Saturday, March 04, 2006

Humboldt County Laptops

I thought I'd give a review of the trials and tribulations of my first use of a Humboldt County Laptop this last weekend. HCL being the name famous journalist, Hank Sims, coined for those of us that don't have the real thing and have to make our regular PCs serve the purpose.

I couldn't take my good computer with me to Frisco this last week. It's an Alienware tower and is just too big. So, I had to make do with my old 600mhz E-Machine and my old- style 15in. monitor. Problem was, I was taking the pickup and, with the wife coming along, there wasn't room for everything inside and it was raining. I figured I could put the tower and keyboard behind the seat as that wouldn't take up too much room, but what about the monitor?

At first I thought I'd put the monitor between us on the seat, but then realized that would be a bit much for a six hour drive, even if it could fit there in the first place. So, it had to go in the back. I looked around for some kind of container to put it in but came up empty. I figured I'd have to put it inside some garbage bags and tape them shut. The wife then suggested I use one her locking plastic tote bins she had upstairs to store sewing material in. We tried one and the monitor just barely fit along with my mouse and all the cables lines I'd need.

Problem was, although the lid locked, it wasn't water tight. So, back to the garbage bags. I actually managed to fit the bin into one garbage bag with just enough plastic left that I could duct tape the end shut. Using a ratchet style nylon tie down strap, I hooked on to some cleats on the lower part of the bed and just ran the strap over the top of the package thinking it would hold it in place if I put it on tight enough. It actually worked, although I was worried that the wind would probably rip the plastic bag to shreds so I took some extra garbage bags and duct tape with me.

Off we went, and I was surprised when we stopped at Piercy that the plastic bag was completely intact. But would it keep the rain out, I wondered? We hadn't had much rain since we started and it turned out to be the opposite of what I predicted from checking the doppler radar map on Intellicast. It looked to me like it would be raining fairly heavy off and on through Humboldt, then clearing in Mendocino and raining again towards the bay area. As soon as we got around Laytonville it started raining and it rained more and more as we drove on, coming down in buckets. Then, as we cleared Mendocino, it started tapering off.

So we arrive at the quaint Carl Hotel in San Francisco just before dark and I was thinking that kind of rain should show if my rainproofing works. We check in and find the rooms in the Carl are the smallest we've ever seen with hardly enough room to put all the computer stuff. This ought to be interesting, I thought, were do I put the computer? There was only a small nightstand and a small table the TV sat on and the phone jack was near the door and TV with only one wall socket.

They had told me they had wireless broadband but no accomodation for line connections so I had to be near enough the phone connection to connect to it and I didn't have an extension cord to get to another wall socket. Then I noticed an extension cord was used to hook up the microwave and refrigerator so I used that to set up the computer next to the door, disconnected the phone line and hooked the computer into the phone jack. The monitor package was opened and everything was fine so I quickly got all that hooked up and tried to connect using the SBCGlobal dial up numbers for San Francisco. Nothing.

I could hear the modem go on and some noise but I couldn't hear anything else because I hadn't brought along speakers. I tried for about fifteen minutes using three different numbers and I tried using the #9 prefix before dialing and without. Nothing. I don't know what the problem was.

So much for that plan. So now I'm sitting in a small room cluttered up with a computer I can't use. What really bummed me was I was going to have to haul the monitor back to the truck in the morning and wrap it up again. What a hassle. I didn't mind the tower and keyboard but the monitor was already a pain. I was getting to think I shouldn't of bothered bringing the computer along but I really did want to see how connecting away from home would work out.

We loaded up in the morning and made the one and a half block trip to UCSF and actually found a parking spot in the parking garage. Then the recurring hassle of unstrapping the monitor and putting the whole package on the front seat and locking it in the car while we were gone.

We go to the oncology clinic and take care of business there only to have them tell us at the end of the process they didn't have a bed available for the wife that day and we'd have to come back. They asked us if we could just stay around one more day and maybe then they'd have a room. I explained that we could go on doing this for days and it was costing us over $100 a day, never mind the work that I'm missing each day. I suggested maybe we should just go home and we could be back in six hours when they know for sure they have a room.

We compromised and said we'd head North. When the transplant coordinator returned around 3PM, he could call us on our cell phone and tell us whether there was a chance of a room at the hospital the next day. If we didn't get a call (I'd never used my cell phone outside Humboldt so didn't know if it would work on Roam) we'd stop somewhere about 3pm and call them. Right as we got out of Santa Rosa the cell phone rang and they said they were pretty sure we had a room the next day but they'd call us at 9am to confirm.

