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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Children...

There's so much craziness going on in Trinidad & Tobago recently that my head spins...

The UNC continues to fight in the public space, with this faction in arms against that faction, and this group at cross purposes with another, and who doesn't like whom, and this one making fun of that one in open forums. It's downright disturbing that adults can stoop unashamed to the level of childishness and pettiness that's in evidence. Six pages I counted in one daily newspaper last week of accusations and telling tales out of school. And I was disgusted as one member made the monkey of another on a public platform. It's as if they're all running around and shouting, "Nah-nee-nah-nee-boo-boo! Stick yuh head in..." and throwing people out of the club because they didn't like each other anymore.

I could swear last week, though I can't find an article or anything to support it, that I heard one of our business leaders on the radio making a very disturbing statement. It was something to the effect that he hears that the public is calling on big business to do something about the decay of Trinbagonian society, but that the same public calling for action is indisciplined and has no respect for order themselves. I don't understand what one has to do with the other. So because the public has little responsibility in your view, you're not going to do whatever you can as a leader in industry and commerce to assist? Sounds a lot like, "I don't want to do it... So-and-so down the road not doing it..."

Then there's the whole issue of the Chief Justice and his alleged interference in a some very high profile cases. The funny thing is that it's not just one accusation. Emphasis is being placed on the allegation being made by Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicholls. But I seem to recall Timothy Cassell, prosecutor in the recent Panday case, reporting a very odd conversation with the CJ while they were on a flight together. I could be wrong, but I think I'd heard that the CJ also is reported to have exerted some influence on the Narayansingh cases in South. In another place and space, for the sake of the office, the individual would have stepped down, even if at the end of the day they were exonerated. But not here in Trinidad, it seems. Here, we have tantrums being thrown in various quarters, and persons making statements that seem to suggest that the Judiciary is a law unto itself. I can almost hear, "Ah not going!!! Ah don't want to gooooooo!!!" followed by the sound of a thumb being popped into a sucking mouth.

When our prominent adults behave this way, with such spoiled-baby behaviour, what are our children supposed to learn about what's appropriate?

Instead, they learn that the ends justifies the means.

At the simplest level, they learn that doing the wrong thing is okay if you're doing it for a good cause. So, for example, if you burn things in the road and create an obstruction, it's alright because you just want to get your roads fixed. They learn that it's alright too to burn alleged criminals' homes down because they're surely going to be convicted anyway, yes? So the lesson is that it's alright to take the law into one's own hands.

Further, they learn that it doesn't matter who you have to take advantage of or who you cheat or who you steal from. What matters is that there's a benefit at the end of the day, like a new airport terminal or a national team going to the World Cup.

Even further, they learn that people aren't equal under the law. Apparently, some persons deserve different treatment because of who they are or who they're associated with. Guilt isn't guilt. Guilt depends.

They learn that keeping promises isn't what is important. Making much ado about making the promise itself is what's critical, not the timeliness of delivery or delivering at all. Ent TSTT? It's 12 days later. Is the new child abuse hotline number 1-3-1 working yet?

They learn from the media that the facts aren't important and it's quite okay to say something that's not true about someone, as long as you use the word "alleged".

The children learn that the public good is for naught and is superceded by the rights of the individual. As such, because one person is said to want see a man all up inside a woman's business on TV at eight o'clock in the night, everybody has to be exposed to it.

We teach them that even though we're pretty much on the right side all the time, it's okay every now and again to take a chance and do something wrong.

And then we all want to sit and wonder why our children have no respect for authority, why they challenge us on every issue, and why we simply can't control them anymore.

We, as a society, have quite simply given up the right to do so.

Friday, May 12, 2006

You say I can call overseas for TT$0.13 per minute...? (Part 2)

I called TSTT's Internet Helpdesk to ask that I be faxed a copy of the terms and conditions of their dial-up and DSL services; I could find none in my own records. While I can remember signing something when I registered for the ADSL service, I did not recall any restrictions on the use of the service myself. In any case, I was informed that there are no documented conditions or service restrictions.

And so, with that indemnification, we press on.

At present, I have a New York phone number in the 347 area code, and approximately US$8.00 in outbound calling credit remaining; I've been using the service for about a month and a half, and started with US$10 of calling credit. Calls quality is better than even local landline calls and, for those of us that have gone Digicel, is better than a Digicel-to-Digicel call. Call quality though is dependant on the speed and quality of your Internet connection.

