Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Shooting and Editing Home Video

© 2012, Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I bought my first video camera in January 1988. It used full-size analog VHS videotapes, was quite large, and used a large and heavy battery, which required an even larger and heavier charger. Over the next 15½ years, I shot 76 hours of home movies. In September 2003, I bought my second video camera, which was digital (but not HD). It records to 1-hour tape. In the 8 years since, I have recorded about 65 hours of home movies, which I have edited down to 61 1-hour DVDs.

In December 2011 and January 2012, I converted my 38 2-hour analog tapes to digital, and edited them down to 35 1-hour DVDs. [It took me quite a few tries to do this over a multi-year period before I found an approach that ended up with video that was at least as good a quality as the original analog tape.]

In this essay, I'll share with you some of the things I've learned along the way to creating 100 hours of edited video.

Being Realistic

A big promise of shooting one's own video is the ability to edit out the silly or boring bits as well as those minutes of film of the ground as you walk along thinking you had switched off the camera, but hadn't. Plus, you can add from those thousands of transitions and special effects that came with the editing software. [For example, mine allows me to transition from one scene to the next by folding the final image into a paper airplane and then having it fly off into the next scene!] However, editing video requires some idea of how to make a movie, and no training comes with the camera. Be prepared to spend time figuring out what you'll need to do to be successful.

If you thought you could get by with only a few blank video tapes/discs because you can reuse them, you'd better be ready to edit your video and burn it to DVD within 30 days of returning from your trip. In any event, you can't reuse your media until you've at least copied its contents off to some other place, even if you don't do any editing. (See later below.)

Some terminology

First, let's define some terms:

frame — Each separate image recorded. Most frames are the video content contained within scenes. A few are titles that introduce each chapter, and one set on each disc will be the menu for the set of chapters on that disc.

scene — That continuous piece of footage taken from the time you press Record until you press Stop Record. For example, you shoot a 30-second scene of little Mary showing you her new bicycle. Then you shoot several 60-second scenes of her riding it around in front of the house. Later, you shoot a 90-second scene of her riding it up a ramp and through a flaming hoop, blindfolded, while steering with her knees. [With an analog recording, nothing special is recorded with each frame. However, with a digital recording, a time stamp is written for each single video frame of the scene. And if the time between two consecutive frames differs by an amount greater than the length of time it takes for one frame to record or play, any device reading that video can tell that there must have been a scene break between those two frames. That is, with digital video, a reading device can detect the start and end of each scene automatically, which is useful when it comes to dealing with transitions.]

chapter — All of the scenes that together make up a single event. For example, all the scenes of Mary riding her new bike make up one chapter, possibly titled, "Mary Knievel Gets a New Bike". When we say, "I made a home movie", we're talking about a single chapter.

transition — The space between the end of one scene and the next within a chapter; the space between the end of a chapter and the next chapter's title frame or between a chapter's title frame and the first scene. Either way, if you do nothing, one scene simply gives way abruptly to the next without any smooth transition, such as fading out and fading back. To understand transitions, watch any movie or TV show and see how they handle the changeover from one scene to the next. If done well, the casual observer won't notice the change.

title — A special frame that introduces a chapter. It is often a digital photo representative of that chapter or a frame extracted from that chapter. [In the case of my analog conversions, I had almost no digital or digitized photos of the entire video subject, so I adopted one of my editing software's title templates, and used that for all titles.]

menu — The top-level title of a disc that shows you all the chapters available on that disc, with the chapter list possibly spread over a number of frames. [The way I've designed them, my menu frames hold six chapters each. Each menu frame then has arrows allowing me to move to the next/previous menu frame.]

It is important to note that except for content frames, none of these things exists until you edit your video. What comes directly out of your video camera has no scenes, chapters, transitions, titles, or menus, only a set of content frames (each possibly with a time stamp).

What's in My Camera Bag?

I have two golden rules regarding what to put in my camera bag besides, of course, the camera:

  • Always carry a spare, fully charged battery apart from the one in the camera. The one time you forget to do that will be the one time your primary battery runs down 10 minutes into your 2-hour round-the-island boat tour. (Ordinarily, I do not recharge a battery until it's completely discharged.)
  • Always carry at least one spare blank tape/disc/memory card (I usually carry at least two). That way, you'll have plenty of recording time regardless of what's left on the tape/disc/memory card currently in the camera.

Occasionally, you can get caught in the rain, so it's worth putting a strong zippered plastic bag in your camera bag in which you can seal your camera. It can also be used in places with high humidity.

Despite being in the high-tech business, I also carry a pencil and some paper to make the occasional note about certain scenes to be read during editing. I also pack some business cards. And I almost always have a few emergency rations (like a chocolate bar).

Once you have filled a disc/tape/memory card and you get back to your hotel, take that media out of your camera bag, and leave it in the hotel (maybe even locked in your room safe). Leaving it in your camera bag increases the risk that you might lose it or have it stolen when you take your bag outside again.

