How to Lead a Successful Conference Call

Leading a successful conference call isn’t just about getting a reliable conferencing service and calling into the conference. There are things that you have to do before it’s ever time to call into your conference to ensure that it will be successful. As a leader, it’s important that you do three things well before your next conference: pick a good date and time, get people to attend, and present compelling and thought provoking information.

Here are some tips from our e-book How to Plan, Setup, and Execute a Successful Webinar.

Pick the Right Date and Time

You’ll never be able to pick the perfect time for everyone but what we suggest is picking a time that is good for most of your participants. We’ve found that the most popular times are right before or after lunch (10 AM and 1 PM in respective timezones) and meetings held on Tuesdays or Thursdays get the best turnouts. Avoid Monday meetings unless you need to get everyone ready for the week.

Send a Better Email Invite

The easiest and most common method to achieve getting the word out about your meeting is to send an email blast or calendar item directly to participants. The problem with this is that your emails will often get buried in other requests and notifications. Make your subject lines quick and focus on the who, what, and when. A good example: Marketing Webinar Featuring Bob - The Greatest Marketer Ever.

Bonus: Use registration pages and know who is going to attend your event. You can also use the system to send out reminders so that people remember to attend your event.

Create Great Presentations

You can pick the most popular time of day and send out the greatest invitation known to the invite world but if you aren’t presenting something of worth then you won’t get people to stick around for very long. Content is what your participants came to the presentation for, but there’s a fine line between too much and not enough information on your slides. Keep the text to display to a minimum and use visuals to make your points. Remember the 10 / 20 / 30 rule from Guy Kawasaki - no more than ten total slides, twenty minutes of presenting, and thirty point font for your slides(to keep you from cramming too much information on a slide.)

Leading a conference call is more than just using the mute button when you should and sticking to your agenda. It’s about what you do to plan the call, how you get people to participate, and presenting information your audience wants to hear.

You can get more great webinar tips by downloading and reading our ebook.

Facts About Aggressive Driving

Last week, while sitting at a red light beside a gas station, I noticed an ambulance turn on lights and sirens, then exit from the opposite side of the gas station. During rush hour traffic, the EMTs needed to get through a busy intersection - the one I was waiting to cross. As the light turned green, the ambulance weaved into the turn lane to go through the intersection, so I waited. The guy behind me did not appreciate my adherence to the law and proceeded to lay on his horn to rush me from the light, and then once we could cross he tailgated me and… well, lets just say he made a number of gestures at me.

Since I live in the second worst commute in the country, I’m used to aggressive drivers. After DFW was named the third worst area in the nation to drive in, I did some research and found some interesting tidbits about aggressive driving / "road rage".

  1. In 2008, there were 61,954 serious accidents on Texas highways.
  2. Aggressive driving is a traffic violation, and becomes a criminal offense once the drivers yell or gesture at each other.
  3. Ten states consider aggressive driving a class 2 misdemeanor.
  4. For every ten MPH you drive over 50 MPH, your risk of death or serious injury doubles.
  5. 60% of all accidents in 2009 were caused by aggressive driving.
  6. Three out of every four fatal accidents involving an 18-wheeler are not the fault of the 18-wheeler driver.
  7. Think twice before cutting in front of a big truck to get through traffic. A semi moving at 55 MPH can take up to a football field to come to a stop.

David Byrd had a similar experience, but with a different outcome, while waiting on an ambulance. "An anxious driver honked a few times at me, and then I pointed to the ambulance. The driver, after seeing the ambulance, put up his hand in apology. So what made the guy behind me react in anger and the guy behind him take a breath? When does the every day driver become the jerk flipping you off?"

There is research showing that the way someone drives is a direct correlation to their personality. While there is no formal profile on someone who is an aggressive driver, research shows a correlation between aggressive driving habits and following personality traits:

  • Found to have more judgmental and disbelieving thoughts about others.
  • Tend to express their anger and other emotions outwardly while also acting impulsively.
  • Aggressive drivers are more likely to inaccurately access risks on a cognitive level.
  • Have more competitive personalities or are even considered “egotistic”.

