VOIP and The Promise of Free Calls

Over the last several years I have been an active user of internet based phone services. Skype, Google Voice, Voice chat through Yahoo IM etc.  are the ones I have been using most frequently. There is no doubt that the ability to make calls over the Internet (free or at a low cost) has far reaching, powerful implications but these services (like most new technologies) have their share of challenges.  Here are some of my experiences with these services over the years.

The Good News

These services are great simply because they are free. They give you an opportunity to talk to people who you normally don’t speak to as often. They give you a chance to make and receive calls in places where regular phone calls can be very expensive. With increase in Internet access and computers around the globe these services serve as a terrific means of communication and will undoubtedly play a significant role in communication in the years to come. The learning curve in using these technologies is minimal. A five minute demo is sufficient even for the most novice users.

The Bad News

The free or low cost services can be unreliable. If you make a call using one of these services be prepared for random changes in voice quality, sudden dropped lines etc. If you are considering these services for business use, think again.  Its great to be able to make a phone call from your computer without having to change your headset etc. but its embarrassing to explain that its the phone connection and not the “wind” that the person at the other end is hearing. (Once I was forced to quip, “I hope its not President Obama’s plane!”) While it might be ok to be interrupted during a personal call to friends and family, the same is not true for business calls.

Paid VOIP services like Lingo, Vonage etc. are definitely far more reliable. The old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true for these services. These services do come with their share of headaches. Lingo for instance recommends that the cable modem (at home) feeds into the Lingo box. If you use a router this means that the Lingo box feeds into the Router rather than the other way around. The big downside to this is that if Lingo goes down for some reason, your internet access will go down as well. Its possible to set up the network such that the cable modem feeds into the router as opposed to the Lingo box. But this is no simple task even for the reasonably tech savvy.

What’s the best free service?

All the free services are equally good/bad in the sense they have their strengths and weaknesses. Skype has been around the longest and so one would imagine that it has probably ironed out many of the technology and service challenges. On the flip side it probably has more traffic to deal with than the other providers. Calls to India on Skype from the US in the mornings are almost always of poor quality. On the other hand, the calls at night are very reliable.

Google Voice is very, very high on the “coolness” factor. It has some very powerful features. If you like the Gmail interface you’ll love Google Voice. Where it falls flat is the idea of having a new number to act as a clearing house for all your calls. It might sound great in theory but in practice it doesn’t exactly work well because most people don’t want to change their phone number as far as possible. Besides, explaining to people (about a new number!) who ask you for your cell phone number is an arduous task in itself!

I find myself using Skype more often simply because it is always accessible on my desktop. Besides, Skype was the first to introduce Skype number and the ability to forward calls from Skype to other phone numbers. The ability to forward calls from Skype to a cell phone number is a handy feature especially when you are traveling. Among these services Skype is the only service (other than probably Google Voice) that I am aware off that works on Linux. If you are used to working on different operating systems, Skype becomes an automatic choice.

Google Voice requires no local install (which is great!) but it requires you to login to Google Voice when making calls from the computer. Google Voice loses out because of this extra step. Yahoo on the other hand loses out because I mostly use Meebo for IM. I don’t think there is way to call from within Meebo using Yahoo! voice (or maybe there is and I haven’t figured it out as yet).  In short, its hard to say which one is the best. It depends on a host of factors ranging from personal preference to OS to familiarity to UI etc.

p.s: There is a service dedicated to free conference calls (Sabsebolo.com or “Talk to Everyone”) that is also available for those who might be interested. The above mentioned services also support conference calls though I have only used the conference call facility in Skype.

Cel Cab: Taxi Service in India

I used the Cel Cab Taxi service in India recently and I must admit I was impressed. Here is how it works. You call up a number and tell them when you want a cab and where you need to go. They get your address and phone number. It is as simple as that.

A few minutes (say about 20 minutes) before the arrival of the taxi you receive an SMS giving you the Taxi’s ETA (estimated time of arrival). The Taxi turns up and drives you to your destination. An hour or two later your receive an SMS seeking your feedback on the service!

Is Singapore Airlines Getting Complacent?

