Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Roboticist inspired by more than machines

BOSTON--Carnegie Mellon University is becoming to robots, what Cooperstown is to baseball.

Aside from its Robot Hall of Fame, CMU has unique outreach projects to engage mainstream America with robots. It has hosted RoboCup, a global soccer tournament played by robots, and most recently released DIY robot recipes that allow anyone to make robots from off-the-shelf parts through its Terk program. The people behind CMU's unique Robotics Institute have also become a hot topic for analysis since the release of a nonfiction book about them by Lee Gutkind.

On Tuesday, Matt Mason, the director of the Robotics Institute at CMU announced the 2007 inductees into the Robot Hall of Fame. The honor, which is judged by a jury of both leading science and science fiction experts, was created in April 2003 to call attention to the contributions robots and their creators make to society.

Mason is known for his work on the mechanics of robot manipulation and has written four books on the topic. He spent some time with CNET from the great glass hall of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston during RoboBusiness 2007.

Q: You said at that ceremony for the Robot Hall of Fame induction that this is the first time real robots have outnumbered fictional robots as inductees and that this may be a sign you are finally fulfilling expectations? Can you explain what you meant by that?
Mason: Expectations might be a little high, matching excitement level sounds right. Fulfilling expectations, I don't know if that will ever happen. Some people expect that they will be able to eventually download their brain into a machine and dispose of the messy organic body and live in the computer.

What about this dichotomy between real life robots and science fiction. Does it make your job harder?
Mason: It makes it, the job, great because the people that write those books are really great visionary, deep thinkers and they're thinking ahead about how technology might develop and what the implications might be. So, it's a great reference for us.

Last year the Robotics Institute came out with Ballbot. Is that CMU's answer to the legs versus wheels debate?
Mason: Certainly not an answer, but an interesting new entry in the debate. Wheels are cool. Legs are cool. I think probably the future will include both wheels and legs. What we didn't realize, or what we hadn't considered, was whether it might also include balls. This isn't the first time Ralph Hollis has broken radical new ground. His original robot, Newt, was the first mobile robot that was autonomous and had a computer. It did have an onboard computer. Prior to that they had a little of bit of logic, but the first truly autonomous was Newt. I think of Ralph as the father of the autonomous robot.

What sets the Robotics institute at CMU apart from other robotics groups?
Mason: I'm not sure who to compare it to. It is a university department. We have tenure track faculty and a Ph.D. program, but its research effort is ten times larger than its educational effort. Most of the impact that you see is coming from research projects. Sponsored research is about in excess of $50 million a year.

It started as a research institute and then it became an academic department, but it's still first and foremost a research institute and one sign of that is in its growth. We started at $1 million and now we are at $50 million and it doubles in size every six or seven years, not something you see at most university departments. We have a very entrepreneurial group of people.

Are there a lot of Ph.D. students who then go out on their own and start companies from what they've done?
Mason: There are a lot of spin-offs. We are very aggressive at creating new centers. Illah Nourbakhsh's Center for Innovative Robotics finally got some new space. And we also got some new funding from Microsoft for that. Hopefully it will grow and thrive. There's Robot City two miles south of the main campus. We also have the Quality of Life Center.

Some people may not realize what you mean by "quality of life." Can you explain what the Quality of Life Technology Center is about?
Mason: It focuses on robots helping people especially rehabilitation, elder care, health monitoring. We're in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and it's sponsored by the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.

They say that as the baby boomers get older and we have this large population of elderly, we are going to need robots to help us be more productive and care for the elderly. Do you agree that that is likely to happen?
Mason: I think it's inevitable...but essentially wonderful. It will be great.

In Japan they talk about having companion robots for the elderly. Do you see something like that happening in America?
Mason: The companion robot is one of the more intriguing concepts. I think that sometimes we see that as the nightmare scenario. That it means we'll be cut off from human companionship and have to get comfort from our machines. So when someone says that, it can be surprising, and yet maybe it could be a good thing.

