CallCentric VOIP Service

Voice Over IP (VOIP) is phone service that runs over your Internet connection rather than dedicated copper wires that go to the phone company. Its main advantages are that it is software-only, is done by small companies with less regulation, and that it is intensely competitive. This means it can be cheap and innovative.

Last spring, I became disenchanted with my VOIP provider because my $15 phone plan had become a $32 plan with taxes and fees included (no longer cheap) and because my provider hadn’t added any new features (lack of innovation). After looking around I decided to go with CallCentric.

To cut to the chase, this is what I get after the switch:

• Two phone numbers, including my ported home phone number and a free New York telephone number that CallCentric makes available.

• Inbound fax service, where CallCentric receives my faxes and then emails them to me as PDFs, as well as making them available online.

• A personal phone book, whose primary purpose for me is to add the phone numbers of spam callers

• Voice mail, including text message notification and email recordings

• Call treatments, the best feature, which allows me to: send calls to the New York number to the fax service, block users in my list of spammers, and send unknown and anonymous users to voice mail. Call treatments are quite flexible and I can generally find a rule to solve any problem by sitting and thinking about it.

• A bunch of features that I don’t use – extensions, multi-way calling, call hunting, network down forwarding, speed dial, call waiting, multiple mailboxes, multiple channels (concurrent calls), softphone, etc. Most of these seem to be free.

The price? Each month I pay $1.95 to receive calls at my ported home phone number and $1.50 for 911 service on my outgoing line – a total of $3.45 in fixed costs with no additional taxes or fees. In addition, I pay 1.5 cents/minute for calls I receive and 1.98 cents/minute for calls I make. In the last month I’ve spent $2.55 on 149 minutes of phone calls. So my phone bill has dropped from $32/month to $6/month while I’ve gained a second number, inbound faxes, and call treatments.

Of course, I don’t do a lot of calling. For those who do, there are 500- and 1000- minute plans available as well as unlimited minute plans.

CallCentric requires a bit more planning than some other providers. For one thing, incoming and outgoing phone plans are independent, and we’re trained to think of inbound- and outbound- calls being part of a unified phone service. You can get two or three inbound numbers if you wish, but only have a single outgoing plan. You could have only an outgoing line with no incoming number. You could buy more than one device and have different callers to the same phone number ringing different devices in different states. With great flexibility comes a bit of thinking.

The other way that CallCentric makes you do more work is that it is a “bring your own device” provider. VOIP modems are readily available online – I bought a Grandstream GS-HT701 at ( for around $30. Modem setup is about the same level of difficulty as an internet router, which means it’s not bad but not for everybody. CallCentric has instructions for setting up a number of different modems, and I found that after I messed up my configuration, CallCentric’s online-only tech support was able to direct me to a correct solution.

The domination of the landline may be over, but it still has the advantage over the cell phone in audio quality and ergonomics. CallCentric has turned my $32/month phone bill to a $6/month phone bill will reducing the number of telemarketing and political calls to near zero.

-- James Blasius  

[If you want to make calls using a regular phone instead of using your computer, you need a telephone adapter, such as the Grandstream SS-HT701 shown above. - Mark]

Feedly RSS reader

I read a lot of blogs and news websites and I use an RSS reader to quickly browse through all the posts and articles without having to go to each website.

What is RSS? It’s a data file format containing a website’s posts or articles. A website’s RSS file is automatically updated every time the website publishes new content. RSS files aren’t meant to be read by human eyes. You need an RSS reader, which will format the data into articles that you can read. RSS readers also let you subscribe to RSS files,  sort the posts by date or by source, search your entire blog feed, and more.

There are many different RSS readers available. Some are standalone apps, others are web-based. My favorite RSS reader was Google Reader, but Google killed it last year. I switched to a web-based RSS reader called Feedly and for the past year I’ve been using it to read my 300 or so RSS subscriptions. I now like it more than Google Reader. It loads images quickly, and like Google Reader, I can plow through post after post by tapping the “j” key.

