Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Sockets, Plugs, and Cables

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Until I finished high school in December 1969 in rural Australia, to me, cables, sockets, and plugs meant electricity. My first foray into having to learn something more about cables came when I bought my first stereo system. To be sure, it was rather simple, just a set of red and white cables to connect the various components, and some insulated wire for the speakers. Fast forward 40 years, and when I look in the boxes of cables and connectors I've accumulated since—which I'm saving for that (probably non-existent) time when I just might need them—I see a lot of things verging on obsolescence. Someone is always inventing a better/faster/simpler approach.


My first memory of a home phone was a large wooden box mounted on the wall of the hallway. It was powered by an enormous dry-cell battery. The mouthpiece was fixed to the box and the earpiece hung on the side. To make a call, one cranked the rotary handle and spoke to an operator; there was no dialer. (Unlike some areas, we did not share a party line.) Service was available during daylight hours Monday–Friday, and possibly longer if an operator was on duty and one agreed to pay "an after-hours opening fee". Like many Commonwealth countries, in Australia, the Federal Post Office had the monopoly on phone equipment and service. No competition, so no incentive for innovation.

In the early 1970's in Australia, the idea of having multiple phone outlets in a house, and moving a phone from one outlet to another, came of age. In my house, during the day, the phone was in my study; at night, it was moved to the bedroom. There was an Australia-wide standard plug and socket. And I had progressed to a handset with a rotary dialer. [It wasn't until I moved to the US that I found letters on a phone dialer, as well as digits.]

In 1979, I moved to Chicago in the US. Not only did those decadent Americans have multiple phone jacks in each residence, they had one in just about every room! Back then, the jack had four pins arranged in a square. However, the phone cable ended in an RJ11 plug, so an adaptor was needed from one to the other. (The humble RJ11 plug became widely used, not just in the US, but in many other countries as well.)

I bought my first PC in December 1982. A few years later, I bought my first modem, a "speedy" 300 baud model. Eventually, I bought a portable PC, and ultimately, a laptop. I also started to take them abroad, which led to the problem of connecting to foreign phone systems. As someone once said, "Standards are great; everyone should have them." And so they do, but of course, many countries each had their own, different standard. For $100, I purchased a kit of adaptors that purported to support all the main phone systems in the modern world.

Nowadays, for those of us still having a so-called landline, we have wireless handsets connected to a base station, which is connected to an RJ11 jack or to a broadband system. An increasing number of us have only a mobile phone, which operates entirely without a cable.


The first house I remember living in had no electricity. We used a pressurized kerosene lantern to light the main room, a wood stove for cooking, a fireplace for heating, and a wood-chip heater for heating water on bath days. The next house had a 32-volt DC generating plant, but that drove only the lighting system; we had no electrical appliances to speak of. The house after that was connected to the mains, which, in Australia, is 240 volts, 60 HZ, with a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat and slanted, and the third flat blade serves as the earth/ground.

In the 1970's I recall buying a stereo amplifier made in Asia. Although it had an Aussie plug, the auxiliary power outlets on its back used the US 2-pin socket.

When I left Australia in 1979, I started shaving with a hand razor, as I knew that taking electric appliances to different countries would be a challenge. However, fast forward to traveling with a video camera, laptop computers, mobile phones, and such, and we have a situation similar to that of connecting to the internet on various phone systems. The adaptor kit I mentioned earlier for phones also came with a number of power adaptors. I've found that there really are only three needed these days: US, UK, and European. (Although the Aussie socket is different to that of the US, I have an adaptor that allows the top blades to be swiveled to satisfy both. A few years ago, when spending time with a new colleague from South Africa, I discovered that country also had its own plug/socket style.) I used to have to carry a frequency converter, but newer equipment can detect differences in frequency as well as voltage, so only a pin adaptor is needed.

On the battery front, it seems that we really do have some international standards for the mainstream ones; however, there are still plenty of proprietary ones. A nice feature involves having a power-to-USB adaptor, so one can charge devices from any USB port (such as on laptops and now in more and more car models).


Once upon a time, it was all quite simple; there was the 6.3 mm (1/4") phone connector, which I knew as a phono jack, and that was it! This was the way in which one hooked up to an amplifier, a microphone, headphones, and electric pickups for guitars and other musical instruments. With the advent of personal audio devices, smaller versions of the phone connector were introduced, primarily to connect headphones and earbuds.

In the world of stereo, it was all quite simple: you could choose between RCA connectors, and, well, RCA connectors! The left-channel plug was white, and the right-channel plug was red. [I am happy to say that my stereo equipment still uses these, and they work just fine.]

A popular alternate audio mechanism was the DIN connector. [It got its name from the German Standard's organization Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN).]

Nowadays, audio support has pretty much merged with video and computers, both of which are covered below.


Regarding connecting to a TV antenna, I've only ever run across two approaches: a flat ribbon cable and a coaxial cable.

When it came time to connect output from a TV to other components, the established RCA cable set was extended by adding a third line with yellow plug for composite video.

Another approach to video was S-Video.

An alternate approach involved component video, with red, blue, and green plugs.

Several years ago, when I made the plunge into High-Definition TV, I discovered that the lingua franca for connecting video was now HDMI.


As with many technologies, in the early days, most connectors and cables were proprietary. However, two standards emerged early. For serial cables used to connect terminals, printers, and modems, there was the serial RS232. For faster transmission to printers, the Centronics parallel format was used.

A high-speed protocol called SCSI was developed for large-capacity storage devices; however, this was expensive and never took hold except on high-end systems.

Connections for displays have seen a number of standards, including VGA, EGA, DVI, and DisplayPort. Although VGA is a very old technology, from my experience it's the most commonly used on projectors available in conference rooms. As such, in order to project from newer laptops one needs a cable that converts to VGA.

For connecting devices in general, the most common approaches have been USB and FireWire.

One of the early ways of networking computers used 10BaseT coaxial cable with BNC connectors. Eventually, Ethernet/RJ45 became ubiquitous.