Although I pack my battery charger in my camera bag when I'm traveling, I never take it with me when I'm out shooting locally.

The other essential thing I carry is a basic digital still camera. For the most part, I use that to take pictures from which I chose the title of each chapter. Occasionally, I have a bunch more nice shots and if there is space at the end of a DVD, I add a chapter made up entirely of still photos, each separated with a 4-second transition, making a nice slide show.

One habit I follow religiously is to close the catch on my bag each time I take the camera out or put it back in. The reason for this is that if you lose your balance (on a slippery hiking path or on the deck of a boat, for example), the stuff in your bag won't all fall out and down a steep ravine or overboard.

Shooting Video

Know your equipment. If you plan to go out and buy a video camera to use on some big trip, take the time to learn how to use it properly. Shoot some video with a variety of settings and in different lightings. And if you can watch it on your home TV too, that will help you learn what to do, and, just as importantly, what not to do.

Each time before you record, clean the camera lens with a soft cloth. It's too late when you are editing that scene once you are back home to find distracting dirt, dust, water droplets, or some such impurity right there in the middle of the action. [Regarding cleaning the lens, my good friend John recommends a hand air blower, which is a rubber bulb that when squeezed directs a jet of air at the lens. This is especially good for removing particles too small for the naked eye. Besides, even a soft cloth risks scratching the lens if there are tiny pieces of grit or sand there.]

Don't forget that cameras record sound too! This might be obvious, but watch most people shooting video and you'll see that they say little if anything. However, don't say the obvious: "Now I'm zooming in on Johnny"; "As you can see, the train has stopped"; "Now we're lighting the birthday candles". Also, as you stretch that extra distance to take a better shot, and you bump your head hard on some object, that Mother-of-all-swear-words you say will also get recorded right there along with darling Johnny's school play.

Think about what you are going to say before you start filming. (After all, you are playing movie director; seriously.) Provide information that will augment what the viewer will see.

Don't pan (that is, move the camera sideways or up/down) too fast. This is definitely one thing to practice at home. Watching some people's video is like riding a rollercoaster; everything just flashes by. If you think that you are going slow, you'll likely find that you are still going at least twice as fast as you should. S-l-o-w i-t w-a-y d-o-w-n!

Don't zoom too quickly or too much. The zoom control on my first camera required a heavy touch while that on my second didn't, so it took some practice to zoom slowly. Two much zooming will make viewers lose interest. And when you are at maximum zoom, the slightest movement of the camera is greatly magnified, so if you can't hold it really still, use a stand or lean it against something.

Don't shoot too much of the same subject; it gets boring. And shooting too little means that the scene is almost over before it starts.

Don't shoot into the sun, a bright light, or a fire, or with a bright background behind someone (such as someone sitting at a window).

If you have an on-screen date/time marker, remember to put it on at the start of the first scene of each chapter, but don't leave it on for more than 10 seconds.

All of the digital cameras I've seen allow you to view through an eyepiece or on a small screen. I usually use the eyepiece, as that significantly reduces the battery use. And while you can only see a small window via the eyepiece, with a bit of practice, you can open your other eye, so you can see the window from the eyepiece superimposed on the actual view allowing you to move the camera smoothly to action happening outside that window.

Make sure you have a strong safety strap on the camera and always put your shooting hand through it, so the camera can't fall far if you drop it.

When shooting each scene, start the camera a few seconds before the event you are filming and/or before you start talking, and let it run late. You can always delete any extra time during editing, but you can't add missing audio or video.

The more experience you get from editing, the better will be your future filming, hopefully, to the point that your chapters need little or no editing.

Uploading Video to a Computer

A digital camera should come with a cable that connects it directly to a computer via a USB or a FireWire port. If a CD-ROM also came with the camera, install the software it contains. What you eventually want is for the video on the camera's media to be uploaded/acquired/copied to the hard drive as either an MPEG or a DV file. (The former is much smaller than the latter, but doesn't have the latter's high quality.) In the case of my old analog camera, I connected that to an adaptor that converted from analog to digital and then sent that to the computer via a USB or a FireWire port. As my analog film sound was in mono, I used a splitter cable to record the same sound on both the left and right channels.

As I mentioned earlier, the timestamps on digital media allow scene starts and ends to be detected automatically, which is a great help when it comes to editing. That way, it's easy to find the place to insert a transition. With analog video, my software (Pinnacle) allows me to define artificially a scene as a given number of seconds. Whatever duration you chose, it will almost always be wrong, but that's not the point. The longer the scene the harder it is to edit it. After some trial and error, I settled on 20 seconds, so when digitized, each of my 2-hour VHS tapes became 360 20-second artificial scenes, and that proved to be a good choice. Of course, most actual scenes ran much longer than 20 seconds, in which case, I did not put any transition (that is, delay) between artificial scenes that really went together to make up a real scene. I did not combine artificial scenes into real scenes, although I could have done so. There was no advantage to doing so.

