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Technology on Vacation

We’re finally caught up from our vacation on Kauai, Hawaii, and as much as I wish I could say that it was a truly relaxing and wonderful time, in reality I was utterly sick for all but the last few days, which put a major crimp in affairs. Nonetheless, if you have to sit around doing nothing, Kauai is as nice a place as you could imagine for that, and I’d recovered enough by the end to enjoy a few days in the sun, sand, and surf.

But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about today. For many of us, vacations are no longer technology-free zones. I travel with quite a lot of technology these days, and I found the ways in which I used the various devices quite interesting. I’m not sure there are any big conclusions here, but perhaps you can draw a few lessons from my experiences.

Westernmost Wi-Fi — We stayed at the Waimea Plantation Cottages, a resort built from the simple cottages of sugar plantation workers, and although the cottages themselves were rustic, the resort’s courtly main building offered free wireless Internet access. Since neither Tonya nor I was comfortable being entirely away from email for nine days, we were happy to toddle over to the main building’s common area, settle down in a comfortable chair in a shady breezeway, and take advantage of a high-speed Internet connection. Given that Waimea is on the western coast of Kauai near the end of the road that snakes around Kauai, and Kauai is the westernmost of the Hawaiian islands (other than the "Forbidden Island" of Niihau, which is privately owned), this may be the westernmost public hot spot in the United States.


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We preferred not having the Wi-Fi access in our cottage, since that ensured that our Internet use was extremely discreet. It also meant that one of us had to stay with our son Tristan at all times, so we couldn’t both be off working for any amount of time.

Yet Another Spam Problem — The high-speed Internet access turned out to be essential for getting anything done, for the simple reason that the amount of spam I receive has grown to the point where a modem connection simply wouldn’t be sufficient. I’m averaging over 700 spam messages per day now, and although SpamSieve continues to do an excellent job of keeping more than 99.7 percent them out of my In box, it’s still a ton of data to transfer. I was checking mail about once per day, and Eudora never downloaded fewer than 1,000 messages in a mail check.


It’s clear that as much as SpamSieve is a great tool, I have to start working on server-side solutions that work with our Web Crossing mail server to manage the ever rising flood of spam. Confusing the issue are all the worm messages sent to me by others, and the bounces from worm messages that forge my address.

Digital Images — For the trip, we bought a Canon PowerShot S400 to supplement our aging PowerShot S100, and as much as I liked the PowerShot S100, I like the S400 even more. It improves on the S100 in a variety of ways, upping the pixel count to 4 megapixels and the optical zoom to 3X, and adding movie and panorama modes. It’s faster to start up, faster between shots, and works better in macro mode, all of which were slight frustrations with the S100. In fact, the only thing I don’t like as much about S400 is that the mode wheel often turns in my pocket, so I can never be sure exactly what mode I’m in when I pull it out. (Even the S400 has been supplanted by the 5-megapixel PowerShot S500, but that camera wasn’t worth the extra $150 when I was ready to buy).



I’ve become inordinately fond of the tiny movies the S400 takes, which remind me of nothing so much as the old home movies of yesteryear. They’re short and grainy, and I don’t care one bit. There’s something about being able to take a movie of Tristan rolling down a sand dune that just can’t be captured by a still image. Although a digital camcorder would of course have done a better job, I don’t believe any of the current models will fit in my pocket, nor will any take still photos as good as the S400. Plus, the limited space for movies on my S400’s 256 MB Compact Flash card ensures I won’t just spend the entire day behind the lens, looking for that perfect clip.

I eagerly await the day when processing power and storage have become so commonplace that we’ll be able to extract still images from video without a loss of quality. So many pictures are lost because the shutter snapped at just the wrong moment, but if every photo could actually be a few seconds of video, it would be much easier to avoid the closed eyes or the goofy expression.

iPhoto Limitations — I hadn’t quite internalized the level to which one of iPhoto’s limitations can be annoying if you use your camera for movies as well as still images. iPhoto handles only still images, and if you make it your default hot plug application (the application that launches automatically when you plug in your camera), it’s easy to forget that you have movies on the camera. That’s especially problematic if you don’t use iPhoto’s "Erase Camera Contents After Transfer" option when importing photos. I’ve seen that setting cause problems in previous versions of iPhoto, so I always used to recommend erasing the card in the camera after you were sure that iPhoto had downloaded everything properly. Unfortunately, that technique, coupled with forgetting about movies, meant that I accidentally erased a really nice movie I took during my sister’s wedding ceremony. iPhoto won’t erase movies, so it’s actually safer to let it erase photos if you trust it in general.

