Reviews of Free Zoom Alternatives

Video conferencingBrief Reviews of Free Video Conferencing Platforms

After using a licensed version of Zoom for a month, I began casting about for free alternatives that would satisfy the basic needs of a couple group meetings that we participate in regularly. Don’t get me wrong. I like, Zoom. I just didn’t want to spend the money right now for something I could get by on for free. I’m cheap that way.

Our needs are pretty minimal: Allow for at least 10 participants, have screen sharing and offer meetings lasting up to 2 hours.

I subscribe to several tech-oriented newsletters and so have received links to a bunch of articles that point to Zoom alternatives. But none seem to have all the services I have found, each only pointing to a few. Here’s my offering of listing all the options I have found so far. I’m not trying to review them all as I haven’t had time to thoroughly test each service. And the services keep evolving faster than I can keep track.

I will list my top two free services and then the rest I’ve at least looked at.

Jitsi – So far this is my favorite. It’s dead simple to use from their website, and has apps for mobile devices (iOS, Android). At the time I checked the limit was set to 75 participants if you are using their server. There are no time limits. It touts end to end encryption and screen sharing. For large groups it has the hand raising feature so a moderator can have some control of the conversation. Most interesting of all. it’s an open source project which means anyone can download it and build apps on top of the code or modify the code. You can also run your own Jitsi server if you have the chops and want to go beyond their server limits. There are additional features like recording your calls that make this pretty robust for a free service.

Google Hangouts –  This was the first free video conferencing system I’d tried and, though it seems to be in constant flux, it still holds its own. They’ve opened up the number of participants to only 25 people per call (with the 10 most active participants shown at the bottom of the screen). You can record your calls, but to store the calls in your account you would have to pay a small monthly fee. This post has a feature comparison between Zoom and Hangouts

Google Duo – Duo has a nice interface. However, I couldn’t find a screen sharing feature. Also, you connect with people using their phone number. So, that’s a different approach. There is a limit to 12 people and has end to end encryption.

Skype – Part of the Microsoft family, Skype has been around for quite a long time and it’s pretty robust. From their Fair Use Policy on Group Video: “Group video calls are subject to a fair usage limit of 100 hours per month with no more than 10 hours per day and a limit of 4 hours per individual video call. Once these limits have been reached, the video will switch off and the call will convert to an audio call. If a participant of a group video call is not on a version of Internet Communications Software that supports group video calls, then the call will be an audio call only for that participant. The number of permitted participants on a group video call varies from 3 to a maximum of 50, depending upon device and associated system requirements. You can find more details at www.skype.com/go/gvc.” I didn’t find a screen sharing feature, though, so this makes it not so great for my purposes.

Discord – This service was originally built for gamers to chat,  but is now used by a variety of groups. The video/screen sharing service is limited to 10 people. I have had limited experience with this service, but plan to give it a try just to learn its capabilities. Desktop and App versions. There’s even one for Linux! That’s unusual.

Spike – This is an interesting option that combines email and video conferencing. It’s also free if you are using a generic email account like @gmail.com or @yahoo.com. However, the free version is limited to 10 chat participants. But if you are using a custom domain email like @morsemedia.net then it’s $5.99/mo paid annually, and there are no limits.

Summary

That’s it for now. I’m sure more services will appear as video conferencing will not be going away, even as the pandemic fades. What did I miss? What are your favorites? Let me know in the comments.

Two Poems from Youth

I don’t know what has possessed me to post these poems. I have no way to judge their quality. I had a youthful desire to be a poet and wrote a many of them and shared some in readings, and in now long forgotten anthologies. At some point I packed up that dream and trundled down other paths. I do realize these poems are highly romantic and derivative (Hopkins, Thomas, and others).

Over the years I have written in many modes, fiction, non-fiction, reviews, plays. But there is something has drawn me back to look through some of these early efforts. There is some energy there. Some focus and facility and effort. And I want to find that again. Because I am determined to write more. Some little bit. Every day.

Stern Love

When young in the slow, moist woods,
Creeping oak darkened hills of morning
I paused to wonder – to turn my head;
Thickets caught fire, scorching my cheeks
Strands of barbed wire caught my sleeve
Too weak to quench flames or break steel
I stood

in the white lace of the waterfall.

Shivering now in dusk’s gloom I stirred
To turn homeward
With arm clutching wind
Still feverish with dreams
Bruised and scattered
I returned to the house of your stern love
and was healed.

In such a child time is challenged
In such a world nothing ends
The strange man who now strides earth
Steps only on the red clay of the hills
While a sullen planet smokes
It’s gear teeth glisten venom
The river of my heart undiminished
And as before
My head aflame, bruised and scattered
Shivering in gloom
I turn a familiar corner where
The house of your stern love stands
Open.

circa 1972

Bush

Thre deer quiet in the bush
then crash they bound crash crash
on iron animal legs and crack over rocks
and three deer gone and
nothing more moves in the bush

till the wind eases in and out
and nothing more move in the bush

an insect buzz and flash
then nothing more moves in the bush

and finally the day ends always
always it ends and always begins
ends and when ends it
becomes dark in the bush and night begins
but dark night ends always and it
slowly becomes bright and it
slowly becomes day
and something quick moves in the bush
then nothing more moves in the bush.

