If you’re out of favor with the Mafia, you need this. It’s the Google Home smart speaker, or the free “Google Assistant” app on your phone. You can sit on your couch and say “Hey Google, start my car.” If it doesn’t blow up in three minutes, you might as well get in and go.

This currently works with new Hyundais, Mercedes  and BMWs. More are likely to join in soon. The Hyundai program is called “Blue Link,” and requires either a 2017 or later Hyundai, or one of a dozen models from 2016 or a few from 2015. Besides starting your engine from the couch, you can set the interior temperature, send points of interest to the car’s navigation system, lock or unlock the doors, blow the horn, turn on the lights, and in general make a real nuisance of yourself.

Mercedes offers something similar. From your couch, you can ask Google to remotely lock the doors, start your engine or send an address to your navigation system. It works with select 2016 and newer models.

BMW’s version of this finds your car, gives you details about it, tells you when your next trip is, checks the battery status, locks the doors, activates climate control, and checks to see that the doors are actually locked, the windows are up, the trunk is closed, and your fuel level is adequate. Getting from the house to the car, you’re on your own.

Your Inner Botanist

We recently read that people no longer know their plants. Even botanists.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a PhD candidate touring a garden with other botany grad students wondered if a fern was part of an orchid; he didn’t realize they were two separate plants. Another grad student was about to explain it to him, but she waited to see if anyone would answer first. No one did. Botanists these days are more focused on the molecular level. Molecular plants are hard to see.

Tsk, tsk. Ferns are nothing like orchids. They don’t even have seeds. They reproduce through spores; everyone knows that. It is tough to keep up, however. There are approximately 391,000 species of plants, 23,000 are trees. It’s a hard world. Bob says the only way he would recognize an ash tree is when it’s been made into a baseball bat.

There’s a solution for all this, in fact there are several. These are apps for your phone that can examine a picture of leaves, flowers or bark and tell you what it is. “PlantSnap,” from PlantSnap.com, is free for Android and iPhones, if you don’t mind ads. We took a picture of one of our house plants, and it immediately identified it as “Weeping Fig,” or “Ficus Benjamina.” There’s a terrific story involving the discovery of this plant, and someday we’ll get to it. Right now, we have to move on to another plant, because Joy’s on a roll. So it turned out one of our other house plants was “Spathiphyllum,” also called “Peace Lily.”

The app recognizes 316,000 species of flowers, trees, succulents, mushrooms, cacti and other flora of the planet. If you want to remove ads, it’s $20 a year.

A nice thing about PlantSnap is it saves your plant photos in a gallery, so if you forget their names you can refer back. There are half a million trees, flowers and other plants in their database, and their machine-learning algorithm recognizes about 2000 new ones a month. Now we know that this huge number does not match our other huge number when we listed species, but that’s because many species have more than one variety. Black panthers, for example, are just ordinary leopards, but with dark skin.

Another option is “iNaturalist,” which includes animals as well as plants. With iNaturalist, free for Android and iPhone, you can share your identifications with others and get their comments. That grizzly attacking you might be a Kodiak grizzly and you’ll want to be able to tell someone that on your way out. “Research grade” observations are shared with scientists.

In some tests, Plantsnap did best, other times iNaturalist was the winner. Plantsnap got a Japanese maple totally wrong, but iNaturalist nailed it. But one of the decorative plants in front of our high rise was identified as “Pampus Grass,” found all over the place in Argentina. Could be that one, but we have our doubts. Tapping on photos that others have taken in iNaturalist gives you the address and a map.

Brushing Up Your Photos

We compared the free editing tools from Google Photos (Photos.Google.com) with Ashampoo’s Photo Optimizer 7, which costs $20. Not surprisingly, Photo Optimizer did a better job.

Besides the usual photo editing tools, the Ashampoo program removes red eye, whitens teeth, and allows you to process a whole batch at once.  As with Google Photos, you can click once to enhance the photos. However, teeth whitening takes a bit of practice or your subject will look like they have white dots instead of teeth.

Beware of Pop-Up Ads

A reader says she gets pop-up notices from an “Advanced Mac Cleaner,” saying her computer has viruses. She wondered if she should download the program. Absolutely not.

These kinds of pop-ups are a classic tool of hackers. Now sometimes, a program you have installed on your computer will give you a pop-up request to take some action. If you recognize the program, it’s usually a good idea to follow its suggestions. If in doubt, Google the words in the pop-up with the word “scam.” We searched on “Advanced Mac Cleaner scam” and found a user forum on the Apple website where many said it’s a fraud.


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