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technical stuff

I spent an inordinate amount of time researching technical equipment that I could take with me, and came to the conclusion that the state of technology was not far enough advanced to meet my needs. (Scary.) So, I was forced to cobble together a hodgepodge of equipment, as well as create most of the website from scratch. This page describes the gear I've brought with me and what I do to maintain the site. As such, parts of it are more technical than the layman might like it to be.

The Gear

A few overarching goals guided the decisions I made about what gear to take. First, I wanted to be able to create the content (pictures and text) offline, as in not in an internet cafe where each passing minute can lighten my wallet. Second, I wanted to carry as little, in terms of both weight and bulk, as feasibly possible. Here's what I decided on:

  • Olympus D-40 Zoom digital camera

    This camera, one of Olympus's newer models (at the time), has a few key features that tipped the balance for me. First and foremost, the thing is tiny! It easily fits in my pocket, which means that I can walk around without blazenly advertising that I'm a tourist. Second, it supports USB Storage Class Connectivity, which means that connecting it to any PC that runs a recent version of Windows (Win 2000, Win XP, Win ME) will cause the memory card to show up as a removable disk drive. (More on that later.) Third, it supports the SmartMedia format for storage. (Again, more on that later.) And fourth, it's relatively easy to use and has an excellent range of features (some of which, admittedly, I'm still trying to figure out).

  • Visor Platinum with MemPlug SmartMedia springboard module

    After agonizing over any number of handhelds, including a range of Pocket PCs, I settled on the Visor Platinum, primarily because of the existence of the MemPlug module. The MemPlug module plugs into the top of the Visor and extends the usable memory of the Visor, although in a very restricted manner. The Visor Platinum ships with 8MB of RAM (which is used to both store programs and execute them). My MemPlug module holds a 128MB SmartMedia card, so the Visor's memory capacity has increased by a factor of 16! Alas, it's not as simple as that -- there are limitations on what types of programs can be run directly from the SmartMedia card, although some of the MemPlug applications go a long way towards removing this barrier. The bottom line is that I can both create and store large quantities of content on my Visor. (For instance, I was able to copy a significant portion -- far more than 8MB -- of the Lonely Planet website to my handheld, to allow me to do trip research away from the computer.)

  • Targus Stowaway Portable Keyboard

    The keyboard connects to the Visor, allowing direct data entry into any text editor or word processor. It folds up to an impressively small size and while folded, is extremely sturdy.

  • FlashPath SmartMedia Floppy Disk Adapter

    This device, which looks like a floppy disk, plugs directly into a disk drive and allows the contents of an inserted SmartMedia card to show up as if they were on a floppy disk.

  • Ripvan100 Lightning Pack Battery Charger

    This was the only battery charger I found which could recharge both AA and AAA NiMH batteries, and provided dual voltage (110V and 220V) support. This is the one and only way I get power to the devices that need it (i.e. the Visor and the camera). I also carry a handful of plug adapters.

(Clockwise from top-center: Camera case, Bag of batteries and plug adapters, Targus keyboard, Visor Platinum, FlashPath floppy disk adapter and floppy with drivers, Ripvan100 battery charger.)

The Website

I compose the content on the Visor (my word processor of choice being pEdit Pro), using the foldable keyboard. Not only does this save me money (from less time spent in internet cafes), but it allows me to write anywhere: on a train, in a hotel room, on the beach. Because the Visor's native format differs from a PC's native format, I have to convert the content (via a script) before I can copy it to the PC.

The most difficult aspect of maintaining the site is getting the content from my camera and handheld onto a PC in an internet cafe. Many internet cafes discourage or forbid the use or installation of applications that aren't already on their machines. Worse yet, some (especially in bigger cities) run security software which makes it impossible to even access the hard drive. There have been times where I've gone to several internet cafes in one day and been unable, for different reasons, to upload anything.

There are two methods in which I can get the pictures and text onto a PC's hard drive. The first is through the camera's USB connection. As I mentioned earlier, if the PC is running a recent version of Windows then all I have to do is connect the camera's USB cable to the PC's USB port, then copy the pictures to the hard drive. And because the camera and the handheld use the same storage media (SmartMedia), I can copy the text in the same way, by inserting the Visor's SmartMedia card into the camera and then connecting to the USB port. If the PC is not running a recent version of Windows, then my only hope is to install the USB drivers (which I carry on a floppy with a few other useful programs).

Sometimes this works, but usually not, in which case I have to use the second method: the floppy disk adapter. Again, the camera and handheld use the same storage media, so I can insert one SmartMedia card into the adapter and copy the files, then insert the other card and copy the files. The drawback of this approach is that the floppy disk adapter requires a particular application to be installed and the computer to be rebooted. As I said before, in some internet cafes this is discouraged or made impossible.

But as long as one of these two approaches (USB and floppy disk adapter) is possible, then I can get the data onto the PC. After rotating any inverted pictures -- a step which occasionally requires the download of an imaging app, if the PC I'm using lacks one -- it's smooth sailing. Before I left I created (as well as borrowed) a number of scripts that allow me to manage the website through a browser interface. The scripts are written in PHP, and the journal-related content (text and pictures) is stored in a mySql database.

Hey -- it ain't sexy, but it gets the job done.

Copyright © 2002-2010 Brian Riggs All rights reserved.
Questions or comments? Email me at dispatches at modwest dot com.