Tight Angles at 30,000 Feet

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I’m sure I’m not the first person to think that economy class seats are getting smaller. This is me trying to do some writing on my ThinkPad when the person in front had her seat in recline mode. Forget about it. It’s impossible to lift the screen any higher than this (it’s a Malaysian Airlines plane.)

So what’s the answer? I want something I can type on when the muse strikes wherever I am, without worrying about space or whether I’m going to be told by attendants I can’t use the device because it’s really a phone.

I’m trying to get a new iGo ThinkOutside keyboard (spilt coffee over the last one) and was wondering whether a Palm LifeDrive might be the answer. Any thoughts? I’d like to have something with a bit of space on the screen and on the drive itself.

The Death of Writing

James Fallows points out that not everybody back in 1980 believed the computer would replace the typewriter as a writing implement, and that his prediction that the device would be useful incurred the wrath of, among others, the late David Halberstam. James offered to write some articles on a computer, some on a typewriter, and offer a prize to anyone who could tell the difference. No-one took him up.

I recall Bruce Chatwin saying that he could always tell which books had been written on a word processor and which hadn’t. And, funnily enough, I disagree with James’ assertion that:

As is obvious to everyone now, but as was not obvious to most people then, the “sound” of people’s writing is overwhelmingly their own sound, not that of the ThinkPad or the quill pen or the Number 2 pencil or even, gasp, the Macintosh.

I don’t think the ‘sound’ is the issue. The real difference between the two technologies is that a computer transfers some of the creating process from the head to its RAM. Anyone who has written on a typewriter will know that it’s less painful to compose before committing anything to the page, since the price of correction is so high. So the words, once they come out are much more likely to be the final words one uses. Computers meanwhile, allow indefinite revision, so the composition process takes place on the screen.

 I’m not saying one is better, although I think I probably wrote better when I had a typewriter. I used to take more care over my words; I definitely wrote less, too, which has to have been a good thing. When I joined the BBC in 1987, we only had manual typewriters, and my colleagues looked down their nose at my Canon Typestar, which allowed me to compose a line in the tiny LCD before committing it to the paper. In retrospect, I think they were right: My writing went downhill from then on.

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Foiling EMI

Further to my rant yesterday about digital rights management, my friend Mark tells me that getting around the Coldplay X&Y copy protection is easy — just rip it on a Mac. He’s right, at least for me: Works like a dream, after no joy at all on two ThinkPads.

This may not be true with all copies of the CD. I bought mine in Hong Kong in 2005, although it appears to be imported from Europe. A piece on ConsumerAffairs says the “CD’s restrictions also prevent it from being played or copied on Macintosh PCs.” Some folk reported problems playing it on their Macs.

Hopefully this idiocy will not last much longer. Boing Boing reported a couple of weeks ago that EMI was apparently ending copy protection on new CDs, although I’ve not seen anything since. If this is true, I suggest we all send our Coldplay and other copy protected CDs back to EMI and demand copies without DRM on them.

ThinkPad Joins the Exploding Laptop Parade?

Looks like the days of the laptop (and perhaps other gizmos) on airlines are numbered. First, Virgin becomes the third airline [CNET news] to place restrictions on Apple and Dell laptops, allowing them on planes only if the battery [Virgin site] has been removed, wrapped and stored in carry-on luggage. (Qantas and Korean Air have already placed restrictions [CNET news].) You can use the laptops from a power source in some instances on these airlines.

But this story doesn’t seem to be going away. A person posted a story on the Awful Forums (the account is also posted on Gizmodo.) alleging that an “IBM laptop” (presumably a ThinkPad, now owned by Lenovo) caught fire on a United plane boarding at Los Angeles airport. The passenger reportedly ran up the gangway from the plane dropping his laptop on the floor of the departure lounge where “the thing immediately flares up like a giant firework for about 15 seconds, then catches fire”. The owner, apparently, had checked his battery against a list of those of these being recalled, and it wasn’t on it.