Feedly is free, but they offer a premium version for $5 a month that lets you quickly save posts to Evernote or Pocket, and do a few other things. I’m happy with the freemium version.

How to subscribe to a website’s RSS file: Most sites have an RSS link. It usually says “subscribe to this blog” or it’s an icon that looks like radio waves (Cool Tools’ feed icon is on the left column next to the word FEEDS.) In Feedly, you can just enter a website’s URL into the “search or add feed” field and it will find the RSS file for you.


-- Mark Frauenfelder  


Boomerang for Gmail

I have been using Boomerang for Gmail on both my personal and business email accounts for close to two years, and at this point I find it indispensable.

It may have more features, but I use Boomerang mainly as a tool that helps me follow-up on critical email conversations. It makes it easy to both use emails as “to do” style reminders, but more important, creates an integrated system to make sure that you do not lose sight of an important correspondence.

Here is how this piece works:
1. You write or reply to an email.
2. Instead of just hitting send and hoping for the best, you have two options at the bottom of your screen — “Send Later” and “Boomerang this…” (this one has a checkbox). I will discuss “Send Later” below.
3. “Boomerang this” means that you are scheduling the email to RETURN TO YOUR INBOX (the awesome part) without any further action on your behalf.
4. You choose exactly when you want the email to return (there are some built-in times–1 hour, 1 day, etc. — but you are able to schedule the exact time down to the minute).
5. You also — and this is a sweet add-on — get to choose whether you want the message to Boomerang as a function of whether your email receives a reply, is not clicked, is not opened, or regardless. So if you you choose to only Boomerang in 1 week if there is no reply because you want to make sure your email is attended to, and then the recipient replies in 2 days, your email will not come back to you in 1 week.

I do use the “Send Later” feature regularly (oops, cat out of bag). You can accuse me of over-thinking my correspondence, but I often have a finished email that I do not want to ship at the moment it is finished. Perhaps it is because I am sure the email will elicit an immediate phone call that I do not want at that time or perhaps I do not want the recipients to know that I am currently dealing with their correspondence. The Send Later feature is perfect here (again, it comes with some pre-fab times but you can also choose exactly when you want the email to send). Some times I am pretty sure I want it to send the next morning but want the night to think it over, acknowledging to myself that if nothing comes to mind before 9:37 am the email can ship automatically. If I do need to make a change I can log in to the back-end and edit the email and re-schedule it. (There is one issue that occasionally shows up with Send Later: You schedule an email to be sent out requesting a piece of info for, let’s say, 7 am tomorrow. At 6 pm today you receive the info, but you either haven’t checked email or forgot about your scheduled message. So then at 7 am your email goes out and, well, you don’t look like the sharpest tool.)

It’s worth noting that you can “Boomerang” and “Send Later” on the same email.

I started with the free version but quickly found 10 messages per month too limiting for my needs. The $4.99/month is reasonable for personal use. The Google Apps version at $14.99/month might seem pricey at first. All I can say is that if you begin to leverage this for your business interactions–unless you truly have a steel trap memory or are an elephant–you will quickly see that it is worth far more.

Customer service has been fine, though it has been over a year since I have contacted them about any issue. They did recently release a mobile version, but I have not yet used it.

-- Aaron Pastor  

Boomerang for Gmail
$5 – $15 / month, depending on plan

Motorola Two-Way Radio

For a consumer level walkie-talkie, I recommend the Motorola MH230R ($47), or for slightly longer range, the MR350R ($54). I lived for several years in the Eastern Sierra where we used these for hiking. Usually they were good for 2-3 miles over mountainous terrain, and of course much further if users were in line of sight. I know from personal experience they are good for at least 11 miles as I used them to talk with my wife via a direct line-of-sight. But while they are rated for 23 and 35 miles respectively, for practical purposes, I’ve never relied on them unless we were within a few miles of each other, with no major obstructions. You can also use them for NOAA weather. They’re light & cheap enough to be practical, require AA batteries (rechargeables work fine) and are durable. On some hikes we’d have 5 or 6 deployed, carried by hikers of varying speeds, so we could keep tabs on where everyone was, and for that purpose they worked rather well — not perfect, but mostly good enough. If you’re within a few hundred yards of another radio, they always worked, even around large obstacles.