In the late 1970's, I worked at a State Government department in Australia, which was housed in a large high-rise building. Like many such buildings, the ceiling of each floor was made of light-weight tiles that were suspended from the concrete floor above. Above this false ceiling ran all the water and sewer pipes, and the power and phone cables. From time to time, a man would show up to move or add new phone extensions. He was ably assisted by his trusty companion, a fox terrier. The dog wore a harness to which the man attached a light cord. He then put the dog up in the ceiling and then opened a hole above where he wanted the cord pulled, stuck his head up there, and called the dog toward him. Once the cord was through, the man attached the phone cable to it and pulled that through. It was a decidedly low-tech solution, but one that worked well. Of course, everyone loved the dog, which, by the way, was legally registered for the work, so his expenses were a business deduction.

I'm reminded of a story about some futuristic archaeologists who were digging at various sites. They came across an old broadband cable and discussed how advanced that civilization was. Then when they found some buried copper wires, they remarked how that was rather primitive. At one site they found no cables at all, leading one person to proclaim this to be quite a backward society. "On the contrary", responded another person, "This is evidence that they had wireless!"

I'm sure we'll see more new kinds of cables for video and PCs in the near future as new technologies evolve.

Regarding buying cables, do shop around as prices can vary widely. Often, one can buy generic cables on-line or in hardware stores that are good enough and much cheaper than those available in specialized computer/electronics stores. And when you buy a device (such as a printer), be sure to ask if a power and/or data cable is included; it often is not. Getting a "good" price turns out not to be so good if you have to spend another $20–30 for cables.

Technology, Revisited

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Back in November 2010 [1], I wrote about the telephone, television, the internet, and recorded music. Then in December of that year [2], I covered automobiles, still and video cameras, the written word, a digital data preservation strategy, and my right-hand gadget. Three and a half years on, I'm back to update my thoughts on most of these topics.


In mid-2012, I moved, and after 29 years with the same home/office telephone number, I was forced to change it. At first, I thought that would be a big loss, but as it happened, it stopped all those annoying sales and marketing callers from reaching me. And after a year of renting, I moved again, and had to change my number a second time. I've had my new number for a year now, but I still don't know any part of it except the area code. When asked my number, I open my wallet and take out a business card from which I read it. People often ask, "Have you just moved?" to which I reply, "No, I got this new number more than a year ago, but as I don't call myself, I haven't yet found a need to memorize it!"

Being an old-fashioned guy, I still have a landline. In any event, I work from home, so a landline is convenient for both work and play. When I moved the second time, I replaced my phone system for the first time in about 15 years. While the base unit is connected to a wall jack, the two extensions are wireless, so I can place them anywhere in the house and even outside.

Sometime after I moved the second time, my phone company ran a fiber-optic cable down my street, and they were very eager to have me move to that system from the old copper wire. After they answered a long list of questions, I agreed to the changeover, especially as it was at no cost to me. The big change was that the phone would no longer get power from the phone line. Instead, the technician installed a large box on the inside wall of my garage that contained a battery pack. The battery is kept charged by a connection to the electricity. In theory, if I lose my electricity supply, the backup pack provides some eight hours of phone use. Not having had a blackout since, this feature has not yet been put to the test.

In [1], I wrote, "I do not have a mobile phone and I have no plan to get one anytime soon. If I had one, I expect I would find uses for it, but I'm pretty sure I'd have it primarily for outgoing/emergency calls and would keep it switched off most of the time. And I'm certain its ring tone would not be a 100-decibel version of Beethoven's 5th, and that I'd have some manners when using it among other people."

I now own not one, but two mobile phones! Aggh; the Devil made me do it! Once I sold my house, I rented for a year while I decided "what next?" In order to interact with renting agents as I was driving around the countryside reading their advertising signs, I bought a basic Samsung phone for $10 that was compatible with the TracPhone pay-as-you-go service. It came with 20 free minutes and 60 days of service, and every minute/number-of-days I bought, would double. Exactly one day after I started looking, I found my dream house, and I made only one call on my new mobile. Later, I added a 240-minute/3-month card. Finally, I bought a 1,000-minute/2-year card. In the two years I've owned it, I've made no more than 25 calls on it. As I predicted in [1], I use it for my convenience only; it's switched off most of the time with no message-recording facility! I simply do not give out its number.

A year ago, I had a houseguest coming from Australia for six weeks. It would be convenient for us to communicate when we were apart, especially for the two weeks we travelled in the northwest. What to do but buy another Samsung—this time for only $7!—and three months of service. When that expired, I put the phone in a drawer. When the need arises, I will charge it up, both with power and minutes, and get a new phone number.

I've been a user of Skype for some years, and use it for international calls, but only to landline numbers as the calling rate is much cheaper. (As some friends abroad have found, when they've moved to mobile-phone service only, they no longer hear from me!) I used to use it for domestic, long-distance calls too, but my new home-phone service has unlimited time at no charge.

Once, I rode the high-speed Acela train from Washington DC to New York, and deliberately chose to sit in the "Quiet Car" where mobile phone usage is forbidden. Of course, that didn't stop some riders from taking calls, but after I glared at them and/or chastised them verbally, they got the message.

With all this hands-free stuff, I can no longer tell if a person is talking on a phone, to themselves, or their imaginary friend. Whichever, they seem to get pretty animated even when no one can see all their hand gestures. (Perhaps the NSA is capturing their actions by satellite as well as their call!)

As for texting, I just don't get it. It sure looks like a solution looking for a problem. Once, I used my mobile to order a taxi, so the taxi company had my (otherwise secret) number. Twice, I received text messages—at my expense—telling me the taxi was so-many miles or minutes away. Wow! I simply don't know how I survived this long without having that kind of information. In any event, my fingers are way too big for me to be able to select an individual key on a smartphone's soft keyboard. (Believe me; I've tried repeatedly.)

