Have a "Spook-tacular" Halloween

Today is Halloween (primarily in North America):

The Irish celebration of Halloween (Hallow “E’en” for “evening”) comes from a religious feast — All Hallows Day, better known today as All Saints Day. Since the ninth century, Christians have celebrated All Hallows Day on November 1 in honor of deceased holy persons, or saints, referred to as “Hallows.”

The Christian Halloween adopted traditions from a much older Celtic holiday. More than 2000 years ago, the Druids observed a festival called Samhain, during which the god of the dead, they believed, came back to earth accompanied by ghosts and goblins. Sound familiar? The Celtic people wore animal skins and animal heads to hide from these evil spirits, and Druid priests burned sacrifices to appease the spirits.

Source: BHG.com

Oddly enough, thinking back now with a different perspective, Halloween actually led to my first encounter with “localization issues”. As a kid I spent several years living in Waterloo, Belgium. We lived in an area that was well populated with ex-pat North Americans – so to a kid it didn’t really feel that much different a place to live, I was surrounded by plenty of kids who spoke English natively and thus never really had to step outside the “North American” culture.

Halloween though changed that perspective a bit – a few months into our first year there we went out and just assumed that Halloween was a universal thing. Sticking to the North American “tradition” of only going to houses with the lights on outside we started out trick or treating. For the first dozen or so houses we encountered things went well (although the streets did seem awfully empty) – the usual Halloween routine unfolded as you’d expect. At one of the first houses off our street though things sort of unraveled.

We rang the doorbell and a rather startled looking woman came to the door, as I imagine most people might look if their doorbell rang late in the evening and you opened the door to find a bunch of kids in odd costumes yelling something at you in a language you don’t know. She made some kind of gesture (which we interpreted as “wait”, or something thereabouts) and ran back into the house. She emerged a minute later with an entire box of crackers and promptly tossed it in the closest bag, smiled akwardly, and closed the door. As we walked away scratching our heads the outside lights went off.

That’s the first time I can clearly remember recognizing that things just aren’t the same everywhere I go. Sitting here today I can honestly say I’m glad that I learned that lesson as a kid, and not today as I try and take a business beyond the borders of my native country. As a kid it was an akward moment, for a business it could be a devastating step.

Speaking With the World: Part III

NetConnect: In this third instalment I want to cover the system that we’re currently using most frequently. Another contact turned us on to a company called NetConnect. In a nutshell NetConnect has taken telephone conference calling and an on-line application sharing/presentation and brought them together under one “roof”.

From my experience (which as a moderator is limited but I’ve sat in on many more conference calls than I ever wanted too) the actual land-line conference system is pretty much the same as most others. Everyone gets a toll-free dial-in number and an access code. You call in, punch in your code and you’re done.

For the moderator though there is a web interface that allows you to see who’d on the call, their phone number and even an indicator that shows when that person is talking (quite handy on a busy call). Through the interface you can also mute specific people, hang up on them, send e-mail invites to the conference or even dial directly out to additional participants. There’s also a full contact database that you can add to (or pre-populate with Microsoft Outlook) for dialling out – and if the caller is in the database when they call in, it will also display their name on the screen with their number.

For application/presentation sharing NetConnect has licensed Microsoft’s LiveMeeting (Not to be confused with the substantially less powerful “NetMeeting” of days gone by). When you send invites out to users you also have the option of also sending them a link to join the LiveMeeting session. LiveMeeting is very similar to ASAP. You can share documents, presntations and applications. A menu shows you who’s in the meeting and through a colour code system the users can indicate to you if they have a question, need you to slow down or speed up etc.

The only area we’ve had any difficulty with the NetConnect service is when someone is using it for the first time. When we first tried to run in on my machine (in the NetConnect sales pitch demo, much to the chagrin of the sales rep) I got prompted that I needed to install either Microsoft’s or Sun’s Java Virtual Machine. Not a huge pain but it did require a reboot, which can take a few minutes.

Additionally we’ve had a couple of meeting participants have trouble getting the system to start for them – meeting participants also need to install a small applet of some kind but the process in entirely browser based an requires no reboot- not a big deal, when it works – a couple of times it’s seemed to freeze on the user. (To be fair though I couldn’t see what was happening on the other participant’s computer and participants were of varied technical ability) Usually cancelling and trying again would solve the problem but by the time you realize the install isn’t getting anywhere, cancel, restart IE and try to log in again several minutes have clicked by. Needless to say this can be a little frustrating when you’re paying by the minute. However, once the first install/use is out of the way though the system has worked at nothing short of flawlessly. I would just recommend for important calls you get your champion at the client side to get on beforehand and go through the install process before the call.
Speaking of pricing – NetConnect is a pay-per-use service, which is nice (well for now, we’re still waiting to see or first month’s bill). Billing rates change depending on whether the user calls in or you call out through the system – but everything I’ve seen seems quite inline with the cost of similar phone services that we’ve looked at. Additionally the region of the world you’re in may impact your per minute rate (rates are determined by the region of each individual caller. Fortunately, for high volume users NetConnect also offers subscription packages that allow you unlimited access (in many aspects) to the service on a monthly basis.

The LiveMeeting system is an additional charge over and above the phone conferencing. Its structure is very similar to the phone – Pay-per-use by the minute with an option to subscribe.