Notebook Review has this to say: “An incident like this makes you wonder how long it is before in flight laptop use when running on batteries is just banned altogether.  Which would be a black eye to both the airline and notebook industry.” I’d tend to agree.

IBM. It’s About the Service, Stoopid

I’m no great fan of big companies. They’re rarely innovative, their products are lousy, and unless you know how to get around them, they don’t like talking to customers. But some get it. Or at least, they used to.

When I came out to Indonesia a second time, in 1998, I did two things. I got an IBM ThinkPad, and I signed up for IBM.net, a dial-up service. I did this because I knew that IBM had first-rate customer support out here (across Asia, actually). I didn’t care I had to pay a little more for both; I knew that if anything went wrong with my computer, there would be some cool, good-humored, sartorially challenged techie guy to help me out. And if I couldn’t get my modem to connect, someone would walk me through it, helped by some simple but effective dialer software.)

Well, first off, IBM.net is now AT&TGlobal, and has been since late 1998. AT&T have been pretty good at maintaining standards, actually, although I noticed on a recent trip that they still don’t have any local number in Thailand or Cambodia, and when I tried to dial a number in the Philippines, I got some weird error message that the help desk couldn’t decipher either. Or I couldn’t decipher the help desk’s explanation; I have a sneaky suspicion you don’t get local support anymore. In fact, I still don’t understand the message:

 NOTE: Due to Network Restrictions, if you are not a user who is registered for the service in this country, please contact this country´s helpdesk for access authorization. The helpdesk number for this Country can be found by visiting our Contact Us page.

What does that mean? Network Restrictions? Huh? Bleurrgh. (In fact, come to think of it, for a ‘Global’ service, AT&TGlobal’s not that global: couldn’t find numbers for 11 out of 20 Asian countries. Is this a sign of WiFi’s dominance, or just that places like Laos and Brunei don’t matter?).

Anyway, now with Lenovo owning ThinkPad, are we going to see declining service there? David Weinberger recently explained Why I’m taking my Thinkpad, not my Powerbook, with me on the road only to add at the end:

But wait! The Mac has a late surge! IBM received my broken ThinkPad on Nov. 17 but has to wait until Nov 30 to get in a newhard drive. So I’m taking my Mac with me to Europe after all. That is totally sucky service from IBM. It used to be actually good. Is this an isolated incident or are they headed the way of Dell?

Well, I must here put in a good word for the IBM guys here in Jakarta. One guy called Halim in particular is always there way after everyone else has gone home, smiling past a sea of monitors and disemboweled ThinkPads. I have to take one in again to him tomorrow which seems to have suddenly lost all its networking skills. I know the feeling.

Anyway, my point (there’s always a point) is that IBM understood — past tense, but judgement suspended — that you keep the customer happy by keeping the customer happy. It doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect product, but it does mean making them feel that if something goes wrong, their panic attacks will be taken seriously. It’s customer service plain and simple and in this big networked world it’s still possible, because I remember IBM doing it. Once.

RAMming Home An Old Point

For many of you this is a no-brainer but maybe some folk might find it helpful. I had to switch laptop the other day while one was being fixed and was horrifed to find how slow the replacement was. Every program, every file, every function loaded slowly and the hard drive was stuttering along despite being well-defragged and with plenty of spare space.

Of course, it was the RAM (computer memory, where programs operate, rather than hard drive storage, where they hang out between bouts of action). Why IBM ThinkPads com come with only 256 MB of RAM as standard baffles me. Unless you’re running absolutely nothing, my experience has been that it’s just not enough to get you into Windows, let alone do any serious work.

The good news is that it’s really, really easy to add another 256 MB, just by unscrewing the bottom and slotting it in. Do it. Given it’ll cost you less than $100 it’s worth it. Now I’m back to 512 MB and I’m very, very grateful. Now the question is: Is it worth adding another wodge of RAM? My technical advisor says not.