Earlier this year, I started a consulting contract with a well-known high-tech company based in Silicon Valley. Not only was I issued a laptop, I also got a smart phone. At first, I actually used the phone to have security codes texted to me each time I made a VPN connection to their site, but the need for that went away once I got a USB-based security card. Then after several months of that phone simply sitting quietly on a shelf in my office, it started buzzing so hard, it nearly jumped of the shelf! What could be so important after all this time? Perhaps WWIII had started. No, it wasn't anything earth shattering. Instead, I was being notified that a car with license plate xxx had been left in the parking lot with its lights on, and could the owner switch them off. I was sure it wasn't my car as I was on the US east coast and the parking lot was on the west!


In [1], I wrote how I'd moved to antenna-only TV. However, when I moved to my botanic garden-with-a-house-in-it rental place, I was almost surrounded by forest. As such, my antenna was able to find one channel only. (And that broadcast mostly in French; sacrebleu!) Thirty seconds after discovering that, I viewed that as a positive thing, and I rediscovered my library of books and videos. And things stayed that way for 18 months, until I moved, and fiber-optic service came down my street.

I now have 100-odd TV channels, but not because I wanted them. What happened was that the combined package of phone, internet, and TV from one supplier was $50/month cheaper than my previous phone and internet service from two suppliers, so I paid less and got TV as well. And while I wasn't planning to have a Digital Video Recording (DVR) service, I did get one, and I must say that is very convenient. I never ever watch anything live; it all is recorded for viewing when I'm ready, and I never ever watch anything on Network TV.

For the 18 months I was disconnected from TV service, I made great use of my local library system by borrowing from its extensive video collections of movies, TV programs, and documentaries.

The Internet

My primary use of this is still for business, and even more so now that I use VPN access to run programs on remote computers. Email remains my biggest use, followed closely by access to webpages for documentation. I don't often look at newspapers online now, and I very rarely watch video online. For that, my aging eyes much prefer my 40-inch TV to my 27-inch computer screen, and my couch is much more comfortable than my office chair.

Recorded Music

Several years ago, as a prize in a raffle, I won an iPod Nano, a stripped-down iPod. Eventually, I loaded it up with the songs from a dozen CDs. However, the only use I made of it was when I was a dog-walker at an animal rescue facility. There, I walked dogs for two hours each week, and as most of them weren't very interesting, I simply walked them around a farm while listening to music tracks played in random order. Since I stopped that activity, I stopped having buds in my ears. However, I have 10–15 CDs ripped to my laptop for when I travel.

What I have discovered is free internet radio via iTunes. I have three favorite channels depending on my mood: Golden Oldies of Rock 'n Roll, Bavarian, and Mariachi.


I'm still driving my low-tech, stick shift, subcompact, used car, and it still gets me from A to B safely and in good time. However, from time to time, I rent a car, and occasionally I have difficultly mastering some simple chore, like resetting the trip mileage meter. With all these auto solutions looking for problems to solve, and the complexities of software design, I'm not at all surprised with the kinds of electronic failures that have been occurring in the auto industry.

Last year, I had houseguests from Australia, and they had been driving in various parts of the US and Canada. Soon after they arrived, they bought a navigation system with Global Positioning System (GPS). When they left to go home, they gave it to me. Now I carry it in the glove compartment of my car, but never remember I have it, so except for some playing around soon after I got it, I haven't used it. I do recall, however, a couple of times when it gave me rather strange directions. All that said if I did a lot of driving to locations with which I was not familiar, I'm sure I'd use it on a regular basis.

I can report one very welcome addition to my auto experience. For two years now, I have had a 2-car garage, and, unlike almost all of the garages that I've seen in my travels around the US, mine actually has room for two cars!

Oh, and I'm driving a lot more miles now that I used to, but that's because of volunteer work.

Cameras and Video

I've never been much interested in photography, and I still don't take many photos, although it's nice to be able to look at the results immediately and to erase/retake shots. And as for video, I've shot little in recent years, partly because upgrades to my editing software don't work properly, and partly because I don't watch the DVD's I've created.

One major task I did perform was to digitize 76 hours of home movies recorded onto VHS tape, and to edit them down to 34 1-hour DVDs.

On the photo front, my ex-wife and I are in the middle of scanning to digital 3,000-odd paper photos we took starting in the late 1960's. The time it takes to name and catalog each image is far more than it takes to scan in.

Books and Reading

I still like my books in paper form. Eighteen months ago, I became a volunteer for a local library where twice a year, we solicit donations from the public of used books, books and music on CD, and DVDs, and we hold a sale to raise money. As a sorter, I get to look over all those treasures before the public sees them.

I still maintain my steady diet of novels interspersed with non-fiction and reference material. Most mornings I read in bed, and then again the last thing at night. There's nothing quite like trying to hold a 1,000-page tome on US History on one's chest!


When it comes to backing up my personal and business computer files, I'm still quite anal! If it's worth doing, it's worth protecting.

Several years ago, as I was preparing my house for sale, we had an earthquake that measured 5.8 on the Richter Scale. After the second tremor, I calmly took the backup memory stick from my desktop computer, grabbed my wallet (with money and ID), picked up my key ring, and walked out to the parking lot. That stick, along with one of the master backup disks by my computer, in my fire safe, or in my bank's safe-deposit box, would get me operational again. And if all those had been destroyed, it is unlikely I would have been left standing myself!

One new habit I have developed is the use of offsite backup through DropBox. The price is right (as in free), and it is very convenient. I use it to share digital photos, and to backup and share work-related files for some business projects, as they require. However, I remain adamant that I will not backup any critical business or personal data of my own in the so-called Cloud. When cloud security gets broken—and it will, and in a major way—the affected users will be very sorry. As for me, you have to come to my place or bank and physically steal the data! And that's a big obstacle for a teenager in Russia, China, or Timbuktu who is hacking into a network.

My Beloved Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)

As I reported in [2], I've had a PDA for many years, and I never leave the house without it. Until a year ago, when I was at my desk, this little pocket computer was linked to my desktop computer, so their calendar and contacts databases were synchronized. The PDA had a removable 4MB SD memory card to which I backed up all my new and changed work and personal computer files.