It was rush hour by now and we weren't going to turn around and drive back. Most of all, I wasn't going to stay at the Carl Hotel for more than one night. We'd originally thought of staying at the Day's Inn in Novato but didn't want to turn around and hassle with the rush hour traffic so we took an off ramp at Healdsburg and looked for a hotel. The first one we happened to pass by was the Dry Creek Road Travelodge.

Looked like on ok place. Of course, after the Carl Hotel, anything was an improvement. I asked the clerk if they had broadband access. The clerk didn't speak english too well but she said they had DSL hook ups. I think it was my fault for the misunderstanding as I was under the assumption she was referring to wireless broadband, as that's what most hotels, including the Carl, provide. I kept telling her for some reason I couldn't use the broadband but I could use the phone lines. It was a somewhat silly exchange on my part. It turned out, she was right. I was wrong.

So we get to our room. At least we had some room in there. I start looking for the phone lines and wall sockets. With the Carl Hotel you really don't have many options but here there were more choices. The limiting factor was the power source. I'd strongly suggest to all that when you take your HCL traveling with you take along an extension cord with a surge protector. That way you might be able to set up on a desk or table and still get to the power source, wherever they might be.

As it was, the phone jack was behind the bed's headboard, as was the closest wall socket to the phone jack. It was a bear moving the bed back for some reason. It was real heavy. I ended up putting the monitor and the rest on the floor next to the bed. I realized later, with a little strategic rearranging of the furniture, I probably could have gotten it off the floor by just moving one of the tables closer to the bed. Didn't want to go through the hassle at the time, though, especially if I ended up like I did at the Carl and not be able to connect to the internet.

So I have all the stuff in place and go to hook up the phone line and I see some sort of wall socket beneath the phone line. It looked like a DSL data cable. Hmmm??? I followed the cable and found a coiled up line next to the nightstand with a connector that looked about the same as my DSL line back home. I'll be damned, said I, they actually have hard line DSL here! I thought the girl was talking about wireless. I plugged the cable into my ethernet card and was online right away. CooI I'd wondered if there might be some kind of login hassle with a foreign system but that was easy.

So I had fun that night. Only problem was location. I was sitting on the floor and had to bend down to see the monitor. It hurt my back to type and the mouse was working a little jerky because I have an optical mouse and it didn't work well using a phonebook for the mouse pad. I soon found out that the optical mouse worked fairly well just on the carpet, which was a surprise, but the way I had everything laid out had me crossing the keyboard and mouse cable when I'd moved. Then the wife suggested using her suitcase as a table for the keyboard. That worked a little but it wasn't really flat so it still made for some rough typing.

All in all, though, it worked, and I was able to clear all the spam out of my mailboxes and do my daily sweepstakes entries. Made the trip a lot more bearable for me. One thing I should have done, in hindsight, was switch the table with the nightstand so I could put the computer on the table and sit on a chair while doing my stuff.

We left next morning, going through the same monitor packing hassle that, while it didn't really take too long, was just...well...a HASSLE. We got back to UCSF and went through a bit of a fiasco, not getting the wife into her room until around 4pm'ish. Damn. They said for us to get there by noon. I figured if she got right in I could make the trip all the way back to Eureka rather than spending more money on another hotel stay. Oh well. Now I'm stuck driving out of the area during rush hour.

I actually made pretty good time and traffic wasn't bad for that time of day. As I got around Healdsburg, I started thinking I could still make it home if I was careful and took my time. Then again, having my computer available I was able to check doppler radar and the weather forecast and knew a storm would be coming in. I figured I'd play it by ear.

As I got up toward Hopland it started clouding up and shortly after that it started drizzling. I gave up the idea of making it home and decided I'd stay over in Ukiah at a place I'd stayed before, the Discovery Inn. When I got there it was light rain with a cold wind behind it. I was glad I decided to stay there as the weather had gotten ugly.

The clerk at the Discovery told me they had wireless broadband only but he thought I should be able to connect using dial up. Later on I thought I should have asked is whether they charged for phone calls. Some hotels do. I wouldn't care about some 35 cent charge for a local call but you never know what they might try to pull on you.

So I get to the room and do my analysis: Phone jack there, a couple wall sockets, one there and over there. How do I put this all together. I really needed an extension cord to make this easy. I ended up turning the desk a different angle along the north wall so I could get everything closer to the power and phone jack. Had to unplug one lamp that was on the wall socket I was going for. I ended up with the everything on the desk at a weird angle with some of the cables crossing over each other. It was a mess and a bit uncomfortable but useable.

I put the Ukiah SBCGlobal dial up number in the dial up connection window and gave it a try. Couldn't believe it connected so quickly, especially after the lack of success I had at the Carl. Worked great and hardly noticed it was dial up and not DSL.

