Category Archives: Travel

Baggage Fees and the Decline of Free Hotel Wi-Fi


I’m in Las Vegas attending the National Association of Broadcasters show–easily the most informative trade show I attend each year. It’s an unparalleled exhibition of cutting-edge gear for making all things audio and video-related, and I inevitably return with a bad case of lust for something that has at least three more zeroes in the price than the Bickford family budget can absorb without a lot of hard thinking.

That said, NAB’s always an amazing place to learn tricks from people who make multi-million dollar feature films, which can be applied to things as commonplace as tightening up that horrific color cast in our in-house ComicBase barcode scanner commercial of a few years back. (In an otherwise smooth production, I unthinkingly bounced a light off our orange front office walls, giving everyone on screen the look of having just returned from getting a really cheap spray-tan). On the plus side, my tangerine-toned complexion in the video did teach me both a valuable lesson about lighting, and to appreciate the need for accurate camera monitors.

If you haven’t visited Vegas in a while, it’ll likely come as an unpleasant shock that one of life’s great pleasures for the common man–free valet parking at strip casinos–is basically a thing of the past. Free valet parking was once the great meeting of ostentatious casino hospitality and gambler gullibility, letting even the station-wagon-driving dad feel like a king for a brief moment as he passed the keys to the hotel valet in front of Caesars like a bona-fide high roller. At the same time, it set up a “quid pro quo” that encouraged the punters to repay the gesture by risking some of the kid’s college fund inside at the tables.

For over a decade of periodic visits to Vegas, I’d “pay” for my free valet parking by ritually playing $20 win-or-lose on the nearest blackjack table wherever a casino was kind enough to park me for free.  (And of course remember to tip the valet!). But those days, like so many other fine traditions that occasionally made the world of the everyman just a little wonderful, are now gone and buried.

It was a matter of great local scandal two years ago when the heads of MGM resorts decided to do with parking on their strip casinos (both valet and self-park) what airlines had done years earlier with baggage, booking, and countless other fees. I’d spared a hope at the time that casino patrons would rebel in sufficient numbers to cause the big resort chains to back down, but sadly no such revolt took place, and now an industry whose entire basis is to not encourage you to keep close tabs on your money has fully embraced the sort of nickel-and-diming that makes airfares such a labyrinth today.

In booking this year’s NAB trip, I also noticed that the ever-increasing “resort fee” (typically $15-25/day) tacked onto almost all hotel rentals in Vegas now no longer covers wi-fi at a growing number of hotels. This caused me to eschew my old strip favorites for the trip, as the resort, internet, parking, and other fees often more than doubled the stated price of the room.

So this time in town, I explicitly decided to pay a bit more for both the room and the resort fee to stay off the strip at a place explicitly offering free parking and wi-fi. But, like so much in Vegas, there’s a catch even to that: The free in-room wi-fi is limited to two devices per room, and it’s throttled  so hard that it’s useful for little other than email.

Interestingly, the wi-fi down by the hotel fitness center was performing respectably enough to actually let me stream an episode of Lost while working out on the treadmill. But the same episode from my room was soon choked down to modem-like speeds despite showing 5 bars of coverage. Helpfully, the hotel also offers an “expanded” wi-fi option for $5.99/device which promises to perhaps even bring the in-room wi-fi up to the speeds offered by your average Motel 6 in Des Moines, Iowa, but I’m avoiding it for now.

As I type this, I’m a few blocks away at the local Starbucks on Los Vegas Blvd, pulling down a respectable 3 MB download speed, even when shared by the other two dozen coffee-swilling denizens of the joint at 8pm at night.

As the man said: “TANSTAAFL”: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. And this goes for everything else in life, including wi-fi. So take this missive as a free travel tip to always check the fine-print on your hotel booking, and even then be ready to roll with the punches.

But if you do need to find a good place to sync your Dropbox when you’re on the road, the local Starbucks might just be able to hook you up for the price of a Tall Skinny Blonde Mocha. And that’s not half bad.

Australia Tech Post Mortem: What Worked and What Didn’t

Like a lot of geeks, I spend a lot more time planning which bits of techno-kit to bring with me on a trip than worrying whether I’ve actually remembered to pack clothes or not. I gave it a good shot with my family’s two-week trip to Australia, but had a few misfires along the way. Here’s a brief rundown on what gadgets proved worth their travel weight down under, and which weren’t up to the task:

Winner: Asus EeePC 900HA Netbook

A crazy-cheap computer that’s light, has great battery life, a built-in camera for Skyping to the folks back home, and weighs next to nothing. If it weren’t for the slightly undersized keyboard and problematic positioning of the up-arrow key (net to the right Shift key), it’d be the perfect on-the-go computer. If you got an email from me during the past two weeks, it was likely sent from this sand-covered little netbook. I was also able to video-chat with my folks back in the states from one of the two hotel rooms that featured workable internet.