I was running Windows Vista on my desktop computer, but decided to upgrade to Windows 7. And while that went well, Win7 no longer supported the synchronization program on my PDA. As a result, my automatic synchronization was no longer possible. Instead, I only update my PDA once each week, and then I have to do it via my netbook, which still runs Windows XP. It is inconvenient, but the process works. However, one day, disaster struck! The metal connector on my PDA where I inserted the synchronization cable broke. As such, not only couldn't I update the PDA, I couldn't even charge it; bugger!

The solution was obvious, buy a new PDA. However, that was easier said than done as no one makes PDAs anymore; the mobile phone industry had taken over that market space. I had a mobile phone, but it wasn't by any means smart, and I had absolutely no interest in buying a new phone and its attendant costs just to have a calendar and contact list. I was actually without a PDA for 6–8 weeks, and I can assure you it was quite traumatic, I kid you not. It turns out that I relied on it much more than I knew. I had all my passwords and PINs for credit and debit cards, on-line accounts, details of business contacts and friends, and much more. The final crisis came when I was admitted to the emergency room of a hospital and I was asked for the contact information of my next-of-kin, my son. His phone number, email address, and street address were all locked away in my PDA, whose battery was flat!

I set out in earnest to find a website from which I could buy a refurbished PDA, and eventually I found one. The PDA I selected was from the same family as the one I was replacing and although it was a bit smaller it had comparable capabilities. After a few weeks of using it, I called the company and bought a second unit as a backup.

Although I solved the immediate problem, I've deferred the long-term one. I've just bought a new laptop, which runs Windows 8, and thus far, I haven't found a way to make that synchronize with the old-technology PDA. So the only way I have of keeping the PDA up-to-date is to do it via my old netbook, and there is no reason to believe that strategy won't work for some time yet. However, my calendar and contacts are stored in Microsoft Office, and the 2013 version I run on my desktop won't run on WinXP. Fortunately, the data files for both versions are the same, so I can exchange them. But that might not be the case for the next edition. I guess I'll find out in 2016. Don't you just love built-in obsolescence?


After all my years of travelling with electric gadgetry, it finally happened. The AC-power adaptor for my laptop computer died while I was in Tokyo on business. Fortunately, that happened near the end of the trip, but, nonetheless, it still made an impact. I had no access to Skype and had to use other people's systems to look at my mail, to do banking, and so forth. Since then, I have bought a new laptop, which is much lighter, less power-hungry, and its adaptor is small and light. However, it runs Windows 8, of which I'm not a fan.

Unfortunately, I now have a loaner laptop from a client, and I often have to take both machines with me when I travel. However, I've solved the problem by buying a nice, comfortable backpack to hold both and associated gear. It's much better for my stature than having a very heavy bag on a shoulder strap, and it leaves both my hands and arms free.


As I watch people preoccupied with thumbing their mini-keypads while waiting, walking, cycling, and even driving, I really do wonder how Civilization got this far without all that.

I still think there are way too many solutions looking for problems, and my mantra remains, for the most part, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, I'm not the least bit interested in the Social Media frenzy. If you want to by my friend, it's quite easy: phone me, send me a personal email or instant message, or even an old-fashioned letter. But don't think you can post something in a public, virtual place, and expect me and your 1,000 other so-called "friends" to believe you are actually communicating with us, personally.

Standards – The Secret Life of a Language Lawyer

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

On a very regular basis, many of us plug an electric appliance into a wall outlet. Not only do we expect the plug to fit, we also expect the appliance to work, probably without even thinking about it. Yet that can be so only if all the suppliers of electric sockets and plugs serving a given region follow the same socket-and-plug design, and the corresponding electrical conventions. And as you might have experienced, while you can take a device with a US plug and use it directly in Japan, you cannot do so in Germany, and vice versa; at the very least, you'll need an adaptor. [I have several: one is a single piece that allows selected prongs to protrude; the other provides a series of convertors that stack on one another. Both handle US, European, UK, and Australasian inputs and outputs.]

Since December 1984, I've worked on a number of US and international standards in the Information Technology area. I won't bore you with the esoteric details of that work, but, later on, I will mention a couple of projects with which you might relate. For the most part, I'll focus on other, every-day examples of standards and conventions.

Regardless of how, why, or by whom a standard is created, it needs to be written as a clear specification, so people can build products and provide services to comply with that standard. The person in charge of writing such a specification is often called a project editor or redactor. [For the past 12 years, that has been my main role in standards-related work, hence the title of this essay. From a standard's writer's perspective shall is a very strong word whereas can, might, could, and should, are weak words. And may is strong if its means "having permission" rather than "might".]

Standard or Convention?

There are two main kinds of standards:

  • Mandatory/Regulatory (defined by local, national, or international public health and safety officials, for example)
  • Optional/Industry initiatives (to allow interoperability and preservation of investment in equipment and training)

Sometimes, a vendor or consortium of vendors so dominates a market that its products became a de facto standard.

Standards We Use Regularly

Often when I put gasoline into my car, I see a sticker on the pump saying something like, "This pump has been calibrated and tested by the local/state Department of Weights and Measures on <test-date>." How do we know we're getting exactly 2 gallons of gas or that the 1-kg packet of meat we're paying for weighs exactly one kilo? Of course, it's not practical to measure everything we buy/use; we simply have to trust someone to have "done it correctly". Behind the scenes, a lot of people work to make that the case, and if they do their job properly, you'll never know or even think about them.

Regarding environment and health, there are standards for water quality, air quality, and automobile exhaust emissions. We have standards for seat belts and airbags. And given the growing use of the term organic with respect to food, we have an evolving—but not universal—set of definitions. However, read the fine print; there are always marketers trying to stretch the truth. [By the way, when people talk about organic produce, I joke that it really does taste much better than that inorganic stuff!]