Most people only think of humanoid robots, robots that look and talk like humans, as robots. What makes a robot a robot in your eyes?
Mason: I started in industrial robotics. I have a very broad idea of what a robot is, especially if you're interested in robotics research you are interested in the principles that might be applied across a lot of domains. Machine perception, you might end up working on technology that would be deployed on the Internet to search for images. We may not think of that as robotics technology, but it is. That and AI is endlessly fascinating.

So what technology do you think needs to be perfected before a humanoid robot like C3PO becomes a reality?
Mason: The easiest way is to put a human in a machine.

You mean use the human machine as a model?
Mason: No, I meant literally. I was joking. Oh, you mean without the human?

It's interesting. What was the name of the planet where R2D2 goes?

The Ewok planet?
Mason: No. Where he goes with Luke to the jungle, the swamp to see Yoda?

Tatooine? No...(Correct answer is actually Dagobah.)
Mason: Well, anyway, you see R2D2 following Luke and Yoda is leading them back to his tree stump. You're looking at R2D2 and wondering how he's navigating this forest floor with vines and everything with those little wheels. I don't think there is any technology that can handle that well yet. C3PO is more plausible because he's based on a human chassis.

The one thing we learn over and over in robotics is everything is much harder than anyone thought. We thought chess would be a great challenge for AI and now we have chess machines that can beat every human, or almost every human. Turns out, building a machine that can manipulate the chess pieces as effective as a human is way harder. I mean, sure, we can build them for a specific set of pieces and a specific chess board, but not where you can show up with any chess board and it can take the pieces and sort them out and start playing.

Ultimately we've discovered that mopping a floor is harder than playing chess. I guess that means janitors are as intelligent as anyone else. The distinction between them and anyone else is negligible.

What do you see as a less popular or unexplored area that you would like to see more research done in?
Mason: Theoretical underpinnings. It's easy to motivate research when it's close to application and when it's close to a machine. Machines are inspirational. You see a machine and right away, not knowing what it can do, you project capabilities they don't even have. It's much more difficult to attract funding for longer range research. Ultimately the impact might be as great because it can apply more broadly across different types of robots.

What's the biggest AI achievement so far?
Mason: One of the really exciting things going on right now is the development of statistical methods, machine learning techniques especially in robotics. But that's one among many. I'm trying to think of what else.

Well, what's the most interesting work being done at CMU?
Mason: Hmm. That's really hard to say. There are a lot of interesting things. One of them is an image understanding system, being offered on the Web as Fotowoosh. You give it a picture and it gives you back a virtual reality three-dimensional structure that you can fly through. It can figure out the image...I've seen it work for street scenes and seascapes and outdoor things.

CMU is in this year's DARPA challenge and it's going to be in an urban setting instead of the dessert like before. It seems like that would be more difficult.
Mason: With the DARPA challenge, the first year was very challenging. But it's hard to do a comparison because we are now taking back machines that are radically better. But the urban grand challenge is definitely more interesting and challenging in that you are dealing with other vehicles.

You know. I think another one of our most interesting things is with origami.

OK. So, tell me about the origami robot. What sorts of practical applications do you see that type of technology eventually having?
Mason: What do you mean? We did it 'cause we really love origami. Come on, don't you envision them in every mall in America making 1,000 cranes a minute?

I'm only kidding. We do it 'cause we're interested in the principles and so far the most automatic program research in robotics manipulation does harder things. Literally you have it easier to manipulate hard things than soft things like paper. And so, for us, extended out planning algorithms for paper was a challenge. We think origami will be for manipulation what robot soccer is for mobile robots: a great challenge task that can inspire and challenge researchers for the next 50 years.

Microsoft hopes 'Milan' table PC has magic touch

At first glance, Microsoft's secret project looks like a 2007 version of the sit-down arcade game Ms. Pac Man.

But if this machine were running the game, you could just take your finger and flick away the monsters chasing the heroine.

