Ideal laptop configuration?

After four years and a few drops my 500 MHz IBM Thinkpad seems ready for retirement.  This posting and associated comments are intended to produce a collaborative ideal configuration for a new laptop.

The mission:  Use exclusively when traveling, often for weeks at a time.  I would like to play music in my hotel rooms, ideally from built-in speakers but possibly from little portable speakers that are packed separately (I have a weird little AAA-powered Creative speaker system now that is sort of okay for background music).  I would like to copy large high-res photos from professional digital cameras, usually by pulling a CF or SD card from the camera and plugging it somehow into the laptop.  I want every possible means of connecting to the Internet, wired and wireless, except for telephone (don’t have an ISP and life is too short for dialup).  Battery life is not very important as I’ll usually be using the machine some place where power is available.

Here’s what I think I want

  • 120 GB (or larger) disk drive.  I upgraded my current laptop with a 48 GB drive nearly 2 years ago and am dismayed to discover that the largest 2.5″ drives available right now are 80 GB.  Was Moore’s Law revoked for notebook drives?  Anyone with inside knowledge know when/what the next step in disk drives will be fore notebooks?  I don’t want to bother re-installing all my old software onto a disk smaller than 120 GB.
  • TrackPoint nubby pointing device in the middle of the keyboard, as popularized on the IBM Thinkpad.  I was never able to adapt to those pad devices that are most common for laptops.
  • analog video/audio output to enable playback of DVDs on hotel room TVs, some of which have A/V inputs
  • reasonably high quality built-in speakers
  • as many USB 2.0 ports as possible (at least two because I’ll want to use an accessory mouse that will chew up one)
  • a built-in Webcam and microphone suitable for video conferencing.  Supposedly MSN Messenger contains a reasonable quality video conferencing feature.  Would also be nice to be able to make phone calls from the laptop in cases where a hotel provides high-speed Internet but expensive voice calls and/or the cell phone isn’t working in that area.
  • built-in sockets for CF, SD, and other digital camera memory cards
  • built-in 802.11b for sure, Bluetooth?, maybe something for mobile phone Internet would be nice, e.g., a GSM radio
  • at least two PC card slots for expansion and the weird little card burner that I must use to keep my airplane’s GPS databases up to date
  • mid-size screen and keyboard to keep the weight below 5 lbs. and the size compact
  • Windows XP operating system (most aviation software is Windows-only)

It might be fun to play with the TabletPC software in order to add sketches and other personal annotations to emails, documents, photos, etc.  Is this software ready for prime time?  And does having a TabletPC interfere with the other goals?

Ideas anyone?

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Women as property and U.S.-funded nation-building

Nicholas Kristof complains about the treatment of women in Afghanistan in a story in today’s NY Times.  Here’s an excerpt…

Consider these snapshots of the new Afghanistan:

• A 16-year-old girl fled her 85-year-old husband, who married her when she was 9. She was caught and recently sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment.

• The Afghan Supreme Court has recently banned female singers from appearing on Afghan television, barred married women from attending high school classes and ordered restrictions on the hours when women can travel without a male relative.

• When a man was accused of murder recently, his relatives were obliged to settle the blood debt by handing over two girls, ages 8 and 15, to marry men in the victim’s family.

• A woman in Afghanistan now dies in childbirth every 20 minutes, usually without access to even a nurse. A U.N. survey in 2002 found that maternal mortality in the Badakshan region was the highest ever recorded anywhere on earth: a woman there has a 50 percent chance of dying during one of her eight pregnancies.

• In Herat, a major city, women who are found with an unrelated man are detained and subjected to a forced gynecological exam. At last count, according to Human Rights Watch, 10 of these “virginity tests” were being conducted daily.

… Yet now I feel betrayed, as do the Afghans themselves. There was such good will toward us, and such respect for American military power, that with just a hint of follow-through we could have made Afghanistan a shining success and a lever for progress in Pakistan and Central Asia. Instead, we lost interest in Afghanistan and moved on to Iraq.

… Even now, in the new Afghanistan we oversee, they are being kidnapped, raped, married against their will to old men, denied education, subjected to virginity tests and imprisoned in their homes. We failed them. 

The unspoken assumption in Kristof’s piece is that the U.S. has almost unlimited capabilities to effect social change in distant lands.  Is this realistic?  Consider our own nation.  A lot of Americans enjoy marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs that are tough to buy.  Many of the rest of us seem to like drinking alcohol and then driving cars.  Despite a lot of effort and money spent over the decades these behaviors persist (see for a fun article on how our leaders would have some trouble getting into Canada legally).

Getting back to Afghanistan.  The problem of which Kristof complains is basically that half of the population of Aghanistan views the other half as personal property and is supported in this view by tradition and religion.  Our military can perhaps prevent Afghanistan from being a military threat.  We could also plausible chop the place up and give each resulting piece to a local leader who was friendly and/or beholden to the U.S.  But given our spotty record of achieving social change within our own borders is it realistic to set ourselves the goal of turning Afghanistan into a land of sexual equality?  If so, how would we do it?

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Why hotels need to charge you $7 for a phone call (hint: Bill Gates is involved)

If you stay in a lot of hotels, as I do, it seems odd that after reaming you out of $150 per night they also need to charge you $7 for a short phone call, $7 to wash a T-shirt, $20 for breakfast, $13 for Internet access, etc.  A friend who owns hotels explained what is happening…

A standard travel agency sells you a hotel room for $X and takes a commission, usually 10%, passing the remaining 90% on to the hotel.  Thus 90% of what you pay can be used by the hotel to make your stay pleasant, invest in high-speed Internet, put in a phone system.  Some online services such as Orbitz and Travelocity act as travel agents, finding the best rooms that they can and taking a fixed percentage commission.

Expedia, a company spun off by Microsoft in 1999 but presumably still substantially owned by Microsoft and Bill Gates, uses its dominant market position to arrange favorable deals with hotels.  The deal might be that Expedia gets to buy up to 50 rooms per night for $75 each, for example.  If the market is soft Expedia can resell those rooms to consumers for $100 per night.  If the market is tight Expedia can resell those rooms for $200 per night, pocketing the $125 difference between what they charge the traveler and what they pay the hotel.  If things are so bad that nobody wants to pay $75 on a particular night, Expedia dumps the vacant rooms back on the hotel.  Much of the profits that hotels formerly earned and invested back in their properties is now being captured by Expedia.

So if you book via Expedia and have to pay $20 for breakfast, have some sympathy for the hotel owner.  He might have gotten less than half of what you paid Expedia for that room.

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