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Lessons learned

I've just checked in online for my flight home; barring last-minute delays and cancellations, I should be home on Monday after just shy of an entire month in Japan. I will admit to being a bit frazzled. The effect of that damn volcano has been to cause the worst delays to the civil aviation industry since 9/11 — arguably, the worst ever, in terms of cancelled flights. I count myself lucky to be going home only six days late: I know other folks who've been delayed for a fortnight or more.

I travel a lot, and I've written here before about stuff I've picked up to make travel easier. This time, there are different lessons. I haven't had the wheels fall off like this before — I am boringly risk-averse — but it's given me some food for thought.

Firstly, it's a good idea (if you have any medical conditions) to plan for excessive delays. I'm on prescription medicine for blood pressure. I was planning for a three-week trip. Luckily I over-planned: I packed a pill box with medication for seven days, and a bag containing unopened cartons good for another four weeks. That's a 60% margin of error. Even so, if I was stuck for longer — as are people I know — right now I'd be hunting for an English-speaking doctor who could source me local equivalents of my regime. (At considerable cost -- not to mention the risk that exact generic substitutes aren't available at all.)

Secondly, cash flow. I'm lucky: a couple of email exchanges and I had everything sorted out for an extra month (if necessary) in the world's second most expensive capital city. (Albeit in a very reasonably priced hotel.) But if you travel regularly, make sure you've got an emergency reserve on hand (even if it's a temporary loan or an emergencies-only credit card). And? Always assume it's going to cost more than you expect. Always.

(Did I mention travel insurance? Lots of insurers don't include volcano-induced catastrophic shutdown of the travel system: it's called an "act of god". (Quick, blame the Pope!) Travel insurance is necessary, but it is mostly only useful for medical and legal emergencies. If there's a general emergency, the bigger the scale of the event, the less likely your insurer is going to be to help you out.)

More personally ...

I've also confirmed (after suspecting for a while) that the one thing that is guaranteed to give me a case of writer's block is travel-related stress. I have been working while I've been out here; I checked the copy-edits on "The Fuller Memorandum" (which is off to the printer on Monday) and I've been doing a lot of thinking and planning for "Rule 34". However, actual bum-in-chair fingers-on-keyboard creative writing seems to require a comfortable, familiar, and private environment. (I can't write if anybody might be reading over my shoulder). A tiny shared hotel room with a gigantic travel disaster overshadowing me is pretty off-putting, even before you add the profound disorientation of being in a country where I'm functionally illiterate. (I am — this may surprise you, but it's common to many writers — enough of an introvert that I need to retreat into a private space, periodically. And I can't lock the world out of this hotel room.)

Anyway, if you have eggs, make an omelette. When I get back, I'm going to re-organize my travel kit to emphasize note-taking and brainstorming rather than churning out pages. I'm going to try and organize my experiences from this trip and annotate the photos I've been taking (over 900 so far). I'm going to get one of these because when you're walking around Tokyo in the rain, trying to capture a moment's insight into the structure of your current novel on an iPhone's Notes app is just painful. And I'm going to make a habit of always carrying a spare month's supply of meds when venturing outside the EU.

(And then I'm going to stay at home until I've finished "Rule 34". But that's another story ...)



Actually, I suspect that had you had to source more of your medication here it would have been fairly quick and painless. It's generally very easy to get to see a physician here, and I believe your travel insurance would cover the visit, "act of god" or not.

I also have high blood pressure, and when my last medication I'd brought from home ran out I was really nervous about having to visit a physician here - at the time I spoke no more Japanese than you do. It was a complete anticlimax. I'd brought the near-empty package, so the physician looked up the name on some online database. He explained in very broken English that unfortunately, the same medication was not available in Japan - but another medication with the same active substance was, and he had some right in the office. I got a ten-day supply, and was told to try it for a week, then come back, and if it turned out to work nicely for me he'd prescribe a three-month supply. Which was pretty much what happened.

If there's anything that really works well here, it's the primary-care system.


Is reQall available where you are? It's perfect for taking a quick note and getting it transcribed into text.


Short story based on a volcano or other sudden change in the environment producing a just as sudden switch in technologies and lifestyle? Maybe even a Fuller Memorandum sequel side plot with something explaining what 'really' caused the eruption and the prevailing wind patterns of the time?