Curbing aggressive driving isn’t just about the other people who are on the highways with you. You can make some changes to the way you drive to lower the chance that you encounter an aggressive driver.

  • The left lane is for passing only, not cruising along at the posted speed limit.
  • Don’t react to aggressive drivers (even if the temptation is usually there to lay on the horn to some idiot in a white Prius who barely missed you while trying to merge across six lanes of traffic at the last minute).

Although, when following these precautions you can still run into that one driver that makes their aggression apparent to everyone on the roads. Mary Williams recalls one encounter she witnessed not too long ago. "I was driving into work one morning when I ran into a pretty bad accident involving a construction truck. Traffic was at a standstill. This woman driving what looked like a Land Rover decides to move from the center lane to the right lane. Without turning on her blinker to give any courtesy, she just scoots on over. I don’t think she checked to see if she was clear because she ended up forcing a driver of a compact car onto the shoulder to avoid a collision. The driver of the compact car took this offensively. They drove on the shoulder and then cut off the driver of the SUV. I then hear horns blaring and see obscene gestures being thrown out. In my opinion, both parties were being aggressive. Luckily, neither of them caused another accident."

So when you encounter an aggressive driver, remember that maybe they just a had really bad day. Leave them alone and don't provoke them. They probably aren't thinking 100% logically. Things can get out of hand very quickly on the road. 

And remember - if you wouldn’t act like that in public, why are you acting like that on the highway? (Thanks MNDot)

Slow down folks, drive carefully, because we’re all in this together.

Here are some links to some interesting research and findings about aggressive driving and road rage:

http://www.nhtsa.gov/Aggressive

http://dmv.dc.gov/page/behaviors-aggressive-driving

http://www.progressive.com/vehicle-resources/deal-with-road-rage/

http://home.trafficresourcecenter.org/Traffic/Aggressive-Driving.aspx

http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun05/anger.aspx

How to Make Conference Calls Fun

Okay, maybe "fun" is the wrong idea here. The words conference call are not exactly going to inspire anyone to think of a delightful day at the circus or spending a beautiful afternoon whirling around on your favorite roller coaster.

When people search for how to make a conference "fun", I think that they are looking for ways to make calls more effective. Implementing some of the rules on your next conference can help with the lack of effectiveness.

Rule #1 – Only Have Conferences When You Need To

This brings up a good question. What is "need to"? It’s going to vary for you but Al Pittampalli, the author of The Modern Meeting Standard, says you should only have a meeting when there is something to decide. This isn’t going to cover everything and it’s not going to apply for all circumstances, but it is a good benchmark to start from.

Rule #2 – Consider Including Video Conferencing

Even if you’re meeting with coworkers you’ve seen a number of times, integrating video conferencing can help increase the effectiveness of your meetings. A video element adds the ability to read non verbal communication to a meeting, as well as providing a way to keep everyone accountable. Not just for attendance, but for how well they are paying attention. If you see someone staring off into space or working on something else, you can call on them and bring them back to the topic at hand.

Rule #3 – Prepare for the Call

Finally, make sure you prepare for your meetings and conferences. No one wants to be in a meeting where the moderator is stumbling over their notes. When you prepare, you can get to the meet of the meeting quickly and efficiently. You don't want to waste anyone's time, and your participants will appreciate that. One way to prepare for your call is to write out your agenda and make sure you know what to say regarding each point.

Are you following these conference call rules? What rules can you contribute to make your conference calls more fun?

Censorship or Just Doing Business?

Book review site GoodReads has caused a stir recently in issuing their new enforcement of comments and reviews on their site. If you read their official statement, it’s clear that these are the policies they have had for a long time, but the announcement of what is tantamount to a crackdown sent cries of censorship into the air.

So the question becomes "is it censorship?"

If I don't like the way a certain business is acting, especially if it is "Corporate Policy", I just take my business elsewhere. With GoodReads, I see it as no different.

What I think GoodReads did wrong was to remove the reviews without warning. GoodReads should have informed the owners of the offending reviews that they would need to be changed or the review would be deleted by a certain date (say, 30 days). On a side note, I don't mind the GoodReads policy of removing reviews that just attack the author.