So wha' ah need to start wid?

For starters, you'll need three things:
  1. Internet Access - To use the Skype service, you'll need a PC or a Mac with access to the Internet. That's as basic as it gets. Your access can be either dialup or some form of high speed access like ADSL or TSTT's new EV-DO service, though I've not checked the terms and conditions on the latter.
  2. Skype - You'll need to go to http://www.skype.com and download the version of the software appropriate to your machine, whether PC or Mac. You'll also need to sign up for your own Skype username and password to access the service. Don't pay for SkypeOut and SkypeIn add-on services yet, because you'll need to check the quality of your line first using a facility that the Skype application provides.
  3. Speakers and microphone - In order to use the service, you'll need speakers and a mic, or a cheap headset with a boom mic. Right now, I'm using a TT$25 boom mic with earpiece, reminescent of the early wired cellulr phone earpieces. There should be a few more where I got it at Creative Computers on upper Frederick Street.

Ah have all dat. Wha' ah doin' now?

The first thing you should do, and the Skype installation should have walked you through it when you logged on for the first time, is check the quality of your voice connection. Attempt to connect to user named "echo123". Echo123 is a Skype-provided automated system that speaks to you briefly, records 10 seconds of your voice, and then plays back to you what you recorded. Do this as often as you feel you the need to; Echo123 neither gets tired nor does it sleep.

What this is supposed to exhibit is what other Skype users will sound like on your Internet connection, and what you will sound like to people on the other end of the line. If you hear horrible slurs, delays and gaps, then it makes no sense going any further, unless you're going to upgrade your Internet service; you're probably on a slow dialup connection, and there's not much that you can do on your existing Internet service to improve the situation. Note that this is not to say that all dialup services will give you a poor Skype connection because not all dialup is the same. So test it using Echo123 first before you sign off on using Skype.

If you're still not convinced by the "echo123" test though, sign up for Skype (it's free), post a comment to this article with your new Skype username, and I'll get in touch with you. We can chat Skype-to-Skype for a short while so that you can try out the service.

If you are satisfied with what you hear, now you can consider spending some money to expand the Skype experience.

A'right... Ah ready to call Tantie Jean in DC... What's next?

You'll need a credit card to purchase additional Skype services, whether SkypeOut or SkypeIn. A card issued by one of the local commercial banks should be okay. The Skype site accepted mine just fine with no odd queries or ill effects.

For those skeptical about using their credit card online, one of the local banks suggests having a card with a very modest limit just for online purchases. If you have a card already, it shouldn't be a problem to get another; just tell them that you want to make small purchases online and you would like to have a second card with a minimal balance.

To recap, there are two main paid services. These are SkypeOut and SkypeIn.

The former, SkypeOut, is where you purchase calling credit, like Top-Up cards for prepaid cell phones. This you use to call landline numbers abroad. I won't go into details. You can read all about SkypeOut on the product page here. I will say though that SkypeOut credit is available for purchase in US$10 blocks, and at US$0.021 per minute to call a long list of major destinations, 10 dollars goes a long way.

The latter service, SkypeIn, is where you can purchase up to 10 foreign phone numbers in various countries. Those numbers are assigned to your Skype username. Again, I'll let you read about that here. SkypeIn comes with voicemail, so even if you miss a call, you won't necessarily miss the caller. Phone numbers are sold on a subscription basis. You get a user-selected number for 3-months renewable for US$12, or a year renewable for US$38.

Which services you purchase depends on what you need. I, for example, have opted to purchase both. I have a New York SkypeIn number because my intended lives and works in New York state. Her landline and cellular calling plan allows her to make unlimited New York calls for free. I have SkypeOut so that I can call her too. More often than not though, it's the ubiquitous, "call mih back!" The combination also allows me to make toll-free US calls toll-free because I, for all intents and purposes, are making calls from a US phone.

Let's say that you run a small business and make heavy use of one of the Skybox services based in Miami. It makes sense then to purchase a Florida number to match your Florida address. It adds a more professional edge to your website, call cards and purchase orders, and gives your business a little more legitimacy. It also saves your overseas vendor partners the burden of having to place an international call to get in touch with you.

For the parents who will still be sending children abroad to school, keeping in touch with them is easier and less expensive with SkypeOut and SkypeIn. Using the service, the youngsters can get themselves an inexpensive prepaid cell phone and make in-state calls to parents' and friends' Skype numbers back at home. Homesickness is more easily averted, and the money that would have been spent on international calling can be diverted to other things.