Microsoft on Wednesday is taking the wra
ps off "Milan," five years in the making and the first in what the company hopes will be a long line of "surface computers." The Microsoft Surface tabletop PC, for which the company has created both the hardware and software, offers shades of the technology seen in the sci-fi thriller Minority Report. The whole unit is controlled entirely through touch; there's no mouse or keyboard.

To paint, people can pick up a paint brush or just dip their fingers in virtual paint cups. Sharing photos is similarly intuitive. A stack of pictures can be easily sorted through and shared. To resize a photo, just stretch two fingers apart. Pivot the fingers and the image rotates. More than one person can be interacting with the computer at a time.

"It's very approachable," said Pete Thompson, the former T-Mobile executive who runs Microsoft's surface-computing business. "You just want to touch it."

Although consumers will be able to touch it later this year, most won't be able to buy a surface computer any time soon.

The expensive components required to allow multiple users to touch the device simultaneously give it a price tag approaching $10,000. As a result, Microsoft isn't targeting homes initially, though it hopes consumers can own their own Milan within three to five years. For now, Microsoft is focusing on getting the products into public spaces in the hospitality arena--hotel lobbies, restaurants, and casinos, to name a few.

The company's initial customers are cellular carrier T-Mobile, which will use the units in its retail stores; hotel operator Starwood, which owns brands including Sheraton and Westin; casino owner Harrah's and slot game maker IGT. Each of the initial partners should have a few initial machines up and running around November, Thompson said.

Thompson said the roll-out approach is similar to that taken by the tech industry with plasma displays, which were used in trade show booths for years while they were still too costly for the home.

Sheraton Vice President Hoyt Harper said Microsoft's tactic is pretty savvy, noting that many guests who might see the product in a Sheraton lobby could easily be among those who will buy one when it finally does go on sale widely. "I think that's one reason they chose us," he said.

Harper said the computers fit perfectly into his company's efforts to turn its hotel lobbies into destinations rather than merely places people stop on their way somewhere else. That, he said, makes them easily worth their high price tag.

"How can you not take advantage of something that could materially change the guest experience in the lobby?" Harper asked. Initially, Sheraton plans to have three Milan machines at hotels in New York, Boston and Chicago, with two in each lobby and one in the club lounge. If that means folks are lining up, he said, all the better.

"It will be a nice problem to have," he said.

Another consideration, in addition to cost, is how well Milan holds up to wear and tear. Harrah's CIO Tim Stanley wants to make sure the machines are built to last before he starts placing them in casinos on the Vegas strip.

If he puts one in the Pure nightclub, for example, "they might dance on (the) table," he said. "Can it handle that?"

The guts of Milan
At its core, Milan is powered by a fairly standard high-end Vista PC with an off-the-shelf graphics card, 3GHz Pentium 4 processor and 2GB of memory. To make the touch screen work, Microsoft crams a lot of other stuff into its tabletop unit. Underneath the roughly textured scratch-proof and spill-proof surface covering the top of the unit, five infrared cameras sense fingers or other objects touching the surface, while a DLP projector turned on its side generates the screen image people see.

To show off the technology to the public, Microsoft has written a few demo applications, such as the paint and photo apps, as well as a program in which specially tagged clear tiles make up a jigsaw puzzle. Instead of a still image, however, the tiles are part of a moving video (it's harder than it sounds to put together).

But Microsoft has hooked up its partners with a handful of software companies it has certified to write Milan-compatible programs. The company isn't making the technology widely available to developers, though it may do so down the road.

Microsoft is not alone in the arena of multitouch computing. NYU professor Jeff Han wowed the crowd at the March TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference with a similar technology and has launched a start-up, Perceptive Pixel, to commercialize it. Apple has also gotten patents in the area and has talked about the use of multitouch in its upcoming iPhone.

Still, Thompson said he isn't worried about infringing anyone else's technology.

"Our legal team feels really good about our IP situation," Thompson said.