When it comes to utilities and appliances there are a whole host of standards, many of which vary considerably from one country to another:

  • Electricity: In the US, we use 110 volts and 60 Hertz with the plug having two vertical, flat blades and an optional circular ground (earth) pin. And even then, on some plugs one of the flat blades is taller than the other. [100 years ago, a lot of power generated in the US was 40 Hertz. In my original country, Australia, it is 240 volts, 50 Hertz, with two, flat blades at an angle to each other and an optional third flat blade as the ground.] For a lot of information about different plug/socket conventions, click here.
  • Telephone: For those of us in the US still having a landline, we very likely plug our phone into an RJ11 jack. However, that wasn't always the case. When I lived in Chicago in 1979, my phone's wall socket had four pins equally spaced around a large, circular plug. [20+ years ago, when I started traveling internationally with a laptop computer using dial-up internet access, I bought a large set of adaptors that converted an RJ11 plug into pretty much every local phone socket type that existed.] Of course, now we have wireless mobile phones, but they use a myriad of incompatible conventions, and phone vendors can put locks on their handsets. There is also a standard for international telephone numbers, having the general form

    + <country-code> <area-code> <local-number>

    For example, +1 703 555 1212 is in the US (country code 1) with area code 703, which is in northern Virginia.
  • Radio: It still amazes me that I can stick a stationary antenna up in the air and use it to listen to news and music. And to be able to do that in a car moving at 50 mph or on a jet flying at 600 mph, is truly amazing. Beyond that, we need some standard transmission bands, such as AM, FM, XM, and short wave.
  • Television: The US (and other countries) had NTSC (jokingly referred to as "Never Twice the Same Color" or "Not The Same Color twice"), the Germans and Aussies (and many other countries) had PAL, and France and its territories, and Russia (among others) had SECAM. Then, of course, we had the VHS vs. Betamax videotape format war. And just to make it interesting, the audio on a PAL VHS tape can be heard on an NTSC VHS player, but the video cannot be seen due to the different number of lines per frame.
  • Audio/Video: If you are like most people, you have a rat's nest of cables behind your stereo/TV cabinet. Currently, I have RCA, composite, S-Video, component, and HDMI cables. They're all standards; they just need entirely different (and sometimes expensive) cables. For a lot of information about different audio and video interfaces and connectors, click here.
  • CD: After all the shakeout with videotape formats, the audio CD folks got it right. An audio CD can be played on any player anywhere in the world. What a concept! Of course, that was too sensible, and more complexity was needed; we had audio CD, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, Video Compact Discs (VCD), Super Video Compact Discs (SVCD), PhotoCD, PictureCD, CD-i, and Enhanced CD. (Did I miss any?)
  • DVD and Blu-ray: When this media arrived, piracy of intellectual property was a growing problem, so while your average garden-variety digital video is the same around the world, the notion of DVD region codes was introduced. Australia uses a region code of 4 while the US uses a code of 1. So when a friend from Down Under brought me a prerecorded video, it wouldn't play on any of my video players. And while it would play in my Windows-based PC, the player software warned me that it would only play a "foreign" code-based DVD 10 times after which it would permanently switch the code of my DVD drive to that foreign code only. I am happy to report that when I burn a DVD with my home-movie maker software, it uses the universal region code 0. Of course, DVDs come in a number of flavors: DVD, DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM, with Dual-Layer being added to the mix.
  • Digital Photo: While there are numerous formats for these, the camera industry seems to have settled on JPEG.

Most of us drive a car or use public transportation. Doing so involves a whole host of standards. For example:

  • Nuts and bolts: The size and threading
  • Tires: Diameter, width, and quality
  • Batteries: Voltage and quality
  • Fuel and Oil: This may include fuel efficiency standards
  • Windows: Safety glass specifications
  • Traffic lights: This simple, but very important, invention is pretty much universal. However, some countries still pass through yellow when going from red to green, while most do not. Also, in some countries the set of lights is arranged horizontally while in others it is vertical.
  • Highway Signs and Traffic Rules: In the US, at most intersections controlled by lights, drivers can turn right on red after stopping.

The financial world employs numerous standards, which include:

  • Credit, Debit, and ATM/Cash Machine Cards: The size of the card, the format of the number, and the magnetic stripe encoding
  • Electronic Funds Transfers: These use an international Bank routing number and account number

In the world of personal computers, there literally are dozens of standards:

  • Floppy Disk: There have been a number of popular sizes and formats.
  • Network Cables: The world finally settled on the RJ45 Ethernet cable.
  • Device Cables: We've had serial, parallel, and SCSI ports and cables. Now, everything seems to be USB with some FireWire.
  • Surfing the Internet: Web pages have to be organized in some known fashion, and web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari need to understand that organization. If you have ever sent email to a person in another country, the chances are their address ended in a 2-letter country code, such as ".uk", ".jp", or "fr".

A few other standards we use on a regular basis are, as follows:

Who Develops Standards?

On the regulatory front, boards are often convened at the local, state, or federal level, with input solicited from the public.

In the more formal standards world, we have Standards Development Organizations (SDOs). Some examples are:

In short, anyone or any organization can establish a specification. Unless it involves an area needing government regulation, it's mostly a matter of marketplace relevance as to whether that specification becomes a de facto or formal standard. And just because a standard is produced by a recognized SDO doesn't mean it will succeed. Unfortunately, the world is full of failed standards!

In the case of commercial enterprises, to avoid being seen as pursuing antitrust activities, there usually needs to be at least two competing groups working together using an open development process.

Compliance Testing

In many cases, a product or service that claims to conform to a standard must be verified by testing, with a certificate being issued before conformance can be claimed legally. For certain products, governments might require such conformance before a vendor can qualify for procurement consideration.

In the computing world, we have what are called validation suites. These are used to test an implementation to see if it conforms to a given specification.

I have seen many products (mostly electrical in nature) with the label UL. According to Wikipedia, "UL (Underwriters Laboratories) is a safety consulting and certification company headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois. It maintains offices in 46 countries. UL was established in 1894 and has participated in the safety analysis of many of the last century's new technologies, most notably the public adoption of electricity and the drafting of safety standards for electrical devices and components."