At the end of the day then, for as little as US$10 for outbound calling and US$12 for inbound calling, a Trinbagonian never has to see another overseas call on their phone bill again.

But dis headset t'ing... Ah ent able wid de wire...

It's no longer necessary to sit at the computer with an uncomfortable headset on, staring at the screen and doing nothing while you talk. From time to time, I disconnect the microphone cable on my headset and listen to my callers on the speakers. Thus I have a speakerphone on the cheap.

Skype though offers a wealth of options for making the calling experience more like using a landline phone. The Skype Shop sells various corded and cordless units that look, feel and are used just like traditional phones. There are also add-on boxes for your PC that allow you to use your current land line as your Skype phone too. There are even conference calling kits that you can plug into the PC for use.

It's also possible to use your cellphone's Bluetooth earpiece with your PC or Mac. If the computer isn't Bluetooth-ready, you can get yourself a Bluetooth dongle to plug into your USB port, pair your headset with the PC and your headset becomes your wireless headset for use with Skype.

Sign up. Try it out. Purchase add-ons. Buy additional hardware to make Skype even easier to use. Save money. Be happy.

And now the pitch...

By now, you know that I'm not showing you all of this for nothing. There are people and businesses that are going to save hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars using voice-over-IP services like Skype. Having saved it, it's not going to hurt much to spend a little bit of it doing something good for someone. There's a long list of charitable organisations that need help, from well known ones like the Rape Crisis Centre, to ones that are far from our minds like the various orphanages and drug rehab centres around the country.

Like I said in the first post of the "We wore black..." series, it doesn't have to be any kind of grand or even press-worthy effort. Do something within your reach and for your own satisfaction. Every little bit helps, no matter how humble the effort seems. You don't need to start a campaign to get everybody in the country to wear black, drive with their headlights on, or sign a referendum. Two five-dollar tins of pigeon peas could break the monotony of rice-and-corned beef for a halfway house. A hundred dollars could save a charitable organisation from having their phone disconnected, breaking their link with the outside world. Calling your friends and family overseas using Skype and telling them how this blog has helped you find ways to help can direct them to avenues for assisting from abroad.

Remember always that every little bit - from those here at home and those away - together can go a very long way...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

UPDATE: We wore black... Now help Childline...

Making Financial Contributions

For those that wish to contribute to Childline financially, deposits can be made to Republic Bank account number 610-433-199-201; the account is held in the name of the organisation, Childline.

Volunteer Listener Training

Volunteer Listener training is scheduled for June and September 2006. Training normally runs over the course of eight Saturdays, and is conducted by the Line Supervisor, Ayanna Gellineau. Contact Ayanna at agellineau@childlinett.com or call Childline's offices at (868) 624-0402 for further information.

Consequently, each course requires two reams of photocopy paper for manuals and course materials, and maybe some writing paper as well. I'm sure that Ayanna won't refuse paper or photocopy services or both.

Childline Web Site

The organisation has a domain name and web space that needs to be developed. A volunteer web designer/consultant would be more than helpful here. Again, contact Ayanna at agellineau@childlinett.com or call at (868) 624-0402 to discuss the Line's specific requirements. I would develop the site myself, but for me, it would be a very ambitious project. I honestly believe better justice would be done if someone with more practical experience in site and web presence development worked with Childline on this. UPDATE 12/05/2006: Many thanks to Sherine W. and her team for taking up the website challenge.

It's time to do more than talk about what the Government and the private sector aren't doing, and start doing something constructive ourselves. It's time to stop following the path of least resistance and complaining about what's not happening, instead of actively seeking avenues to help the situation. It's time too to stop talking foolishness about removing things with which we see problems without proposing credible solutions.

Come on people. Time to act, and act constructively.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

You say I can call overseas for TT$0.13 per minute...? (Part 1)

Despite recent reductions in internatinal calling rates, first via TSTT SmartChoice and then the 50-cent-plus-VAT-on-a-weekend reaction to cellular competition, keeping in touch with loved ones abroad can be an expensive proposition. And loved ones alone is joke, because there are probably more Trinbagonians outside of Trinidad & Tobago to keep up with than there are persons within the sovereign borders of the State.

