, where judgments made by American courts are not enforceable.

Note from Bob: This sort of thing is very widespread and there’s nothing you can do about it. In a conversation with Isaac Asimov some years ago, he complained bitterly that his science fiction books had sold 15 million copies in the then Soviet Union and he had received not a penny in royalties. (Bob was picking him up at the train station, because the famous sci-fi writer had a lifelong fear of flying.) Charles Dickens complained about receiving no royalties from the United States even though he sold more books here than he did in England; yep, we used to be one of those countries with no copyright laws concerning foreign authors.

Coding With Minecraft

A certain kid relative of ours loves a game called “Minecraft.” He is not alone. Over 144 million copies of the game have been sold worldwide. By the way: four of those games were sold in Antarctica. Lots of indoor time in Antarctica.

Microsoft paid the game’s creator $2.5 billion four years ago for the rights. You can build things in Minecraft using low resolution blocks that look slightly like Lego bricks. But you can go way beyond that, the blocks can shrink automatically to provide perspective, and they can even be assigned tones, so your picture can play its own background music.

Basically, the little blocks are programmable, and we found a great book for these players. It’s called “Coding With Minecraft,” by Al Sweigart, $30 from No Starch Press.

The author begins, “’Just three more diamonds, and then I’ll stop,’ I remember telling myself…I needed the diamonds for a new pickaxe. I needed the pickaxe to mine more obsidian. I need the obsidian to make a Nether portal. I needed to go to the Nether world to pick up lava. And I needed the lava for … what did I need the lava for again? Oh right. I was sculpting a giant phoenix statue in the side of a mountain. I wanted to make lava pour out from its eyes and beak.”

If you play Minecraft, you’ve mined for diamonds, made dozens of tools and built all sorts of structures. But what if you could program Minecraft robots to do all of that for you in a fraction of the time? That’s the thesis behind this book.

Internuts

  • 40 Resources Every Designer Should Know.” Search on that to find project templates, ideas for web design and photoshop tips. You can even make your own graph paper. Webydo.com is one of the free sites mentioned here for making your own website.
  • “The complete list of Google Home Commands so far” or “The complete list of Alexa commands so far” will bring you a couple of articles from CNET listing everything you can command your smart speaker to answer or do for you, such as play music, a game, give you a reminder, tell you the weather forecast, and answer all kinds of questions. Sometimes. It’s still early days and the digital ladies inside often say “I don’t know how to answer that.”
  • 15 Tiny Things to Improve Your Life.” Search on that phrase for some great suggestions. Example: if a task only takes a minute or less, do it as soon as you think of it. Or practice a new skill or hobby for ten minutes a day.

 

 

CAN YOU BE SUED FOR AN ONLINE REVIEW?

Online reviews can get people in trouble. In a case reported by the Washington Post, angry friends of a bride and groom accused a wedding photographer of being a con artist for holding photos “hostage” until an extra payment was made. The photographer went to court and won more than a million dollars in damages.

Thanks to the First Amendment, you can say almost anything you want in an online review of a product or service. Almost. If you say something like “scammer” or “con artist,” that’s accusing someone of illegal activity; you don’t want to do that unless you can back it up,

When writing an online review, be sure to use phrases such as “I didn’t like X,” rather than “X is a con.” Joy frequently does online reviews of things she buys, but never makes them a personal attack.

Blockchain Tango

Last September, Joy invested in Bitcoin, the virtual currency and Ethereum, one of the so-called “blockchains.”  It’s had its ups and downs, and once, in the middle of the night, she came close to selling all. Bob convinced her not to, which was a good thing. It was at its lowest low. Experienced traders often look for this moment, which is often called The Valley of Despair; 2008-2009 in the stock market was a classic example.

Like Bitcoin, a blockchain involves a network of computers, and everything is encrypted to protect privacy and remove the need for a middleman, such as a bank. But the blockchain goes a step further than virtual currency, so-called “smart contracts” can be self-executed on it. A computer in the chain knows what to do, when and under what conditions, based on the programming code it contains.

Here are some examples of how the blockchain is being used today, one frivolous, four serious.

  • CryptoKitties” is one of the first games to be built on blockchain technology. When you sign up, the program generates a virtual cat by way of a smart contract. Then you can trade yours or buy more. In December, when Bitcoin reached an all-time high, the most expensive CrytoKitty sold for $120,000. More than $12 million has been spent on CryptoKitties. None of it by us.
  • Peertracks” allows musicians to sell music directly to fans, eliminating the need for a record label. There are no ads or subscription fees. Each time a track is streamed by someone who wants to hear it, the artist is paid automatically.
  • Storj” allows people with excess online storage to rent that space. It’s like a filing system for the Internet, using a blockchain of transactions to encrypt and distribute data around the world.
  • Dentacoin” streamlines dental care by establishing insurance-like contracts between patients and dentists. Instead of paying high insurance premiums, patients pay a small amount directly to dentists in advance. That is used to cover their dental care. It’s in the dentists’ interests to focus on prevention, since just like insurance companies, they do better if they limit costs. There are 13 clinics currently using Dentacoin. (Update: As of July 4, 2018, there are 38 clinics in 14 countries.)
  • Propy” is facilitating the first auction on the blockchain, by selling the Palazetta Mansion in Rome, Italy.

Google Tour Creator

With Google’s free “Tour Creator,” you can create a panoramic tour in virtual reality or plain old real reality.

We made one in a few clicks using a few standard photos. Like anyone else, we could have clicked “publish” to put the result at Poly.Google.com, but we thought it was not a good idea to cause any random deaths through boredom. Instead, we looked at what others have done, which includes a continually moving tour of the Halls of Congress, castles, and the city of St. Paul Minnesota, among dozens of others.

You don’t need a virtual reality headset to view these, but they’ll look better if you have one. We gave away our Google Cardboard headset to a nine-year-old boy, but for $8 on Amazon we could buy another one. If you put your smart phone inside the box-like goggles, the scene appears all around you as you turn your head and you can look in any direction, including up and down.

Start at Poly.Google.com, and use photos from Google’s Street View or your own 360 degree photos. The Tour Creator is meant to be used with Google’s field trip app “Expeditions.” Since 2015, Google Expeditions have brought more than three million students to places like Antartica and Machu Picchu. No jet lag, no airport hassles. To take a trip yourself, go to YouTube and search on “Google Expeditions.”

Internuts

  • Google’s AI Sounds Like a Human on the Phone.” Search on those words to hear a demonstration at TheVerge.com of the new Google “Duplex.” Duplex, is kind of a smarter version of Google Assistant or Siri. It can make real calls to places like a hair salon and a restaurant. The people on the other end will have have no idea they’re talking to a robot. There are whole conversations, with questions answered, an appointment made, and answers about reservations given. In a later version, Google will actually go to the appointment and you won’t have to bother. (Just kidding.)
  • IntelligenceSquared.com has interesting online debates. A recent one was: “Will Automation Crush Democracy?” You can vote for the side you favor. Of course if you live in a dictatorship or monarchy, you can’t vote.
  • AI-vs-humanity.com shows you the possibilities of life 120 years from now, and historic points in artificial intelligence along the way. It starts with 1958 and the development of the “Turing Test,” named for computer scientist Alan Turing. The test is whether or not a person can tell they are talking with a machine or another person. One of the early examples was an artificial psychiatrist, which many people could not distinguish from a real one. In tests of the aforementioned Google Duplex, nearly all small business owners thought they were talking to a real person. We often have this experience at parties.

 

 

 

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.)