I have lost count of the number of times I have flown Singapore Airlines. Many Indian expatriates living in the US (especially those on the West Coast) almost always fly via Singapore Airlines to India. The Airline has been known for its great customer service among other things.

I don’t consider myself as a “picky” traveler, yet I found enough issues to “blog” about Singapore Airlines.

  • At the San Francisco airport, the ticket agents rather rudely ask you to weigh your cabin baggage the moment you step in front of them. The allowed weight is 7Kgs. If you carry a laptop bag, plus a couple of books, you are certain to be cutting it close. These agents are very strict about not exceeding the weight limit. The same is true for how the agents deal with the check in baggage. Even one extra pound and you are in trouble.
  • If you board the Singapore Airlines flight from SFO, chances are the 70+ percent of the passengers are of Indian origin. Yet almost 100% of the Airline crew starting with the ticketing agents are of Chinese origin. Whatever happened to globalisation? (Emirate Airlines on the other hand has a truly International crew).
  • The airline offers a “Hindu meal” (no beef but with chicken) which happens to be popular. But opting for the Hindu Meal has its drawbacks. The good news is that the Hindu meal is served first. The bad news is that you are stuck with your tray in front of you seemingly forever. Your trays aren’t removed until everyone is served and eaten, the drinks are served and the dessert is served.
  • The Singapore Airlines mileage program is not heavily marketed (not sure if they even had one before). On my way to India I was told that my mileage was going to be credited, however, on my return I was told that it does not apply to my ticket because of how and where I purchased it from. In short, the mileage program could use some improvement.

Thankfully, there are good alternatives to Singapore Airlines these days. Emirate Airlines offers direct flights to India via Dubai starting mid-Dec 2008. Jet Airways already flies to India via Shanghai. There are other flights via Europe as well.

Challenger School: Myths, Pros and Cons

I was scouting the web for thoughts from other parents about the Challenger school system and I was surprised not to find any posts whatsoever on this topic. Schools are discussed so often in social circles so I was expecting to find at least one parent who would take the time to share their experiences. (Ok, for now, let us blame it on Google’s poor search technology).

I have had the opportunity to get familiar with the Challenger school system for a few years now. So here goes…

First, let me dispel two common myths about Challenger.

Myth #1: Challenger is too academic. The kids have to slog it out starting from pre-school and kindergarten.

This is completely untrue. There is no question that the kids learn a lot. But the slog days are long gone. The kids don’t have to stay up at night learning facts and figures by rote. The academic pressure appears to have eased up dramatically over the years. Kids get a lot more time to pursue extra curricular activities. I had heard the same horror stories before, but they are certainly not reflective of present-day Challenger curriculum.

Myth #2: Admission is next to impossible. You have to queue up overnight to get your child admitted.

Again, completely untrue. There was a time at the height of the dotcom days when this was true. The system has changed. It is now a lottery system. Besides, since the dotcom bust the number of applicants has significantly reduced. It’s a different story that that the school will act like its “full”, would want to conduct tests etc. before they admit your child. But the reality is that admission to Challenger is not as hard as it was a few years back. This does not in anyway imply that they are starved of kids. The general student teacher ratio is about 25 to 1 though it is a lot better in the pre-school and the kindergarten level (more like 1 to15).

Having addressed the two common myths, here are a few pros and cons. First, the pros.

The Teachers: The big question always on parents minds, “How are the teachers?” The reality is that the teachers at Challenger are like those at most other schools (I hear that pay scales are equally poor in both private and public schools) — there are some exceptionally good teachers and some mediocre teachers. Thankfully, the Challenger school curriculum is excellent. So if your child is lucky and lands a good teacher, the combination with the curriculum makes it terrific. On the other hand if the teacher is mediocre, the curriculum is the only saving grace (don’t expect the management to be of any help!). Note that you will also find the occasional teacher (a computer teacher in elementary school, for instance) who chooses to go his/her own way (define their own rules) and surprises parents with their own unpredictable ways.

The Parents and The Kids: This is probably the best part about Challenger. There are plenty of like-minded parents from identical social backgrounds whose kids go to Challenger. They face similar challenges and share the same values, resulting in lasting friendships and camaraderie between families.

Now the cons.

