net.wars: Welcome to Singapore

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 August 2007

Some designs are just annoying – the Blue Screen of Death, say, once you get over the initial fright of seeing it. Somewhere on the planet there may be someone who sees the screen and can read the gibberish in the few seconds before the screen goes black and the computer restarts and say, "Ah, yes, it's the shedelepp in the specklediff" (non-words courtesy of the late humourist Jean Kerr).

Wendy M Grossman

Other designs are just dangerous: the laptop power adaptors that burst into flames, for example.

The really insidious ones are the ones that scare you half to death and make you scurry around in panicked circles ministering to them. Here [picture above, right] is one such.

The iGo Juice is in many ways an admirable product. It will power just about any laptop in just about any circumstance. It has two flaws: it relies on a bolt-together design using proprietary cables and plugs that you can't get anywhere but from iGo, and some of those cables and plugs are rather small and come apart rather too easily.

Which is all to explain how I managed to unpack the laptop in my hotel room on the evening I arrived in Singapore to discover that the little tiny plug that hooks the whole thing to the laptop was missing, presumably still hiding in my airplane seat. I may be more frightened of being in a foreign city with no laptop power more than almost anything that's actually likely to happen to me.

First idea: call airline, ask them to look for the plug. Airlines do find things sometimes; I'm fairly sure that if I were able to search the plane myself I would find it. However, it's a small plug, and it's nearly the same colour as many of the furnishings… clearly a Plan B was needed.

It has to be possible to find a laptop adaptor that works in Singapore, right? It's Southeast Asia. Electronics country. This is where geeks come for fun.

The hotel said, "Funan."

I had already read about it online: a giant electronics shopping mall. It's within walking distance, which is near-miraculous. But it will be closing soon, probably in the next hour. I set out promptly in the wrong direction, map in hand.

There are several reasons why you can't actually walk very fast in Singapore. For one thing, downtown Singapore is filled with malls, overpasses, and other diversions that all work to slow you down. You have to go around, up, through, or over them. Second of all, and this is a hard thing for a native New Yorker, jaywalking is illegal – and they are said to enforce that law. (In fact, at one particularly crowded crossing there were police officers making sure.) Third of all, and I think this was just coincidental, it was incredibly crowded. Almost everyone was going the other way because there was going to be a huge firework display.

Funan, when I eventually got there after half an hour of walking (past, among other things, a giant Chinese pagoda) is six stories of electronics stores, all at various stages of closing for the night.

The first one had a universal adaptor for S$170 that didn't have a plug that fit. It recommended a second store I couldn't find, and a third that was closed. A fourth store said no. The fifth had a list of adaptors it sold outside, and my specification was on it – but it was out of stock.

And then a miracle happened. A guy materialised with another universal adaptor that came with more plugs. And one of them fit. And when we plugged it all in the laptop actually confirmed it was getting power. For S$49.

Of course, every design has its pluses and minuses. In this case, iGo's idea seems to have been to protect pins and cables so securely that they wouldn't break, a common problem with adaptors. The cables are braided or heavily insulated, and all the pins in all the plugs are encased in plastic to protect them. It's a nice design except for the losing parts problem.

I don't think the designers understand how important that really is – it makes their design so fragile if you're on the road somewhere. I feel sure that their design is a response to years of frustration with the more common type of adaptor, whose cable emerges from the power brick with a moulded plastic surround that wears out under the strains of folding and unfolding the cord. But by fixing that perennial problem they created a new one: a design that at any given time is only one tiny proprietary part away from total failure.

Of course, the truly obsessive travel with not only backup power supplies but second laptops. And I suppose my Plan C would have been something like that: buy a new laptop, which of course would come with its own power adaptor. These days, when laptops all use commodity parts, you can just swap in the old one's hard drive and let the BIOS figure it out.

It seems disproportionate, but anything has to be better than the black void of no communications, nothing to work on, and no entertainment.

Because these days, when you travel, your laptop is all those things.

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