Overall we’ve been using NetConnect the most as of late – it’s just much easier to have one central application to manage our conferences through. At this point we’re just waiting to see that first usage bill and get some idea of our usage (We’ve certainly put several hours on the system in the past six weeks) before be make a final call on which system to stay with. At this point it’s admittedly a toss-up between ASAP and NetConnect. It could actually end up being a combination of the two, combining NetConnect’s voice system with ASAP’s data sharing system. My suspicion is for our usage we may be in that void where a subscription is too much with NetConnect but we use enough minutes that the $50 ASAP cost is actually more affordable.

Pros: Cons:
– Phone & Data Conferencing all under one “roof”

– Only option so far to include voice support for land-lines

– Great web interface for managing conference call participants and invites

– Cost per minute can start to add up quick if using phone & data conferencing with several parties. (Just a hunch at this point – I’ll update after we get the bill)

– First-time run issues can not only be embarrassing but costly too if you have a busy conference call waiting on someone to successfully get into the call.

Ochi means Ochi

Well Friday’s here and finally a day with some true festivities! It’s Ochi day in Greece.

On this day in 1940 Italy (along with Hitler) had essentially asked Greece “Do you mind if we occupy you? It’ll go much easier if you don’t fight.” (obviously I’m paraphrasing here) to which General Ioannis Metaxas responded “Ochi!”. Which after flipping through their Greek to Italian dictionary the Italians learned was a quite emphatic “No!”.

This of course put Greece on the Allied side of the fight and by many accounts had a major effect on the outcome of the war.

…expect to encounter parades and other celebrations commemorating Ochi Day, the anniversary of General Ioannis Metaxas’ flat denial to the Italians’ request for free passage to invade Greece.

On Ochi Day, all major cities will offer a military parade, and many Greek Orthodox churches will be holding special services. Coastal towns may have naval parades or other celebrations on the waterfront.

Source: About.com

Also today:

  • Anniversary of the 1956 Revolution in Hungary
  • Independence Day in Czechoslovakia

Speaking with the World: Part II

Yesterday focused on MSN Messenger which certanly came in handy for quite a period of time pre-launch (and post-launch for mostly internal reasons). As conference calls started getting bigger, and the people on the other end were no longer co-workers, consultants and “friendlies” we needed to move to a more sophisticated and professional solution.

ASAP Pro: A friend highly recommended a solution called “ASAP Pro”, developed by a company called Convoq. Instant Messaging components aside ASAP and Messenger’s functionality are very, very similar (Judging by their system requirements and some pieces of the application I suspect they’re built of many of the same components.)

ASAP integrates with existing IM applications on your system and lets you invite contacts directly through IM, you can also e-mail an invitation link to any other user whether they have an IM or not.

Like MSN the Video portion only works entirely when there’s a one-to-one meeting. IN that case you can see each other’s webcams. Once a third person (or more) joins, only the user designated as having the “podium” is broadcast to all other users.

Again you can share applications just like MSN – additionally you can share a PowerPoint presentation with the conference. The drawback is you need to import the presentation, which then gets converted into a proprietary format for presentation. But if that annoys you, you can always just share the PowerPoint app, you just lose some annotation functionality etc.

Setup, installation and usage is dead-easy. There’s a small application for the host to install and run but meeting participants don’t need to install any software. MSN should also take a page from the ASAP book when it comes to getting through firewalls for Audio/Video & Application sharing. We tested both ASAP and MSN head-to-head within our own office. We never could get MSN to connect but ASAP worked flawlessly every time. This is a major reason why we went with ASAP initially – the $50 was worth it just for the reliable connection between meeting participants.

ASAP isn’t free, but it’s certainly affordable. You have two options with ASAP Pro, you can license it monthly (Approx. $50/month) or pre-pay for a year (approx. $500). With that license you can basically use it as often as you want, the only limitation being that you can only have up to 15 participants. After 15 you pay a nominal per minute fee for each additional participant.

The one spot where ASAP really falls short is it’s reliance solely on VoIP technology for the audio. The only way to communicate within ASAP is in the form of a microphone plugged into your computer. There’s no “land-line” phone option. so while there’s no install to perform there is a small hardware hit. We found quite often that we used ASAP for application sharing & video conference but then used our phone system and did the audio portion of our calls the old fashion way – at additional cost if we had to use a conference call system.

Overall we liked the ASAP solution – the lack of any conference call support was probably the one thing that kept us hunting for another solution. Are we entirely done with ASAP? I wouldn’t say we are for certain – but I’ll explain more about that in tomorrow’s entry when I look at the third solution we encountered.

– Reasonably Priced
– No install required for meeting participants
– Connections are reliable & consistent
– No Land-line Phone Support

Indie Thursday

Today is Independance Day in Turkmenistan:

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan declared its independence on October 27, 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov became the first president of the new republic and still remains the supreme decisionmaker. On December 28, 1999, Niyazov’s term was extended indefinitely by the Mejlis (parliament), which itself had taken office only a week earlier in elections that included only candidates hand-picked by President Niyazov; no opposition candidates were allowed.

Source: Wikipedia

If you happen to be in Turkmenistan it’s probably best to smile and look like you’re having a good time – everything I’ve read says President Niyazov isn’t big on dissention.

And here I thought we Canadians had a flag that was hard to draw (Those maple leaves are a heck of a lot harder to draw than you might imagine). My hand is cramping just thinking about all the poor primary schoolers in Turkmenistan who have to draw this: