Notes on Tech-Nomading
Back in June I did a short experiment nomading. A trip that was just a change of home but not a vacation. My sister was going to Rome to shoot a war documentary for a couple of weeks, so we flew to Toronto.
She had the main things I needed. A house, a car, and of course a DSL connection. But could I get my home environment? I brought a wireless access point, and the ATA for my Vonage phone account. The Vonage account has both a Silicon Valley number and a Toronto number, so it moved quite easily. People could still call me on the regular numbers, and I could make calls without concern for the cost. I borrowed a local cell phone since my efforts to get my own spare phone unlocked and with a local NAM didn't work out.
Also vital for me was a big screen. I'm used to a very nice 1600 x 1200 21" screen and that's not portable. I was able to borrow a 19". My servers at home kept running and in fact I did a lot of things on them remotely 2500 miles away. At one point the DSL flaked out and I had to find a friend to come in and reboot it, but otherwise that was fine.
Toronto is a town I've lived in, so this is cheating, but I haven't really lived there since I was young, so it's halfway to a foreign town in terms of knowing my way to things. At your own base, you learn a lot about your area. You learn all the traffic patterns, and you know where all the shops are that have the things you want at the prices you like. It takes a lot of time to duplicate that.
I've also learned that as I've gotten older I've gotten too dependent on stuff. I think back to the first time I moved cross country, putting everything in the back of my hatchback and feeling great. The last time, I used 20 linear feet of Transport truck.
You learn just how much you depend on the redundancy you have at home. That redundancy is not just having spares of things at home, it's the ability to quickly and efficiently replace and repair them. In my case, the power supply on my laptop blew. At home, I know how to get one for $20, but in Toronto a basic search came up with about $60, though an eBay seller with a similar price was found too late. In this case I relied on a redundancy I would not have anywhere but my former home town -- my Brother's office was all-Thinkpad, so a loan of a supply was easy to arrange.
My E-mail and web-surfing continued pretty much as normal, but I can't say I got the right level of work done. Being in another town, even (perhaps especially) your old home town for a short while is too distracting. Too many old friends to see because you know you can't do it next week. Even though I took the efficient route of hosting a party one Friday. In another town, instead of old friends it would have been new sights. You have to have a long time horizon in a place to no longer feel the call of its sights.
What I did would have been both harder and easier in the past. Today I can take much of my life on the road with an internet connection and a thin laptop. In the past I wouldn't have been so dependent on a network connection. Communication was much harder then without e-mail and the portable phone number and portable phone -- but also less distracting.
Of course, one bad habit I have is being over-bothered by things costing more than I know they should. Some people are happy to accept that they are traveling and some things are just going to cost double and it's the price you pay. The tourist industry makes a lot off of that acceptance, much of its margins come from the tremendous inefficiency in the markets for products for tourists. As the tourist becomes more connected we'll see some of those inefficiencies vanish and some tourism industries destroyed. If, as you walk down the street in a strange city, your PDA bleeps at you to tell you the goods in the shop you just walked into are half price a few blocks away -- ie. gives you "locals" knowledge -- the overpriced shops will have to adapt.
Sometimes the desire to pay the right price becomes counterproductive. Yes, I hate paying $1/minute roaming fees to my U.S. cell carrier while in Toronto, compared to the 10 cents/minute a local cell user might pay. But I also wasted a lot of time in the hunt to unlock my phone and get it a local number. (If, on the other hand, carriers were to set up a quick kiosk in the international arrivals areas of airports, they might sign up a lot of folks for local numbers if they could make it a quick process. Problem is they don't want to sign up the people who will roam on their network, who are a source of gouged revenue for the local carrier too.)