My software allows me to trim the start and/or end from a scene, and to split any scene into two at the point I specify. And the two parts of a split scene can themselves be split again.

With a digital camera, the acquisition software uploading the video controls the camera through a serious of mouse clicks. In the case of an analog camera, you have to use one hand to operate the camera controls while the other is clicking the mouse on the software. As such, you can "lose" a second or two of video when your software doesn't start recording until after a few frames of video have played. Given the time stamp on digital recordings, the software knows then the video ends; however, for analog input, you need to tell the software to stop acquiring. The speed of the acquisition is the normal playing speed of the camera, so it takes an hour to upload an hour of video.

One of the problems I had initially when acquiring analog video was that the result was of lower quality than the physical tape from which it was taken, and that didn't seem right. What I was doing was playing the tapes on my old analog camera, which appeared to be working just fine. However, I had a new VHS/DVD deck and I tested that against the old camera. And the result was just as good as the original tape. Apparently, the read heads on my old camera were dirty making the video acquired via it of lesser quality. So, clean your player headers thoroughly before acquiring video especially from old VHS tapes.

[When I first started uploading digital video more than 8 years ago, I made sure I had plenty of disc space available. However, when I first tried an upload, the software tested the speed of my disc and told me it was too slow, and wouldn't be able to keep up with the camera. I was using a high-speed FireWire connection, which was quite a bit faster than the then-current USB 1.1. With today's faster connections and cheap/fast discs, that probably won't be a problem unless you are using some old equipment.]

Editing Video

With my software, it's quite easy. In one window you select the digitized input file, which is opened to reveal all the scenes as pages of thumbnails (using the first frame from each scene), presented in chronological order. In a second window, there is a blank storyboard to which you drag scenes from the input window. You can't edit a scene until it's been dragged to the storyboard. Scenes can be trimmed, split, removed, or rearranged, as you like. I never mess with the audio, as it is fine the way it comes, but your software probably will let you dub over video.

In my case, I record to 1-hour DVDs. So, I drag all the scenes from the input window and make a pass over them, getting rid of "obvious" stuff I don't want, identifying chapters, and inserting chapter titles. There are two main scenarios for recording video. In the first, you shoot a few minutes now and then on different and probably unrelated subjects. As a result, you might produce a disc of "miscellaneous" stuff. In the second case, you cruised the Caribbean and shot 100 minutes of video. In this case, you might try and condense that down to one disc, so that is the only thing on the disc. That makes it much easier to make copies of the whole disc to give to the friends who accompanied you on the trip.

Over a 25-year period, a number of close friends and relatives have featured prominently in my videos, so I plan to put together one or more composite discs containing all the chapters pertaining to them. This is straightforward. I create a new, empty storyboard, and cut and paste whole, already edited chapters from other storyboards I edited earlier.

Once I figured out the editing process and I started shooting video with editing in mind, I found that my video needed less and less editing to the point where I could edit and produce a 1-hour DVD in about an hour once it had been uploaded.

Video Disc and Content Indexes

Once you have created final, edited discs, how do you track what is on them such that you can find the disc(s) and chapter(s) of interest later on? There is a limit to how much you can write on a label or on the disc itself, and that limit is small. At best, you can write a disc ID/number, an overall title, and the dates spanned by the disc's contents.

In my case, I have two sets of DVD's: those produced from digital video have IDs of the form DVD-nnn, where nnn is a 3-digit number 001, 002, 003, and so on; those produced from analog video have IDs of the form AVD-nnn. This allows for 999 discs in each series, which I fully expect will be sufficient for my lifetime.

I maintain two separate index documents:

  • A formatted text document that for each disc, contains the disc ID, an overall title, date span information, and a list of the chapters on that disc with chapter numbers and titles. This is printed and a hard copy is stored with the discs, which are themselves stored in a zippered DVD binder.
  • A spreadsheet that contains one row per chapter. That row contains the following columns: the raw source filename, date taken, the DVD ID, chapter number on the disc, the chapter name/title, and keywords I wish to associate with the chapter (primarily the names of all the main people, events, and places depicted in the chapter). I search this in electronic form to find any or all chapters involving a particular person, place, or event.

Preserving Without Editing

Consider the case in which you have a bunch of old analog tapes whose contents you'd like to preserve before the tapes deteriorate. Even if you don't have the time or skills to edit them now, at least consider uploading them to a hard disc. [Truly big discs—as much as 3TB—are quite cheap and compact these days.] The same is true for digital recording media. If you want to reuse it (and why not?), you'll have to upload the contents first. Of course, once you record back over the media you can never go back to the original. That is, the copy you have on the hard disc is your only copy, so you should consider having a backup as well. [I have 3 2TB discs, each containing the same contents, but which are stored in different locations.] Oh, and by the way, if you think that would cost too much to have spare, big discs "lying around", ask yourself what you'd be willing to pay to get back your video if you lost the only copy. (See the subject of backup in my essay, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 2", from December 2010.)