It's a fact too that Trinis, moreso than Tobagonians, have relatives and friends from almost every island in the Caribbean chain. And now with the CSM in place and CSME coming, free movement of resources means that families and friends are more likely now and in future to be operating across national borders.

Now I will admit that we are still better off than long ago when the whole family had to line up outside TEXTEL building in the dew to make a marathon phone call to New York twice a year. And gone now are the days where you had to wait until 11 in the evening to take advantage of night rates. But a dollar a minute (plus VAT... Don't ever forget the VAT...) is still expensive. Calls going the other way, from the States and the UK can also be quite costly.

There are options now though where, for a very modest investment, it's possible to call major metropolitan centres for less than 25 cents a minute. Using the same solution set, foreigners can now call Trinidad & Tobago for their cost of a local call. All it takes for the Trinbagonian is a credit card and Internet access.

Almost every Trinbagonian on the 'Net has used realtime text-based chat services like MSN, Yahoo! Messenger, and once upon a time, ICQ. Ubiquitous Google has also recently introduced their own chat service, GoogleTalk. Each of these provided the user with the ability to engage in two-way text chats with other users of the same service. All of them too permitted some poor quality voice chat, but again, an MSN user could only talk to another MSN user, and so on. Voice chat though tended to be an exercise in frustration, as the quality of the connection tended to be very poor, featuring echoes, gaps and delays reminescent of early cellular service.

Almost two years ago, a new service debuted for which voice chat was primary and text chat was the secondary feature. Skype (http://www.skype.com), as the service was called, provided at the outset the best connection quality in the business, even over slower dialup Internet connections. However, in the beginning, like the other players, you had to be a Skype user and running the Skype application on your PC or Mac to connect with another Skype user. And, like the other chat services, this functionality is provided to users for free.

Skype has since evolved to come to introduce paid services, including:
  • SkypeOut - A service where Skype users can purchase credit in US$10 blocks which can be used to make calls to any international phone number for pennies per minute. To bring pennies home, a SkypeOut call to a US landline or cellular number is US$0.021 per minute. At the current rate of exchange, that equates to TT$0.13 per minute. That rate applies to SkypeOut calls to landlines and mobile phones in the continental United States and Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and a list of other major European and Asian destinations. Rates for other calling destinations can be seen here.

  • SkypeIn - A service where a user can, for as little as US$12, purchase an International phone number from Skype and have it linked to their free Skype account. The SkypeIn page says it best:
    With SkypeIn, you can get your own, regular phone number. So if your friends who aren’t using Skype want to call you by dialing a regular number, you can still receive the call in Skype. No matter where you are.

    So, if you have a Chicago-based SkypeIn number, but you’re living somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, your Chicago area friends - or anyone! - can just dial your SkypeIn number, and your Skype on the other side of the world starts ringing... and your friends are only paying whatever their phone company charges them for making a phone call to Chicago.

    Up to 10 SkypeIn numbers can be purchased by a single Skype user, selectedat present from numbers in the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • Skype VoiceMail - This is an add-on to the SkypeIn service, and works just like voicemail on a fixed line or cellular phone. When a user purchases SkypeIn service, voicemail is a free package add-on, but the voicemail service can be purchased separately.

Skype is also testing other services like Skype SMS, which will allow a user to send text messages to just about any cell phone in the world from their computer.

Skype will also allow you to forward calls made to your Skype numbers to your regular land line or cell phone when you're not at the PC. And further, you can use Skype to set up multi-line conference calls, right at your PC.

What all this means to the Trinibagonian is that with an Internet connection and a credit card to pay for services, Skype provides a low-cost alternative to traditional voice communication at very low cost. You can literally live on the line with the children at University abroad, and surprise the cousins that you've not spoken with in ages with a family conference call, and can call that toll-free number toll-free to buy that whatchamaycallit that you saw on TV.

Skype is useful not only for private callers, but can be an excellent way for small and medium businesses to keep international calling costs down. With SkypeIn numbers in the States, Canada and the UK, a local expanding business can present an international face to overseas customers, leading possibly and ultimately, to more business from a far broader customer base. With SkypeOut and call conferencing, you can get those two warring consultants on the line together to referee a fix to that implementation problem once and for all.
In part 2 of this article on Thursday, I will explain exactly how you can get yourself set up. We'll go through the very basic equipment that you'll need to get to start off, talk about how to check your connection quality before you go for paid services, discuss making your first call to an international number, and then go into the kinds of options available to make your Skype service look and feel just like a regular phone. And after you do all that and are saving money on foreign calls, we'll discuss what charities you can divert those savings to, because it all comes down to helping yourself so that you can help others.