Winner: Canon XTi


It’s been superseded the XSi (and higher-end models), but the shots from this 10.1 megapixel camera are light years ahead of the vacation snaps I took years ago–not to mention the pathetic camera phone shots we all sometimes have to make do with. It survived surf and sand with aplomb, and it’s the definitely my best tool to capture the beauty of a perfect beach or view.

Loser: the iPhone (AT&T plans/Vodafone internet in particular)

This was a shocker to me, since my iPhone has become such a daily part of my life. I even congratulated  myself on having the foresight to call ahead and set up a a global data roaming plan so that I’d get hit with a data charge of only $60 or so for the two weeks in Australia, vs. the several-hundred-dollar horror stories I’ve heard of from unwary travelers who dared to access the internet abroad without an international plan.

The truth is, I may as well have left it at home for all the good it did me. I burned through 1/3 of my allotted 50 MB of internet traffic within a day of arrival just trying to use it for basic hotel lookups and GPS navigation. Data speeds were almost useless even in the big cities (hosted by Vodafone locally), and GPS navigation was impossible due to slow response times and winding streets without turn-by-turn routing. Within a day, we’d made the decision to go back to the car rental place and pick up a ¨real¨ GPS (more on that in a moment).

Also, even with AT&T‘s pricey ¨Global Traveler¨ plan, we faced fees of well over a dollar a minute for calls, and more to pick up voice mails. And that was a discount from the regular roaming rates of over $3/minute(!). In the end, we wound up picking up a “burner” pre-paid phone in a mall for about $80 to give us the minimal mount of phone service we needed on the trip.

The truth is, without the internet and an affordable calling plan, the iPhone is hugely crippled. It was really a huge disappointment, although I did have one wonderful moment of joy with it at the end. I realized that you can actually type in non-map queries into Google Maps like “Comic Store, Brisbane, Australia” and have it instantly plot your location in the city next to every available comic store nearby–even with street view pictures of the shops. That was cool!

Winner: Tom Tom One GPS (Australian)

Thinking to save $59, I bowed out of simply buying the Australian maps for my own Tom Tom GPS, thinking I could just use the Google Maps on my iPhone. This was a disaster, and we quickly wound up heading around to the car hire place to pick up a rental Tom Tom for the duration of the trip.

Once it was up on our dash, it turned the trip instantly from a harried series of missed turns and frayed nerves into a relatively calm drive–albeit on what my American reflexes told me was the wrong side of the road. It also did a terrific job of pointing out gas, tourist attractions, and the numerous speed cameras that cover the Australian landscape.

If you’re planning to drive in Australia, do yourself a favor and bring this along–it would have been a far worse vacation without it.

Australia Blogging: Things to Know Before You Go

A brief, and very incomplete list of things I discovered (usually the hard way) are important for Geeky Americans to know before travelling to Australia:

  • Sunglasses are not optional. Neither is sunscreen, which must be applied several times a day to every square millimeter of your body unless you wish to look like an unholy cross between a Maine lobster and an extra from Day of the Dead.

    My best new idea for an invention: The Suncreen Shower Nozzle, which would mist you in a spray of SPF-30 right after you get done using the regular showerhead to wash the sand off from the day before. Expect to see me pitching it on a late night Aussie infomercial if this comic book thing doesn’t work out for me.

  • There’s that whole “driving on the left” thing, the gas prices are for liters instead of gallons, and there’s a baffling series of controls on many pumps to let you stop the flow at a specified dollar amount as the dollars spin by–essential as transactions involving odd pennies are simply rounded off . If you use this, pick a large number, as I’ve never figured out how to reset it afterward. God bless them, the Australians are also lovely, trusting folks who expect you to pay after you’ve pumped instead of prepaying.
  • Toll roads are now entirely electronic in Victoria and New South Wales, which means that Australians don’t even need to slow down for bridges and toll roads. Unfortunately, this also means that somewhere in the photo footage of the Australian equivalent of the Department of Transportation is a toll camera picture of Carolyn and me holding a five dollar bill up to our window and looking really confused as we searched in vain for the toll booths which were no longer there. A helpful sign informed us immediately afterward that there was a number we could call to give the folks at the traffic violations department our credit card within 72 hours before they hunted us down like rabid dingoes.
  • Don’t get too excited about those speed limit signs: they’re in Kilometers per hour, not miles per hour. Best case, a sign saying 110 means a rockin’ 68.3 miles per hour, but all too frequently, it’s 80, 70, or even 60 (37.5 miles per hour) on the highway. Adding insult to impediment, there are about a million billboards questioning the manhood of folks who want to go faster, and speed cameras to make sure you don’t.
  • Speaking of speed cameras: I counted 16 of the unholy things on the highway going from Newcastle to Sydney. Apparently, labor costs are so high that Australian traffic enforcement is done almost entirely by robots. Heaven help us all if they ever upgrade to the new ED-209 Enforcement droids.
  • That figure you see immortalized in bronzes everywhere in mall curio shops wearing the armor and bucket-mask and waving six-guns is called Ned Kelly.

