As I packed for a trip last June, my wife looked into my suitcase. She noted that while she usually brings extra clothes and accessories when traveling, "you seem to pack wires." Sure enough, my shirts, pants, and toiletries were shoved into a corner, overwhelmed by an Ethernet hub and cables, a USB trackball, a keyboard, headphones, and assorted unidentifiable Mac flotsam. She hadn't yet seen my briefcase.
I was preparing for three long days in a Toronto hotel putting together a daily newsletter for the large annual conference of the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). I would attend sessions, take notes and photographs, write and edit articles, and lay out three four-page issues, distributed overnight to the hundreds of physicians attending, with highlights of the previous day and pointers for the new one.
A year before, in 2001, I had also been the editor in my home city of Vancouver. But in 2000, it had taken three people from another firm to do a similar job.
Sharpening the Axe -- Abraham Lincoln reportedly said that, given eight hours to chop down a tree, he'd spend six sharpening his axe. My experience at the previous CPS conference prodded me to take Abe's advice. I've never owned a laptop, so I started by renting a PowerBook G4 from Vancouver's Mac Station a few days before my flight.
Simply installing the software I planned to use - the latest versions of Mac OS X 10.1 and 9.2, fonts, flash card reader drivers, iPhoto, iTunes, Palm Desktop, WordSmith, Photoshop, GraphicConverter, PageMaker, Acrobat Distiller, BBEdit, Office X, Toast Titanium, FTP software, Samba X, Mozilla, and Internet Explorer - took the better part of a day.
Only PageMaker, Acrobat Distiller, and my older Photoshop 5 had to run in Classic mode. Everything else ran natively under Mac OS X, which I was determined to use because it multitasks properly. Next came documents from my old Power Mac G3, including newsletter templates, logos and photos, and MP3 files.
Finally, I tested: Could I write an article in BBEdit or on my Palm IIIxe and transfer it cleanly into PageMaker? Would photos import from my borrowed Canon PowerShot G2 digital camera via the card reader and GraphicConverter?
Would PageMaker export PDF files with all fonts properly embedded? Could I burn readable CD-Rs? Did email and FTP work? Could I see Windows machines on a network? If possible, could I do things in multiple ways in a pinch - Word instead of BBEdit, Toast over Disc Burner, GraphicConverter rather than Photoshop, broadband or dialup?
Whew! I was wiped out.
I over-prepared because I had almost no margin of error, and some things that had gone well out of sheer luck the year before might not go so smoothly half a continent away. Of course, I still had to fly out and do the job. And I seemed to be developing a cold.
Leaving on a Jet Plane -- My luck persisted on departure day. My cold was holding off. I found no lineup for my discount Air Tango flight's automated check-in. Security cleared my bag full of wires, and I had an empty chair next to my window seat.
Toronto was a muggy 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). The sky poured rain like a bathroom shower over my airport hotel, where I spent my only free night checking email, double-checking my preparations, having a swim, and compiling a short slide show in iMovie using photos I'd taken on the plane, to mail back to my wife and kids.
At home, we've had a DSL Internet connection since 1998, and it has spoiled me. Watching the movie upload take 15 minutes to crawl its way through the hotel's dialup line would be a sad lesson for my next few days. High-speed Internet connections have not yet spread widely enough in hotel chains for the wired (or wireless) business traveler.
Hit the Ground Running -- The next morning, a bus brought me to the Westin Harbour Castle, on the Lake Ontario waterfront. It was too early to check in to my room, so I said hi at the conference office, locked the PowerBook to a desk, and got started. I found it easiest to wander the conference centre with the G2 camera in one hand and my Palm and its folding keyboard in my pocket.
I took plenty of notes in the WordSmith word processor (see my review in TidBITS-604) and shot hundreds of photos.
As at many large conferences, several meeting sessions ran concurrently at a time. Sometimes I sat in on an entire session - such as a particularly interesting seminar on how premature babies frequently become blind during infancy and childhood. In other instances, I flitted between sessions, noting key snippets and taking a few photos. The Canon G2's wide-aperture lens and reasonably powerful flash were especially helpful in the dark seminar rooms.