Maintenance of Standards

I can easily imagine that the entire specification for the US 110-volt plug-and-socket standard takes up no more than a few pages of text, diagrams, and tables. As such, once all interested parties have proofed this, there is a very good chance it can be frozen for a very long time, possibly forever. On the other hand, a standard for a computer programming language might run 1,000 pages, and because its basic building blocks can be combined in an infinite number of ways, it can be difficult, time consuming, or even impossible to prove that its specification is not incomplete or self-contradictory in some way. In any event, as technology evolves, such languages need to be extended. This requires there to be a process by which the public can submit questions about a specification or to point out possible errors or shortcomings. [The largest and most complex specification I've worked on contains 6,500 pages. The committee responsible for maintaining that meets face-to-face three times a year for three days and by teleconference for two hours each month.]

Some of My Regulatory and Standards Work

Back in the early 1970's, I worked for an Australian state government Department of Chemistry, in the pesticide residues section of the Food and Drugs division. On a regular basis, I checked samples from the egg, milk, and fresh vegetable markets. Pesticides can enter the food chain through chemical sprays on food fed to farm animals and poultry. However, farmers are prohibited from spraying crops too close to harvest, so this doesn't happen.

One day, I took delivery of 20 dozen bottles of red wine. Over a several-week period, I had to test each one for artificial coloring, which was banned. Day after day, I found nothing, and I tested my control method continuously. Then finally, in the last few bottles, one failed the test. It was with great excitement that I hollered out the window to my boss—who was getting in his car to go home—that "I'd found one". He hurried back and watched me test it again, and, YES, it was indeed positive! [The German word shadenfreude comes to mind.]

At that same time, some of my colleagues were testing for mercury in fish. It was also the heady days of all those nasty things like 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange), 2,4,5-T, and chloropicrin.

After leaving Chemistry, I went into the field of computing working for a state highways authority. Every truckload of concrete delivered to every jobsite had a sample taken. Three days later, that sample was crushed with all kinds of information being recorded. I implemented a system to process the results. [By the way, if a batch failed the tests, the contractor had to rip up all the concrete from that batch at their own expense!]

If you have used Microsoft Word for some time, you may well have noticed that with the 2007 edition, the files created changed from type DOC to type DOCX. The former was a format proprietary to Microsoft, and was wildly popular. However, some US state and foreign governments wanted office software that read and wrote files that could be understood by any vendor. The result was IS 29500, a 4-Part standard involving some 6,500 pages. Not only does this cover Word's "DOCX" format, it also covers the formats for Excel and PowerPoint. As a result, Apple uses this format for the office tools on its platforms, as do other vendors.

In the past 25 years, I've also been involved in writing specifications for software that needs to support culturally diverse audiences by dealing with such things as name, address, and telephone number formats; a variety of date and time formats; a large variation in alphabets and writing systems; and so on. If you think for a moment what might be involved in making the exact same program (MS Word, for example) work in US English, British English, Swiss German, Russian, Japanese, and Arabic modes, you'll have some idea why standards can be very important.


As I travel around the world, I sometimes come across commercial or industrial developments with large banners or signs outside saying ISO 9000-Compliant. According to Wikipedia, "The ISO 9000 family of standards is related to quality management systems and designed to help organizations ensure that they meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders while meeting statutory and regulatory requirements related to the product."

Every area of life is affected by standards, which can be as diverse as welding for pipelines, oil and gas exploration, how to cook the perfect pasta, how to make the perfect cup of tea, how to taste wine, toothbrushes, acoustics and hearing, and musical instrument tuning. There is even Irish Standard I.S 417:1988. Specification for Irish Coffee., which outlines the ingredients used, the minimum quantity of Irish Whiskey, the depth and quality of cream, and the temperature, among other things. Whatever will they think of next?

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!

Technology, Unplugged – Part 1

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I've been involved in the computing industry for 36 years. As a result, more than a few people who know that assume I'm a gadget guy who has the newest technology. And while I do like to play with electronic toys, I have shown great restraint in not rushing in to new technologies. In fact, I'm very often a latecomer, preferring to wait until a fad shows signs of lasting, and if so, to see if I can justify making the move at all; and that justification often has little to do with price. The question I ask is, "Given my situation, does it make sense?" [I have often said, "This is America. We do things because we can, not because it makes sense! Here, we spell need 'w-a-n-t'."]

In recent years, it seemed to me that everyday life was getting way too complicated. However, on closer inspection, I decided that the problems were pretty much the same, yet the tools available to deal with them were numerous and complicated. Now that every gadget has a computer chip onboard, it is capable of being programmed, and, of course, every toy has a different interface to learn. For example, a typical household has a TV, a CD/DVD player, an audio receiver, and a Cable TV box, all with their own remote controls. You need a coffee table just for the controllers! Of course, there are supposedly universal controllers, but they don't subsume completely all the functionality of the individual controllers they are intended to replace. [For many years, I've had a theory that I adapted from my buddy Al (Einstein, that is): "Problems are neither created nor destroyed; they are merely transformed." And technology seems to bear that out. Each new solution we invent seems to create a completely new set of problems.]

A watershed moment came earlier this year when I started evaluating my whole lifestyle. Just what did I really need to live comfortably, what could I do with the extra time I'd have if I gave up certain "necessary pleasures", and just how much money was I spending on those pleasures anyway? As a result, I set about simplifying things. It's an on-going experiment that I'm refining as I go.

In the late 18th Century, an Englishman called Ned Ludd supposedly broke some manufacturing equipment in a factory. His actions were inspirational to those whose livelihoods were threatened by the Industrial Revolution. Those Luddites started a social revolution that opposed modernization because of its supposed negative impact on society. Now I'm no Luddite, and I don't own a buggy whip either; however, on some issues, one simply has to move with the times or be left behind. My moves just happen to be deliberate and slower.