-- Kevin Rooney  

[These replace the Motorola model we previously reviewed. -- KK]

Motorola MH230R 23-Mile Range 22-Channel FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio (Pair)

Available from Amazon

Cellphone Credit Card Pocket

I’ve recently been doing a lot of traveling to places like Kathmandu and Capetown, which are pretty well known hotspots for pickpockets. When you’re in a place where pickpocketing can be an issue, standard policy for men’s wallets is to remove them from your back pocket into your front pocket.

I’ve discovered that between my wallet, my phone, keys, and my everyday carry Skeletool, I just have too much stuff to keep in my front two pockets. It becomes bulky enough to attract attention, which defeats the purpose of the whole exercise.

I thought I’d found a solution in the Card Ninja, but the price is a bit much — it’s just a pocket that adheres to the back of your phone that you stuff only your wallet necessities into. It shouldn’t be $20.

So I went searching and found this on Amazon at $6.99 for 3 (share with your friends, or keep a spare for when you trade in your cellphone, I guess!).

Most cellphone wallets are clamshell cases that you have to open whenever you want to access your phone or your wallet; with a pocket on the back of your phone, you have access to both without having to open anything.

The pocket is snug enough that cards don’t fall out but I can also easily jam 12 cards and some cash in there if I have to (the slim design really encourages you to carry only what you need, which is a feature rather than a downside in my opinion).

If you’re interested in minimizing your everyday carry weight, you really can’t do better than eliminating your wallet for one of these. I’ve also stripped down my keys and have only one ring that I keep in my Skeletool’s carabiner, so I have only two objects to remember when I leave in the morning — my keys and my phone. Everything else takes care of itself.

-- Jonny Dover  

Cellphone Credit Card Pocket Pouch
$7 / 3-pack

Available from Amazon

A Writer’s Time

There I was with a nice advance from a New York publisher to write a book, and there was only one tiny problem, which I did not discuss with the publisher. I’d never written a book and didn’t know how. I knew how to write, to edit, even to publish, but authoring? Help!

Help came in the form of a little book (read it in an evening; read it again the next evening) that spelled out precisely the task at hand: how to write a book. I got innumerable good things from Atchity’s counsel, but the main three probably were these:

• Time is everything in the labor of writing. Organize your time, and the writing will have a chance to organize itself. I used most of Atchity’s tips except the taking of many mini-vacations (I didn’t have time).

• Use 5 x 8 cards! Salvation. Every idea, every separable quote, every item from the literature I was researching, each went onto its own card. Organizing the eventual 1,800 cards into piles was defining the chapters; subpiles defined the sections; sequence within the subpiles defined the sequence of the day’s writing. This was THE handle without which I would have floundered for months.

• Define in a sentence what the book is about. Searching for that sentence organizes your thinking; using it organizes your writing. Revising consists of removing everything that isn’t in support of that sentence.

If this review sounds like a burble of gratitude, that’s because it is.

-- Stewart Brand  

[I also used Atchity to help me write my second and third books. I would reduce his advice to this: The work for a book is never-ending, unlimited. The time you have to write it is limited. Therefore you don't manage your work, you manage the only thing that can be managed: your time. I followed his card system, too. These days a good substitute for 3x5 cards is the software Scrivener for the Mac and Windows. You make notes on virtual cards in the research phase. Cards can contain images, video, all kinds of notes. You then write onto the "cards" expanding and deepening their content as much as you want, or cutting/pasting off pieces to make new cards. These cards can then be arranged and re-arranged into the order of your book. When you are finished arranging, you export all the text into one seamless document. It's the only way I write long form now. And like any great software, it has capabilities I haven't even touched yet. Four of my best-selling author friends in both fiction and non-fiction swear they couldn't complete books without Scrivener. -- KK]

A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Always head for drama at this point in the process [first draft]: choose the more dramatic alternative at every crossroads. Writing yourself “into a corner” guarantees drama as much as it does anxiety: the reader will relish watching you write yourself out of the corner.