1975

Small Adventures in Cryptocurrency and Blockchain

Back in 2014, I began to read about Bitcoin, a new type of currency. I had no idea what it was or how it worked. But I had seen the price rising. At the time 1 Bitcoin was already worth about $566, having started at essentially zero 6 years before.

I decided I wanted to learn more about Bitcoin and the technology behind it. I was afraid I’d already missed the boat, so I only wanted to dabble and not “bet the farm”. I signed up for an account on Coinbase (disclosure: I get a small reward if you sign up using that link), already an established Bitcoin marketplace. I bought 1/5 of a Bitcoin for around $114 as a way to keep the concept in front of me. I didn’t actively trade, just watched as it meandered in value and then, suddenly began to take off. As of today, my investment is worth over $2000.

Bitcoin, cryptocurrency

Unfortunately, as you can tell from that, I am not a crypto millionaire. But I really didn’t set out with that goal. I’m much too cautious for that. Still, I have made more than enough to pay for my new iPhone X. I just need to figure out when to pull the trigger and cash out enough to cover that cost. Should I hold? Should I take some of my gains now? (BTW, whenever I do, I will have to pay taxes on them).

In the meantime, my dabbling has kept me interested in the whole cryptocurrency field and the underlying technology called Blockchain. This included following the incredible story of Silk Road that used Bitcoin to trade in drugs and other nefarious goods and services. What the hell had I invested in?

But Silk Road was brought down and the dark reputation of Bitcoin was slowly rehabilitated. Some business started taking Bitcoin as payment. Cryptocurrency broke into multiple variants, like Ethereum, LiteCoin, and many others. In fact, at one point Coinbase split my Bitcoin holding in two, so suddenly I was the owner of Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash. It’s all still quite muddled, but also exciting to watch.

And the buzz around the possibilities of Blockchain and how it may affect our lives well beyond Cryptocurrency is even more interesting. Some have claimed Blockchain will prove more revolutionary than the advent of the Internet itself. Others are not so enthusiastic.

It’s difficult to separate the hype from reality at this stage. But if you want to get just a basic idea of what a blockchain is without getting a headache, I suggest watching this:

 

Minding Mindfulness

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Humboldt Skeptics for many years (actually we have no cards or even a formal organization). I even attended a national skeptics conference in Las Vegas back in 2013. So, I pride myself in questioning things that smack of “woo”, nonsense, accepted wisdom with no evidence. But years earlier, before I converted, I dabbled in enough spiritual pursuits to earn my bonafides as a hippie-dippie Northern California boomer. Most of my non-Western dabbling was grounded in the body: Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido. I loved them all, but finally, abandoned them at some point.

 

And now, in spite of my hard-earned skepticism, I’m back at it. But this time, with a decidedly non-physical approach: Sitting. I am giving mindfulness meditation a try, and I am looking for evidence of its efficacy, not necessarily in scientific evidence (there’s not much), but in personal experience. Is meditation changing me for the better? Am I less anxious? Can I concentrate on one thing for longer? Can I notice and separate myself from moments of anger? Am I as Dan Harris says “…less of an asshole?”  These are the kind of changes I would hope to see from regular practice over time. These are some of the promises it holds.

After several months of practice and study, I can say that small changes are beginning to happen. Am I imagining them? Perhaps. Is it a placebo affect? That’s a distinct possibility. However, placebos are used in medicine because they work.

Dueling Skeptics

I’m not really looking for enlightenment. Yet. I’m not following a particular spiritual path. As an atheist that holds no interest. But mind and consciousness are certainly mysteries to be explored, and my own mind is just as good a lab as another. Still, I remain skeptical. I don’t want to delude myself. One of my skeptical heroes, Steven Novella wrote a good blog post about the lack of solid scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation has any special qualities that support some of the outlandish claims made by some proponents:

But I am not convinced by the existing research that there is any other phenomenon at work here, that there is something specific to mindfulness, or that it has benefits beyond other similar behaviors. There may be – perhaps there is something specific about certain mindfulness practices that we can isolate and study. We are simply not there yet.

Further, public hype supporting a billion dollar industry has gone way passed the existing evidence.

On the other hand, one of my other skeptic/atheist heroes, Sam Harris, wrote a whole book about the topic (Waking Up) which convinced me to give it a try. If you’re curious and you’re a skeptic, this might be a place to start. I’m about to read Dan Harris’ new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. That pretty much describes me.

What do you think? Is it all a bunch of new age baloney? Is there something there? Is it just the latest trend that will pass when a new one comes along?

Side Note

When I was living in the Sierras in the early 70s, one of my housemates was entranced reading “Be Here Now”, the new age classic by Baba Ram Das. He was so entranced he didn’t notice that the lighted coal from his cigarette had fallen onto the sofa and was quietly burning a hole into the interior. Only when the entire living area was engulfed in smoke, did he call out in panic for help dragging the thing out on the deck and soaking it with with a hose.