    He’s sort of the Australian Billy the Kid, who did his own Maker Faire thing to create a bullet-proof outfit to do battle with the lawmen who were gunning for him. He’d make a great comic book character, and I love to think that if he lived today, he’d relax by paint-balling speed cameras.

  • Australia has amazing wildlife. You can actually walk amongst kangaroos and pet koalas in the zoos. Unfortunately, it’s not all cuddly bears and kangas: I also spotted the largest bug I’ve ever seen materializing out of nowhere and trotting across the floor of our Sydney hotel room. In many ways, Australia is so much like the sunnier parts of California that you forget you’ve left home…”But then sometimes” as Neil sagely put it as he watched me squish the aforementioned bug, “Australia reminds you.”
  • When you look for a place to stay, the magic search term is “motel”, not “hotel”. “Hotels” are often a sort of roadhouse (or casino), and may not offer lodging at all, although they are rumored to be required to give you a place to sleep off whatever you just drank there.
  • Internet can be really tricky to find in a hotel, err, motel room. Often, it’s not available at all, and when it is, the signal is often wireless, weak, and billed at outrageous (by US standards) rates. “Free Internet” advertised with a hotel room often turns out to mean “Free for the first 45 minutes”. If you’ve been Googling for “Hotels” instead of “Motels”, that’s just about long enough to find your next place to stay. In general, however, be prepared to pay an average of $20 for a night’s worth of access, and forget about downloading more than web pages and emails–you’re capped by total data transmitted as well in most places.
  • Go with the wine over the beer–speaking as a proud Californian, the Aussies put together a very decent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or even sparkling wine, at a price not far from what you’d pay back home. With beer, however, it’s a crazy game of all-in alcoholism, with six packs running up to $18 each, but dropping back to $1.25 to 1.50 a bottle as long as you buy the next size up…a 24 (or 30) can slab. I feel like a girl admitting this, but even I’m going to stick with the Zin if the alternative means knocking back a case of beer just to get my “per unit” beer price down to a manageable level!

All in all, an amazing country, and I’d love to go back. The sights are spectacular, and their beaches put ours to shame. Best of all, the people are some of the brightest, friendliest folks I’ve ever met, and they’ve got a terrific spirit which really made the trip a joy.

Australia Road Tripping: Comics and The Candy Bar Conundrum

(edited somewhat after the initial posting to play up brand preference–I had time to sleep on the original article)

As I write this, the Australian dollar is trading for about 93 cents against the US dollar, making my dream vacation in Australia a bit more expensive than it might have been otherwise. Since it’s a family vacation, we’ve been trying to use grocery stores instead of restaurants whenever possible. It leads to a lot of ham sandwich lunches, but it helps to keep the daily food bill out of the triple digits.

Australian food prices are a bit higher than American prices, as you might expect from an island country, but two things in particular have absolutely shocked me: $2.50 candy bars and $3.00 bottles of Coke  ($2.50 for cans).  And those are the big grocery store prices–convenience store prices for a simple Kit Kat bar can run as high as $3.69!

Now, anyone that knows me will testify that getting my daily supply of caffeine trumps all other nutritional values. Give me a couple of gallons of Diet Coke or coffee and I can survive anything, but take away my Diet Cokes and I practically break out in hives. So the idea of paying San Diego Comic-Con prices for Diet Cokes really got me wondering what the story was. And for that matter, what’s the cause for the the triple-price chocolate bars?

Well, let’s start with what it’s apparently not: It’s not a (huge) difference in taxes–everyone I’ve talked to denies the existence of some special tax on Milky Bars that doesn’t equally apply to (relatively cheap) potato chips. It’s also apparently not related to the cost of manufacture: big blocks of high quality Cadbury chocolate are available for about $4, but single-serving Bounty  bars cost only a few cents less.

Finally, there’s not been a vast recent change of the exchange rate, and having looked in every candy store, convenience store, gas station, and grocery store between Brisbane and Sydney, I’m fairly certain it’s not just a case of Pete not knowing where to shop. According to the few Australian friends I’ve got left after bugging them about the price difference this past week, it’s not even a recent phenomenon–it’s been that way as long as anyone can remember.