The Milan effort began during a series of conversations between Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson and hardware designer Steve Bathiche. The team presented the idea in 2003 to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and started working on prototypes.

Microsoft itself has launched other ventures in this area, largely through Microsoft Research, which has been demonstrating projects in this realm for years. It even licensed a derivative of the touch technology to a medical-imaging company last year. Another version, dubbed PlayAnywhere, is a mobile take on surface computing, using a can-size projector and camera to allow any flat space to be turned into a computer.

As for Milan, the software maker hopes to get the technology into lots of other areas, such as the education market, in addition to into consumers' hands. Although the initial customers are getting the same tabletop design, Microsoft says the product will eventually come in other shapes and sizes, including vertical, or stand-up units.

It's the interface that makes the difference. Not only is it easy to use, but unlike traditional computing, it's not an isolating experience.

"We're all connected through and have all these virtual worlds and virtual friends but we don't do a lot of socializing like this," Thompson said, pointing to several chairs seated around the Milan device.

Notorious debtor Serin shuts down blog

A failed real estate investor who rocketed to Internet stardom by blogging about his foreclosure, unemployment and marital strife has abruptly pulled the plug on his Web site.

Casey Serin, the 24-year-old would-be real estate mogul who was reduced to sharing a diminutive West Sacramento, Calif., townhouse with his sister-in-law, announced on Thursday that is dead and "will never return."

Since the blog's launch in September, Serin's regular posts about his refusal to get a job or pay off up to $420,000 that he owes creditors have garnered him an enthusiastic--if unrelentingly critical--audience known as "haterz."

Along the way, Serin's notoriety led to appearances on Suze Orman's and Robert Kiyosaki's advice shows, and the creation of an encyclopedia,, with hundreds of entries mocking his exploits. A Casey Serin Dance Remix appeared, as have photo galleries depicting him as Gilligan from Gilligan's Island and McDonald's Hamburglar character.

Serin did not respond to e-mail messages or voice mail on Thursday and Friday asking why his blog was replaced with a brief farewell message, which didn't say what prompted the deletion.

That didn't stop the so-called haterz from speculating. One oft-proferred explanation centered on a contract that Serin signed on May 17 with his wife, Galina. It specifies that the site must be shuttered "permanently never to be reopened again" if Serin did not generate $1,000 in income a week or if he discussed his marital problems publicly--an arrangement that one site said was violated.

In an earlier conversation with CNET, Galina Serin said she was becoming frustrated with her husband's credit-based spending and had met with her pastor recently for relationship counseling. Of eight homes that her husband hoped to resell at a profit, he lost all of them, most to foreclosure.

Earlier, Serin had talked favorably about being homeless and living in a car and said his wife was holding him back. After signing the contract, he generally refrained from discussing family members, though his brother Steve did berate him publicly for his antics and not supporting his wife.

Anti-Serin sites expressed dismay at the apparent end of, comparing Serin-watching to a form of drug addiction. Some unhappy haterz even held a lengthy conference call on Thursday evening, with one caller suggesting that it should turn into a weekly ritual.

Donate Your Unused Computer Power to Science

Want to help fight global warming, search for extraterrestrials and maybe even cure cancer? You don’t need a PhD, just a PC.

Chances are you're reading this article on a computer. And unless you're constantly designing spaceships and listening to one of a million songs squirreled away on your hard drive, you've got some data-crunching and storage capacity to spare. Why not donate it to scientific research by participating in a volunteer computing project?

Huh? What is volunteer computing?
Think of volunteer computing as a donation to science, but instead of money or a body part, you’re sharing your computer's unused power to help find life on other planets, cure cancer or predict the effects of global warming. These large scientific problems are split up into small pieces that are worked on by individual computers around the world.

The technology is a type of distributed computing, which uses multiple machines across a network to do a particular computation, but because these science projects rely on anonymous donors, "volunteer" gives it distinction, says David Anderson, founder of BOINC—the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing—a group at the University of California that develops widely used volunteer computing software.