By the way, it's been 15 years since I've worn a watch. One day, the band on my $10 watch broke, and as it was built-in to the watch, it couldn't be replaced. Then after carrying it around in my pocket for several months, I stopped taking it at all. I've found that people will tell you if you are late, and that when asked the time/date, "October" or "autumn" often are adequate replies.

The purpose of this essay is to tell you how I have dealt or am dealing with technology. I have no wish to be a missionary for any particular electronic faith. Make up your own mind, but beware of snobs and zealots.

Mr. Watson. Come Here. I need you.

Borrowing from Wikipedia, this "first demonstration of electronic transmission of speech by Alexander Graham Bell" ushered in a completely new era of communications, and one that—to my way of thinking—now has way too many options, most of which are solutions looking for problems. If you've tried to compare two phone companies' services lately, you'll know what I mean.

Ok, let's get it right out there. I do not have a mobile phone and I have no plan to get one anytime soon. If I had one, I expect I would find uses for it, but I'm pretty sure I'd have it primarily for outgoing/emergency calls and would keep it switched off most of the time. And I'm certain its ring tone would not be a 100-decibel version of Beethoven's 5th, and that I'd have some manners when using it among other people.

Once mobile phones became mainstream, all kinds of people simply assumed I had one and when I said that I did not, I sensed that they felt sorry for me. I realized I needed an offensive (as in, going on the offense) reply. And that reply now is, "You cannot simply call and interrupt me any damned time you feel like it. Call me on my landline and if I'm not there, leave a message. Or, send me an email. And if I believe either warrants a response, I'll make one in a timely fashion. As far as I can tell, you and I don't have any business that is so important that it needs an immediate response any time night or day."

The mobile phone scenario that sticks most in my mind occurred several years ago in my local supermarket. In the first aisle, a woman saw some item and called her partner. "Hi Honey, it's me. So-and-so is on sale. Would you like that for supper tonight?" Two aisles later, she spied something else, and called Honey again. And this happened several more times, in subsequent aisles. All I could think was, "It's called planning, damn-it! You make a shopping list before you leave for the store. It's called Making an Executive Decision. Presumably you know Honey's eating preferences." Unfortunately, we're living in a time of "instant-on" and "gotta-have-it-now". The marginally disciplined are becoming poorly disciplined and the poorly disciplined are becoming undisciplined.

So what do I use for phone calls? Two cans and some string, of course! It's very cheap, it's low maintenance, I don't get any unwanted solicitations, and I don't need Caller ID; I always know who has the other can. But seriously, I have a landline with various extensions throughout the house (I work from home). And I even an old-style phone that gets its power from the phone line. If the power goes out, I still have phone service! Back in the old days of dial-up internet access, I had a second line installed, and I shared that with a computer-based fax program. As part of my recent simplification, I discontinued that line and my fax support (almost all those I received were junk anyway). I also had call waiting on my primary line to alert me if another call was coming in while I was on the line. I found that I rarely used it, and as my good friend, John told me, some people consider it rude being put on hold while you take another—apparently more important—call. (And that applies in spades to mobile phone users and text message proponents who think nothing of interrupting a serious conversation to take a call or read a newly arrived message.)

My one surviving landline includes 50 local calls per month and has no long-distance or international call package. It's a bare bones system and it suits my needs. Now, each month, I do make quite a few international calls for pleasure and, occasionally, for business, as well as a few calls around the US, but I don't use my phone service (see later below).

My business model involves working mostly from home where I have ready access to a landline. And if I am teaching seminars, that's an all-day job, so I can't be interrupted then. Likewise for when I'm traveling and when I'm sitting in daylong conferences and meetings, especially in time zones far-removed from home. I was an early adopter and fan of Skype, and for $3/month I get an unlimited number of minutes within North America. And for around 2 cents/minute, I can call landlines in most countries using Skype-Out. (Calls to mobiles are often 10 times that price, so I rarely make them.) And whenever my account goes below $2, my Skype account is automatically topped-up from my bank account. That lets me make any call from my desk using my computer or from on the road using my laptop or netbook from my hotel or public wifi hotspot. For people like my wife who don't spend their days tethered to their desk/computer, I have another option. Via Skype, at no charge, I have a local phone number that can be called from any phone and used to place calls using Skype. I currently use a Bluetooth earpiece for Skype, and for the most part that works well. My netbook has a built-in microphone, and that always works, plus it comes with a webcam, which Skype supports.

I can count on one hand the number of times I could really have benefited by having a mobile phone. One that comes to mind was on a ferry from Helsinki, Finland, to Tallinn, Estonia. I'd tried to call my host family from the ferry terminal before departing, but was unable to figure out how to use the Finnish public phone system. Then once onboard, I discovered there were no pay phones. However, that being Nokia's backyard, everyone (literally) had a mobile, so I asked a businessman if I could pay him to use his mobile to make a call, and he said, "Go right ahead, and as I have an unlimited plan, there is no charge." The down side of mobile-phone mania is there is a growing shortage of public pay phones available, and I avoid using the phone in my hotel room due to the ridiculous fees they charge.

Answering machines are worth a mention. I have come to rely on them on my phone and on others'. Yet it is interesting to note just how many people hate talking to them. Of all the people I phone on a regular basis only one does not have an answering machine, and that took some getting used to on my part.

One question I like to ask mobile phone aficionados is, "Just how much time is 1,000 minutes?" They generally reply, "What do you mean?" To which I reply, "Just how many hours is that each month that you can talk? And what were you doing with that time before you had that mobile plan? Or did you not have a life previously?" [FYI, 1,000 minutes is 16 and 2/3 hours.]

Television: Is it Still the Idiot Box?

For years, I've subscribed to a Cable TV service, each month paying for the service as well as one or more converter boxes and remote controls. And each year it seemed that the price increased. At some point, I moved payment to an automatic debit from my checking account. However, that meant that the cost was somewhat hidden as the monthly bill no longer received any scrutiny.