It was comforting to have access to all my weather and road info. When we were at the same hotel before there was a big storm and we wanted travel info. The Weather Channel doppler radar only showed the area around Ukiah, whereas Intellicast shows the whole north state from just below Frisco to Southern Oregon. I like to know what I'm getting into when I'm driving somewhere.

The next morning I woke up and headed home. No wrapping up hassle with the monitor this this or when I left the hospital as the passenger seat was sadly empty.

Overall, that experiment worked out pretty well but these old style monitors are a pain to drag around. I need a laptop or, lacking that, a new flat screen monitor. I keep trying to win one. I can't count on that but, then again, that's how I got my high speed Alienware computer; I won it in a sweepstakes.

I guess I'll have to keep an eye out on Humboldt Freecycle for one somebody wants to get rid of. I haven't jumped on some of the older ones I've seen offered there because you never know what problems you might be inheriting but, you know what they say; Beggars can't be choosy.


At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Kat said...

Why don't you use the site for your weather? It's more accurate than the weather channel site, at least for my area.

And if you have an alienware at home, maybe it's time to invest in a good laptop for your travels on the road and not have to go through the hassel everytime with a whole "portable" system.

I hope all is well. :)

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Kat said...

Sorry that sounded cranky. I was just saying you need a real laptop on par with your home pc. And congrats on winning that!

At 5:44 AM, Blogger Fred said...

I'll check out NOAA, Kat. I check the forecasts regularly but I don't pay too much heed to any of them as they're not accurate enough.

I generally rely on doppler radar cause that tends to tell me more of what I need to know about real time weather action.

That doesn't work all the time, either. As I referred to earlier, doppler radar showed rain in Humboldt and Sonoma counties when I left for Frisco the other day and it turned out Mendocino was the big rain problem. I've never had radar be that far off before.

As far as buying a laptop, I'm facing very serious financial problems, so I can't. I was almost tempted, having seen some laptops for six to seven hundred dollars on, but if I'd broke down and done that I'd be literally broke right now (instead of a month from now).

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Pamela Reece said...

Fred, I am sorry to hear of your financial and other problems you and your wife are facing. Please know that it is my hope that all your troubles are resolved soon. God Bless..

At 8:48 PM, Anonymous Kat said...

Well then I hope you win a good laptop in a sweepstakes.

I am sorry to hear of your hardships and will pray that things start looking better for you both.

NOAA has doppler. I don't usually leave the county so I haven't had to test it outside of this area, but for me it has been pretty accurate. gives me the weather forecast for Arcata and I am in southern humboldt, so it's usually way off. NOAA uses the weather station at the eel river conservation camp and gives accurate readings for my area.

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Rose said...

My son had a HCL - all through high school. He was into animation and rendering, and liked to incorporate that into his homework assignments. Trouble was, the only way to turn in his homework was to take the computer in and show the teacher the assignment. Usually the files were too big to fit on a zip disk, even multiple zip disks. So, he'd unplug everything, load it in the van, we'd pull up to the school, his friends would show up (sometimes) to help carry the stuff in - monitor, keyboard, tower, sometimes a printer, external drives of all kinds... I used to joke that he treated that computer with it's "big box" monitor, like a laptop.

It was an everyday thing for most of a couple of years. Sometimes, the files weren't done 'rendering' so he would plug it in at school and let it run, rendering, for hours before the class he had to use it in.

I alwsys figured it would hurt the delicate electronics inside the box, but it didn't. I'm still using it, he's off to college now and has switched over to a PC - and he has an old ibook that he found and rebuilt. So, he finally got a laptop of sorts. But it doesn't have the capacity that the bigger computer does.

He still insists on lugging his computer home, only now it means either sending it ahead or convincing an airline to let him take it on as a carry on.

It does kinda remind me of a scene out of the Depression when families strapped their mattresses on the top of the car and headed west.

You make do.

At 12:43 AM, Blogger Anon.R.mous said...

Well, you could get a new dell laptop for $449 right now Fred, maybe even with a Dell Credit card. Or keep your eyes peeled, I scored a nice little 233mmx laptop for $40 with a nice screen and everything. Sure it's way outdated, but I can get online with it.

At 6:48 AM, Blogger Fred said...

I've been surprised at some of the laptops I've seen offered on occasion on Humboldt Freecycle.

But, not to worry. I received an e-mail from a well wisher yesterday who offered me his laptop. It's a little outdated for his use and he's going to upgrade so he said I could have his old one. Cool.

From the specs he gave me, it's got more in it than my old 600mhz E-Machine.


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