Why do scientists need my computer?
There are half a billion personal computers in the world with processors that do nothing most of the time, explains Anderson, who also directs the popular SETI@home project, which uses volunteers to help analyze radio waves from space for signs of extraterrestrials.

The combined strength of a tiny fraction of this unused computing power is greater than that of the world's largest supercomputer, allowing scientists to attempt problems they'd otherwise never crack.

For example, chemistry professor Vijay Pande at Stanford University has access to 300,000 computer processors for his Folding@home project, which studies how proteins assemble themselves, for insight into such diseases as Alzheimer's, mad cow, Parkinson's and cancer. The typical supercomputer has about 5,000 processors, he says.

What’s in it for me?
A virtual pat on the back or a warm fuzzy for helping scientists do good research motivates most people to participate in volunteer computing projects.

"They don't get any money," Anderson says.

Rather, people join because they want to support one of the projects. Some people are fascinated by the possibility of finding ET or deem global warming the most important issue of our time. Many want to help cure terminal illnesses.

"Others enjoy the competitive nature of it, as one competes to see who can calculate the most," Pande commented in an e-mail.

How does it work?
Participants download to their computers special software that fetches work units over the Internet. The volunteer computers do their individual task and, once complete, send the piece back to a central server. If they want, they can pick up another unit.

"One of the jobs this piece of software has is to make that happen invisibly to the user," Anderson says.

People who use their computers primarily to surf the Web, check e-mail or do word processing will never notice the program running. However, the software also can be configured to run only when the computer is idle—at night, for example, or when a screen saver kicks in.

In addition, most programs provide users with the option to monitor their projects. For example, participants in the University of Oxford's experiment can watch the climate change on a 3-D planet Earth as the program models the potential effects of global warming.

Is it safe?
Computer security is of primary concern to volunteer computing projects. If hackers find a way to download viruses onto participating computers, volunteers may quit. Likewise, a volunteer could return a corrupt file that sabotages the science.

BOINC addresses this problem with an encryption technology called code signing. A dedicated computer not connected to the Internet signs each work packet before it goes out. The signature has to match up with the project's key for the software on the volunteer computer to accept it.

"If projects obey that rule, then the only programs that will be accepted by people's computers running BOINC are those that are actually produced by the project," Anderson says.

Notable volunteer computing projects independent of the BOINC system employ similar security procedures. For example, Stanford’s Folding@home uses digital signatures and interacts only with project software downloaded from its servers.

"The crucial aspect of volunteer computing as it's done at the moment is that the participants have to trust the scientists distributing experiments," says Myles Allen, the principal investigator for

I'm still wary. Why should I trust BOINC or any other system?
"It's ultimately the responsibility of the computer owner to evaluate the projects," Anderson says.

He advises that potential volunteers evaluate the institution behind the project, academic papers published by the project team and whether the project has a history of solid security. The answers should provide a good gauge of the project's legitimacy.

The BOINC Web site maintains a list of trusted projects using the BOINC system. The list includes SETI@home,, Rosetta@home and a dozen others.

What about privacy?
Projects that use BOINC require users to create an account with an e-mail address, but the address is never verified, Anderson says.

"The project doesn't know anything about you," he says. "You can use whatever name you want, so the project doesn't know who you are, and people are not going to see your name or IP address or anything like that on the project's Web site." A real e-mail address, however, allows the project team to send participants periodic newsletters and the like.

Also, most projects have active Web sites with social networking tools such as message boards. Users often find that these features connect them with like-minded people. The SETI@home message board has even spawned a few marriages.

Protecting kids from online food ads

A Washington-based advocacy group is urging new government regulations that would limit how food marketers can advertise to children in digital environments, with the hope of chipping away at childhood obesity rates in the United States.

The Center for Digital Democracy has written a 98-page report on the practices of food marketers on cell phones, digital video, social networks, games and virtual worlds.