Some VHS/DVD decks have the ability to digitize an input tape onto a DVD, allowing some minimal editing and addition of titles such that the resulting DVD can be playable directly. I didn't play much with that option, as I knew I wanted to do some serious editing along the way. [In fact, more than 50% of my original analog video fell on the cutting floor during editing.] That said this option might be attractive as the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to go initially. And, later on, you should be able to upload the resulting DVDs to your computer for editing.

Which DVD Format Should I Use?

Computer-friendly DVDs comes in various flavors: +R, +RW, -R, -RW, and -RAM, among others. A format ending in R is read-only, so you can only write to it once. A format ending in RW is rewritable, typically up to 1,000 times. [There are also Dual-Layer discs, whose designations end in DL; however, despite their increased capacity, not all of my DVD players can handle them, so I don't use them.] Ideally, I wanted to record my videos on the same kind of media on which store-bought/rental videos are recorded; however, I've never been able to find out what that format is. In the meantime, DVD+R and DVD+RW work fine for me, as discs of this kind play in every video and computer-based DVD player I've ever tested them in.

When I have completed a 1-hour storyboard and have proofed it as much as possible using the editing software, I burn a copy to a DVD+RW disc. I then play that disc on several DVD video players connected to TVs as well as one on a computer to make sure it works okay. Assuming it does, I then fire up my DVD-copying software and make a copy, writing to a DVD+R disc, which becomes my master copy. [I actually have two DVD burners on my network, so copying from one to the other is easy. If you have only one, copying will be done via a temporary disc file. When copying a disc, always be sure to choose the copy-with-verify option, if that is available.] I then erase the DVD+RW disc ready for the next editing session. I never write my proofing copy directly to a DVD+R disc. If I did and there were problems in the chapters/titles, which I wanted to correct, I'd have to throw away the disc instead of reusing it. So while you'll need a supply of write-once discs on which to make your permanent recordings, also keep a handful of rewritable ones for temporary use.

Even though DVD formats are universal, that does not mean that everyone can read/play everyone else's DVDs. For example, the world is broken into a number of regions each having a different region code. And DVDs recorded for one region can only be played on machines for that region. [If you put a "foreign" DVD into a Windows-based player, it will allow you to play it several times after which time Windows will switch permanently to that region code only!] The good news is that there is a truly international region code, and my editing software uses that (as do all editing products, I suspect). Such discs can be read on any player worldwide.


There are always newer, bigger, and better options available for shooting and editing video, so if you use that as an excuse to wait "until the sales next Christmas", my guess is that you really aren't serious about making videos. In my case, although cameras with mini-discs instead of tape were just becoming available, they were more expensive and were not as proven as the old tape technology, so I went with tape. Since then, personal HD cameras have become available. C'est la vie!

Until about 15 months ago, my TVs were all analog, each having the classic US 4:3 aspect ratio, so my videos looked okay, as that matched my video cameras. However, once I went to a wide-screen set, I found it better to set it to the "narrow screen" mode, so people and pictures didn't get stretched out of proportion.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Don't underestimate the discipline and effort needed to be successful. And like most things in life, the more you do, the better you get, so the sooner you get started editing, the better will be your shooting, and vice versa. Best wishes on that "short feature" Oscar Nomination!

Just Me and MiniMe: Traveling with Technology

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Back in the good old days, business people used to travel with a briefcase, which contained some stationary, their business papers, and some sort of paper-based calendar and contact list. [In my case, when teaching seminars, I also hauled along several heavy boxes of overhead transparencies.]

When records were kept manually, one had all one's eggs in the same basket; there simply was no concept of having a backup copy. One day, I was riding a car-rental bus to a west-coast US airport terminal and my briefcase—complete with paper-based calendar and contact list—was standing up front with all the other passengers' hand luggage. At the stop prior to mine, a passenger got off and pulled his bag out of the pile causing mine to tip out the bus into the gutter. Either no one up front noticed or bothered; in any event, the bus drove off. Of course, when it came to my stop, my bag was nowhere to be found. I thought for sure that my all-important diary and contact list were lost forever. However, that same evening soon after I got home on the east coast, I got a phone call from an airline ticket agent. When getting off her employee bus that morning, she'd found my bag, thought that it looked lost, and phoned me using the number on the business card luggage label. She then arranged to put it in cargo on the next available flight at no charge, and her airline wasn't even the one I'd used. I thanked her profusely and once the bag arrived, I mailed her a substantial reward. [Had this happened after 9/11, I expect the bag would have been destroyed!]