So what’s the deal? My best guess is partial cartelization of the candy and soft drink market, coupled with brand preference from consumers blunting competitive price pressure. Simply put, a couple of candy makers (M&M/Mars, Nestle, and Cadbury seem to control the Australian candy bar market. (Hersheys failed in its attempt to enter the market). Similarly, PepsiCo and Coca Cola own the soft drink market down under. Other brands do actually exist (and, it turns out, at a tiny fraction of the cost) but they’re little known, little seen, and near-impossible to find in single-serving sizes at convenience stores.

The obvious question in any monopolistic scenario is, “If that’s true, how do they get away with it?”  Not in the sense that Australia needs a National Snack Food Investigative Commission (although my small experience with Australia’s politics suggests that the current Labour government would be only too happy to convene one). No, the real question is why doesn’t some sharp young lad at the competing company simply undercut the overpriced leader and steal their market share?

A bit of that does seem to go on, but only around the edges–the occasional promo involving lesser-ranked brands such as “Buy a Coke for $4 and get any Cadbury bar for just $1!” The highest-ranked brands seem to be largely spared deep, permanent discounting.

This is similar to what Marvel and DC do with their comic prices. Comic books have undergone incredible inflation since the 1970s, and the current $3.99 cover price is more than triple the rate of inflation of those years. (A 35 cent comic book in 1977 should cost about $1.23 today if it kept pace with the overall rate of inflation).

Periodically, Marvel and DC have tried out cut-price titles (such as The Adventures of Spider-Man) and usually discontinue them quickly, citing them as commercial failures. It doesn’t help that the titles in question are usually promoted as “kids versions”, feature second-tier writing or artistic talent, and are usually not even part of the characters’ established continuity.

The real problem comes in the cruel ratio of sales to Cost of Goods Sold. Simplifying a bit overmuch, let’s say you’ve got a comic book that you can print for about $0.50 each and sell to a distributor for about $1.40 (leading to a street price of about $3.99). In theory, 10,000 copies sold gives a gross of $9,000 from which all your fixed costs are paid (writers, artists, marketing, shiny office building, etc.). Note that all the actual figures here are speculative: it’s the proportions that count.

Now let’s say you want to do a special comic line which you’ll sell for less in order to attract more readers. You drop the suggested retail price by a buck, and sell it to the distributor for $1.04 so it can be sold on the street for $2.99. In order to make the same gross, you now need to sell 66% more copies (16,667) in order to break even. Any less, and those extra readers came at a net loss.

A quick look around the net shows that the US price of Snickers
is about $30 for a 48-count box, so let’s guess that M&M/Mars manufactures them for something like 15 cents a bar, and sells them to distribution for twice that: 30 cents. (I’d welcome input from anyone with access to the actual figures). This leads to an individual U.S. candy bar sale price of around a dollar at retail.

Now, historically, the Australian market has proven it’s willing to tolerate retail prices of around $2.50-$3.50 for a single bar of Snickers. It seems that either M&M/Mars or the regional distributor (the candy is apparently made locally, not shipped from offshore) is able to realize relatively fat profit margins of more than double that of the U.S. market. But whether they’re taking the money to the bank, or paying it out in some expense I haven’t tumbled to in this incredibly superficial analysis, it would clearly be a monumental sacrifice to significantly cut the wholesale price in order to drive a markedly lower price at the checkout stand.

If your Cost of Goods Sold is 50%, cutting your end price by 25% means you have to sell twice as many units in order to make the same gross. And this is where brand preference becomes critical. A 1 cent reduction in the cost of some undifferentiated commodity like gasoline or hamburger meat would probably lead me to switch to the competing brand. When I’ve established an actual brand preference for a particular type of good, however, I require far greater incentives to make the switch. For instance, I like both Time Out and Nestle Crunch bars, but I like Nestle Crunch bars a bit more. It’d take a pretty good drop (10 cents? 25 cent? more?) for me to enter a store with a Crunch bar on my mind and walk out with a Time Out instead.

Similarly, a comic reader doesn’t want to read just any story about a super-powered dude in tights–they want Spider-Man or Batman or whatever their favorite character is (and given the number of Spider and Bat titles, they don’t want just any of those as wel)

As a practical matter, brand preferences on the part of consumers virtually guarantee that a price cutting move in order to gain profits through more customers will never be successful in the short term. The sharp young candy man who decides to cut the price of Snickers in the Australian division of M&M/Mars might succeed in taking over the market in time, but only if his boss doesn’t fire him in the intervening years–during which time the division’s profits will have certainly collapsed. Ditto the comic company executive that decides to start pricing flagship X-Men or Batman titles at $2 instead of $3.99. Consumers will buy more copies of their favorite heroes’ titles–but not so many more that it’ll come close to covering the revenue loss–or saving the job of the person who planned the move.

