A Travel Vignette


From a New Zealand Travel Diary (1995)

Shocked by Kiwi Power

IBM ThinkPad Gets Shock of Its Life But Hangs Tough

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, April 1995

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand - "A working vacation?" a bell boy asked the newly arrived guests while riding with them in the elevator. The male visitor had a modem adapter in his hands which he had just obtained from the hotel business center. "Is there any other kind?" he replied jokingly, ignoring the oxymoronic nature of the question.

The third person in the elevator didn’t say anything. Instead, she had a big smirk on her face. By now, she had gotten used to the idea that modems and laptops had become every bit as essential a part of this couple’s travel accoutrements as are tickets or suitcases.

What the bell boy did not know, however, is that the IBM ThinkPad he was carrying was convalescing from the worst shock of its short life. And has lived to tell about it - as evidenced by this story which is being written on it...

Shocked by Pacific Power

A powerful jolt suddenly shook the Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400. For a few seconds, the aircraft seemed to be in a free fall. Then an even stronger strike bounced it right up. The electronic map in the cabin showed our location as about 1,000 miles west of Tahiti, and just south of the equator. In other words, we were in the middle of nowhere... And in the middle of a 14-hour night borrowed from a day that never was. If the first two shocks weren’t enough to get a sleepy passenger’s attention, the "Fasten Seat Belt" sign and the panic-stricken voice of the head purser, which followed them in short succession surely did. "Isn’t the ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ sign supposed to precede the bad weather at this day and age of sophisticated on-board radars?," this writer was wondering. "No worries," as the Kiwis or Aussies would say.

In no time at all, an angry Pacific started to toss the world’s largest passenger "jumbo jet" around as if it were a piece of fluff. Which is what we were compared to the power of nature. One did not need any fancy electronic navigational instruments or further encouragement from the crew before buckling up in a hurry. "At least the storm didn’t hit in the middle of dinner, as so often happens," this writer was thinking, looking for a silver lining around the dark clouds.

The South Pacific roller-coaster lasted some 15 minutes. Then it stopped as suddenly as it had started.

Five hours later, after landing safely in Auckland, New Zealand, the captain apologized to the passengers for the rough rides during the flight. He took personal responsibility for the storm!

The shock by the Pacific power was only a preamble to the Kiwi power jolt...

Modem Adapter

"NO DIAL TONE," the IBM Thinkpad reported as this writer tried to send the first FAX from his Auckland hotel room.

"Oh, no... Not again!" he said despairingly, recalling the same modem-stifling messages he had received during his prior trips to places like Barcelona or Budapest. The laptop’s old European nemesis was back even in this land "down under."

"No problem, Sir," a hotel clerk replied cheerfully, upon hearing about the problem. "I’ll have a modem adapter sent to your room right away."

Within minutes, a Maori bell boy arrived with a cable which had a North American telephone jack at one end, and what looked like a telephone extension plug at the other. He plugged in the hotel line in the latter and the former into the ThinkPad.

"Give it a go now," he suggested.

We did. Nothing happened. Or at least that’s how he saw it, judging by the frown on his forehead.

"Don’t worry," this writer said. "Today must be Sunday. That’s the day each week this laptop is scheduled to check itself for viruses. Ever heard of computer viruses?"

"Of course," the bell boy smiled and nodded.

Finally pronounced "virus-free," the ThinkPad proceeded to send its first FAX from New Zealand. It worked. Like a charm. The Kiwis had figured out what the Europeans couldn’t - that a "dial tone" isn’t a dial tone when it comes to computers!

This writer thanked the bell boy for the "modem adapter," and made a mental note that he would not be parting with it during the New Zealand visit.

Kiwi Power Shock

Part way through the ANNEX BULLETIN 95-27 (on Oracle), the ThinkPad emitted the three mournful sounds which indicate its batteries were running out of juice. This writer reached for the AC adapter in the laptop’s case. But alas, the six-inch tall adapter could not be plugged into the NZ sockets which were practically at the floor level (only about an inch off the floor). This was a warning this writer should have heeded, but didn’t. Unfortunately, he regarded it as an intelligence or a creativity challenge. So, plugging in the NZ AC power adapter upside-down, he was able use the ThinkPad’s six-inch tall adapter after all.