Image Capture, Apple’s other application for downloading photos, will properly download movies to your Movies folder (yet another way, along with selective import, that it beats iPhoto for importing), but it’s annoying to have it be the hot plug application if you don’t take movies all the time. [You can change the default hot plug application using Image Capture’s preferences. -Geoff] A partial solution comes in the form of the free Camera Helper utility from the folks at Script Software; Camera Helper sets itself as the hot plug application and displays a dialog of applications to launch, so you can easily choose between iPhoto and Image Capture for any given import action. I’d like to see Camera Helper launch Image Capture and have it automatically download movies, then launch iPhoto and have it automatically download photos.


Photo Recovery — I was so annoyed at myself for erasing that movie accidentally that I spent some time trying to figure out if I could recover it. My efforts were in vain, since I’d taken quite a number of photos since erasing, but I tried the demos of a pair of applications that claimed to be able to recover deleted (though not overwritten) photos on memory cards.

If you find yourself in this situation, give both PhotoRescue and Don’t Panic a try. I preferred PhotoRescue, since its demo showed you what it could recover, and you could then buy the full $30 program if it was going to help. Don’t Panic was clumsier and cost more at $40, but it seemed that it would have worked as well, had I not already overwritten the movie I wanted to recover.

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Different Perspectives — Now that the S100 is no longer our only digital camera, we started letting Tristan use it. He’s over five years old now, and with only a small amount of training, has proven capable of being sufficiently careful with the camera so we’re not afraid of him destroying it. It’s fascinating watching him take pictures and immediately look at them on the LCD; in another technological shift, people of his generation won’t really understand what it was like to see photos only after developing the film days, weeks, or, for people like my parents, months later.

His perspective is also completely different. His pictures of people often don’t make it up to the face, perhaps because when you’re 43 inches (1.1 meters) tall, you don’t see faces nearly as much. He’s also much more likely to take extreme close-ups of commonplace objects, and he has little concern for keeping the camera straight. And yet, his sense of composition is often quite good; I wonder if we’ll see a shift in photographic approaches as young photographers who grew up with the freedom of the digital world start entering the field.

Better Photo Sharing — iPhoto 4 added Rendezvous photo sharing, which is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t quite meet a need I’ve run into on several occasions recently. Most of my relatives have digital cameras as well, so at any family gathering of any significance, it’s likely that several people will bring their cameras and take photos that we’d all like to share. I always have a media card reader that accepts all the different media card formats, but it’s sufficiently slow and involved to dump the photos into iPhoto (or any other program; both USB and the media cards are quite slow, though I’m not sure which is the bottleneck) that it seldom works out well to collect everyone’s photos into a single place.

I don’t have any great solutions here, since trading photos around on the spot would often intrude upon the event, even if the speeds were faster and everyone had brought laptops. Perhaps an iPod with a Belkin Media Reader would work, since it could just download all the photos with a minimum of fuss. Or perhaps the trading should happen after everyone has gone home and winnowed out the mistakes; if iPhoto’s photo sharing could operate over the Internet as well as a local network, at least those people with Macs and high-speed Internet connections could trade photos back and forth with ease.

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Of course, if I were to start storing photos on the iPod, then I’d really begin to long for an iPod with a color screen that could display those photos as well, perhaps even with a FireWire to RCA composite video for connecting them to television screens. Tonya’s mother is organizing a reunion for her high school right now, and I can just imagine an iPod-based photo viewer being just the thing for a proud grandmother to show off photos of her kids and grandkids. But Apple has resisted such enhancements so far, merely making it possible for third parties to extend the iPod’s capabilities for storing photos and recording sound.

iPod Irritation — One of the reasons I was enthused about joining the ranks of iPod owners was that my old iBook’s hard disk wasn’t large enough to hold much music at all for listening to on planes or in hotel rooms. At the time, I addressed the problem by burning an MP3 CD of some of my favorite songs; it was more than enough for almost any trip. But even though I’m now using a 12" PowerBook with a much larger hard disk, I figured the iPod would let me bring my entire music collection without worrying about wasting disk space at all.

However, there was a problem. I could listen to the iPod through its earbuds, which I hate because they hurt my ears, or through a pair of Koss headphones that are somewhat less uncomfortable (maybe I just have weird ears, but I’ve never found a pair of headphones comfortable), but I couldn’t just play it through my PowerBook’s speakers. And since my iPod normally connects to my Power Mac G4, it wouldn’t even show up in iTunes on the PowerBook.

I wasn’t annoyed enough to trek over to the Wi-Fi connection to research solutions on the Internet, but when I came home, I found an answer in the fourth edition of Chris Breen’s excellent book, Secrets of the iPod. An $8 utility called PodMaster 1000 from Flying Mouse Software lets you copy music from your iPod back to a Mac, and better yet, it lets you play songs from the iPod through the connected Mac’s speakers.