If you really want to be prepared for note taking anywhere, I recommend one of these products and a handful of permanent ink pens or pencils. Livescribe looks interesting, but like a printer, I think they're making the money off the ink and paper.


Livescribe lets you print up the paper yourself -- it works, I know people who do so. The notebooks they sell aren't much more expensive than equivalents you could buy at a supermarket or drug store. I don't believe the inks are terribly over-priced, either.


I second what heteromeles linked to. Standard engineering note books and pens can be found in any major city, anywhere you may travel in the world. We used them all the time while surveying.

They are made of good rag paper, and can easily lie flat on a scanner for copying.

You write in the book, then scan the pages when you are done to keep them as pdf pages for easy access on the computer. You add notes or comments within the pdf page of key words to make search easy.

Handwritten notes, scanned in as pdf images, are far more useful than digital voice notes. You can find what you need at a glance, where searching in a recording is painful for any length.


Credit cards are not as widely accepted in Japan (IME) as in the USA (where I'm from), and even some business that do take credit cards won't take credit cards issued by banks overseas because of slow clearance or something. That may have changed since the last time I had an issue with it.

American Express has an office in the Ginza where cardholders can get a cash advance. Of course, you need to pay them off within a month, but, hey: cash.


OK, I have absolutely no helpful tips on what to do when stranded on the other side of the world due to a misbehaving volcano, since it's probably unhelpful to direct you to David Raup's paper 'The role of extinction in evolution'* but I'm hoping that the experience will be fuel for your writing at some point.

And I'm looking forward to your next comments on publishing when you are safely home and recovered from the jet-lag.



I've used American Express to cover my cash problems on an unexpectedly-extended trip; it's quite painless. Often you don't even need to go to an American Express office; many hotels will handle an advance as a standard credit card transaction. This is one of the reasons I'm pissed that I've had to switch from American Express to Master Card (AmEx hit me with a huge increase in fees this year without warning; the MC card has $0 / year because it is now issued through my retirement investment manager without any increase in fees).

I wonder, is there some way that the Livescribe could be either integrated with the iPhone note app, or emulated in a new iPhone or iPad app? If the pen were a conductive-tip stylus you wouldn't need ink. Somehow you'd have to print a dot screen on a transparent overlay, because the display is only 150 dpi. But then how do you deal with scrolling? Hmm ...


Charlie do you normally use pen and paper when first entering the territory of a novel?


Bruce -- what are you trying to accomplish with this mash-up? If you want a stylus for the iP*, I understand they're available. But what's this product going to do?

On the technical issues: I think the diminished grid is going to play hob with the handwriting-to-text conversion features, though. Scrolling could be handled by a 'next page' kind of button near the bottom of the writing area.

A bigger issue, though, is that you may not want to risk your expensive device in a drizzle or rain. The Livescribe pen is cheaper and will still work as a pen in the worst case.

I spent a couple hours talking to Livescribe's MIT campus rep a while ago, trying to convince him to offer proper bound-and-numbered-with-signature-spaces lab notebooks with the system. I still think there's a huge potential market there; there are a lot of labs that need something better than paper, but don't have the budget or scale for full-dress laboratory information systems.


Craig, I never normally use pen-and-paper. I'm reconsidering that stance.

(Scanners don't do it for me because I'm Mac/Linux based, and I've never met scanner software for either platform that doesn't suck. My desktop Fuji SnapScan is okay-ish for A4 papers, but that's about it's limit; notepads? No way. Also: the only travel-grade portable scanner I've ever met, the Planon Docupen, is a cheap piece of plastic shit.)


Look at high quality rag paper bound books, the kind that heteromeles linked to. Engineering notebooks are designed to be written out in the field in any weather, and can be found anywhere.

Think of the bound book as a portable desk that you use on trips, then don't consider scanning until you get home.

I have an iMac with a regular HP scanner. I scan the handwritten page as an image, then turn the scanned image into a pdf format. I set the scanner to (Millions of colors 24-bit) and 300dpi. B&W scanning strips away too much information even on paper with black ink, so I scan color. Each scanned page is several megs each, but when the image is pulled into pdf it is compressed to a normal size without loss.

