Google Voice goes live

July 31st, 2010

After over a year in invitation-only Beta, Google Voice has finally gone live. Though it started life as Grand Central, it's grown beyond that. With a Google Voice number, you can direct calls to a "real" phone–office, home, cell, it doesn't really matter–or even send them directly to voicemail. And speaking of voicemail, your messages are automatically transcribed and can be picked up on the website or have them sent to you. When you give out your Google Voice number, you're not giving out the number for a real phone, so you don't have to worry about being stalked by your callers, and for that matter you can set up filters to kill calls from numbers you aren't interested in.

In addition to receiving calls, you can make calls via Google Voice as well. Just enter the number you're calling and pick the phone you want to talk from, and let the magic happen. The call is placed and rings back to your phone. Pick up and you're connected to your destination number. You can also send text messages, although SMS shortcodes aren't supported. Another often-asked-for but not-currently-implemented feature is sending and receiving faxes. Maybe some day.

Hey, it’s Mickey Mouse on the line

July 15th, 2010

Who doesn't like Mickey Mouse and his pals? These guys have been around forever, and they're still going strong. If you've got a little Disney fan running around the place, how much do you think they might enjoy receiving a phone call from Mickey, Minnie, Donald, or Goofy? It's easy, and free too.

To set up your call, you need to visit the Character Calls website and enter a little information. You can pick an occasion to commemorate (congratulations, encouragement), and a message to send (doing well in school, learning to count). Add little Billy's or Susie's name if you like. Give 'em the number and time to call, and then just sit back and wait for the appointed hour. Calls are made only during "normal" hours (9:00 am to 8:00 pm) so you don't need to worry about Donald Duck waking you up in the middle of the night. That's not such a happy thought.

This offer is good through 9/20/2010, so you won't want to wait too long to schedule your call.

FaceTime live demo

June 30th, 2010

You got up at oh-dark-thirty and went and stood in line at the Apple Store. You laid down your hard-earned dinero, and walked out with your spiffy new iPhone 4. You take it out, fire it up, and call–who? All those nifty new features, but there's nobody to call, since nobody else has theirs yet. A brand new toy, but nobody to play with.

As luck would have it, Apple has taken care of this for you, at least for the FaceTime video conferencing app. All you need to do is to dial 1-888-FACETIME and a nice friendly Apple employee will answer and help you put your new phone through its paces. In addition, they'll give you "a few advanced tips." Who knows, maybe there's a secret handshake and a decoder ring as well. This service is available between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm Central Time. And remember to smile.

Email addresses for mobile phones

June 15th, 2010

Along with all the other things that make cell phones cool is the fact that you can send email to them. Communicating via SMS text messaging is pretty easy phone-to-phone: just enter the phone number you're sending to, write your message, and you're off to the races. But what if you need to ping them and you're not within reach of a cell phone yourself? Maybe you need that message to get through but you're sitting in front of, sigh, a computer. Great: use email. Oops; what's their email address?

Well, it turns out that's often pretty easy to figure out. Generally the phone number (with area code) is part of it, but what about the part that comes after the "@" symbol? For a list of email formats for the big deal carriers, check out the Mobile Phone Email Address Format page. They've listed many of the names you'd recognize. Some of them have separate addresses for MMS (media, like pictures) so double-check that you're getting the right one. Also, since these types of things can change over time, it might be handy to send a test message to your recipient before you really have to get in touch with them.

Leave a message to yourself with BrainCast

May 31st, 2010

Did you ever have a bright idea and no piece of paper to jot it down on? You may have had the clever idea of phoning yourself to leave a message containing that brainstorm. Good idea, but of course then your new message gets lost in the tangle of other messages in your voicemail in box. What if you had a separate place for those notes-to-self?

BrainCast is the tool for that. All you need to do is sign up for a free account, register a phone number or two, and start leaving messages. The number's toll-free, so it's not going to cost you anything to play along (unless your carrier charges you for air time). You can go online to check your messages at their site, which are saved off as WAV audio files. Categorize them, tag them, email them to other folks, just go nuts. And of course your strokes of genius are automatically emailed to you.

Since you have to register phone numbers to work with this service, you can't use this as an all-in-one voicemail inbox, but it seems like a handy way to keep those great ideas of yours from just disappearing like a puff of smoke.