So if price cutting is so terrible for manufacturer’s profit margins, why does it ever happen? And instead of asking why Australian candy bars are so expensive, maybe we should be asking why American candy bars are so cheap?

No doubt there are economies at work in the U.S. market that aren’t available to the Australians, but in any market, the real reason is that competition leaves would-be-monopolists with no choice. One or two companies can make a (probably unspoken) agreement to not got at each other’s pricing too hard in order to protect the margins they’ve got, but if there’s a third (or fourth, fifth, or seventy third) rival in the marketplace, they may be quite willing to cut margins in exchange for a chance to break into the market.

And make no mistake-everyone‘s got competition. Even if there are only three major chocolate bar makers in Australia, and they’ve sort-of-agreed to price fix, they still have to compete against the things people eat in preference to their pricey chocolates. For instance, an Aussie which balks at $3.50 for a Time-Out bar might grab a package of Tim Tams or a bag of  Salt & Vinegar potato chips. Not surprisingly, I was able to determine that Australia ranks below the U.S. in its per capita consumption of chocolate (unknown what percentage is chocolate bars) and I theorize–although it would cost me thousands to look at the industry report which would tell me if I’m right–that they make up for it in their consumption of the relatively cheap salty snacks category. (Or, I suppose, they could just have better diets all round…)

So it just may be that the first major entrants into the Australian chocolate bar market thought that $2.50-$3.50 was a pretty good price for a serving of their product, nobody domestic can afford to kill their own margins by cutting prices enough to overcome brand preference, and those consumer preferences solidified in a way that makes it incredibly expensive to enter the market, distribute nationally, and try to win a piece of the pie for yourself. Even Hershey apparently has decided that’s the case (although the latest word is that they may make a play to buy Cadbury)

And if so, the best recourse for consumers is to cut down on Mars Bars while in Australia, switch over to chips for your junk food needs, and for me to get used to the taste of Regal Cola instead of good old Diet Coke.

Road Trip Report: Home Again

After spending some time with family in northern Florida, we headed west again through New Orleans (still a mess, although the Cafe Du Monde’s beignets were terrific), Texas (amazingly vibrant, and home to some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had), Roswell, New Mexico (exactly like the TV series set, sans actual aliens), Flagstaff, Arizona (where I finally saw the Grand Canyon!), Las Vegas (mind-blowing, especially taking Neil to see the Blue Man Group at the Venetian), then finally… home.

31 days on the road, over 9,000 miles, more cities than I can count, and more amazing things seen than I’ll be able to process for a long, long time. I took over 2,200 pictures during that time, shot a boatload of video, and heaven knows when I’ll ever be able to organize or edit it all down to something reasonable.

A vacation is meant to take you away from your daily life, with all its cares, and let you see something new and refreshing. This vacation certainly did that.

This is an amazing country, and every part of it has something special to offer. I know I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what it would be like to move out to different states, whether that meant soaking in the fresh air, open land, and beauty of Wyoming; living in the midst of the rush and excitement of Manhattan; or setting up my own spread outside of Houston.

But maybe the most unexpected insight I had this whole trip was that Silicon Valley may be exactly where I ought to be. There’s a lot of things about the Bay Area that drive me crazy, and a lot of things that I miss from when I lived in other places I’ve lived, and envy about the places I’ve seen…but as a whole, for me, for this point in my life, I think I’ve chosen a pretty good home, all things considered.

And for now, at least–even with piles of laundry, and hundreds of items in my In Box, it’s good to be home again.

Road Trip Report: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I was in Orlando Florida, having just spent a Bickford-family-record of 1 gerzillion bucks for for a set of two day passes to Disney World, and a 1 day pass to Universal Studios. “Sure, I may wind up in debtor’s prison with expenditures like this” I thought, ”but at least the kids will have the time of their lives…and I’ll finally get to see Space Mountain!”

So, early on Thursday morning, we jumped out of bed and drove, shuttled, and monorailed our way to the Magic Kingdom. And it really was magical: random chorus lines debarked from street cars to perform impromptu musical numbers; fireworks went off in the distance at random intervals; lines were short, and I’d even succeeded in grabbing my FastPass to ride Space Mountain—the ride that had eluded me on every trip I’d taken to Disneyland since I was a wee lad of 8. It was a really terrific day.

Then, as I headed over to Space Mountain to slide into the express line with my FastPass, my cell phone rang. It was Mark, back at the office. “Hey… I just got in and the web site seems to be down.”

“Well, try restarting the server”, I said, thinking some random glitch may have caused things to seize up since I last checked on it some eight hours earlier. I held the line, waiting for Mark’s “All Clear”. But it wasn’t to be.

“Uh… I’m getting a message here on the server about not being able to load the OS…”

“Could you read that too me again?” I asked, not quite believing what I was hearing.

He read it again.

