geek news: Computers make it difficult to just get away

I’m writing this at 30,000 feet. I’m on my way to Europe – a vacation, in theory, though it looks like I’ll be working some of the time.As a wise man said recently, all this fancy new technology we have available allows us to work anyplace, anytime … but it means we end up working every place and all the time.
Well, I’m going to try to avoid too much work, but it’s difficult for a freelance writer to get away from it all. There’s this column, for a start, and any day now I’ll be seeing an edited manuscript come back from a publisher (writers still use that quaint old word, “manuscript,” though it generally means word-processing files these days).
I’ll have to read through all the edits, make changes, and send them back. I’ve also got some book proposals in the works; I have to finish them and get them back. All in all, it looks like I’ve got quite a bit to do, though I haven’t told my wife yet. She won’t be pleased.
I don’t travel very often, though, so each time I go on a long trip, I have to figure out how I’m going to handle everything. The big issue is being able to communicate with everyone while I’m away, though of course that’s getting easier every day.
I’ll be using CompuServe, mainly because it doesn’t matter where I’ll be; there’ll be a CompuServe number somewhere close. (I’ll be in various places in England and Austria, but I could be in any of scores of other countries and still be able to connect.)
That’s an advantage CompuServe has over the small Internet service providers, and even over a number of the big online services. The Microsoft Network has pretty good international access, too – in fact I’ve got an MSN account as a backup – and America Online is improving.
My mail system is on a Web-hosting company’s server, so it really doesn’t matter how I access the Internet. I can use CompuServe or MSN to connect to the Internet, then click on a button in my mail program, and it’ll grab my mail from the Web-hosting company account; it doesn’t care nor know which service I’m using to connect.
The world really is getting smaller; I’ll be in Europe, but unless I tell my publishers, they’ll have no idea where I am. I could still be at home, for all they know. I’ll still be in contact with friends over the Internet, and I’ll still get those essential e-mails packed with jokes – you know, “What Men Really Mean When They Say…”, airline jokes, and the one about the agnostic dyslexic insomniac (he stayed up all night long wondering if there was a dog).
I did, however, unsubscribe from several mailing lists I’ve been involved with recently. I don’t plan to download 50 unnecessary messages each day. (I only want unnecessary messages on my “real” work days.)
If you’re traveling abroad, you’ll have to consider how to connect your laptop to the power and to the phone system. Most laptops these days accept pretty much any kind of power you plug into them, but you still need the right type of plug. I found a set of adapter plugs at Wal-Mart for $15. In fact, the set included a voltage converter; although I don’t need it for the laptop; my wife needs it for her curling iron.
These adapters allow you to plug a U.S. two-pin plug into a socket just about anywhere in the world.
Then there’s the phone system. Although modems will work with pretty much any country’s phone system, you still have to plug the wire from your modem into the phone system somehow, and most of the world uses different types of plugs.
I have a little adapter – for which I grossly overpaid a few years ago – that allows me to plug a U.S. phone into a British phone socket. (I later found it in a British phone store at about a fifth of the price I paid.)
It’s just occurred to me that I’ve no idea how I’m going to connect to the Austrian phone system; I’ll have to look into that when I get there. You can find sets of these adapters in the back of computer magazines and in in-flight magazines, too.
In fact, I just saw one, Port Inc., (800) 995-4679, which sells a kit that allows you to connect your modem to any phone system anywhere in the world. The problem is that most people need just one of these adapters, and in the right place it’ll cost $4 or $5, but you may end up spending $50 to $100 on a kit.
Another problem is the length of time you can run your laptop. After a couple of hours a laptop turns into an expensive paperweight, a real nuisance on an eight-hour flight.
Still, if you’re determined to work every possible moment, you can buy additional batteries. A cheaper alternative is to buy an external battery pack that provides a laptop with seven hours of power. I’ve seen these for $150, advertised in the back of computer and in-flight magazines.
A final issue was getting all the programs and data files from my desktop machine onto the laptop. I used the cheapest, though not the easiest, method: Direct Cable Connection. This is a little utility built into Windows 95. It allows you to connect the two computers using a cable between the parallel ports (the printer ports).
An Explorer window opens on the computer to which you’re transferring the data, showing you the files and folders on the machine from which you’re grabbing them. If you’re lucky, Direct Cable Connection is a breeze to set up and use (of course, we’re talking computers here, so you may not be lucky – I wasn’t last time I installed it.)
Its main problem, though, is that it simply copies files. Unlike the sophisticated file-transfer utilities, such as LapLink, it can’t check to see if files need copying or not. For instance, if you copied files for an earlier trip out of town, you may need to copy only a few modified files. A good program will transfer just the files that need transferring, and nothing more, saving a lot of time.
A few years ago, all this would have been impossible. I couldn’t have taken all this work with me on vacation. But it’s a double-edged sword, a ball and chain masquerading as a convenience. Next time I go on vacation, I’m leaving the laptop at home. Well, maybe not next time, but sometime, sometime soon. Really.Peter Kent is the author of The Official Netscape JavaScript 1.2 Book (Ventana). He can be reached at