Journal: News & Comment

Sunday, June 16, 2002
# 6:04:00 PM:

Death to dialup

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[Written Saturday, June 15, 2002, 11:35:28 AM]

This past week, it's been sunny and warm -- sometimes genuinely hot, like 30 degrees Celsius hot -- at my house in Vancouver. Real summer weather. I know this because my wife has told me about it and I've seen it on the news. I've been in Toronto, a few thousand kilometres east, where it's been foggy, raining, windy, and mostly fairly cool. (Okay, Thursday was nice -- 20 degrees and sunny. But two days earlier, when I arrived, the city was like a shower you couldn't step out of, with a raging downpour in 32-degree temperatures. Ugly.)

As I write this journal entry, I'm moving westward at about 800 kph, 10 km above the ground in an Airbus 320 jetliner, on my way home. I see lakes below, American ones, and can just detect that the horizon is slightly curved up there in Canada somewhere. My, the Prairies are flat.

I just spent three solid days creating daily newsletters for the 79th annual meeting of the Canadian Paediatric Society, which comprises pediatricians and other child health experts from across the country. It was my second year in a row as a one man band note-taker, writer, editor, photographer, and layout technician for this project, and the first time I've been flown somewhere to write stuff -- my first editorial business trip for my own company. (I was flown to New York City with my bandmates for a show in December 2000, and I'd been on a few plane trips for other jobs before that.)

Staying awake and in touch

Since Monday morning, I've had a total of 19 hours sleep or so, yet I'm strangely un-tired. The cold I developed last weekend hasn't gone away yet, however, and I suspect I will sleep very deeply tonight before I have to pack up the car and drive to West Vancouver to play the drums again. My wife has had it harder, with her and our two daughters all hammered by the same cold, and bacterial ear and sinus infections stemming from it. Fortunately, my in-laws and parents gave her a lot of help. I think I managed to avoid the worst of it by the force of will required by my knowledge that there was no room for error during my editing contract, and getting sick meant losing several thousand dollars and maybe future business too.

My wife and I talked on the phone daily, and e-mailed, and sent a few instant messages to one another, but not as much as I would have liked to, because even though I had a "Guest Office" in my room, the Internet connection was a simple dialup data port in the side of the telephone, for which the hotel charged $1.50 per call (up to one hour). Even though there is ADSL high-speed Internet available in the business centre at the base of the hotel, it hasn't migrated its way up into the rooms of the Westin Harbour Castle yet, much less my spot on the 34th floor. There was a networking port in the wall, but it wasn't hooked up. (The view was pretty good though.)

At home, we've had a high-speed Internet connection since 1998. I'm now so used to being able to e-mail, chat with my wife when she's at her computer at work, browse the Web, transfer files, and generally stay connected that having to dial up, monitor my connection time, and wait 15 minutes for a 2.3 MB file to upload is tremendously frustrating. (I'm a long way from thinking that 300 bits per second was as fast as anyone would ever want, as I did in 1983.)

Don't go back

Here's how spoiled I am by broadband Internet: quite routinely, I'll be looking for a program to install, and while I know I have it on a CD-R somewhere, or even maybe buried on my computer's hard drive, I'll just go to the Web site and download it again, because that's simpler, faster, and more convenient. The file could be 15 MB, and it still only takes a few minutes. If I'd tried that in my hotel room, I would have had to wait an hour and a half.

Actually, I did try it. Elizabeth, a conference organizer, asked me to put a PowerPoint presentation for one of the doctors on a CD, since my technologically beefy rented PowerBook has a built in CD burner. Staff in the business centre would e-mail me the files. Fine with me, I said.

Now, the night before, I had tried to e-mail another file, for printing that night's newsletter, to another office of the business centre -- but it was too big (5 MB) and bounced back. The e-mail server kindly decided to return the whole 5 MB file to me in another e-mail, so I cancelled the transmission, ended up burning a CD with the file, walked the eight blocks into the heart of downtown Toronto from the waterfront at midnight, dropped it off, grabbed a Tim Horton's coffee, and walked back to the hotel -- all in less time than the file would have taken to travel the same distance (detoured through my e-mail server in Vancouver) and back over wires.

So now we're back to the PowerPoint files -- all 9 MB (!) of them. (What is it with PowerPoint? I looked at the presentation later, and I could have compressed it into another format less than 1 MB in size.) My 5 MB bounce-back was still waiting for me to download it (attempts to delete it without downloading failed), and the 9 MB of PowerPoint was in queue behind that. Again, an hour and a half's worth, if the connection didn't get interrupted.

No way. Having come prepared, I schlepped downstairs with the PowerBook and small bag of networking equipment I'd stashed in my suitcase, just in case.* After fighting with the business centre's setup for about 25 minutes (with their permission), I had hooked into their ADSL connection, but not into their internal network, where the files I needed lived. So I downloaded my e-mail (5 MB bounce-back, plus only 6 of the 9 MB of PowerPoint, it turns out) in a couple of minutes, and then transferred the one remaining file from their network to my file server in Vancouver. Then I downloaded the file from Vancouver to my PowerBook on the next desk. I had reassembled the PowerPoint presentation, burned it to CD, given it to Elizabeth, and come back to my room in less time than the download alone would have taken on the dialup connection in the room, if it worked at all.

Technology and people

So I had to stick with the telephone for talking to my wife, for which the hotel charged another hefty long-distance fee, and occasional e-mails. I tried my cellular phone too, but reception was spotty in my room, though it was fine in the lobby and on the street. I like speaking to my wife on the phone, but it's nice to have spur-of-the-moment conversations with instant messaging and quick e-mails too, and I missed that.

It reinforced how much I miss my family too. It's the longest I've been away since my oldest was born. Marriage and family are far more complicated than we grow up believing, even though many of us witness those complications in our own parents. But my life is better for those complications, and I love my wife and girls more for it. I'll be desperately glad to see them in three or four hours.

* P.S. When my wife looked at my bag as I packed it, she surmised that, while women pack extra makeup and clothes and accessories, "men seem to pack wires." Good thing I had them, too. I also packed my Leatherman tool (which she calls my 'man tool, with a wink), and then stupidly put it in my carry-on luggage for the trip back. Security wouldn't allow it through (of course -- it has blades), so I turned around and took advantage of another fine technology: the kind people at the Sheraton connected to the terminal gave me an envelope, and I sealed the Leatherman inside and mailed it to myself. Even high-speed Internet won't let you do that.


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