You can edit objectively after three days have passed and you cannot edit objectively after three minutes have passed. So the attempt to edit instantly is negating the natural process, not allowing time to do its job.

No time is more important than the time used to examine and schedule your time.

Don’t sit down to write without knowing what you’re going to write. Never waste writing time deciding what to write. Writing time is for writing, not for the gestation of writing.

If you’re wondering whether you’re experiencing End Time, you’re not. True End Time displaces all other thoughts.

In Middle Time most writers have problems maintaining perspective toward their work. Middle Time’s greatest pitfall is exhaustion, and its most common side effect is confusing that exhaustion with depression or with a dismal reevaluation of the work at hand. . . . During Middle Time you need vacations, as many as you can fit into your schedule.

Desktop cellular phone

When my elderly mother had to go into a care home we needed to keep in touch by phone.

Care homes do not manage phone systems. You have to make your own landline arrangements with the phone company, and in our circumstance this was impossible.

There was no way could she manage a handheld cellphone/mobile phone. But a “fixed wireless terminal” was a godsend. (Ours was made by Huawei; there are other makes and models out there.)

Elderly people do not need to know it uses a mobile connection, they just use it like a normal phone. It makes a dial tone sound when you lift the phone off the hook, and you can operate it just like a landline phone, so no training is necessary. You just pick up the receiver, dial the number, and after a few seconds it connects automatically and actually puts the number through to the cellphone network. (It you had to press buttons to use the phone, it would have been of no use to us.)

I was surprised that the sellers of these phone didn’t emphasize that it can be operated just like a normal phone. I guess they haven’t appreciated the potential seniors market.

Ours has worked well in two different care homes. When she gets a long term place it may be worth installing a landline.

-- Tom Richards  

[I couldn't find an online source for the particular Huawei phone that Tom used. But I found a similar phone made by Bestek, which sells for $37 on Amazon. I bought on and tried it out with my existing AT&T SIM card. It works as Tom describes above. The dial tone is higher in frequency than the standard US dial tone, but I was able to make calls simply by lifting the receiver and entering a number on the keypad. I'm going to give this phone to a senior relative living in a care home. -- Mark]

Bestek Fixed Wireless Phone

Available from Amazon


When the company I work for was owned by a private equity company, we would often have collaborative events with other companies within the portfolio in order to collaborate and share ideas. When we began sharing files and other tools, we were limited by the options of our non-integrated tools (like individual company exchange email servers and independent intranet sites). In looking for a better alternative, we came across and successfully used two tools: the previously reviewed Doodle and another enterprise tool called Huddle.

Huddle is a great alternative to SharePoint, as we were not on the same network, intranet, or VPN. Being cloud-based, it was also easy to access from home, remote, or office locations. We used Huddle in a similar manner to SharePoint (if you are familiar with that enterprise Microsoft product); it features document libraries, shared calendars, private wiki pages, etc. SharePoint often does/allows this in a single enterprise environment (like I have at the day job); however, when it is behind a firewall, you can only get to it if you have permissions within that network. Huddle allowed us to break free from that and “go cloud.”

The particular use we had for it is that we were all under a large private equity umbrella, yet we all were part of distinct organizations (i.e. we have our own corporate intranet sites) and we didn’t want to develop, pay for, administer, etc. a new site with permissions for each of us. Instead, we used Huddle to help provide a cloud alternative to SharePoint, with internet-based sign-on, permissions, etc. It solved the issue of not being able to share documents (instead of email or S/FTP), and collaborate on schedules, etc.

While we just scratched the surface before my company was sold, it was a great, scalable, and cloud-based alternative to SharePoint.