And remember readers, spread the word!!!

We wore black... Now a word from a guest...

My friend Colin, now resident is Canada, will surface occasionally and distribute to his circle a most insightful missve. Generally it's an update providing details of where he's been and what he's been up to in the months that we haven't seen or heard from him, together some sort of commentary. Further, it's delivered in the same tone and inflection with which he speaks, so to hear from Colin is often to really hear from Colin.

What most people appreciate is Colin's ability to not only tell it like it is and passionately so, but also his ability to hit the mark squarely on the topics that he chooses to comment. And always, his commentary is delivered with a dry wit that his compatriots have come to truly enjoy.

Colin wrote the piece that follows as a comment on one of the previous postings. However, I felt it deserved its own place in the sun. With his permission, his unedited commentary follows.

Keith is my oldest friend. (I'm not kidding folks, I've known him since I was 2 years old). Despite seperate life-paths,we've still managed to keep it going, no small feat in this age of instant gratification.

Which brings me to my comment. I am notorious for my disuse of blogs, or any web forum. I'm online all day in either MSN Instant Messenger or Skype, so I don't really have time (or inclination)to post or read postings.

But this one is different for a number of reasons. First, because Keith started this blog; I know that my time will be well-spent reading whatever is submitted.

Second, I love my country. And I have been deeply angry for years with the private sector and the apparently chronically supine 'leadership' of whatever has been passing for governments of Trinidad and Tobago.

It's that same inane mentality of instant gratification. The mindset that says "I want it, I want it all now, and if you don't like what I'm doing to get it, tough. You can't stop me anyway."

Since the oil boom days this has been going on: remember Lord Shorty taking Eric Williams to task for his flippant "money is no problem" statement? Things are pretty much the same now. 'Money is no problem' for some folks.

I agree with and appluad the calls for all of us to work together, but in my opinion, the buck (pun intended) stops squarely at the door of the most affluent members of the corporate sector; and this includes all the finincial institutions, the oil and associated industrial companies, and the entire telecommunications industry. There would be far less need for NGO's (and for that matter, government involvement) if greater GENUINE long-term entrepenuerial philanthropy was practised consistently by the larger enterprises(as opposed to self-serving Public Relations 'community activities').

There is an obscene amount of money circulating in T&T, but only among the upper echelons. Ever heard of that old 'trickle-down' theory of economics? Yah, well, there's something trickling down alright, and it ISN'T wealth.

The way I see it, and I am only too happy to be corrected, the private sector does whatever back-room deals it needs with whomever is wasting my vote in Government, to serve its own ends; and the citizenry-at-large be hanged. That whole Jack Warner/World Cup ticket fiasco is a great example of what is probably going on as a matter of course. Just that in this instance, more people were directly affected at one time than normal - and in a more public arena.

Which is not to say I don't think that the people we allow to administrate our lives could not do more as well. For one thing, they could hold both foreign investment groups and companies (BP, anyone?) and the local private sector socially accountable - perhaps stipulate that the conditions of any contracts being awarded or tariffs being lifted included a certain amount of money handed over (with full transparent auditing) for specific nation-building projects.

Such as what, you ask? How about a steady pipe-borne water supply for all; full training and vetting of all staff in the emergency and protective services (and yes, this may mean some cleaning up and bucking up among the veterans too, but at what price pride?);these are just two examples. But I trust you get my point.

Third (for those of keeping count) my father was held up with a gun in his face while I stood 2 feet away, last year, on the Sunday before Easter, at his own back door. I'm not going to go into any more details (it's far and away the worst thing I've ever experienced) except to say that the gunmen fled, my father was unharmed, and I have had to battle some serious vigilante impulses ever since.

So when that man, that Man-ning makes glib comments about crime being 'temporary', and I hear about the horrors that seem to be almost a daily staple of life in T&T, I just seethe with frustration. I moved to Canada just 4 months ago, and in that short timne, it seems to have become even more lawless. And that poor boy's death, coupled with what happened to my father have only made it harder for me to disagree with those who say it is unsafe.

I agree with you all about those who seem to go out of their way to lambaste the nation. But the sad fact is, T&T is unsafe. It certainly isn't the T&T Keith and I knew growing up in Diamond Vale (sad smile).

Keep good and safe, folks!

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