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    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

Free Lunch? No Such Thing. Free Long-Distance Calls? Sure!

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben Fong-Torres judges a gay beauty contest and offers the scoop on Skype.

Free Lunch? No Such Thing. Free
Long-Distance Calls? Sure!

This is your lucky ten minutes, or however long itll take you to read this column. Im about to save you scads o cash especially if you make a lot of long-distance calls and have a computer. If so, you qualify to read on:

So. Youve no doubt heard about telephony by Internet, or VOIP (voice over Internet protocol). You may have demurred because, as in the early days of Internet radio, you didnt want to have to be tied to your computer to enjoy the new service. Or youre frightened by your computer (as you well should be). Or you didnt understand why youd need anything besides your cell phone. Especially when you heard that Vonage, for one, charged $24.95 a month for its Internet phone service. Skype has no monthly fees.

I recently began using Skypethis is about eight months after hearing about it from Spark PR, a spunky young company in San Francisco. Now, I realize that Ive been wasting money on the phone company for eight months.

As hard as its going to be to believe, heres the deal on Skype: Its free. You download the software (at www.skype.com), hook up a cheap computer microphone (if your PC doesnt already include one) or a headset/microphone combo, and youre set.

You can begin making calls to any Skype customers around the world for free. Until the end of the year, you can also call land and cell phones anywhere in this country and Canada for free. After that, those calls, called Skype Out, cost pennies a minute, at mosteven for overseas calls.

Using Skype is ridiculously easy. Just set up your list of people you might call on a regular basis, and theyll appear by name in your onscreen Skype box. When you want to call, you just highlight the name, hit the green button, and the number is speed-dialed.

Of course, you can also dial any number, domestic or overseas. Skype can be set up on multiple computerssay, at work, at home, and on a separate laptopand your roster of contacts will pop up on all of them.

Skype offers free conference calling, and it supports web cams. Now, you can do show and tell while you talk.

Speaking of accessories: If a headset strikes you as unfashionable or restricting, heres more good news. There are numerous VOIP phones you can hook up to your computer. Spark gave me a small pile to try out, and theyre all winners. Theres the stylish, compact Ipevo free.1 Skype USB phone. That frees you not only from the headset, but also from having to deal with plugging its audio jacks into your computer. (This is especially handy if your PC jacks are already occupied by desktop speakers.) The phone is only $34.95. Now, if youd like to be free of cords, youll want to check out the U.S. Robotics USB speaker phone, a bargain at $40. Its the size of a small doughnut, and the sound quality is excellent as it sits on your desk, a foot or two away from you.

(Speaking of sound quality: VOIP works by way of a network of computer servers, and transmission quality can be affected by the number of users online at any given time. Most of my calls have been flawless. However, calls to and from my friend, Tom Gericke , in Sydney, Australia, have given us pause. That is, sometimes, Toms voice will be electronically slowed down to a crawl, as if hes a vinyl recording of Truman Capote thats been shut down, and is slowing to a stop. Aside from those rather surrealistic moments, weve had a blast Skyping each other, as much as a 16-hour difference will permit. Audio dropout may also occur in calls within the U.S., but, since all calls are free, its easy enough to hang up and try again.)

Dianne , my wife, joined in on a speakerphone chat with Tom, and declared herself happy with the sound. But that phone is also connected to the computer. If youd like to be able to talk, say, a room away from your computer, then you want something like Philips VOIP321, a handsome little phone you can wander off with. You can also access your contacts onscreen and make calls without going back to your computer. And, if you connect your home or office phone line with the unit, you can use the phone for both VOIP and old fashioned land calls (at the old fashioned rates). This item retails for about $100.

Spark also furnished me with a Bluetooth wireless Internet calling kit (also about $100) that promises calls from as far away as 30 feet from your computer. I havent tried that one yet. Im sure its a killernow, were talking not only cordless, but phoneless! Its just that little wedge over your ear.

So far, each accessory has been better than the one before. The Ipevo corded phone and the U.S.Robotics speakerphone are both real bargains that liberate you from the headset/microphone (which itself is perfectly suitable for phone conversations). But if I had to choose, say, twoone for an office PC and one for a laptopId have to spring for the Philips cordless for the office machine and the speakerphone for the laptop.

However, once I try the Bluetooth, there could be another switch.

There are many other accessories, including the VoSky Call Center ($60), which allows you to Skype from your home or cell phone. Skype and its brethren are the phone version of the iPod; as people learn about it and flock to it, therell be plentiful products to further ease and enhance the experience. In fact, in case youre wondering how Skype is making money (at least enough to attract eBay, which bought it recently for $1.3 billion plus stocks in eBay), its through partnerships with manufacturers of equipment and accessories. Also, Skype Out and another service, Skype In, which allows land phone users to reach your Skype phone, carry costs.

So, what is there that this service doesnt allow? Not much. Ive only heard that you cant make 911 calls through Skype. But no one is suggesting replacing regular or cell phones with VOIP; its simply an addition to your family of phones. One that happens to be miraculously low in cost. Except for the time you spend on the phone, and the time you spend in advance, getting yourself ready for that Web cam.

FUN AND GAYS: On occasion, I like to throw on my judicial robes, just for something completely differenti.e., officiating a wedding or, just the other weekend, judging the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA)s annual Mr. and Miss GAPA pageant, called Runway.

And there actually is a runway built out from the stage at the Herbst Theater, in the Veterans Opera House here in San Francisco, home of lecture series and, just a week before Runway , Nancy Kwan and James Shigetas performance of the play, Love Letters . I MCd the post-show VIP reception and auction, which benefited the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. It was great to have a chance to meet the co-stars of the breakthrough film, Flower Drum Song.

And it was a little odd returning a week later, to watch 13 young men, six of them vying for the Miss GAPA tiara. My fellow judges included actress Tamlyn Tomita , reporter Vanessa Hua , comic Tina Kim , and Rene Astudillo , exec director of the Asian American Journalists Association.

You would think that journalists would shy away from such a camp event, but what can I say? It was fun; almost non-stop laughter, between the contestants and the MC, Tita Aida , who, after a costume change, stepped out daintily and refused to turn around, saying: The back of the dress isnt finished yet. One Miss GAPA contender, C. Rene , was asked what the C stood for. Nothing, she/he replied. We judges also posed questions. Kim asked Astro Stud , if he were a wood, what kind would he be? Hardwood, he responded. Mr. Stud went on to take the Mr. GAPA crown, while Miss went to the stunning Cinderella, who, asked to share a secret, claimed not to have had surgeryyet. Take a look at my snapshot of her, and you be the judge.

Ben's latest book is "Becoming Almost Famous," his second collection of stuff from Rolling Stone and other publications. In October, his next book, "The Doors by the Doors," will be published by Hyperion. Visit his home page at www.benfongtorres.com.