Sunday, January 6, 2008


Knocking Amtrak is a bit too easy, kind of like criticizing a game company for missing a street date. Today took the cake, however. Rocco and I took a quick train ride from Berkeley to Emeryville, and back again. It's five minutes each way, but for a two year old, the waiting for trains and the spectacle of the giant machine pulling up is really something. We've tried to do this trip several other times; twice we missed the train because we were getting lunch and twice the train was delayed hours due to mechanical problems.

Today the train pulled back into the Berkeley station and we went down the stairs ... to the dining car. There was no sign, you just have to know that you're going down there. Unfortunately, the doors don't open in the dining car, so if you've gone down the stairs in hopes of leaving, you've automatically missed your stop, since there's no time to fix your mistake.

The trains leave stations as fast as the BART trains - really fast. The conductor was apologetic when he came around to take our ticket, as if this kind of thing happens all the time. Nevertheless, we were essentially ejected at the Richmond station with no way back. It took half a dozen BART stops and a cab ride to get back to my car, as the Richmond station has no agent, no working ticket machines and no schedule as to when the next train would arrive. Rocco didn't seem to mind, so we made the best of it.

I'm not sure what to make of Amtrak. It seems to exist as a sort of transportation place-holder, just in case we need to actually get serious about rail travel one day. It certainly isn't a form of transportation people use by choice. It's slower than a plane or even a bus. It's not cheap. It's prone to delays and rail corridors are the most unattractive parts of our cities. Go figure.

I'm really impressed with an online service called Carbonite. It's an online backup system that does a background copy of changed files from your computer to their site online. It's $50/year per computer with no limit on capacity. I learned about it from Earl, our D&D guy whose also in IT. Earl also turned me on to the Fujitsu laptop I'm using, a really solid machine, akin to what a ThinkPad used to be when IBM still made them.

One of the most onerous computer tasks for the business is keeping things backed up. It requires a server, which is prone to failure. We're on our second server. Both are machines I built during my days in IT. The client computers need to be configured to sync to the server to backup data, another potential point of failure. I was lucky when my laptop was stolen because it had synced a few hours before. The POS machine is more problematic as it's essentially a database server that doesn't back up easily. There's also the chance that the server is stolen or destroyed before the data can be moved off site onto tape; tapes also fail. I've got a giant corporate level DLT drive that at one point would have cost $5,000, but sold on eBay for next to nothing.

I'm thinking I'll probably ditch my file server and put the computers in the store on Carbonite. For printing I can buy a couple of print servers. The savings in electricity for the server alone should cover the costs of the backup service. Before I totally change my file management life, I'll need to do some restoration tests to make sure the service is as good as it looks.


  1. I can't understand why we don't simply subsidize private passenger rail businesses - as we do private airlines and bus companies - rather than have a government run, non-customer responsive passenger railway that 1) doesn't do a very good job, while 2) keeps any real competitor from emerging.

    I love riding the train, and since it is the second most cost effective (after ships) mode of transport, I don't understand why it costs three times as much to take a train to Gencon as it does to fly.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Amtrak is, technically, a private passenger rail. However, it loses so much money that without the massive federal subsidies, it would die a quick death. I think the only place it Amtrak makes money is the NY- DC-Boston-Philly corridor.

  4. If they had a "car train" (like the ones that go through the Chunnel), they could revolutionize vacations.
    Pack your crap in the car, drive to the train station, put your car on the train (with the heavy bags still packed in the trunk) and carry on your small bag, relax until you hit the train station closest to your destination, and drive the rest of the way.
    No airports, no driving along looking desperately for a rest area bathroom, no rental cars, no lugging heavy luggage through the airport...

    Oh yeah! That's how I'd want to travel!

  5. Amtrak has a car carrier service from DC to Florida, but nothing on the West Coast.

  6. Florida? D.C.? Who wants to drive in swamps and gridlock?

    Car service to Chicago or Indianapolis from Oakland/SF would make GenCon or Origins a fun "road trip" without insane driving.

  7. It's aimed at "snow birds" who will be spending their winters down there.