The CDD plans to present the report to the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, the eve of an FTC deadline for public comment on food marketers' tactics to reach children across all media.

The report, called Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth, was commissioned by the Berkeley Media Studies Group. It highlights new types of digital media marketing by food and beverage companies. Such tactics include food company-created viral videos on YouTube and fast-food characters posing as "friends" on the teen hangout MySpace.

New regulations are particularly important now, according to the report's authors, because of the sheer amount of time kids spend in digital environments and the evolving techniques that marketers use to reach them.

"It's essentially an unregulated new frontier for these marketers, and they're trying everything they can to get at kids and teens," said Kathryn C. Montgomery, a professor at American University who co-authored the report. "Some of the tactics may well be deceptive and a number of them may be unfair, flying under the radar of parents, and federal and health regulators."

The CDD said that after issuing the report, it will have attorneys examine the marketing practices of food and beverage companies. Then, it plans to file a complaint with the FTC on individual companies' tactics, Montgomery said.

The report comes at a time when parents, educators and health officials are struggling to grapple with a growing epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. An estimated 2 million children ages 12 to 19 have experienced a pre-diabetic condition that's linked to obesity and inactivity, according to research from a nutrition standards board. Researchers have also shown that food and beverage advertising greatly influences kids' purchasing choices and eating habits.

As a result, government regulators are examining food marketing more closely, under a mandate by Congress. In the coming months, the FTC plans to subpoena 44 food, beverage and fast-food companies for details on their marketing practices to children, including their spending.

The FTC did not specify which companies it would subpoena, but said it is seeking data on marketing in traditional and nontraditional media, including product placements, video game advertising and some forms of Internet advertising, according to FTC spokeswoman Jackie Dizdul.

Once the data is collected, the FTC will write a report on its findings, called "The Food Industry Marketing to Children Report," for submission to Congress. The trade commission had held a public comment period for requests on its food and beverage marketing inquiry, which will close Friday.

The CDD is asking that the FTC consider its report and request that food and beverage companies provide details about how they are profiling children in digital environments, on the development of user-generated content online, and their marketing in virtual worlds, among other requests.

"The purpose of the report is an emergency wake-up call to clueless regulators," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the CDD, which filed a similar report focusing on how marketers target kids online in 1996. Its ensuing complaint eventually led to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which essentially requires marketers to obtain permission from parents before collecting any personal information from their children ages 12 and under.

The current focus of the policy debate is centered on television. In January, the FCC began enforcing new federal rules that restrict children's TV channels like Nickelodeon from displaying Web site addresses that contain any links to commercial content. But critics argue that those regulations are short-sighted, given that marketers today are targeting children on media beyond the TV.

"The world has changed. Young people are living in distinct digital media environments, with far more impact on attitudes and development than TV," said Chester.

Particularly in the last few years, he said, marketing and digital media have merged to create a powerful force in the lives of younger generations, through devices like mobile phones and within virtual reality sites. "Call it the Second Life of the dot-com boom," Chester said.

Some examples of digital food marketing contained in the report:

• In the fall of 2005, McDonald's launched its McFlurry mobile marketing campaign, which targeted younger people with coupons for free dessert via their cell phones. The fast food chain urged kids to text message a special phone number to receive an instant digital coupon, along with free ringtones. McDonald's promoted the campaign on billboards near high schools.

• In the spring of 2005, the Kellogg Company printed promotional URLs on more than 6.5 million of its Corn Pops cereal packages. Kids visiting the page were required to give personal information, including a cell phone number, to play a trivia game for the potential to win various prizes.

• Coca-Cola introduced an initiative called My Coke Rewards, which placed special codes on products that let buyers access a site and enter personal information to get rewards like downloadable ringtones.

• Wendy's has created videos-cum-commercials on YouTube that are designed to attract younger generations. One video, "Molly Grows Up," depicts a young girl ordering her first 99-cent Jr. Bacon cheeseburger and Frosty. It generated 300,000 views, according to CDD.