Show me the content that relates directly to the book. I don't care if the author is a jerk. I want GoodReads to be a place where I find out about books, not author personalities.

Maranda Gibson agrees that it’s the approach that is the problem, not the rules. "You can’t unring a bell and while I support their decision to enforce their rules, a part of managing a community is doing that from the beginning. Goodreads didn’t and now they are getting backlash from trying to clean up a mess they made."

Mary Williams adds, "GoodReads has been around since 2007, so they probably still have things to learn when it comes to community action. The resentment from some of their members about the way they handled removing reviews can be used by the company as a source of what not to do. Giving a fair notice to their members, and allowing their members to correct their reviews, would have been a better way to handle the situation. Hopefully, they will use this experience as a lesson learned and will give their members more notice the next time they make changes to their policy."

Bottom line, this is not a case of censorship. GoodReads, as a business, can create and enforce their policies as they see fit as long as no laws are being broken. It’s the same concept as if someone was walking around a mall with an offensive T-shirt on and asked to either turn the shirt inside-out or leave. It seems this is more of an issue with the way they have handled their policy enforcement. Those who don’t agree with their policy, well they can always go elsewhere.

Common Courtesy for Common Movie Goers

An article on Lit Reactor by John Jarzemsky got us thinking about movies and reading books. There are several die hard movie goers here at AccuConference, along with several die hard readers. Some of us are both.

I agree with John that consuming movies and books is a different experience, and that our brains work differently for each activity. Reading is easier to do with outside distractions (unless it's a non-fiction book I'm reading).

Watching a movie, not so much. Interruptions for television and movies are frustrating for me. So are distractions such as people constantly texting or talking in a movie theater.

One blogger thinks I am wrong, and even goes so far to compare me to slavery advocates of long ago. Yep, you read that right. Anyway, this blogger (who will be getting the Voldemort treatment for this post) even uses example behavior in India to justify what he thinks should be the norm here in the States.

Mary Williams, Operator Extraordinaire here at AccuConference sent me this:

"[name redacted] tries to defend his weak argument by saying that movie goers in India have no problem with these disruptions and it’s their cultural way of life. Which is fine and dandy if you’re in India. What he fails to understand is, this is not India! It is our culture here in America to be courteous when the situation calls for it."

Nice way to put it Mary.

Mary also added:

"Blogger, [name redacted], actually praises cell phone users in the blog he wrote. He says that the movie theater should be treated like every other public space. He also made some questionable comparisons to those he labeled as “shushers” which readers did not take lightly. I whole heartedly disagreed with every aspect of his blog. A movie theater is not like every public space. I don’t pay $10 to go take a walk at the park or to shop at the mall. I pay money to go to a movie theater so I can be completely engaged with the movie. And people like [name redacted] have no respect or consideration for people like me."

Another blog writer, Maranda Gibson, also weighed in. As a lover of both movies and books, she can see a grey area, much like the rebuttal to [name redacted] you can find over on Slate.

"I think movie culture depends a lot on what kind of film you're going to see. I remember when I went to the midnight showing of the first Fast and Furious film - it was loud and exciting with people laughing and clapping. It fit the kind of experience that I wanted to have when I went to see an action film. If I'm going to see a Sunday matinée, I think you have different expectations of the experience. Common sense should play a role in how you react to the film on the screen in a public space."

I tried to find someone, anyone who thought that a movie theater was a place to act however you want. It seems like {name redacted} wrong and that etiquette will still be the norm here in America.

The Public Relations Mess Clorox Can’t Seem to Clean

I’m not afraid to admit I have a deep affection for cleaning. Most people who do have a "scent of choice". Personally, I love the smell of Pine Sol. I picked up a new bottle a few weeks ago, noting the “longer lasting scent” label. Great, right?

The problem is that it smells nothing like my favorite smell. In fact, the "longer lasting scent" down right stinks. After some complaining, I decided to see if I was just being picky, and went to the Pine Sol Facebook community. I found vindication in other fans feeling like the new stuff is awful.

