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.


  • 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.



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