Listen Up! A Cornucopia of Podcasts

Back in 2009, I wrote about podcasts and how much I liked them. I felt compelled to because I’d been listening to podcasts for years already and had gained so much from them. Surprisingly, most of the shows I listed back then are still around and several of the remain relevant to me.

Since then, beginning with the wildly popular Serial, the podcast landscape has changed dramatically. The audience has grown easily tenfold, the number of shows has exploded, and the caliber and professionalism has transformed market. Many of the podcasts on my old post were either just recordings of existing radio programs, or produced by enthusiastic amateurs. Now, real money is being made through advertising and/or direct listener support. Now many shows are part of fledgling networks of shows such as Gimlet Media and Panoply.

Additionally, now there are podcasts about podcasts, how to make podcasts, and how to market and make MONEY from podcasts. There are newsletters that review or promote podcasts they have discovered and some podcasts are crossing over to TV and movies!

I have become so enamored of the medium I’ve wanted to start my own and even have made moves in that direction. But I may be spending too much time listening to make one. It’s a lot more work writing, recording and editing a show than just putting in the earbuds and hopping on the elliptical at the gym. Still, the pull is there. I may get it done one day.

The Main Podcasts

Until I do, here’s a list of some of my current favorites if you’re looking for recommendations. These are in no particular order. My actual subscription list is much much longer. So this is just the current highlights. These are the podcasts  for which I eagerly await every episode. I time my workouts and bike rides around them. They make me laugh out loud, cry, and ponder. Often all in the same episode. I rate and review them on iTunes and I support them financially when I can.

Juts a note: I link to the websites of each show rather than to the iTunes source since you may want to use another tool for listening like Stitcher. And the websites often have lots of additional information and resources surrounding the shows.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Hardcore is right. I recently finished listening to a single, 6 hour episode called The Celtic Holocaust! Well researched deep dives into a section of history, old school style: Just Carlin, talking in to a microphone. No whiz bang production, music, sound effects. But each episode is so well-written and spoken, it’s hard to stop listening.

Very Bad Wizards: Two guys, one a professor of psychology, one a professor of philosophy, take on a variety of gnarly topics of morality, reality, and pop culture. Tamler Sommers (philosophy) and David Pizarro (psychology) make the discussion of these potetnially weighty topics not so heavy. In fact, they are really entertaining.

Waking Up with Sam Harris: Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher and author. These long, in-depth interviews with writers and thinkers from many disciplines is consistently challenging, stimulating and often spell-binding. I have purchased and read several books after listening to episodes.

Left, Right and Center: An oldie (it was on my original list) but goodie. The show features commentator of various political leanings in discussion about the current news. Through the years of listening, the personnel has changed and the show has expanded from a half hour to an hour. But the consistency has remained.

On the Media: Another long standing favorite, this show gets to the heart of so much of what we are bombarded with in the news and public affairs. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are skeptics of much of what is produced by the media and they dig in to stories that illuminate the otherwise dark corners of our shaped reality.

Crime Writers On: Four writers have a fun and fascinating conversation on true crime, fictional crime, crime podcasts and TV shows, criminal justice and aspects of pop culture. I’ve been a fan of crime fiction and true crime stories for years and that’s what drew me to this show. But the conversation, led by Rebecca Lavoie with her boisterous and infectious laugh, touches on so many issues I always come away entertained and informed.

The Gist: Mike Pesca used to be a sports commentator on NPR. That’s how I knew him, anyway. But he broke the bondage of sports to sport his own podcast about, well, whatever Mike wants to talk about. He usually has an opener on a topic in the new, then an interview, then a kind of rant he calls the spiel. 30 minutes, but the guy can talk fast, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. Often very funny, and always insightful.

 

Microphone and Headset
Very Bad Wizards
Waking Up: Sam Harris
Left, Right and Center
Crime Writers On
The Gist with Mike Pesca

Special Mentions

I linked to Serial above. The original season was a fantastically told story of a murder and trial that took place in Baltimore. This series really did help change the face of podcasting in its themes, writing, and production values. Season two was good, but not nearly as compelling. It’s unclear if there will be another season and if so, when. But the producers created another true crime podcast called S-Town (actually it’s Shit Town, but for some reason they blushingly use the lame obfuscation in the title). S-Town, takes you into the world of rural, small town America. The storyteller is a producer on This American Life and it’s as much about his own journey as it is the incredible characters he encounters in Shit Town.

Hi Phi Nation: Another philosophy based podcast but here, ideas are explored through real life stories and interviews. Host Barry Lam has a knack for pulling out thoughtful questions and themes and pointing us to further reading and exploring. There have only been 10 episodes their blog promises a new season sometime, “late fall”.

The Daily: A relatively new podcast from the New York Times, the Daily (it’s really not daily, only on weekdays) focuses on one or two main stories from the paper, and then a short summary of other important news. All about 30 minutes.

Origin Stories: New to my list of must listens, this show produced by the Leakey Foundation is, as their site describes: “…about what it means to be human and the science behind what we know about ourselves and our origins.”  If you like science and how it can help us inform who we are, this is worth your time.

I could go on. And on, and on. As I say, my list is rather long. But enough about ME. I would love to hear you opinions on these or any other show or podcast resources. Feel free to comment.