In this essay, I'll look at how business (and personal) travel has evolved since then, at least for me. I should mention that I always travel dressed way down in loose hiking clothes and walking shoes, and I wear a large fanny pack (which, because of the offensive connotations that name has in certain cultures, is called a bum bag) tied around my waist.

The Debut of Portable Computers

I say portable because I'm referring to the time before laptops. So what does portable mean? After all, given sufficient manpower, I guess that my full-size refrigerator is portable!

In my case, it was the first commercially successful portable IBM PC-compatible computer, from Compaq. In truth, it was about the size and weight of a portable sewing machine. It had two small-capacity floppy-disk drives (one of which I replaced later with a 20MB hard drive). For several years, I hauled it on flights up and down the east coast on a regular basis. On larger planes, it just fit into the overhead compartment. On the smaller "puddle jumpers" I got to carry it out to the plane where it was checked, and from where I retrieved it on landing. And not only did I carry that, I still had to carry my oversize briefcase.

Laptop Computers

As with most new technologies, I was a late buyer of a laptop, waiting until the initial bugs had been ironed out, and the prices reduced before making the plunge.

Once I found a good program to manage my calendar and contacts list, I stopped using a paper version, which freed up a lot of space in my briefcase. Eventually, I was able to stop taking my briefcase altogether as I had on my laptop electronic versions of most things and could put papers and stationary in the laptop bag.

I am on my third laptop, all from Dell. The first was small and could actually fit on my lap. The second was big and clunky, and, technically, was called a portable desktop. The heat it generated actually came through most tabletops on which I placed it! My current one truly is large and heavy. No matter how many times I upgrade my eyeglass prescription I still don't seem to be able to read screens all that well, so I prefer them to be as large as possible. (My desktop screen is 27".) And with a 17" screen, my current laptop is heavy. In fact, the power adaptor alone weighs more than some really light machines! Often, progress simply is change!

The great news is that laptops are no longer significantly slower than are their desktop counterparts, nor do they have less storage. In fact, when I travel, I take a complete copy of all the data files from my desktop system with me, and can run my business very effectively while on the road.

Netbook Computers

For years, the emphasis was on making portable computers more and more powerful. And then a few companies decided to go in the opposite direction, towards a smaller, slower, and cheaper machine, now known as a netbook computer. In my case, it was from Asus and had a 10" screen, a 75%-of-full-size keyboard, plenty of memory and disk, and a built-in web camera and stereo microphone, all for under US$400. (Prices for capable netbooks start at $200.) I called it MiniMe, named for Austin Powers' miniature clone in his second and third movies.

I love my netbook; I can run my whole business on it (albeit more slowly than on my other computers), I can use it to play music, watch movies, and to phone via the internet. And it weighs next to nothing and fits into a very small carry bag. In fact, it's so small, that whenever I carry it during travel I fear I'm going to accidentally put it down and leave it behind.

As MiniMe's carry bag is just a bit bigger than MiniMe, there is little room for anything else; however, I manage to squeeze in the power adaptor, some cables, and a mouse (as I don't care for touch pads).

I pretty much restrict my use of MiniMe to vacation trips where I can use it for email, phone calls, and light editing. For my big fingers and poor typing skills, the keyboard is too small for lengthy editing tasks. And the screen is small.

Pocket Computers

As I wrote in, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 2", in December 2010, I take my Compaq Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) with me at all times.

While my PDA fits easily into my fanny pack, it does require a charger/cable, and if I want to synchronize it with my laptop or netbook, I need to take a data cable as well.

So, What's in my Laptop Bag?

When my laptop bag is fully loaded, it weighs a lot! Apart from my large laptop, here's what it contains:

  • Power convertor brick and cable
  • At least one international power adaptor plug set that handles sockets in the US, UK, Europe, and Australasia
  • A 3-way US power plug, so I can charge multiple devices at the same time
  • Smaller-than-full-size wireless mouse (being wireless, I can't use it in-flight, however)
  • Mouse pad (light-based mice don't work at all well on glass conference tables)
  • Several Ethernet and USB cables
  • An RJ11 phone cable (a hold-over from the old days; now that broad-band internet access is available pretty much everywhere I go, I no longer need to take international phone adaptors)
  • Spare batteries for the mouse and laser pointer
  • At least three memory sticks of varying capacities
  • A very strong security cable with which to lock the computer to a desk or some other fixture (like many meeting/conference attendees, very often, I leave my laptop unattended in a semi-public place during lunch breaks)
  • A folding headset for internet-based phone use (I had an expensive Bluetooth earpiece, but that died, so I'm back to cheap headsets)
  • Basic office supplies: business cards, ruler, business stationary, pads of paper, pens, pencil, pencil sharpener, laser pointer, US postage stamps
  • Earplugs (for those nights in hotels with noisy/inconsiderate neighbors)
  • Paper maps of the US and the world
  • Some headache tablets
  • Some emergency rations
  • US$20-worth of bills in each of four or five foreign currencies
  • A printed copy of my flight itinerary, hotel, and car rental details, and some reading material (all in an easily accessible side pocket)

Camera Gear

There is no room in my laptop or netbook bags for any camera gear. Occasionally, I travel with a small still digital camera, and that goes in my fanny pack. If I take my digital video camera, I also take my still camera, and they have their own small shoulder bag, which can also accommodate a paperback novel and some emergency rations, some business cards, and pencil and paper.