“That’s bad. ” I said, and the warm Florida day suddenly got a lot colder.

What followed was a long series of phone calls while Mark and the crew read cryptic message after cryptic message to me, while I suggested a number of increasingly more complicated troubleshooting steps, all of which failed. The only good news was that we had multiple, current backups of the server.

By the time I got back to the hotel room, we’d essentially ruled out any troubleshooting measure short of a full system restore. But even that ran aground. (Retrospect folks: we really gotta talk about your “disaster recovery” feature…). Shiaw-Ling acted as my hands and ears from afar, working long into the night, while I remoted in to try to get the machine on its feet.

By morning, it looked like we were nearly there, but I still knew I’d have to spend the rest of the day, at best, working on it. The kids (and I will be eternally grateful for this) decided that they didn’t want to do our second day of Disney without their Dad, so they wandered around Orlando while I—having slept all of 50 minutes or so that night—tried and tried to get the server working again from my remote connection.

Alas, I failed in my efforts and, exhausted, I decided around 8 pm that I *had* to get some sleep. I was just no good to anyone. Worse with the weekend ahead of me, there was nobody to reach on the West Coast to do hardware swapping and other such work.

In the morning, I tried a few ideas I’d had overnight, then did the only reasonable thing I could think of: I set the site to forward to a “System is Down” page, and went off to spend the day with my family at Universal Studios.

Universal Studios was also a delight, and the Simpsons Ride alone was almost worth the cost of admission. I’d never been to Universal Studios before, so I had no idea what to expect from any of the attractions, all of which added to my amazement when they all turned out to be so well executed (with the possible exception of the unintentionally hilarious “Twister”). Toward the end of the day, I called Shiaw-Ling at home and asked if she’d be willing to help out from the California end with another go-round at a system restore that night. To her eternal credit, she said yes.

That night, we labored well into the morning and actually succeeded in rolling back the server to precisely the point it was before all the trouble. The only thing missing which prevented us from resuming full operation was the need to get new SSL certificates from our Certification Authority. We put in the request for this, but the CA wasn’t working until Monday. Once again, there was nothing for me to do…so I went back to Disney World and had a great time with the family.

On Monday morning, there was still no word from our CA, but I managed to reach the CA and get the new certificates installed while riding in the passenger seat on the road up from Orlando. Other than a few mail hiccups, we were finally back on our game, after a nervewracking shutdown of almost four days.

So it’s hard to say how I feel about that leg of the trip. It was full of thrills and adventure in the theme park cities; and full of frayed nerves and dismal depression while I worked from an Orlando hotel room by modem to try to restore a machine on the other side of the country. We even contemplated aborting the whole vacation and having me jump a plane to get back to California to get the bloody server back up. I’m glad as heck it never came to that, but for a time, it felt like a near thing indeed.

And in the end, it all worked out. My terrific family stuck by their stressed-out Dad in his time of need (they even found me Dunkin Donuts and coffee for my late night work shifts), my daughter got to meet new BFF Minnie Mouse, and I finally, finally, got to ride Space Mountain with my son. And yes, the ride was everything I’d ever hope it would be. We even got to see the offices of the Daily Bugle and ride along with Spider-Man as he battled the Sinister Six at Universal Islands of Adventure. All’s well that ends well, I guess.

Highway Star: The iBox2Go


I’m travellin’ down that open road, Highway 95 in this case, just south of the Lynard-Skynard Line that separates the Rock states from the Southern Rock states. We’ve left the land of Bruce Springsteen behind some days ago, and are swinging south through Virginia toward the land of .38 Special. Strangely, I’m typing this on a laptop from the passenger seat while the car flies down the road at 65 miles an hour, with the Tom Tom GPS guiding the way toward tonight’s destination in Chapel Hill, and a steady internet connection provided by a fabulous little device called an iBox2Go.

We discovered the iBox2Go about a year ago when we were searching for a way to avoid paying outrageous internet connection fees when we go on the road to trade shows. Normally, 4 days of internet in a convention hall can run well over $1,000 — for a wireless connection!. Additionally, you’re expectetd to shell out another $100/computer for each additional computer that wants to be able to access the net simultaneously. Since we normally go to shows with at least 5 machines, it can add up to a heck of a bill.To avoid this, we’ve tried everything from PC laptop cards to phone or wireless tethering, usually with terrible results. Then we discovered the iBox2Go and our trade show life got a heck of a lot better.

The iBox2Go comes in a little aluminum spy-style case containing the various parts. Basically, it’s a wireless router (with 4 wired connections as well) which uses a USB wireless modem to connect to Sprint’s high speed network from anywhere in the country. Setting up the thing couldn’t be easier: we just plug everything in, stick the included extension antenna someplace, and we’ve got an instant wired network with internet access at near-T1 speeds from most places we’d ever need to exhibit. Flip another switch in the back, and we can extend the network to be wireless as well, letting us share with WEP or WPA security with our laptops. It works like a charm at trade shows, and the $299 we paid (plus $59.99/month internet charge from Sprint) is more than paid for in a single use.