That is just an image of the page in a pdf shell. I don't try to do character recognition. From pdf I can add comments, notes, highlight, etc..., on the image. The comments and notes on the page are searchable.

Basically, keep it simple.


I get the feeling that our hyper-optimized, just-in-time everything, super specialized global economy is just vulnerable to this kind of thing. Air travel barely works even without volcanism!

I wonder if air travel disruptions follow a power-law distribution. Only 10 years between 9/11 and the Volcano of 2010? Before these two events, a good 35 years of the "jet age" saw little of this kind of thing.

Are big disruptions getting more frequent?


Eric -- remember, a bunch of those 'years of the jet age' were the years when jets were for luxury or emergency travel, not the primary means of long-distance transport. There's also more agreement about risks -- and more aversion to risking aircraft, which are themselves larger and more expensive.

Air travel works pretty well in the sense that it can take you long distances safely and swiftly. Consider travel via ship, for example -- 4 days minimum between New York and Liverpool, with several ships sailing each week. Except in storm season.

The industry may be making the wrong tradeoff between safety and convenience -- but safety is certainly the direction that society pulls them toward.


You've commented a few times on Tokyo's cost. I've just returned to Melbourne after 10 days in Japan (unfortunately I left just before Popeye's) and found Tokyo on average considerably cheaper than Melbourne (although I admit I didn't visit any particularly expensive hotels/restaurants). If you're attending Aussiecon in Melbourne in September I suspect you'll find Australia horrifically expensive (hotels/meals/goods). (Trade of Queens ~A$30 (gbp17.99) at Waterstones cf A$37.95 at is a conservative example).


Regarding scanners: you can use Preview to scan images if you have Snow Leopard (and Image Capture can do it as well, which works in earlier versions of OS X). There are even some basic image editing tools in there to adjust colour, contrast, sharpness, etc. (I usually use Photoshop for those things though, but that's because I normally have it open anyway.)

Try it if you haven't - definitely works much better than using any included scanner software I've seen.


What exactly do you need from scanning software? As far as I know all it should do is give you an image file of what is on the scanner. Adjusting the DPI should be the only real setting - you can do the rest of changes in GIMP (or wherever) after the scan.


From what I recall, Charlie may be coming at scanning as a document management tool. What works for pictures may not be so important for him.

Organisation matters.


The usefulness of bound notebooks would depend a lot on just how much ends up being in them, needing to be scanned page-by-page; if it's a lot, then any useful notebook would need to be able to magically become unbound cleanly enough for the pages to be fed into an automatic page-feed scanner. (with heavy enough pages not to cause problems for the scanner feed).

I could certainly use one of those myself, should they exist.


Three more tips if you travel a lot internationally (over 100 days/year). Good to get a Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank credit card and a JCB credit card; that'll take care of you anywhere in Asia/most of Africa. If you're going off the beaten track invest in a medical repatriation service - I think I did a one-time charge of 3000 to MASA. For that I get free medevac/treatment anywhere in the world. If you've ever sat in a an emergency room somewhere in the 3rd world you'll appreciate that. Finally, one of my favorite websites with unfortunately plenty of day to day relevance - Tips on which lounges/gates are most comfortable for unexpected extended layovers.


Even better if the paper notebook was small, highly portable, and could be backed up easily...


Re medications: You're from Britain, so you say that getting medications would be expensive elsewhere. For people from the US, it may well be cheaper elsewhere. but it's still majorly inconvenient.

One question: would carrying copies of your prescription scripts help?


re: notebooks? Would you consider, say, photographing the pages and tagging the images? I assume you carry a camera when traveling.

The nice things about RITR notebooks: no batteries, they can be dropped from arbitrary heights, stepped on, driven over, they few problems with water, dirt, bird poop, etc. The only problem I've had was watching pencil graphite float off the page as I wrote, which tells you how hard it was raining while I was writing (that's why I recommend permanent ink pens with them--graphite can smudge). They're also cheap.