Given some of the responses from customers and the brand responses, it appears that the people at Clorox (the makers of Pine Sol) have created a bit of a disaster, and they are breaking all the rules when it comes to a social media crisis. In fact, it’s the public relations disaster you haven’t heard about.

PR happens on the web now, and if you’re not prepared to respond, you might have a blow back that you didn’t expect or want. Here are some key takeaways from what I’ve witnessed to their response in the middle of a customer crisis.

If you don’t provide a reason or a message - your community will hunt one down for you. The problem with communities is that they can sometimes be wrong about a companies motivation for a particular move. It’s your job as a brand representative to provide the message so that the community doesn’t make up their own.

Using a form response to address the aforementioned concerns is usually a bad move. The form response being used by the social media managers on this page are especially unforgiving, because the only thing that is changed is the name. It goes a little something like this: "Hi, this is *NAME* and we understand your concerns, but we totally user tested it and everyone loved it. It’s also better than before."

Deleting / Removing negative comments only make you look worse. When you make a move that upsets your customers (no matter if you plan on sticking with it or reverting) it’s better to accept the criticism, rather than try to hide it. Rejecting a negative review is only going to make the situation seem suspicious. You need to be prepared to respond to any comments - good or bad.

Even though you probably haven’t heard about this public relations mess, hopefully some of these take always will be something you can apply and be ready for in the event you come across a similar situation. What PR situation have you learned from?

Kindle Matchbook and AccuConference

This week, Amazon announced Kindle Matchbook. Of announcements that don’t involve an update to the popular Kindle e-Book reader, this is one of the more exciting. So what is Matchbook and what does it do?

In 1995, when Amazon started to sell books in their online store, things like e-readers weren't selling like corn dogs at the county fair. If you wanted to read a book, you had to buy it, wait for it to mail, and then turn pages. Amazon Matchbook will go back into your history of orders and offer you a discounted Kindle price, or in some cases a free copy, of the electronic version of a previously purchased book. The only caveat is that the publishers provide the discounts on a book-by-book basis. Hopefully they will do that, but if they choose not to enroll in the program, your book will not have the discount. The program will extend all the way back to when they first began to sell books through the marketplace.

This program is really cool because not only can you get reunited with a book you might have forgotten that you read (and loved) but it’s also a great way to help us all "upgrade" and use our Kindle’s more. It is a great move for consumers and a really smart move for Amazon – people who might have lost books along the way might be encouraged to buy an e-reader now.

AccuConference published a book last year and a lot of you went and ordered a copy of the physical book. (Thanks!) We signed up to offer our book, Lessons from the Bored Room, as part of the Kindle Matchbook program. If you've purchased a copy of our book, when Amazon rolls out the program in October, you’ll be able to add our conferencing, webinar, and video conference book directly to your Kindle – for free.

If you haven’t purchased a copy – you can grab a discounted copy from Amazon.com and receive the Kindle version in October.

Delivering a Five Minute Presentation

When might you use a five minute presentation?

Some situations like when you've been asked at the last minute to make a quick introduction for someone else or a quick product announcement in front of a group are where you usually see the five minute presentation show up. They can be very useful tools in business because they force you to be effective and on point, since time is limited.

To make a great five minute speech you need to do some of the following.

Focus on a Single Point

When your time is limited to five minutes, the best thing to do is to derive one clear main idea from the information being discussed and present that as a single focus. You simply don’t have the time to elaborate much beyond a main point. Decide what the main point is and build the rest of the presentation around it.

Come Out with a Bang

You already know that there is a limited amount of time to catch your audience’s attention. When your speech is compacted into a five minute window, even more effort is required to get that audience to sit up and pay attention. You want to get participants attention in the best and most effective ways possible, and starting strong is going to be the best way to do that. Use something like a quick quote or an anecdote to create something amazing.

Close Like a Pro

Okay, your five minutes are up. Now is the time to reiterate your opening and bring it home for the listener. What was your main point of your five minutes? Now is the time to reiterate that to your audience. Maybe your goal was to introduce yourself – now would be the time to state your name again, and to invite people to come mingle with you. Maybe you wanted to get everyone amped for the next speaker about to walk on the stage, so remind everyone now of why they should be excited for the person about to take over.