-- Ben Vaterlaus  

Free to try

Available from Huddle

Getting To Yes

I used to think that negotiation was about positioning, leveraging, and finally winning. This book by William Ury change my view completely. I no longer think of negotiation as a game. I see now it is about not getting into a fight in the first place. By resolving conflicts before they escalate, respecting mutual interests, and engaging others with compassion, you can achieve something far greater than victory: peace.

I love the wisdom in this best-selling book, which lays out a concise yet compassionate method for achieving desired outcomes in negotiations. The book’s principles align to an uncanny extent with my Chinese philosophy of being open to seeing the opposing view in life. It advocates principles such as “Listen with respect,” which is the same traditional concept in Chinese as “If you know yourself and know your opponent, you avoid war and both win.”

By using this understanding framework (the “Yes” in the title) I’ve been successful in business negotiations. If we get stuck –which happens frequently — I like to ask the other party “What are you most afraid of?” Once I understand their fears, I try to come up solutions that address them, and at the same time I am open to share my own fears. Turns out people want to be understood before they are open to understand you.

I also used this principle of “understanding and communication,” rather than “positioning, leveraging and winning” in my personal life, quickly coming to mutual agreement in situations like a divorce which are not usually quickly resolved.  The outcome of this compassionate framework may not be optimal based on the standard expectations, but it is the optimal outcome based on the real context of the two parties.

In short, the concepts in this book really work.

-- Ping Fu  

Getting to Yes
Roger Fisher
2012, 240 pp

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

1. Separate the people from the problem
2. Focus on interests rather than positions
3. Generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement
4. Insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria. 

Participants can avoid falling into a win-lose mentality by focusing on shared interests.

Power in a negotiation comes from the ability to walk away from negotiations.

Blaming is an easy mode to fall into, particularly when you feel that the other side is indeed responsible. But even if blaming is justified, it is usually counterproductive. Under attack, the other side will become defensive and will resist what you have to say. They will cease to listen, or they will strike back with an attack of their own. Assessing blame firmly entangles the people with the problem.   

Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide.

We often try to influence others by threats and warnings of what will happen if they do not decide as we would like. Offers are usually more effective
The listeners should give the speaker their full attention, occasionally summarizing the speaker’s points to confirm their understanding.

The more attention that is paid to positions, the less attention is devoted to meeting the underlying concerns of the parties.

The key to reconciling different interests is to look for items that are of low cost to you and high benefit to them, and vice versa.

The best way to respond to such tricky tactics is to explicitly raise the issue in negotiations, and to engage in principled negotiation to establish procedural ground rules for the negotiation.

Judgment hinders imagination.

Give them a stake in the outcome by making sure they participate in the process. If they are not involved in the process, they are unlikely to approve the product. It is that simple.

Look for opportunities to act inconsistently with their perceptions. Perhaps the best way to change someone’s perceptions is to send them a message different from what they expect.

Etymotic’s ETY•COM

I work in areas that are usually quite noisy, and using cell phones is inherent to getting things done. I’ve previously reported on the BluLink pilot’s grade Bluetooth headset – and it’s terrific.

But it’s also large and dang expensive. Other “noise managing” Bluetooth headsets have varying degrees of working, and none I’ve tried are close to satisfactory. Plus, they usually have inadequate batteries and die halfway through a work day.

Great alternative: The ETY•COM headset is wired (no batteries), small, light and inexpensive. And its “insert earphone” works well to block outside noise and its “close-talking directional microphone” limits noise too, especially with the foam windscreen on it.

I carry both the BluLink giant and the ETY•COM mini. They both work as intended (the big one’s the ultimate winner in audio quality), but the Etymotic model keeps almost $400 in your pocket – along with the headset – and gets things done almost as well.

It’s a good way to keep your sanity when using your cell in a noisy place.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Etymotic Research ER22-A ETY-COM Noise-Isolating Mobile Phone Headset

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Etymotic