Friday, December 18, 2009

Viva Sevilla!

The virtual vagabonds are back. My partner and I are wintering in Seville, Spain this year. Check out our new digs here.

It looks great, but it ain't cheap: €1,500 all-in. Mind you, that includes heat, hydro, water, high-speed Internet (6Mbps), local landline phone and satellite TV. Good luck finding a hotel room that cheap.

It’s a very narrow four-floor town house with two bedrooms and a den/office with fold-out couch.

The picture shows the second floor (kitchen/living room) with our private elevator. We think it just gets us from the ground floor to the second floor, but we’ll find out.

Once again, I'll carry my office in a suitcase – laptop, smartphone, VoIP gear. I’ll be working at my regular job (I’m a freelance tech journalist) most of the time I’m there.

Check in on us from time to time, see how we’re doing.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

PC phone home

Early in our time here, I wrote glowingly about the success of our overseas telephone solution – a VoIP (voice over Internet protcol) service from Primus Canada that consistently delivered crystal clear calls over the high-speed Internet connection in our Siracusa apartment. It’s time for an update. I’m still impressed by how well it works, but we did run into one little problem.

Because of a “known issue” with the Linksys phone adapter Primus provides – which plugs into the network router here to make the connection over the Internet to Primus’s switching centre back in Canada – some numbers dialed on the phone plugged into the adapter don’t register. I kept getting a recorded message saying I needed to dial a long distance code (i.e. the ‘1’ before the area code), when in fact I had dialed it.

This little glitch became so irritating I started relying more on Skype, which had no problem dialing numbers correctly from the same handset. Primus, however, eventually came up with an even better solution. It provided me with a softphone.

A softphone is a piece of software that runs on a headset-equipped PC, turning it into a phone. Skype is a softphone too. But the Primus softphone has a few advantages. It allows me to use the Primus Hosted PBX service I’m testing, which provides voice mail, call routing and four-digit dialing to other extensions in my virtual office system. It lets me import my Outlook contacts and dial by name. And it lets me record calls, which I do when interviewing, by simply clicking a button in the softphone interface.

Call quality has been almost as good as when using a regular phone plugged into the adapter. Occasionally, voices sound a bit machine-like or tin-cannish, but never to the point of unintelligibility. Recordings are perfect. With the adapter and a regular phone, I had to use a little digital recorder connected to the phone line, and then transfer the recording to the computer.

The real beauty of the softphone is that you can make or take calls anywhere you have a good Internet connection and it looks to the person at the other end as if you’re sitting in your office. (Well, almost anywhere. Some hotspots block VoIP calls.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

All the news that fits

The loss of my my main laptop (see previous post) has had a couple of negative impacts. I’m now sharing a computer with the VP Finance. She wants it as much as possible whenever I’m not working – fair enough. That has made it more difficult to blog, though. It also means I’m relying more on the e-book readers I wrote about earlier.

At breakfast, our habit was to sit at the dining table, reading the newspaper on our separate laptops – The Globe & Mail for me, The Globe and the local London (Canada) rag for the VP Finance. Now she gets the shared machine at breakfast, and I’ve been making do with an e-book reader.

The trouble is, I have yet to find an easy way to get content in readable form from the Web to the reader. After multiple failed attempts at semi-automating the process, I’m resigned to a fairly labour-intensive manual process. The VP Finance claims I spend as much time creating my e- newspaper as I do reading it, but she’s exaggerating – slightly.

Here’s the process for anyone who wants to try it. It requires Microsoft Word and the free Mobipocket Creator (available here) which creates e-books that work on the CyBook Gen3, but not on the more feature-rich, robust – and more proprietary – Sony Reader Digital Book. It should be possible to create PDF books that work on either, but I can’t figure out how to format PDF e-books using Adobe Acrobat Professional so text is large enough to read. (Another project!)

First, I go to the Globe site and click on the Print Edition link near the top. This brings up a page with links to stories featured in that day’s paper. I click on each in turn, select just the text of the story – which usually also includes some graphics and links – and copy it to the Windows clipboard. Then I flip over to Word, paste it into a new document, delete the graphics and links and insert a page break at the end of the story. I do that for every story I want to read – as few as a half-a-dozen on a slow news day, up to a dozen on Saturdays. I get into a rhythm and it doesn’t take as long as it sounds.

Once I’ve pasted all the stories I want into the word processing docucment, I use Word's automated feature for creating a table of contents – or TOC as Microsoft insists on calling it – that will allow me to navigate directly to the story I want on the e-book reader. (Word searches for bolded text and assumes it’s a chapter heading.)

