Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

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!