Five minute presentations might seem like an overwhelming task, but they should only be used in certain situations. Your five minute presentation isn't always going to cut it but it’s good to have one on the back burner, just in case you need it.

How do you deliver a five minute presentation?

The One Hiring Practice that Reduced Our Turnover

Since 2010, I have changed the way we hire. Previously, we screened potential candidates during the interview only, and we missed some skeletons which later haunted us.

For all new job posts, I add a simple writing assignment. What surprised me the most at first was that only 2% of applicants completed the assignment. I would have thought at least 50% of people wanting a job would read and follow instructions. However, this had an added benefit. It weeded out a lot of bad resumes and saved me a lot of time.

After reviewing the writing assignments, I choose the candidates to interview. One surprising thing was that almost every person I invited to interview would have been a good hire, and it's nice to have to pick between several awesome choices rather than having to settle.

Requiring an assignment for applicants can streamline your hiring process and provide you with the best potential candidates for employment.

Here is our last job post:

How to Apply:

Please submit a cover letter explaining:

  1. Why you want to work in customer support.
  2. Why you want to work at AccuConference and not somewhere else.
  3. A description of a great customer service/support experience you had recently, and what made it great.

Also, attach the following writing samples:

  1. Explain why would you encourage someone to use an 800 number for their conferences.
  2. Explain to a customer asking for a lower rate per minute that we are unable to lower their rate.
  3. A company wants a refund because their conference was smaller than they anticipated (we charge a minimum for large calls, even if the customer only has a few people on the call). Explain that this is not refundable.

Send everything above to iwanttowork@AccuConference.com.

The SimCity Mayors Guide to Public Relations

SimCity is a game that has been around for nearly as long as I can remember. In March of 2013, the latest version was rebooted and it wasn't met with the warmest of regards. Server crashes, the requirement to be 'online' to play, and small map sizes for your lots were just a few of the problems that the developers at Maxis and EA dealt with in the first few weeks of the highly anticipated launch.

As an avid SimCity mayor and the creator of many fine cities, it always seemed funny that the creators of the greatest city building games and arguably the most recognized franchise didn't do what their game has been teaching us about preparation forever.

Have a Plan

When you're a new mayor, you take a moment to sit back and determine where the best place for things might be. Which way is the wind blowing? You don't want to build your residential areas where the industrial pollution will blow. Where are your water supplies and other minerals? These are all important things when it comes to building a new city.

When you take on a new marketing strategy or start a new PR push, you need to have a plan. Going into it blind means you won't have a true understanding of what your direction should be. Is your goal to get national exposure for a brand or company? You're going to take a different direction that a client that has a goal of twenty thousand new Twitter followers.

Prepare for Disasters

For the SimCity Mayors we know that there is nothing more annoying than being in the middle of making tons of cash and then the screen starts to shake, or in your speakers you hear the inevitable horrible roar of the tornado warning sirens. That's right; it's time for SimCity to unleash a random disaster upon your humble town.

In public relations, it's not so obvious when there are warning signs. You can't always be prepared for something to go wrong in your marketing strategy or public relations campaign, but you can always plan around the "what ifs". Make a list of potential disasters (hopefully no Godzilla strikes) and then have an action plan for crisis management.

Give it Time to Grow

Once you've got the basics of your city in place and your cash flow is positive, there's a rush to build up your city quickly and increase the population, so that you can get more money. In life and SimCity, it's not always the best idea expand your small rural town to a big metropolis before you are completely ready.

Initial campaign success does not always translate into long term dollars. While you're enjoying increased exposure, give it some time to sustain before you hire additional staff or move into a new office building. That way you know your growth is sustainable and the additional staff or space is truly needed.

A new public relations or marketing campaign is challenging and exciting, just like being the new mayor of a virtual town. Putting your plan in place and being prepared to act from the start are often the best ways to manage things in the long run.