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Personal Communication — Cell phones don’t work terribly well in many parts of Ithaca, so we use ours much less than we would otherwise. Nonetheless, Tonya and I still have our landline phone numbers forward to our cell phones on no answer or busy, ensuring that we always receive calls no matter where we are and eliminating the need to check multiple voicemail services. Our cell phones proved their worth on this trip in particular, though, since our first flight from Ithaca to Pittsburgh was delayed for 90 minutes due to thunderstorms in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, that 90 minute delay meant there was no way we could get to Kauai in one day, since we had missed the necessary connecting flights. Faced with the need to try again the next day, we decided it made more sense to start over from the west coast. The US Airways people in Ithaca were more than accommodating (it probably helped having a cute kid announcing to everyone in sight that he was going to his aunt’s wedding to be the ring bearer) and so when we suggested that perhaps we could fly through Seattle, they made it happen even though it was more flights than were strictly necessary.

But that meant an opportunity to arrange a dinner with old friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen in years. I spent most of our layover time in Pittsburgh and Chicago on the cell phone, calling friends and having conversations along the lines of this. "Hi, this is Adam. Up for dinner tonight?" <Insert a brief pause to enjoy some incoherent stammering as the person on the other tried to overcome the geographical head rush.> "Where am I? Chicago at the moment, but we’ll be in Seattle for dinner soon, so we hope you can meet us at the Red Robin by the University Bridge at 7 PM." It’s fun to pretend to be in the jet set.

Our friend Lauren picked us up at the airport, and we were overjoyed to eat and catch up with 12 other friends before heading home with Brady (our attorney in the spam lawsuit) and his wife Karen, who works at Apple and could take us to the airport the next morning since she was flying to Cupertino at the same time we were set to pick up our trek to Hawaii again. We’ve never had such a good time as a result of a delayed flight.

Even after we landed in Kauai, the walkie-talkie nature of cell phones turned out to be incredibly useful, given the number of relatives present for the wedding and the need to coordinate activities and locations on a constant basis.

The Mac Connection and the Blue Room — As our relatives dispersed after the wedding, we had two days to ourselves, so we spent one playing on the beach at Polihale at the end of the road on the west end of Kauai. It was the classic day at the beach, walking on the sand, playing in the waves, building sand castles, and burying Tonya to her neck (she loved the warm sand). The next day, however, we changed gears and drove up to the north end of the island to meet up with Julian Miller, who runs the Macintosh software publisher Script Software (which is how I learned about Camera Helper, mentioned above). I’ve known Julian slightly from Macworld Expos for years, but Tonya had never met him and it was pure happenstance that I learned that he lived on Kauai – when I was interviewing Bruce Horn several months ago, Bruce was actually on vacation on Kauai, visiting Julian as well.

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In between the necessary geek talk (Kauai isn’t a high-tech kind of place), Julian showed us the beach at Hanalei, and when it started to rain, convinced us that we really did want to drive the last 15 minutes to the end of the road on the north side. We ended up at that beach, which was a good beach, even a fine beach, but the brief stop on the way was what was etched in our memories.

At some point on the road, Julian told me to park, and led the way up a steep and rocky path, then helped Tristan down into a huge cave entrance. At the bottom of the cave was a massive pool of fresh water, and if you braved the chilly temperature and swam out to the back of the cave, the light from outside filtered through the clear water, producing an astonishingly beautiful blue light. The Blue Room, as it’s called, is reportedly the end of a two-mile long lava tube once explored by diving legend Jacques Cousteau, though I could find no confirmation of that on the Web. Nevertheless, it’s wonderful, and if you ever find yourself on Kauai, don’t miss it.

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Unfortunately, the Blue Room was so large that my S400’s flash couldn’t begin to light it, forcing me to hold the camera very still for a slow shot. And without the optional waterproof case (which a friend used recently on a snorkeling trip), I didn’t even consider taking the camera to the back of the cave to see if I could capture the intense blue color filtering through the water. You can see my semi-successful attempts (Tonya wasn’t about to stand still in that frigid water) and other pictures from those last two days, if you like, on .Mac. Beware that if too many people visit the page, it may be shut down temporarily for going over the bandwidth allocation – I figure that our vacation photos are of less general interest than some other pictures I’ve posted.

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Nonetheless, some things weren’t meant to be recorded by technology, and we’ll have to rely on our memories of the Blue Room and of a truly enjoyable day with Julian, proving once again how enjoyable Macintosh folks can be.

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