Hello again Charlie Both my wife and I were running out of meds at the beginning of last week so we went to the surgery recommended by our hotel but no one spoke English or had a clue what our drugs were (or if they did, had non available). We ended up Googling English-speaking doctors in Tokyo and found the grandly-named "Tokyo Bristish Clinic" in Ebisu. We had to book appointments before we could get prescriptions and, long story short, one of my meds is unobtainable in Japan (The doc said the Japanese may lead the world in railways but are not very up to date when it comes to drugs.) and Maggie could not get hers in right-sized tablet form. The cost for the two of us worked out at about £250 and travelling to and fro, and finding the Clinic (a story in itself) and the separate pharmacy, took about half a day. But, on the bright side, we did get to browse through a couple of recent "Private Eyes" to which the Glaswegian-Chinese doctor subscribes so that was OK!. As to obtaining cash from ATM's, if we had not had our son living here we would probably have struggled. Luckily,he told us about the Citibank machine (Yay Citibank!) in Ikebukuro station at the Metropolitan (Lumine) entrance which happily coughs up 10,000 yen notes in response to the insertion of my Mastercard. You are also spot on re travel insurance - ours has so far only agreed to pay up to £300 each for delay, in addition to the medical bills. My view is that the ash cloud delay is/was, in reality weather-related, on the basis that the ash cloud as such was not the root of the problem but whence the wind blew it, and how quickly it did so! If I am right, then whatever one's insurance policy says with respect to delays caused by weather must be directly relevant here and there should be no room for "interpretation". Have a safe trip home.


The engineering note books are designed to stay together as official records, but they are made to lie flat on a copier for ease of copying. The pages don't come apart.

Think of the engineering note book as a temporary office for adverse weather, not as something you would use everyday. They come in sizes that make it easy to carry and write on in the field. Look for an engineering supply store in your area and look at what they have.

On scanning loose pages in an automatic feeder, don't do it. You won't be happy with the result, or the jamming, or destroyed pages.

I use a flatbed HP scanner and do things manually. Yes it takes time, but I have about 12 linear feet of three-ring binders full of loose bound paper to process, so I am in no hurry. It takes longer to read, bookmark, add comments, etc..., than it does to scan each page.

As a simple paper system that I use for writing away from the computer: I use spiral bound notebooks, 70 pages, the kind you would use for school. I write on one side only, and label/date each page. When the spiral is filled, I pull the wire out and then sort and scan the loose pages. I keep three-ring notebooks for the loose project pages.

I treat the page like a photo and simply make a 300dpi color image. Once the page is pulled into pdf it is compressed and I'm able to add comments and highlights. When I am on computer I can easily pull up the project pdf with all of the scanned handwritten pages. I can bookmark, add notes and comments, circle, highlight, all the things that I would normally do with paper notes.


Victor Stevko @ 11:

My idea was to have the same functionality that the Livescribe pen gets on the dot-printed paper, but running on the iPhone display. It could work with the Livescribe pen if the dot pattern could be reproduced on the display somehow. Better would be if the voice recording on the iPhone could be used along with or instead of the livescribe recorder in the pen. So you wouldn't need paper at all, and you could write apps to manipulate the text and audio notes together (even convert the audio to text and display them together).

The problem is that I don't know what algorithm the Livescribe software uses to map positions on a page to recordings. How would it know that one recording was associated with text at the top of a page in (for instance) the iPhone Notes app, while another was associated with text reached by scrolling down from there? My guess just from looking at their website is that the pen somehow identifies individual pages and detects absolute position on them, which doesn't fit the model of a scrolling display very well.


I don't think that's quite feasible.

Somewhat more feasible would be to upload the pen's data to an iPad -- there is a USB adapter for it already, so they'd just need to write an app for it, I think. The possibilities there then get more interesting. I don't think they could do OCR natively on it, though. But replaying the writing and audio should be possible.

For the iPhone, they'd have to make a custom bit of hardware, so I'm not sure that's going to be doable.


We run a trade-show policy of - * get the business card * staple it into the A4 book * write notes by it and then at the end of the day, photograph every page on a phone and email home.

Covers us for most eventualities.

Scribble on nice notebook and take 5MP+ photos I guess would be the equivalent here?


Evelyn, haven't seen your name in a while!

If I were in another country without meds, I could just contact Kaiser Permanente (preferably by email) and they'd arrange for me to get meds. Unfortunately, the new health reform plan is going to take money away from Medicare Advantage plans and we're waiting to see what we'll lose.


Your mention of high blood pressure reminded me of something I meant to chuck your way a while ago, but didn't (for fear of looking like a dreadful pushy sports billy type).