He got a little worried when a few sparks flew after he had inserted it. In and of itself, however, it was not so unusual for an overseas power system to throw off a few sparks upon encountering an American invention (NZ power is 230V-240V).

But he got seriously worried when a little white smoke started to rise from the ThinkPad’s AC adapter. Immediately, he yanked it from the wall. But an acrid odor had already spread through the hotel room.

His swift reaction, however, appears to have saved the ThinkPad’s life. And or the hotel’s, whose guest could have left the ThinkPad charging while he or she went out to dinner, for example.

Having traveled with another ThinkPad all over the world without ever having to worry about the local power supply (it had a universal AC Adapter), and having been assured of the same by his staff about the two-month old IBM product, this writer never once thought to doubt that the newest and the most advanced IBM laptop might be lacking the feature which its predecessors had. It was a dangerous assumption, as became evident after he had examined the "fine print" on the burnt-out adapter.

"Oh, no," he muttered for the second time in as many days. "I’ve just killed a two-month old baby!"

Panic-stricken, he called the hotel staff and asked if they had a power converter. "Of course," the clerk replied, as politely as always. "We’ll have it up to your room in a jiffy."

A short while later, a technician arrived carrying the same "modem adapter" which had earlier enabled the ThinkPad to "hear" the NZ dial tone.

"Thank you, but that was my yesterday’s problem," this writer explained. "My today’s problem, as you can probably tell by the odor in this room, is a little more serious."

A few minutes later, a larger man arrived carrying about a 50-pound orange box. It was the power converter I had requested.

"Oh my God," this writer thought looking at the unit. "Am I going to have to get one of those now at every hotel in New Zealand?"

It certainly seemed so... Lest we were able to get an NZ power adapter. But bigger problems still loomed ahead...

The unit did not have a three-pronged socket - to match the ThinkPad’s power cord. This writer always carries with him the U.S.-to-Europe, or the U.S.-to-AUS/NZ adapters. But never in his wildest dreams did he envisage a need for a U.S.-to-U.S. adapter on this trip (so as to by-pass the third prong). So, what to do...?

Browsing together through a befuddled hotel concierge’s electronic gadgets, this writer spotted a European adapter. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "This may work! I have a U.S.-to-Europe adapter with me; and you have the Europe-to-NZ one."

And work it did! You could say that America plugged into New Zealand via Europe. Which is not at all inaccurate when one considers all historical ramifications of this electronic travel route. What makes it even more miraculous was that the IBM North American adapter (the one which was burnt out and presumed dead), did manage to give the ThinkPad one last charge. Which is how and why you eventually received the ANNEX BULLETIN 95-27, sans the acrid odor which had preceded it, we hope.


Why would IBM go backward into "U.S. chauvinism" just as it is professing to be a "global" company? And just as Rick Thoman touted his push toward "mobile computing" (i.e., laptops) at the IBM executive briefing in Orlando, FL?

Who knows... Large companies have a way of defying reason or common sense.

According to one IBM insider anyway, the order to go back to the U.S. adapters came directly from Thoman’s office. The reason? Shave off 4-5 ounces of ThinkPad’s weight relative to the competition.

It’s a noble cause. And one to which this laptop pioneer wholeheartedly subscribes. Having lugged them around the world since about 1986, he has often said that he buys his laptops "by the pound," rather than by some other esoteric high-tech criterion. Except if saving 4-5 ounces means killing a $5,000-unit. Or setting a hotel ablaze.

"We’ve now finally designed a universal power supply which is the same weight as the U.S. adapter," the IBM insider told an ANNEX staffer.

That’s great! But how many burnt-out ThinkPad’s or hotels later?

The IBM PC executives should take a cue from that Air New Zealand captain. Even if the weather suddenly turns foul, he is still on the hook for customers’ safety.

Any arguments to the contrary?

P.S. Every story has its heroes. In this case, they were the IBM Consultant Relations people in White Plains, NY, and the IBM NZ team, who provided the replacement international adapter upon this writer’s arrival in Wellington. Jonathan Wright, the IBM technician who came to our hotel room ready to perform major surgery on the shocked ThinkPad, was relieved that the solution turned out to be so simple. So was this writer...

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