For the occasional musical interlude, I have ripped a number of favorite CDs to disk on my laptop and netbook. [Recently, I won an iPod shuffle music player; however, I have yet to configure it.]


I use Skype with Skype-Out via an internet connection. If I owned a mobile phone, it would need its own charger and data cable to sync with the laptop or netbook, but hopefully, it would replace my PDA.


In the early days of my teaching seminars and lugging my old Compaq around, I also hauled a projection system. Now that had to be checked in my luggage, packed properly so none of the glass parts would break. These days, all my clients have standard projection systems in their conference and training rooms.

As you might expect from my "lost briefcase" story earlier on, now that all my records are electronic, I am very conscientious about backup. As I've often said, "If it's worth doing, it's worth preserving!" So, apart from a copy of new/changed files on my laptop or netbook's hard disk, I put copies on at least two USB memory sticks and another stick that goes in my PDA and/or digital still camera. One backup stick goes in my fanny pack, and another goes in my checked luggage. Call it a case of "suspenders and belt", but it works for me.

On a few occasions, I've traveled without a computer or camera bag, and boy does it feel strange. I keep getting the horrible feeling that I've left something behind. However, it does make security checking much easier.

If the next time you go through an airport, you see a very tall guy with one arm longer than the other, it may well be me. Say G'day!

Technology, Unplugged – Part 2

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 1, we looked at the telephone, television, the internet, and recorded music. In this Part, we'll cover automobiles, still and video cameras, the written word, a digital data preservation strategy, and my right-hand gadget.

My Mid-Life Crisis

When more than a few men reach middle age, they splash out by buying a bright red sports car, some other expensive toy, or by finding a "hot babe" many years their junior. In my case, it was a 3-year-old 2-door subcompact Toyota Echo automobile with manual transmission, for which I paid $7,000. Not sexy, you say. Ok, you got me there. My car doesn't even warrant a name. It's a liability not an asset, and when I've driven it into the ground, I'll donate it to charity and buy another used one.

I work from home much of the time, and my clients are out in the internet-o-sphere, so I don't need a car for work. When I do travel for work or play, it's a short taxi ride to the airport and a plane from there on. I rarely rent cars these days; I stay close to my destination workplace or I use public transportation. I probably drive fewer than 1,000 miles in my own car each year. And as I have no garage, my car spends most of its life submitting to the elements. [My previous car, which was the only new car I've ever owned, lasted 16 years. And if it had have been stored in a garage it would have still appeared quite new. But bits kept on breaking mainly due to the extremes in temperature and humidity. It simply wore out from non-use!]

I love maps, of all kinds. I know which way is north and that the sun rises in the east [I just like learned that from Wikipedia. Who knew?], and before I get on the freeway in familiar or unfamiliar territory I make a point of knowing where I'm going, so I can pay attention to driving safely. [Now there's a novel idea.] So I don't need no stinking GPS, thank you very much! "Oh, I see you've missed the turn; bother! Let me compute an alternative route."

A year ago, I rented a car in Lexington, Kentucky, although the location is unimportant. On arrival at the airport, the car rental company upgraded me to some fancy model "at no extra charge", don't you know. One night I was driving back to my hotel and I reached up to try and find the rearview mirror control that would reduce the glare of lights from behind. My fingers found a button and I pressed it. The next thing I knew was that the sound of a phone dialing was coming from the audio speakers. My car was "phoning home"! After several rings, a woman came on the line and asked, "What is your emergency please?" Apparently, there was a microphone hidden somewhere in the vehicle—Was there a video camera as well? Was I on some reality TV show?—and I responded that my "emergency" consisted of my not being able to find the mirror dimmer switch and that I was sorry for having troubled her. For the rest of the trip I kept my hands to myself lest there be other devices nearby plotting against me.

So, how do I plan a trip if I don't use GPS? Well, I pull out one of my paper-thingy-type maps, which I get free through my membership in the American Automobile Association (AAA) or I go to Mapquest on the internet and I print the relevant pages. That said, I must say that in some sort of consolidation of its map printing system AAA has combined maps and made them way too big. If you've ever tried to open and close a road map having a scale that approaches 1:1, while sitting in your car you'll understand.