Once I was able to move into my hotel room, I set up a mini-office at the provided desk (see the photo below). Alas, although there was a fresh Ethernet jack in the wall, the hotel hadn't yet connected it to anything. Dialup it would be. I tried to configure my setup as ergonomically as I could. I wanted to avoid the consequences of the previous year, where I had perched a PowerBook 1400 on a table and given myself a repetitive strain injury in my wrists. I had taken months to recover fully (TidBITS published a number of articles on the topic years ago that are still relevant).
The Digital Grindstone -- The next three days fell into a solid routine. I spent the morning and afternoon moving between sessions. During breaks I returned to my room, synchronized my Palm, and transferred photos to the PowerBook. After dinner I wrote articles, cropped and resized pictures, and gradually filled up the PageMaker template. Around 9 or 10 at night I would proofread and edit onscreen, then call in Elizabeth Moreau, my key CPS staff contact, to look over the "beta" version before making last-minute changes and distilling the final PDF file.
CPS had arranged a cost-effective but convoluted printing process. The Westin has a Business Centre in the basement, but its main facility is at another downtown hotel a couple of kilometres away.
I was to email them the print-ready PDF no later than 11 PM, at which point they would print it there from a Windows computer, photocopy it, and drive it back to the Westin for distribution in the middle of the night. I finished the first issue by 10:55 PM - lots of time. But while the file was only a few megabytes large, it took an excruciating twelve minutes to dribble through the dialup wire. I resolved to finish earlier the next evening.
It turned out that, unlike the direct-from-digital copies made at Kinko's the previous year, the greyscale photos I had prepared didn't copy well on the Business Centre's equipment. So the second night I tried a halftone screen. The resulting PDF for the second newsletter was a slightly larger file - too big for my email gateway, which tried to bounce the whole document back to me through the glacial dialup line. I aborted the download, phoned the friendly guy at the Business Centre downtown, burned the PDF to a CD-R disc instead, and walked the two kilometres to meet him and deliver it by hand at midnight.
The next morning, the super-fine screened photos looked even worse. So for the final issue, I tried a very coarse screen, which worked acceptably and shrunk the PDF significantly for a flawless (for once) email transmission. Although I never was happy with how the photos printed, people still liked the writing and information. You can see the final PDFs yourself, along with their 2001 counterparts, on my Web site:
Lessons -- The high-end PowerBook and camera were worth the effort and expense, since being able to generate PDFs quickly, as one example, kept me from being horrendously late with my final files, especially after the second night's email runaround. My attention to ergonomics and obsessive pre-trip planning saved my wrists and sanity, respectively. Being able to run several computationally intense tasks simultaneously was a great help. (The PowerBook 1400c I had rented in 2001 couldn't even play MP3s with only the media player running.) Tylenol Cold Daytime is remarkably effective medicine, but it keeps you up if you use it at night. And I really don't like dialup anymore.
My bag full of wires also wasn't wasted. On my last day, as a side project, I used it to hook up the PowerBook G4 to the Business Centre's high-speed Internet connection, then download and conglomerate several PowerPoint files into a single presentation. I put it on a hybrid CD-R that a rushed physician could read on her laptop when presenting later that afternoon, all in less time than downloading the files through dialup would have taken.
The CPS staff were happy I could accommodate the extra request between my newsletter work. By the time I flew home and took some lovely aerial photos on the approach to Vancouver, my clients had offered to fly me to Calgary next year. Even though it involves several 16-hour days in a city distant from my family, the job does pay well, and meeting the challenge is fun, especially by showing that one man and a Mac really can do the work of three people, sometimes.
[Derek K. Miller spends his days in Vancouver with his two preschool-age daughters, his weekends playing drums in a retro-sixties band, and his other time writing, editing, and hanging out with his wife, who still wonders about all those wires. He has a weblog too.]
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