From the Mobipocket Creator home page, I choose 'MS Word document' from the ‘Import from existing file’ menu. It takes a few more clicks to actually create the Mobipocket format (.PRC) e-book, but the process is automated and very quick.
Finally, I connect the e-book reader to the laptop by its USB cable and copy my electronic version of the newspaper over. When I turn on the device, the newspaper now appears in the main menu.

Yes, it’s slightly daffy, but it works. I’ve actually been reading more good journalism as a result. I also download all I can from the New Yorker, The Atlantic and Economist sites. (Some of what’s in the print editions of these periodicals isn’t available online unless you’re a subscriber.)

To go back to an earlier post, why can’t newspaper publishers produce ready-formatted versions that will work on an e-book reader. I’d pay for it – though not as much as I do at home for the entire print edition – and I wouldn’t even mind if they inserted ads. This way I’m not looking at any ads, and they don’t get any subscription revenue from me.

I’m actually thinking of cancelling my subscription to The Globe when I get home. But I’m guessing my news-junky VP Finance will veto that idea.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

After the crash

Three days after the big explosion and I’m still dusting off. (My Dell XPS1330 laptop failed 3,000 miles from home – see previous post.)

I’m back in business, using the older laptop we brought for the VP Finance. The saving grace was online backup – services that let you send your files over the Internet to be stored on a secure computer at the provider’s data centre. At home, I back up to a drive on my home office network. It was too big to bring, plus it doesn’t protect you so well if the house burns down. So I had started using online backup as well even before we left.

Now I can confirm: it works. (Phew!)

I’m using two services –
Fabrik Ultimate Backup from SimpleTech Inc. and Mozy from Decho Corp. Each gives me 2GB of online storage for free, for a total of 4GB. The price, as they say, is right. There are other online backup services out there that offer free software and storage capacity as well. (To find them, google “online backup” free.)

The free capacity isn’t enough to back up everything but it is just enough to back up my current documents, audio recordings of interviews and a gargantuan (over 1.5GB) Outlook file. I’m now considering paying $200 for two years of unlimited storage from Mozy.

The beauty with these two providers is that they apparently use the same technology. It’s a different client for each service, but the software is identical, so only one program to learn. It’s very easy to set up and use in most respects. It was a little difficult to figure out how to tell it which types of files (which file name extensions) to include in backups. Still, it works – not perfectly, it must be said, but it works.

The software does backups in the background whenever the computer is not being used. The trouble is, our computers are rarely not in use and when they’re not, they go into sleep mode. Sometimes the backup programs work while the computer is sleeping, sometimes not.

I gave Fabrik the more challenging assignment of backing up my Outlook file. It’s challenging because the Outlook file is always open. Many backup programs and services can’t back up files at all if they’re open. This one can, but sometimes it seems to give up trying, probably because the file is so big. I’ll discover – by mousing over the little Fabrik icon in the system tray – that it hasn’t completed a successful backup in a few days.

This apparently happened just before the disaster. As a result, I lost all the Sent Items, Tasks and Calendar items for the four days before the crash when it wasn’t backing up. The Inbox contents were still sitting on my ISP’s mail server.

It took a few hours to restore the Outlook file. This seemed excessive, but I was just grateful to have it back. Because the computer on which the Fabrik software was originally loaded was dead, I had to go to the service provider’s portal site, log in to my account with username and password, and then select the files I wanted to restore. (There are easier ways to restore if you just want to revert to an earlier version of a file or you accidentally deleted a few.)

When they were ready to download, the provider sent me an e-mail. I followed the link in the message and clicked on the download link on the destination page.

There were programs I had to download and install on the new (old) laptop I’m now using. That took time. There were, as expected, some things I forgot or didn’t have capacity to back up regularly – Internet favourites, the little program I use to create a button bar across the top of my screen, the macro program I use to create little applets to perform often-used series of commands, etc. But nothing vital or impossible to reconstruct.

Bottom line: I have what I need to carry on working and communicating. Praise the Internet.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Disaster strikes

What's the worst that could happen to a virtual vagabond in Sicily?

Well, you could be collateral damage in a Mafia vendetta, I suppose, but that seems a remote possibility here in quiet Siracusa, where there is apparently little mob action. (The epicentre is Palermo, of course.) You could get very sick or hit by a car, but the local medical system is reputedly good and we have insurance.

You could lose your Internet service. Now there's a scary thought. But the service is local, the supplier, Telecom Italia, reputable. And if it ever did go out, a call to our ever accommodating landlord Giorgio would I'm sure have it back working in no time.

Nope, the worst would be a broken computer, which is what I have. My 9-month-old Dell XPS 1330, one of Dell's top-of-the-line super-light notebooks, died yesterday. It had been in ailing health for a couple of days.