I think it was sometime between reading Singularity Sky and you asking on the blog about suggestions for stuff to keep you active: The bit in Singularity Sky when Rachel Mansour uses the muscle overclocking/time perception dilation enhancement made me think "Here's a man who understands the horrific oxygen debt that occurs as a result of intense anaerobic effort, he might like something like this"

Give it a try


Evelyn: I always carry a copy of my prescription re-supply order and a letter from my GP when I travel overseas. As my prescriptions are basically free at the point of delivery -- there's a £30 annual prescription tax, but that's all -- getting them just about anywhere outside the UK (or those EU countries with a national-level reciprocal insurance arrangement) would be more expensive -- I believe my monthly drugs bill would be on the north side of $250, if I lived in the USA.


It's possible that your agent or one of your publishers may have access or recommendations for a transcription service. I'm sure there are a number of authors who take voice/written notes and then get them transcribed.

I'm certainly interested in the solution you come up with. Taking notes on the fly and getting them into a computer is a difficult problem to which I've yet to see a good solution.


Craig, I never normally use pen-and-paper. I'm reconsidering that stance.

(Scanners don't do it for me because I'm Mac/Linux based, and I've never met scanner software for either platform that doesn't suck.)


Scanners don't do it for me because I'm Mac/Linux based, and I've never met scanner software for either platform that doesn't suck.
Mr. Stross.
Fujitsu makes a line of scanners that work with Macs.
They are expensive, but they do work quite well (I have one). Models that end with a m are mac versions as opposed to the windows version.
The down side is that they are expensive and its hard to get a hold of one. Mine was delayed for several months because the factory was back-logged. I am using the Windows version one, but according to the reviews on Amazon, the Mac version works just as well.


Another thing about paper:

Obsolete, well-used electronics are e-waste, unless they're weird and old enough to be curios.

Obsolete, well-used paper notebooks are donations for charity auctions for the cause of your choice.


(Scanners don't do it for me because I'm Mac/Linux based, and I've never met scanner software for either platform that doesn't suck.)

I've got an HP Scanjet G3010 that cost me all of 90 bucks, and have already scanned ten linear feet of three-ring binders using the software that comes standard for the Mac.


cybergrue: yep, I've got a Scansnap S300M. Leaving aside the software's tendency to crash under Snow Leopard, it is a life saver for one particular job (scanning galley proofs before mailing). Nevertheless, all it gives you is a raw PDF bitmap image of your document. Want OCR and indexing on a Mac? You will pay through the nose for extra software on top.

Don't get me started on the grotesque pile of shit that is HP's approach to Mac hardware drivers.


concerning the Livescribe-Pen: I have a 2GB one for more than a 1 year now and I love it to pieces for notes and minutes. The 2GB of space is generous if you regularly remove the audio from the pen.

For me I found ways of structured taking of notes with checkboxes or drawing the seating plan in meetings and taking down the attendees names as a list etc. that help me immensely with my daily work. The Desktop-Software on OSX is good, too. It's a very useful and cool tool.



Are you now safely home? If so, welcome back.


Time's fleeting - I got the Livescribe-Pen 06/17/2008, that's close to 2 years. It still works fine.


Charlie, think Brian Crane has been reading here?


Davharris: yes, I'm home. As it was a 25 hour journey, door to door, I'm still recovering (and will be doing so for the next 48 hours).


I haven't had a lot of luck being productive with various handwriting recognition technologies,from pens to scanners, although I have stayed with windows mobile handsets so I can jot notes directly into my phone/pda.

I've had much better luck digitizing notes and doing brain dumps with voice regognition thanks to the impressive power of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I do this in 3 main ways:

  • Dictating directly into my IBM Thinkpad using a Plantronics noise-cancelling USB headset.

  • Dictating on the go into an Olympus digital recorder, then converting to text using DNS on the laptop.

  • Keeping notes with pen and paper (whether napkins of moleskine), then very quickly dictating to digitize using method #1.

  • For more tips on being productive while traveling, see my somewhat outdated article on "personal knowledge management" at "Tools for the world-weary knowledge worker".


    Hi there, I was wondering do you consider guest writers. I have been writing on this subject for quite a while now and would love to share my thoughts. Thanks.



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