The Administration/Management: This is easily Challenger’s weakest link. The Administration operates a lot like the Bush Administration. In other words, they chose to do as they please. They never bother to look at any issue objectively. When faced with any parent complaints or issues, they simply stone-wall. You can kick and scream all you like, go up the ladder, all the way up to Ms. Barbara B. Baker , but objectivity is a non-existent commodity in the Administrative circles at Challenger. If you ever bring up an issue, it is promptly shot down with generic responses like “Its the teacher’s prerogative”, “It is only because your child is affected”, “hysterical Mom/Dad” etc. One of principals’ favorite responses to any issue (no matter how unrelated) almost always begins with “when my son was in Challenger…” Many parents who have taken their kids out of Challenger have done so because of their frustrations with the Management. (In fact, some good teachers have left the school because of their inability to deal with the management). But the general philosophy of the Management seems to be one of “If you don’t like it, you are welcome to take your child some place else”

Update Nov’ 08: Since posting this article, there have been changes in personnel at the Challenger school that I am familiar with.  I must say that my interaction with the new personnel has been far more positive .

Adoption of Technology: Considering that the Challenger schools in the bay area serves kids whose parents largely work in the high tech community, you would expect a greater degree of technological savvy at school. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Email as a means of communication is hardly ever used by the school. The website is just a bunch of static pages. The school as a whole does not seem to have embraced technology. The parents on the other hand leverage technology to remain in contact, socialize, communicate and share ideas about issues their kids face etc.

The Ethnic Mix: The kids in the Challenger schools in the bay area are predominantly of Asian Indian and Chinese descent. This is true of the teachers and also the Administrative staff. Without a doubt, Indians form the majority. The lack of a strong ethnic mix is a definite minus , but its no different than the student mix at UC Berkeley or for that matter at some of the leading high tech firms in the bay area (Cisco, Intel, Google, Yahoo etc.)

The Big Question: Should you send your kids to Challenger?

I hate to sound like a lawyer. But my answer in this case is “It depends”. The thought of developing a checklist followed by an automated “Challenger Readiness Score” did cross my mind. But I’ll stop here and let you make up your own mind based on the above. I welcome comments and thoughts from others, especially other parents.

Ten Tips To Be Better Prepared For Life-threatening Emergencies

10. Make sure you and your spouse share phone numbers of close family members and friends in your cell phone contact list.

09. It is a good idea to enable both your cell phones to make international calls especially if you have immediate relatives overseas. This service is turned off by default on most phones in the US.

08. When you go to the emergency room there is no needs to take clothes along because if you are admitted they’ll ask you to change to hospital attire.

07. If you are admitted to the ICU in all probability it is very serious. The doctors never tell the patients how serious they are to avoid setting off a panic/anxiety attack. Also, they don’t call the family until it gets very critical.

06. Use email to communicate with friends and family about the progress of the sick person. Phone calls can be hard to handle during such crisis. Besides, hospitals insist on limiting the use of cell phones.

05. Too many friends showing up at the hospital (no matter how well-intentioned) is not of much help especially if they are not good at handling crisis situations themselves. It is a delicate balance between providing much needed moral support and becoming an overhead yourself! Besides, only immediate family are allowed to see the patient.

04. If you are self-employed it is a good idea to get some decent insurance (don’t cut corners on the premiums) especially if you are over the age of 35. You might think that you are healthy and barely visit the Dr. but when a big emergency strikes, medical costs in the US are so outrageous you could be completely wiped out.

03. Always have a family friend (or have alternate arrangements in place) who can pick up and drop off the kids at school (or other classes). You might need to do some paper work at school (depending on the school) to make this possible. Also, kids are not allowed in the hospital. So if you take them there they will have to remain in the lobby!

02. When you are feeling really sick, don’t hesitate to go to the emergency room. Most of us think of it as a “big pain” to go there. But its better to be safe than sorry.

01. “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams off” — Don’t hesitate to reach out and seek the prayers of friends and family.

Note: All of the above are relevant in the US and based on unfortunate personal experiences of mine. Depending on where you live you might need to tweak these appropriately to your environment. The reality is that emergencies strike everywhere and at anytime and it doesn’t hurt to be at least aware if not prepared.