AccuConference | News

Cisco Makes Bid to Acquire Skype

 

Cisco reportedly made an offer to acquire Skype in an effort to nab the telephony company before its IPO, according to a source who spoke with the technology blog, TechCrunch.

The source said that Cisco may be looking to acquire the company with an offer in the ballpark of $5 billion, though TechCrunch has been unable to confirm the report with an official statement.

The secrecy is apropos of a company that is on the verge of an IPO, a move that usually requires high degrees of confidentiality—especially in the stages right before going public.

Some analysts say that $5 billion may be a little much, especially since Google recently released its own version of VoIP powered through Gmail. These analysts point out that the VoIp atmosphere is heating up, so the increased competition may cause a devaluation of Skype. Also, Ebay recently sold its 70 percent share of Skype and valued the company at $2.75 billion.

As of the time of this writing, neither Skype or Cisco have issued any statements concerning the matter, though some analysts say it’s likely that Skype will accept the offer so they can remain competitive with Google.

More updates as the story unfolds.

 

You Typed in “Net-Neutrality”. Did You Mean Litigation?

The buzz on the news sites right now is that Paul Allen has filed a lawsuit against the entire internet.  Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, has officially filed against 12 companies, alleging a violation of patents that he owns.

The suit lays out four patents for technology one of which allows for a website to “suggest” things consumers might like, and another that allows readers to locate stories based on a subject.

The lawsuit was filed by Interval Licensing, LLC., a company that Paul Allen financed during the internet boom.

What’s interesting to note is that Microsoft is left off the litigation, but that a lot of big name internet companies are named, including Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo.  

This lawsuit follows a string of other patent lawsuits, including that of NTP against of the same companies in Paul Allen's suit. This suit included Microsoft and was focused technology patents regarding the way email is delivered to mobile phones. The court ruled in favor of NTP and similar patent cases have been ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.  Such cases have resulted in big payouts, like Research in Motion, Ltd., the maker of BlackBerry, shelling out $612.5 million since 2006.

The spokesperson for Interval Licensing David Postman says, “We recognize that innovation has a value, and patents are a way to protect that.”

TechCrunch quotes a representative from Google, “This lawsuit against some of America’s most innovative companies reflects an unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of in the marketplace.”

In the shadow of negotiations with the FCC, Google, and Verizon over net-neutrality, the integration of Bing into Yahoo!, and the growing popularity of Google Android and Apple mobile devices – is this a way to Microsoft to catch up with the rest of the pack, or do you think there is some validity to Interval Licensing’s patent suit? 

 

Airlines Consider Worldwide Mergers

Pan-continental airline mergers seem to be creeping more and more into the airline industry’s horizons, now with the CEP of the International Air Transport Association saying that consolidations around the globe are the next step.

Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, told the Dow Jones Newswires that airlines would need to consolidate beyond national borders to maximize margins in the future.

He also bemoaned the current restrictions, which exist in the U.S. and abroad, that prevent foreign airlines from owning over 49 percent of domestic carriers.

Airline mergers in the U.S. have been profitable for the airlines, but somewhat controversial among consumers who often wind up with fewer flight choices.

Domestically, Delta has completed a merger with Northwest and United Airlines is in the process of merging with Continental, along with other major-carrier combinations still underway.

Most domestic airline CEOs are of like mind with Bisignani, saying consolidations result in higher margins.

In Europe, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, the German airline that accreted with three airlines last year, officially reported that they would be on board with the trend too.

Bloomberg reported that Stefan Lauer, a Lufthansa executive, said mergers were very likely and that they were an exciting prospect for the airline industry.

Industry analysts point out that the mergers will help airlines stay afloat and could lower prices for larger companies. However, it also reduces competition as there are fewer players in the game.

Shorter flights either atrophy or become more expensive as the larger companies look more toward increasing longer, more popular flights. 

Netflix Introduces Streaming App for iDevices

The Netflix application that has been so popular on iPads was made available for iPhone and iPhone touch users today.

The free app, version 1.1.0, universalizes television and movie streaming for the iOS-based devices and is a move that will spearhead Netflix’s mobile penetration plan

The 15 million-plus users who have Netflix memberships, which start at $8.99 a month, can now view all of the movies available for streaming directly through the app.