For years, I have marveled at the TripTick service AAA offers its member. You tell them the starting and ending point of your trip, and they print off a whole series of maplets and bind them together. They indicate the locations of gas stations and possible accommodations, when to pass gas, stop for a potty break, and when to breathe in and out. Now I know there are people who are directionally challenged, but coddling them won't improve their skills. How hard can it be to read a road atlas? [But of course, I'm forgetting that the heart of my country's economy is selling people things they don't need or can't afford.] I guess the main problem I see with such a detailed plan is that it hand feeds the motorist keeping them to the freeways when real life might be on the local roads nearby. Remember, it's the journey, not the destination.

A Picture is Worth a 1,000 Words

Although I've owned several still cameras over the years, I am definitely not "into photography". For sure, digital cameras make it cheap and easy with no film wasted on bad shots. It's a great application of technology. However, I find that still cameras—even cheap ones—have way too many controls and soft options. If my video camera can take near-perfect video in all sorts of conditions without my intervention then why can't my still camera do likewise?

I bought my first video camera 23 years ago, and in the 16 years that followed, I shot 80-odd hours of video, which is all recorded on high-quality VHS tape. [I've made more than few attempts to convert them to DVD using several approaches, but have always ended up with a result that has lower quality that the 20-year-old original tapes!] In 2003, I bought a Sony digital video recorder, and once I got used to not having such a big and heavy thing in my hand, I used it with enthusiasm, to the point at which the result hardly needs editing. In the seven years since, I've shot and edited 60 one-hour DVDs. [Some people will offer to show you photos of their grandchildren. I'll offer to show you my home movies.]

For the most part now, I only use the still camera to take the shots I use to open each chapter when I edit my video.

I've learned some things from my camera use:

  • Always carry a spare battery with you and make sure that it is charged.
  • Always carry a spare memory stick or blank tape/disk.
  • Buy your blank tapes/disks at home where they will be much cheaper than in a gift shop in the middle of your trip.
  • Take enough memory sticks or tapes/disks for your whole trip.
  • Don't be shy about deleting all those truly crappy shots. (You know the ones I mean.)
  • Avoid having to keep those crappy shots "because they are the only ones I have of Fifi before she was squashed by that big nasty 18-wheeler in front of my house", by learning how to use your equipment. I am constantly amazed by the number of people who return from a major trip only to find a lot of crappy photos or to see things go by so fast on their home video because they moved the camera too quickly. Plan for success! If you are going to spend serious money on a trip, why not invest a few hours in mastering your recording equipment before you leave?
  • Having your photos named Sony0001.Jpeg, Sony0002.Jpeg, and so on, isn't useful. If you don't give them sensible names (an art in itself, apparently) within one week of returning from your trip, they will likely never get them. By then, the trip is a fading memory and you are back into your regular life. "I'll get to that later." Yeah, right!
  • A big promise of video is the ability to edit out the silly bits and those minutes of film of the ground as you walk along thinking you had switched off the camera, but hadn't. Plus, you can add from those thousands of transitions and special effects that came with the editing software. [For example, mine allows me to transition from one scene to the next by folding the final image into a paper airplane and then having it fly off into the next scene. Watching movies with such transitions would be like watching TV just for the commercials!] However, editing video requires some idea of how to make a movie, and no training comes with the camera. Be prepared to spend time figuring out what you'll need to do to be successful.
  • If you thought you could get by with only a few blank video tapes/disks because you can reuse them, you'd better be ready to edit your video and burn it to DVD within one week of returning from your trip. (See earlier bullets for details.)
  • Understand that if your VCR flashed the time 12:00 for several years because you never did figure out how to configure it then you are unlikely to assign sensible names to your digital photos, and you are unlikely to ever edit any of your video.

The "Printed" Word

I LOVE books and I LOVE reading, but I'm in no hurry to do it with a digital device. I love the feel and smell of books and I like books of large maps and pictures, and these don't view so well on a small screen, and certainly not on one that is black and white.

As for e-Readers, I can imagine downloading a bunch of e-novels and using the reader at the airport, on a plane, or in a hammock under the palm trees, provided, that is, the contrast was easy on my eyes [I never use a laptop computer outdoors, for that very reason] and the battery life was decent. But then I would only want to rent the e-books, not buy them.

In my 31 years of living in the US, I've never subscribed to a newspaper, although I often get the national daily when I'm on the road, as part of my hotel room rate. Occasionally, I go to a newspaper website, but generally not to read the news, just to do some puzzles and to get sports results.

Let's Backup a Bit

So, now that you have sold your soul to a bunch of silicon chips what insurance do you have that they won't lose all your data or that some malicious worm or virus won't eat your only copy? Sadly, for most people I've encountered the answer is, "None whatsoever". All those photos you took and painstakingly named, gone! All those hours of video you shot and edited, gone! All those songs you bought, gone! All those financial records entered and reconciled, gone! All your email addresses and contact info, gone!