Representatives of the companies could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Nutrition experts and some members of Congress are already showing support for new regulations surrounding digital food marketing.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is expected to hold a press conference Thursday morning following the issue of the report.

Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Public Health at New York University and author of several books on nutrition, highlighted the growth of food makers' spending toward kids in recent decades in order to boost quarterly profits. That spending has trickled to the Web as more kids have gone online.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings AdRelevance data, online spending among the top 15 food and beverage companies is the highest in the consumer category at nearly $11 million in April. Last year, marketing spending online by food, beverage and candy companies totaled $133.7 million, up 23 percent for the year, according to data from Advertising Age, which put the industry at 15th in U.S. Internet spending.

"We cannot rely on the food industry to self-regulate, especially when much of its marketing is invisible to the sight of most adults," Nestle said in a statement. "Congress and the FTC need to act on this new information about digital food marketing and start putting some restrictions on direct marketing of junk foods to children."

10 Things Every Mobile User Should Know

Make your next gadget-laden journey as painless and productive as possible.
Before You Go
  • Take your iPod instead of your laptop. An iPod (and other portable USB storage devices) can hold computer files, Outlook data, Internet Explorer favorites, desktop wallpaper, and in some cases, applications. Connect the iPod to a borrowed PC, and voilĂ --it's like having access to your own computer. Later, sync the iPod with your PC back home. The Migo ($30) and MojoPac ($30) utilities each provide this capability.
  • Get your faxes as e-mail attachments. charges $2 per month plus 15 cents per page to forward faxes as PDF files in e-mail.
  • Post a reward in case your laptop is lost. Raise your chances of being reunited with a lost laptop by registering it with You'll receive a sticker to put on your notebook, informing others of a reward for its return. To contact you, the finder dials the toll-free number on the sticker or goes to the StuffBak Web site. A $6 sticker provides two years of free return service.
  • Pack your laptop bag with five essentials. You should always take (A) a grounded (three-prong) extension cord with at least three outlets so you can recharge multiple gadgets; (B) blank CDs, for transferring files to another PC or burning tunes to play in the rental car; (C) an RJ-11 phone cord, because you never know when you'll need one; (D) an ethernet cable, for the same reason; and (E) your AC adapter, with airline and car power adapters.
  • Research your seat. Before booking a flight, head over to Charts reveal which seats on domestic and international flights have the greatest width and pitch and provide in-seat power ports.
  • Bonus Tip: Get a multipurpose, wheeled carry-on. Want to minimize the hassle of juggling two carry-on bags? The smartly designed, wheeled Victorinox Coliseum Wheeled Overnight Brief ($399) features an external pocket big enough to hold a laptop bag, plus a capacious interior for clothes, reading material, and other items. You can get it from retailers like
On the Road
  • Get directions on your phone. The free Google Maps for Palm, BlackBerry, and other smart phones shows nearby businesses, gives directions, and delivers real-time traffic info (in 30 U.S. markets).
  • Use your phone as a modem. Most Bluetooth phones (and some others) include data-modem capabilities, enabling you to use your phone to connect your laptop to the Web wirelessly. Check with your carrier for a connection kit and compatible data plan.
  • Go to an airline lounge to stay connected. If there's no hotspot at the airport, you can often connect through a lounge. With a Priority Pass you gain admission into 500 lounges in some 300 airports. Standard membership is $99 per year plus $24 per visit. Also, some clubs now offer $50 day passes.
  • Find a hotspot. Listing more than 120,000 hotspots worldwide, is the place to go when you're sniffing around for a Wi-Fi connection. And its Hotspot Helper software ($25 per year; free ten-day trial) lets you locate hotspots offline, too.
  • Create your own hotel hotspot. Some hotel rooms still offer only wired broadband access. But a portable router--such as Apple's AirPort Express ($129) or Linksys's Wireless-G Travel Router ($100)--lets you create your own wireless network, so you're not shackled to the uncomfortable guest-room desk.