Of the 100-odd channels I had, I probably watched programs on 10 of them, at most, and more likely five of them, on average. [All attempts to legislate a la carte cable TV programming in the US have failed, so one is stuck with an all-or-nothing program selection. Only premium channels are unbundled.] My service provided no way for me to limit the channels in the selection list to only those I watched. What's more, that program list included all the channels available, including those for which I had no subscription!

More than 10 years ago, I was watching five hour-long series each week, but then I went abroad for six weeks without access to my regular programs. On my return, I simply stopped watching them, and I haven't watched any show on a regular basis since. I have to say that I don't miss them one bit. [Perhaps I don't need the escapism many of them provide.]

Fast Forward to the era of Digital/Hi-Definition TVs. I love watching movies, documentaries, and various other programs, and I like a big screen experience as much as does the next person. However, I don't view it as essential. As poor as the NTSC [sometimes pooh-poohed as "Not the Same Color Twice"] analog system used here in the US (and elsewhere) might be, it's been adequate for me. Recently, 18 months after I started looking at digital/HiDef TV, I stuck my toe in the water with a 40" screen that cost less than $500. Then I did several heretical things: I experimented with a digital antenna and I looked at recording to DVD and, yes, even to VHS tape!

The cost of my cable service had gotten out of control, and I didn't even have any premium channel packages. It was time to re-evaluate the whole "being connected" thing, so I started preparing for the scenario of not having a Cable TV connection at all. In the process, I was pleasantly surprised at the range of (the more than 30) channels being broadcast over-the-air in my area; almost all of the ones I watched regularly via cable were available free of charge. Don't you just love that when that happens? [Interestingly, neither my TV tuner nor my converter box pulled in all of the local channels, and the sets of channels that they did find were not the same. One got some the other didn't, and vice versa.]

I have a big investment in prerecorded VHS tapes (which I continue to buy from thrift shops for 25–50 cents each), home movies on VHS, and I have several players and recorders, so I wanted to preserve that investment. The obvious argument against that is that the analog quality is lower, so why not simply record to disk using a Digital Video Recorder? As it happens, my Cable TV company would be happy to let me do that, but at a cost of $13/month, and I'm trying to reduce my bill. Alternate services ran the same cost, and while there is software to allow this sort of thing to be done in conjunction with a computer, I'm not quite ready to go that route.

I am very happy to report that there is life outside of subscription TV. And in the case of my 90-year-old very vital friend, Jim, life can be full without having a TV at all! [Hmm, Jim might still own a buggy whip; I'll have to ask.]

The Omnipresent Internet

I live by email, and as I travel away from my home time zone at regular intervals, email is the best way to reach me. No matter where I am in the world, I deal with important email in a timely manner, typically within 12 hours. I also use Instant Messaging (IM) with a few colleagues and friends. As such, I have a tethered version of text messaging, which is adequate for my needs. However, I never did learn to type with more than a few fingers, so it's not my preferred medium.

As for browsing the web, I do very little of that. From time to time, my work requires me to upload or download (often-large) files. On occasion, I play a few puzzles at the USA Today newspaper site, I look at the headlines and sports scores in several Australian newspapers several times a week, and I visit Wikipedia and Wiktionary from time to time. (And, yes, I know that Wikipedia is full of lies!)

I was paying for some really fast internet service that came through my Cable TV connection, but, recently, it occurred to me that the extra speed was totally wasted. My in-house network uses an 802.11g protocol router, which is limited to wire connections of 100 Mbps with wifi at 64 Mbps. Unless I upgrade to an 802.11n router and matching receivers on all my computers, the extra speed means nothing. Yet, it is hard to get a slower service. After all, everyone must need the fastest speed possible, right? Yes, there are times where I really need throughput, but they are few and far between. All I really care about is not having to wait for web pages to refresh. Recently, I downgraded my service from 6MB to 1MB, and I'll try that for a month or so to see if it is adequate. I also recommended a friend use a DSL service instead of a much higher speed (and more expensive) cable connection.

I love the fact that I can get affordable, if not free, broadband internet access in all sorts of seemingly unlikely places. Running my business certainly became easier once I could do it while on vacation or business travel in some remote spot.

Play Me a Song, Mr. Piano Man

I love music, so much so that in my next life (yes, dear reader, I'm planning on coming back for another round), I plan on being a songwriter, composer, and musician. I probably own only 100 CDs and another 100 cassette tapes, mostly recorded from albums and radio. I've also ripped 10–12 CDs to my computers, primarily so I can play them when I'm on the road. And when working from home, I have one favorite radio station I listen to for my regular music fix.

I don't download music and I don't have a portable digital music player. (Are my Luddite tendencies showing, again?) I look at the various music-player ads and I hear that a certain device allows storage for 5,000 songs. Even assuming I had 5,000 favorites, and I wanted to spent $1 each to buy them—you aren't copying them illegally are you?—when would I have time to listen to all of them? 5,000 songs at 2½ minutes each runs 208 hours, or twenty-eight 8-hour days. That means that if I had no life, I could hear each of them once a month. Hold me back! Where can I buy such a useful device?

Much has been written about how more and more people are retreating into their own private world, and I believe it. That said if I had to sit on a train for 2–3 hours each business day getting to/from work, I could imagine having a music player, but I think 100 songs would suffice. I'd be more likely to load it up with podcasts of current affairs and entertainment programs from the radio, or perhaps listen to books being read. As for those who are using such devices to avoid contact with their fellow man, well that's their choice, but we already suffer considerably from the inability of many people to express themselves clearly, and becoming even more disconnected from the real world won't help. [In the US, the level of business English is 6th Grade, and fewer and fewer of us can say a phrase—let along a whole sentence—without using the word "like" inappropriately. Right? Like, yeah; that is really like true!]

Stay Tuned

In Part 2, I cover automobiles and GPS, still and video cameras, the written word, a digital data preservation strategy, and my right-hand gadget.

By the way, by dropping my subscription TV service and lowering my internet speed I'm saving $73/month.