I snagged the app and tapped into my basic membership as soon I heard to indulge in some streaming-goodness. I played a snippet from the Big Lebowski and the dude looked pristine as ever over my iPhone screen. The load time was surprisingly quick over 3G too—probably just as fast as my iMac at home. I connected some speakers for a little surround sound and almost forgot I was at work!

Also, I was pleased to see that the iPhone/iTouch version was formatted for the smaller devices, unlike the iPad which uses the same interface as the Netflix site. Tabs along the bottom let you browse genres, search for specific movies and put movies in your Instant Que. Little play buttons display over the movie covers so clicking and playing is pretty simple.

The app’s only demerit is that you can’t even view the titles of movies that aren’t available for streaming. Which means, I can’t manage my normal queue on the go, only the instant queue is accessible. 

Google Unrolls Voice in Gmail

Google held a press conference today to discuss their newest feature: the ability for people to place VoIP phone calls with Gmail accounts through Google Voice integration.

The company appended the feature to the Google Chat window, which has previously allowed Gmail users to chat with their contacts.

Starting today, there will be a call/dialer function that will be accessible to all people with Gmail accounts. The feature is fully integrated with peoples’ email contacts, allowing them to call other Gmail users by selecting their names and pressing call.

Users can call people who are not sitting at their computers too. According to a Gmail Blog post today, people can call any phone from Gmail by dialing on a computer-based keypad. The blog says calls to the U.S. and Canada will be free, while calls to other countries will be billed.

“We’re rolling out this feature to U.S. based Gmail users over the next few days, so you’ll be ready to get started once “Call Phones” shows up in your chat list,” the blog says. It adds that users who wish to use the service will first have to install the voice and video plug-ins.

The service is similar to Skype, except that it’s integrated with email and charges for cross-country connections.

Google will sell its own credits for the program through Google Checkout, a shopping-cart application that users will have to pre-pay through for international calls.

Senators Concerned About Chinese Telecom Bid

Eight republican congress members sent a letter to the Obama administration last week asking that they closely review a bid by a Huawei Inc., a massive Chinese telecom corporation, to supply equipment to Sprint Nextel in the U.S.

The letter sites national security concerns as Huawei purportedly had business ties with Saddam Hussein and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, which was previously sanctioned by the U.S. for its role in weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

The letter states, “A Chinese company with such a leading role in Iran’s economy, and close relationship with the IRGC, should not be able to do business in the U.S.”

Among the senators who sent the letter were Jon Kyl of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Christopher S. Bond of Missouri. They expressed concern that Huawei’s position would be threatening because Sprint Nextel supplies equipment to the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies.

“Is there any concern that Huawei, if it gained any measure of control over a U.S. contractor involved with sensitive U.S. government contracts, would present a national security threat for technology leakage or enhanced espionage against the United States?” the letter asks.

The move points out a debate that has been taking place for some time now, where a balance is yet to be struck between open trade and national security—especially when Chinese companies are trying to invest in sensitive U.S. industries.

Huawei executives countered the letter saying that the company only wished to do business with its counterparts in the U.S., and that the Chinese government and military had no sway over the company’s dealings.

The senators dismiss this claim as posturing, pointing out the contracts between the company and the military and government, as well as saying the Chinese government may have directly funded Huawei.

The Senators asked the Obama administration to appoint an investigative team to fully examine the company, its dealings and the potential risks of a deal with Sprint Nextel.

Airport Security Testing Palm-Down Body Searches

With new, more aggressive pat downs being tested at Logan International Airport in Boston and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, privacy advocates have already begun lamenting the new levels of airport-security friskiness.

The Boston Herald reported that Transportation Security Administration screeners will be using the “enhanced patdown” method that lets screeners go palm-forward on the torso—instead of the usual backhanded approach.

The American Civil Liberties Union is questioning the procedure, saying that there seems to be a constant erosion of privacy as security grows more and more invasive.

According to the Boston Herald, passengers who have undergone the new searches feel overly probed and excessively scrutinized by Big Brother.