I say, "If it's worth doing, it's worth protecting". If you disagree then you are admitting that you can afford to lose any and all of your electronic files. That is, what you have been buying, collecting, creating, and refining has no real worth, which begs the question, "Why are you even doing it to begin with?"

So what is my backup strategy? Call me anal, but when I am creating or editing files for work or play, about every 30 minutes, I make copies to three different places, and I don't just mean by their original file names. I add a numbered suffix that goes up by 1 each time, so I have a complete audit trail of the file's evolution. (Simply saving a copy every 30 minutes by the same name means you'll only ever have the most recent backup. And no, making a copy of files on the same physical disk as the master set isn't a good backup strategy.) Historically, I stored these copies on floppies and later removable Iomega Zip disks, then disks on other computers on my network. With the advent of cheap and high-capacity memory sticks, I now use those instead. They have no moving parts, they need no external power supply, they are portable, and I can move them easily from one computer to another.

At the end of each month, I perform a backup of all my data. [I do not backup any of my system files, as they can be recreated or reinstalled.] Initially, I stored that on magnetic tape, then CD-ROM and DVD, and now on the mother of all backup devices, a 2 Terabyte disk [that's 2,000 Gigabytes!], which at $175 cost a pittance. In fact, I have three such disks. One sits by my computer for easy access, one sits in my fireproof safe stored in my office, and the third goes in my bank's safe-deposit box. "Overkill", you say? Ok then, if you lost all your electronic files, what would you be willing to pay to get them back?

Oh, by the way, I use MS Windows-based systems, but I never store any of my data on drive C:. Instead, I create a separate drive (usually E), so that on the off chance I need to reformat my system disk (C:) and reinstall the operating system, all my data remains intact. It also makes it trivially easy to backup everything on drive E without having to select some files but not others.

All too often, purchasers of technology don't see—or don't want to see—beyond the initial purchase price. However, as us old timers have learned repeatedly, the real cost of owning a car, for example, is its operation and maintenance. And so it is with digital technology. If you don't invest in a preservation strategy, you run the risk of wasting a lot of your time and money. And don't forget that the cost of technology is more often time rather than money. (Managing backup and editing video are good examples.)

My Right-Hand Gadget

My one constant companion when I leave the house is my Compaq Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), for which I paid much more than my netbook computer! When I'm at my desk, this little pocket computer is linked to my desktop computer so their calendar and contacts databases are synchronized. The PDA has a removable 4MB SD memory card to which I backup all my new and changed work and personal computer files. [See my backup strategy above.] That way, when I leave the house and take the PDA and its memory card I have my electronic work and life with me for use and as an offsite backup. That backup combined with all the historical files stored on the big disk in my bank's safe allows me to "hit the ground running" should my house be destroyed by some natural disaster or be the object of a burglary. And because I have this insurance, I'll probably never need it. But, for sure, if I didn't have it, I'd need it. I know full well that without a safe copy of my electronic records my business would be totally screwed!

Although I can surf the internet and do email from my PDA I choose not to, primarily because of the small screen and keyboard size, and the problem of synchronizing it with my desktop or laptop. And I don't use it to listen to music. I mostly use the calendar and contacts database, I use MS Word to write a variety of documents including all my travel diaries, and I view PDF files containing information useful to my trip, especially maps. I also use it to view photos. Thus far, I have been unable to get Skype working on it satisfactory, but if I do that, it will give me cheap international phone access at any wifi hotspot.


I use technology to help me in my work and play. I don't need everything "on-demand" and I don't want to be inundated with information or advertising. I prefer my social networking to be in person. That said, in recent weeks, the Apple IPad has gotten onto my radar. Rumor has it that a new, improved version will debut early in the 2011, and I expect to get some hands-on time with one to see if/how it might fit into my life.

There are days when I truly wonder how the human race made it this far without distractions to fill every available moment and without countless "must-have" toys. I guess that's marketing at work; sell the consumer on the idea, push the impulse buy, and have them feel they must "keep up with the Jones". Sense be damned!

I spend a lot of time on planes [See my blog post, "Travel - Fly Me to the Moon", from May 2010] and sometimes on long-distance trains. In recent years, I've seen many of my fellow passengers playing games on their mobile phones or texting [more international flights now provide internet access], all while listening to their favorite 1,000 tunes. As for me, I look at travel time as disconnected time. I look out the window, I follow the route on a map, I daydream, I read an actual magazine or book, I daydream, I plan, I daydream, I write notes, I daydream, and I often write a trip diary. And sometimes I watch a movie or two.

By the way, if you add up the cost of all those "must have" services and toys you might have, it could very well equal a monthly mortgage payment. And making an extra one of those each year will reduce your total interest payment by an astonishing amount. I know, 'cos I made more than one of those each year. Now that is a good feeling, almost as good as driving my 2002 subcompact stick shift!

So, what's next in my quest for less-is-more? Downsizing my house. Hey, maybe I could live in my car. Now that would be like totally awesome!