Since we didn’t have any shows coming up on our calendar, I thought I’d borrow it to take along on this trip. Any email, blogging, or forum posting you’ve seen from me in the past two weeks has been thanks to this device. Until now, however, it’s mostly been from hotel rooms–I never tried using it from a moving car until just now when I passed the keys to Carolyn and decided to try catching up on some work while she drives.

Since Neil’s been using his laptop in the back seat to pass the time, this was also the first time we tried plugging in both laptops and the iBox2Go at the same time. Word to the wise: don’t do this–at least not while using the little Black and Decker power inverter we had on hand. The load of two powering-up laptops immediately blew the inverter’s fuse, leaving us with no way to plug in the iBox2Go (which uses a conventional power plug–not an auto-style DC plug).

As a long shot, I tried grabbing the iBox2Go’s USB modem out of the router and plugging it directly into my laptop. I knew that even if it did function as a standalone modem, there was virtually no chance of it working, since my laptop didn’t have the necessary drivers. Best case, I figured, was that I could get back to my hotel room where I could plug it in properly, download the right drivers from the internet, then transfer them to my laptop for later use. But what the heck, let’s try it anyway…

To my astonishment, the iBox2Go’s modem also acted as a USB drive, carrying the proper drivers for installation! Whoever thought of doing that over at Novatel, drop me a note and I will definitely buy you a beer–that was great, great thinking!

So yes, the iBox2Go gets my strongest possible recommendation. I know there are other ways to accomplish some of the same tricks, but the iBox2Go just plain works. It’s been a lifesaver for our company at trade shows, and for this vacation, it’s a real highway star.

Road Road Trip Report: The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.


The last several days have been spent with my parents and family in the Pennsylvania and Maryland. We also used Maryland as a home base to launch the Bickford invasion on Washington, DC over the Columbus Day Weekend.

I’ve never seen DC looking so beautiful (which, if you’ve actually been to DC, can be a shocker of a statement itself–the area outside the government buildings is infamous). But for us, it was nothing but blue skies, perfect weather and–gasp!–free street parking within blocks of the Smithsonian!

We hit the major monuments the first day, including the new World War II memorial (grand and worthy, but a bit of a hodgepodge), and the National Gallery and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum the second (awe-inspiring!). We also got a chance to check out a new addition to the Washington scene: the International Spy Museum.

I’ll admit up front, I was a bit dubious about this one. Admission was $18 for adults and $13 for Neil (Kelly got in free), and there was a separate, similar admission if you wanted to take part in “Operation: Spy”, a sort of in-person spy thriller game (LARP for my geek friends). Moreover, I’d seen a news piece on the place right when it opened, and it seemed to threaten to be just another “look at the cool spy gadgets” museum in a somewhat sterile environment. Nevertheless, Carolyn and Neil really wanted to go, so I caved. I’m glad I did.

In a perfect mix of museum and entertainment, the Spy Museum begins with you entering what looks like a secret, high-security elevator which transports you (amidst appropriate sound effects and lights) to the third floor. There, you’re given a briefing on covers and legends, and encouraged to select one from their dossiers to use throughout your tour of the museum. At various points, you’re quizzed at interrogation computers, and if you pass, are given a spy assignment of your own which you also must memorize.

It’s a shame that photography is prohibited, since the interior of the museum is a real delight, with lifelike displays and rooms depicting everything from Berlin tunnel spying to the rise of the KGB, as well as special displays focusing on spies in everything from the Civil War to movies (and in Hollywood itself–who knew Marlena Dietrich worked for the O.S.S.?). You can even crawl through ductwork at one point and listed to electronic eavesdropping! Videos and computer screens positioned all throughout the museum alternately instructed and quizzed the wannabe intelligence agents on various elements of spycraft, and the whole thing was a total blast.  If I lived anywhere near DC, I might even consider getting the family membership (and now that I’ve gone, I’ll admit I’m curious as heck about Operation: Spy).

Road Trip Report: N.Y.C.


Today was our whirlwind tour of the Big Apple. And though there’s no way you can do justice to a city like New York in a day—or even a month or year—Carolyn and I were determined to see as much as we could of the city in the short time we had.