Hunan Chili in Mountain View

I have visited Hunan Chilli restaurant on Castro Street in Mountain View several times in the past. The most recent visit seemed no different until the day after. I was hit by food poisoning (or possibly a stomach flu). The net result was that I ended up with non-stop vomiting for an entire day! Never ever experienced anything like this ever before. Everything I ate or drank came right out. It was a dreadful experience.

In general, I have liked the food at this restaurant. I have no idea if my sickness had anything to do with my visit there. But it sure sounds like it because I hardly ate anything else that entire day (barring some home made soup at night). I plan to stay away from there for the foreseeable future! Presently, I am on the road to recovery and hope I have no further surprises in store for me!

Technology in the Skies: Airline Uses Linux

Singapore Airlines is now flying some new aircrafts in the SFO-Singapore sector. These aircrafts appear to be a a little more spacious and better designed. For instance, the acrobatics needed to shut the bathroom doors has been reduced significantly. At the back of the aircraft the staff has a U-shaped area where they can hang out and chit-chat with their colleagues without having to get in the way of passengers hurrying to the toilet. The passage way and the leg room has also been increased a “delta”.

The TV screens in front of each passenger is much larger. You no longer have to strain your eyes on those miniature screens. However, the most daring use of technology was what goes behind the TV screens. What you see is actually a PC running Redhat Linux. At the first screen you have an option to use the system simply to watch films, TV etc. or to use it as a PC. Next to the screen is a USB port and a LAN port! (Does the airline expect passengers to be carrying a wires?) I suspect that Internet access might be available through the LAN. (Emirate Airlines actually offers wireless access). In any case, I plugged in a USB stick and surprise, surprise, I had StarOffice(!!) to edit my MS-Office files if I wished to (thank you very much!). Sounds like Singapore Airlines is firmly in the anti-Microsoft camp.

Here is the bad news. The UI of the entire system is far from idiot-proof. At least on a couple of occasions the screen froze while attempting to navigate the various options. But thankfully the Steward could go behind the scenes and reset the system. This also means you have the pleasure of seeing the entire boot up sequence. Ideally these screens should have a touch screen UI because most passengers struggle to navigate these complicated systems. I can’t remember a flight where I haven’t had to assist a fellow passenger with using these systems. So much for the use of technology.

New Terminal (T3) at Singapore Airport Rocks!

Singapore has recently added a new terminal (Terminal 3 or T3) at its Changi Airport. And boy its impressive! Its huge, grand and in keeping with the current trends “very green” with plenty of plants and natural light (and not to mention waterfalls!). It feels a lot like being in a newly built 5-star hotel.

In general, I have found the Singapore airport to be very traveler friendly with plenty of information booths all over the airport. At T3, the Singapore Airport authorities seem to have taken this one step further. Within seconds of standing in front of one of the departure screens I was approached by airport officials asking me if I needed help. Not sure if this has to do with the “newness” of the terminal or if it is going to be an ongoing feature.

The departure gates of each flight are designed similar to those in London’s Heathrow and Dubai (where you have to go past a main door after check-in to enter the waiting area unlike in San Francisco), but I didn’t notice the overcrowding in the passage ways that was apparent in Dubai. On the other hand I found plenty of space for transit passengers to relax and take rest. There were dedicated lounges bunched around TV screens showing soaps, CNN, sports etc. to suit your tastes. The free Internet terminals are located close to the transit counters and are programmed to give you 10-minute access (after which a new session has to be started thereby reminding users to not hog the terminals).

p.s: It was built at a cost of $1.22 and designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and CPG Corporation.

Dubai vs Singapore Stopover

If you had an option to chose between a 4+ hour stopover in Singapore or a similar stopover in Dubai which one would you pick? Without a doubt, I would recommend Singapore.

In Dubai you are stuck in the airport, while Singapore lets you take a visa (free of charge) provided you show the boarding pass of the connection flight (and are an American green card holder). Dubai authorities on the other hand expect you to stay couped up in the airport!

As a side note, while Dubai is struggling with traffic congestions despite its six-lane highways, Singapore traffic is relatively a breeze. The underground tube railway in Singapore is widely used and very efficient while the one in Dubai is still under construction.