Play Colossal Cave Adventure on your phone

May 15th, 2010

Video games on a phone? Sure, your Blackberry or iPhone won't have any problems with this. What about on a not-so-smart phone? For that matter, what about non-video games? So where are we headed here?

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth (1975 to be precise), Colossal Cave Adventure, one of the ancestors of virtual reality, was created. Designed to be played on a terminal of a PDP-10 mainframe computer, this game painted a picture using only words and the player's imagination of the places and things encountered in a huge underground cave.

If your mainframe's on the fritz, fear not: this game can now be played on your telephone. To dial in, just call 610-DEAR-BEN (1-610-332-7236). To play the game, just listen to the narration and then speak commands when it's time to make your move. Your goal is to collect treasures and bring them home, all the while avoiding various traps and obstacles.

Of if you can't get over the idea of the non-video game, you can also play at 610dearben.com via Skype and choose to include graphics.

Note that the call to play the game is not toll free, but presumably you'll be home free if you choose the Skype option.

Find cheap(er) gas

April 30th, 2010

While prices vary from place to place, we can probably all agree that we pay too much for gas. If you work at home, that's not such a big deal, but if you live in the outer suburbs or a rural area and have a long commute into work, that can eat up a sizable chunk of your disposable income. You could drive around looking for the cheapest gas in town, but that burns up what you've already got, so that's probably not your best bet. Turns out you can get a good idea of what's going on, price-wise, in your neighborhood.

GasBuddy.com is a fuel price search engine. Go to their site with your web browser, enter your city and state or a ZIP code, and they'll report back what they know about gas prices in your neighborhood. And if you're out and about, they've got mobile versions as well at GasBuddyToGo, or you can send an SMS text message to 368266 with the text "gasbuddy" and your city and state or ZIP code (like gasbuddy 90001). They'll send you back a list of prices in your area, so you'll save a few bucks when it's time to fill up.

Who WAS that masked man?

April 15th, 2010

One of the handy conveniences of most cell phone plans is the fact that Caller ID is built-in. When the phone rings, you know who's calling. Typically, if that number matches one of your contacts in your address book, you'll see their name come up; otherwise, you'll at least get a phone number. But who is that unknown person that's calling? Or maybe they've blocked their number, but they left you a voicemail message that tells you to call them back just as soon as possible, but didn't bother to let you know who they are.

800notes.com is a free service that can help you answer those questions. Their database is built from user entries, people like you who got a call from goodness-knows-where. You can read what other folks had to say about the number—maybe they figured out who it is, or at least they can tell you what they heard when they called it back—and leave your own information as well. Now the spammers and scammers can't hide, and you won't feel so bad about not getting right back to them.

Manhattan restroom search engine

March 31st, 2010

It's your big day out and about in The City. Museums, shows, public monuments, the whole thing. All of a sudden you get the call. We're talking about the Call of Nature here. Sure, there are those who think of New York as just a big public urinal, but that's not your style. You want a bathroom with all the amenities, like a door and all that. With that call urgently ringing in your ears—and other body parts—there's no time to waste.

Check out Diaroogle, which bills itself as The Premier Toilet Search Engine. Bring the site up on your smart phone or computer, enter an address, cross street, or neighborhood, and check out the list of public and almost-public restrooms. There's generally directions, a description of what to expect, and for some of them even a photo to check out what you're getting into. And if you know of a great heretofore undiscovered necessarium, they've got a Submit tool to add yours to the list. Good luck!

Dial-a-song

March 15th, 2010

Okay, so you've heard of dial-a-story and dial-a-prayer. How about dial-a-song? Just call 802-735-2710 (not a toll-free number) and listen to the music. WMUD is a low-power user-supported non-commercial broadcast radio station serving the Champlain Valley of Vermont and New York at 89.3 on the FM dial. In addition to their local audience, they also stream their freeform programming on the web as well as making it available via telephone. Just call 'em up—here's a way to get your money's worth from your unlimited cell phone plan—and bring 'em along with you. The music's all played live, but they don't have talkative DJs to get in your way. Listen to the radio for the music—what a concept!

These guys are free to listen to, no matter which medium you use, but as a user-supported station, we're sure they wouldn't mind if you happened to send them a couple of bucks now and then. And thanks to Bill for turning us on to them.