The day began before 7am when we hustled the kids out of bed and into the car for a harrowing rush hour drive down to Liberty State Park to take the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty was looking terrific—exactly like I remembered her from my own visit some 30 years ago. Unfortunately, just as then, it was impossible to go further up than the base of the statue: a long list of safety concerns appeared on the wall as reasons no one was allowed to go up to visit the crown any more. (30 years ago, I’m not sure if the reason I never saw more than the pedestal view was because it was off limits, or whether my parents, being somewhat sensible, didn’t want to weather the 3-4 hour wait to ascend and descend those stairs). Despite the lack of altitude, it was a beautiful day and made for spectacular views across the harbor to Manhattan.

“Hey! I saw that charmeuse first!”

Once we got back from the park, we hopped a bus to midtown Manhattan and saw the heart of the city. We began at Mood Fabrics, famous from the show Project Runway. Despite its appearance on the show, there doesn’t actually appear to be any sign marking the store, and it’s lucky that Carolyn remembered its address inside a huge high-rise. Inside, an actual elevator operator let us out on the 3rd floor and into what has to be the most insanely complete fabric store on the planet. Carolyn and I gaped at the thousands of bolts of fabrics of all descriptions, and Neil and Kelly even reenacted the “quick, choose your fabrics!” scene that’s key to seemingly every episode of Project Runway.

Giving lie to the New Yorker stereotype, the Mood folks were ridiculously helpful and friendly, and seemed pleased that Project Runway fanboys and fangirls had traipsed all the way from California to ransack their store.

Kelly checking out Tripwire in Midtown Comics’ Magazine Section

Kelly checking out Tripwire in Midtown Comics’ Magazine Section

Making our way uptown, we next encountered Midtown Comics, an absolutely terrific comic shop in the heart of Manhattan. No matter what your tastes are, these guys have you covered, in a friendly, brightly lit store filled floor to ceiling with cool stuff.

ComicBase Pro and Archive Edition at Midtown Comics

ComicBase Pro and Archive Edition at Midtown Comics

As witness to this, I even spotted copies of the terrific British comics magazine Tripwire, as well as stocks of ComicBase Professional and Archive Editions right under the checkout counter. Awesome!

But it got even better: no sooner had we crossed into Times Square and started taking pictures than we were set upon by members of the Microsoft Windows street team who’s been running huge “I’m a PC” advertisements on the giant video screens of Times Square featuring various folks and the things they do with their computers.

“I’m a PC” Ads in Times Square

“I’m a PC” Ads in Times Square

“Want to be in a commercial?” they asked me, pointing up to the big boards.

No dummy me, I had to think this over for some time before answering.“Some time” in this case was precisely 0.00001 seconds, after which I cheerfully answered, “Absolutely!”

Pictures were snapped, arcane legal agreements were clicked through, and sometime tonight, the horrified visitors to Times Square will be greeted with my sixty foot tall mug accompanied by the following legend:

I’m a PC
…and I make the world’s biggest comic book database.

Road Trip Report: Neil Visits MIT


Neil, Carolyn, and Kelly at MIT

Neil, Carolyn, and Kelly at MIT

When I asked Neil which part of the trip he was looking forward to the most, his answer was clear: “MIT! MIT! MIT!” And who could blame him? Thanks to the great folks at MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten lab, Neil actually had a meeting set up to meet with the makers of Scratch, a fascinating programming language he’d been working with for the past few months to make everything from an adventure game to a Lorenz Attractor simulator. Saying Neil was excited about this is like saying I’d sorta enjoy finding a near mint copy of Marvel Comics #1 in my attic.

The MIT Bookstore

The MIT Bookstore

We all got up early and headed over to Cambridge to the MIT campus so we’d be there in plenty of time for the meeting. Beforehand, we killed a bit of time at the Coop bookstore, where Neil scored an MIT T-Shirt, and Kelly discovered the quite delightful book “Goodnight Goon”, a Halloween-style take on Goodnight Moon. We decided the book was a keeper after she read it five times in the bookstore alone. (My personal favorite part is the “Goodnight Martians Taking Over the Moon…” page with its wonderfully lurid space alien drawings)

At 11:30, we headed over to the legendary Media Lab, where the basement was home to a LEGO learning lab, as well as the “Lifelong Kindergarten” project.

The Lifelong Kindergarten Lab

The Lifelong Kindergarten Lab

In addition to Scratch’s team lead Mitch Resnick, Neil had a chance to meet with John and Evelyn, the lead programmers. They asked Neil about his projects, how he’d discovered various features of the program, and let him in on their plans for upcoming versions of the software. It was a really great time, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Neil’s already mentally preparing his admissions essays for MIT. Of course, before we ship Neil off to Massachussetts for college, I’m going to have to insist that he at least look at Cal-Tech: it’s closer to home, and I hear awfully good things about their robotics program. Luckily, he’s got a few years to decide (and we’ve got a few years to figure out how the heck to pay the kerjillion-dollar-per-year tuition at both schools!)

Neil and the Scratch Team

Neil and the Scratch Team