A Dell tech support agent on the phone from Canada took about two minutes to determine, based on the fairly unequivocal symptoms, that it was well and truly kaput and would have to go into the depot for a transplant, probably the motherboard. But no problem, this would all be covered under warranty.

Then it took about four minutes on hold to determine that, no, Dell could not pick up from Italy and deliver back here. So there you have it. Shit out of luck, until I'm back in Canada next month.

It could be a lot worse. We do have a second computer on the trip, an older Dell Inspiron 640m that the VP Finance has been using. We're now sharing it. I do have the most vital data backed up online. I can recover, am in the process now - very slow as it turns out.

The backup copy of my enormous Outlook file - the holy of holies - is a few days out of date thanks to the vagaries of the Fabrik Ultimate Backup service I'm using and my own lack of vigilance. But all the e-mails were saved on the Rogers/Yahoo mail server, so I expect to be able to reconstruct my calendar and avoid missing scheduled teleconferences. And I expect to be able to recover all the Word documents in which I store notes for articles I'm writing and digital recordings of interviews. Touch wood.

Still, it is a major set-back. I'm sure to have forgotten to back up some data that I will need, or at least miss. Did I back up my Internet favourites, for example? Can't remember. While I won't lose any photos - backed up locally on a portable drive and on the camera card - I may lose hundreds of edited versions of images if the hard drive on the XPS 1330 doesn't make it through the surgery back home.

The Dell Inspiron is also slow and prone to lock-ups and crashing. The VP Finance on any given day can spend several hours on the computer, which she won't be able to do now. It could be a lot better too.

Friday, February 27, 2009


As an antidote to the last post (of a few minutes ago), here are some recent pics showing glorious reasons for being here in Sicilia in February anyway. (First two are Ragusa, an hour west of Siracusa, and the last two are Ortygia.)


Much about travelling in southern Europe in the off-season is wonderful. The weather in this neck of the woods has with few execptions been great – it’s heading for a sunny 60° F today - and accommodation prices are always lower in the winter. That makes what we’re doing both worthwhile and feasible.

But not everything is hunky-dory. We have run into one snag: Chiuso! It means closed in Italian and far too many attractions in Sicily are chiuso, often per restauro – for restoration – or just because it’s the off season.

We ran into this first right here in Ortygia, the island enclave of Siracusa where we’re living. La Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo houses one of the premiere art collections on the island in an impressively forbidding 14th century palace about ten minutes away by foot. Chiuso.

The VP Finance and I, both art junkies, saved it for our second week here and wandered over in great anticipation one drizzly afternoon. Closed up tighter than a drum, no hours shown on the door. This was not our first experience with European galleries and museums being shut down when we visited (alas, far from it) so we expected the worst.

It was confirmed by a sign in the window of a gift shop on the other side of the street (Italian only). When we went into the tourist office later to enquire, the bored young woman behind the counter said brightly, “Chiuso!” – as if talking to six-year-olds (which of course we are in Italian).

Since then, “chiuso,” said with a happy upward inflection, has been our running joke. In Palermo, more than one of the churches we wanted to visit was chiuso. So was the city’s major art gallery – reputedly even better than Palazzo Bellomo (chiuso).

This week we hit the nadir of chiuso. We had been saving up the supposedly superb Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi here in Siracusa for a rainy Sunday. But this week, la nostra cara amica Shelley, an aficionada of classical antiquity, was visiting from Canada.

Shelley went off on her own one day to do the archaeological park (which we had already visited) and, as rain was threatening, also the nearby museum. She came back with a black cloud over her head. The museum, naturally, was chiuso! Per restauro.

So that’s the two major attractions in the city closed down. The third? Probably Il Castello Maniace, the 13th century castle at the southern end of Ortygia. Though a construction site for much of the time we’ve been here, it is apparently open on a limited basis – just never when we’re there.

It occurred to me we could perhaps avoid disappointment by consulting Web sites for the attractions we wanted to visit, which would warn us of closures. Good idea, but no.

The English-language Web page for the archaeological museum in Siracusa, at the site of the government department responsible for this stuff, mentions in small print, under Notes, and in Italian, that the reopening, scheduled for November 2008, was delayed. Google translates the explanation as, "for issues related to the work of regeneration." This would be exciting, worth the wait, if it were a museum with Egyptian mummies, but everything in this museum is stone.

One possible explanation for the epidemic of restauro in Ortygia: our landlord Giorgio told us that in early April – right after we leave – the city is hosting the G-8 (G-otto in Italian – I thought he was talking about the 14th century Florentine painter) conference on the environment.

I don’t want to think it, but I’m guessing that when the big wigs are here, everything will suddenly be aperto.