The story quoted several Boston-area travelers who narrated the screening processes as they recalled them.

One man, named Rob Webster, said there was “probing and pushing” of his genital area, and added, “if anyone ever groped me like that in real life, I would have punched them in their nose.”

The TSA defends their position, saying that it is a needed addition to enhance the multi-layered security approach—especially when terrorists are devising bombs that are undetectable by the magnetometers.

Looking ahead most airports will give passengers the option of the “enhanced screening” or full body scanners, which take x-ray pictures of peoples’ bodies beneath their clothes.

Stealing Through iTunes-PayPal-Bank Account

It’s been reported today that many people have gotten their iTunes account hacked.  While this in itself would be a minor--and puzzling--bit of thievery, it can have much larger implications.  Most people have their iTunes account linked with PayPal.com for purchases of songs and videos.  And many of those same people have their PayPal accounts linked to their bank account.

After hacking into an iTunes account, multiple transactions are made through PayPal purchasing iTunes products.  The PayPal account is quickly drained then, if linked to a bank account, the charges are passed on to be paid by the bank.

It is important for everyone to check their iTunes and PayPal.com accounts to see if there are any unauthorized transactions.  Afterwards, change your password on not only the iTunes account, but PayPal and even the bank account.  Choose a password that has no meaning, mixes letters and numbers, and even uses misspelled words.  Ideally, a password should look like this:  sd9ow8vlwr89n.  But that would be hard to remember.

Signs of a hacked iTunes account include a great number of identical purchases, and of course, any downloaded songs of the band, ABBA.

Credit Card Relief

A final piece of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 legislation went into effect, shielding credit card users from "unreasonable late payment and other penalty fees".

It’s a two-part benefit for credit consumers.  First, it puts a limit of $25 for late charges and other fees except in extreme circumstances.  Those circumstances include repeat offenders, and where it can be shown the costs of recouping exceeds the $25 limit. 

Another restriction now in place is that a late or overdraft fee cannot be higher than the charge in question.  Also, consumers cannot be charged more than one fee per infraction.

The second benefit to this legislation it it also encourages credit card companies to reconsider rate increases from January 1st, 2009.  While it doesn’t appear to be mandatory, the banking industry holds that it has already been modifying rates in accordance, especially since many rate increases were based on large fees that now do not exist.

However, credit card companies now may not raise interest rates on customers who pay their bills on time.  They must also give at least 45 days notice before any rate hikes or fee changes.

Face Time for Inmates

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that beginning September 1, 2010, death row inmates in the Virginia prison system would no longer be able to visit their families in the closest thing that can be considered face to face. Three years ago, the Virginia Department of Corrections banned what is called a contact visit from their death row inmates, requiring the inmate stays behind a glass partition during a family visit.

Starting in September, those visits will be purely done by video conferencing.  Virginia is following the heels of Kansas, the only other state to require family visits for death row inmates, and there are very strong feelings about the change from the position of the Department of Corrections, as well as the families on the inmates.

Officials who support the migration over to a pure video conference system feel like the change will help them to better use the staff on site at the prison systems.  Video conferencing will eliminate the need for searching inmates and visitors. Also, the facility will no longer have to be shut down to escort the inmate from death row to the visitation rooms. These visitations will also be recorded and provided to the family members.

Family members of death row inmates oppose the new visitation rules and say that the inmates are already on death row, and this change is only further punishing the inmates.

Supporters of the new visitation rules state that this will cut down on security concerns across the prison. Taking a death row inmate to a visitation is not as simple as walking them down a hall. They must be cuffed and chained, and the areas of the prison that have to be walked through must be put on lock down, requiring extra staff to monitor the other inmates. Not only would this measure decrease the need for extra security protocols, it would also lower staff costs.

The article did not mention the visitation circumstances surrounding procedures in regards to an inmate’s “last” visit.

The question really boils down to – is it the right place to beef up security? With reports of attempted and successful prison breaks on the rise, less physical contact with someone who could aid in an escape is a great idea, but there are two sides to every argument. What side are you on?