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Wireless at Sea: A Report from the MacMania Alaska Cruise

by Glenn Fleishman

On the recent Geek Cruises' MacMania conference, I mushed dogs, watched glaciers calve, and ate like a pig. But one of the best parts of the event was the convivial area network (CAN?) in the ship's library and nearby games room, made possible through Wi-Fi networking and a satellite link-up back to the Internet. (Another good part: I somehow lost two pounds. Must have been all the presenting.)

The connection speed was, as expected, both slow and highly latent because of the satellite relay, but it was effective enough to handle email and limited Web browsing, as well as an upload of my dog mushing pictures. The network experience wasn't so much like sucking watermelons through a straw as skipping rocks across a wide lake, waiting for the plunk or thud as it sunk or hit its mark.

The combination of low speed and limited ship coverage actually benefited the social and collegial aspects of the conference. We huddled around the glow of the digital fire, sharing stories about life and computation even as the ship rocked in moderate seas off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. Data trickled in and out and we talked and talked and talked.

Doc Searls of Linux Journal, blogging fame, and The Cluetrain Manifesto, attended as an observer with his wife and five-year-old son, smelling the flavor of OS X in the air. Searls nailed the advantage of our little hot spot: "One of the virtues of Wi-Fi is that it's inherently convivial, whereas say, broadband over cellular technology just means Internet access," Doc observed.

MacMania was a working vacation shared with my fiancé Lynn. I was brought along to deliver about nine hours worth of sessions on security, encryption, Adobe GoLive, and -- of course -- wireless networking. Most of the other speakers were better known in the Mac community; I kept calling myself "the least well-known Mac writer onboard."

Glenn Fleishman in Alaska.

Still, I had two articles due and treated the week as a mix between staying in touch with my freelance work and having fun on my own and with my loved one. I even sold an article while onboard (you're reading it).

Our Itinerary

The ship left Vancouver, British Columbia, and cruised the Inside Passage of Alaska, which took us to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, cities that thrive in the summer months with large and small cruise ships arriving every day. The Alaska Maritime Highway, a fleet of ferries operating under federal highway matching funds, move people around the southeast part of the state, known as the panhandle.

Plenty of shipboard activities associated with the cruise and private events for the conference filled the days at sea, including technical sessions, dramatic readings, and roundtables. Sessions varied from about 2 hours to full days, on topics covering programs, concepts, and production. The in-port days offered shore excursions, including my dog-mushing trip.

A large chunk of time outside of these activities and the incessant eating was spent together on our CAN (and I mean that in both senses).

CAN: the Convivial Area Network

When Neil Bauman, CEO and "Captain" of Geek Cruises, and Bernie Dunham of MousTech.Net (no Web site) -- his one-man consulting firm, partnered to deliver wireless access during the conferences, they originally planned to offer it ubiquitously.

Dunham said, "The original project scope was to provide wireless not only over the conference center decks, but we were going to try to get all the cabin areas." After considering the cost and social impact, however, they decided to limit coverage to conference rooms and public areas.

Last fall's Perl Whirl was a free test of the wireless network system for Bauman, Dunham, and the attendees, many of whom said they would have liked to have access in their cabins. "I don't think so!" Bauman said. "Then they'll spend their time in their rooms."

Indeed, this intrepid reporter found himself standing out on his balcony, iBook in hand, dousing for signal shortly after reaching his room. I saw two bars, but the failure of one of the access points while at sea meant I had to trudge down a deck to join my colleagues and be part of the community.

Bob LeVitus, the Houston Chronicle Mac columnist known to legions of users as Dr. Mac, said, "This was probably the smartest call Neil made: you have to come up here [to the library] to get your connectivity and then you have to find an outlet.

"You can connect to a Web site that's 6,000 miles away, but you have to be six feet from a wall socket," LeVitus said. "It's like a campfire. It made us come up and huddle around the campfire, which are the electrical outlets, instead of huddling in our separate spaces."

The ship's power often sagged and spiked, too; Theresa Mazich (Neil Bauman's wife and our cruise's Commodore) strongly suggested a power strip with surge and other protection.

Beam My Data Up

John De Lancie, the stage and screen actor best known for his role as Q in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," was aboard. De Lancie, a long-time Mac addict, gave the idea for the conference to Bauman and helped connect him with Macworld, which co-produced the conference.

As you can imagine, mix geeks and Star Trek and you can generate a bit of a real stir, along with some new ideas (more on that at the end of this article). But after the first few days when everyone had gotten used to his presence, De Lancie was also a frequent member of the Wi-Fi salon.

De Lancie said that without onboard Internet access, "I would be running out on every port for an Internet café."

"If this were in your cabin, it would actually defeat the purpose of being on your cruise. But having it here in a centralized place, you meet like-minded people," he noted.

"The library has turned into a repair center," he added as he watched former Macworld editor-in-chief Andy Gore and Bare Bones Software founder and head Rich Siegel tear apart his G3 PowerBook, trying to fix an AirPort card problem.

Expensive Service

The cost to attendees and speakers for Wi-Fi access was $100 if paid early, and $150 aboard ship. Bauman said he was subsidizing the service, which cost him $200 per user because of high fees paid to the onboard Internet concessionaire.

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Both Dunham and Bauman hope to negotiate better rates as they support and produce more and more cruises. Dunham would like to offer his services for more conferences at sea. So far, he's the only one he's aware of performing ship-by-ship site surveys and actually deploying and supporting wireless networks on cruise lines.

The metal lining of a ship and the resultant reflection make signal propagation a real issue. It's possible that 802.11g and 802.11a, with multipath signal reflection cancellation built into their higher-speed encoding, might perform substantially better. Dunham used a 3Com access point during this cruise, and Bauman said they have permission to run access points on the exterior of the ship to create a larger backbone. Some cruise ships also have interior Ethernet, making it easier to bridge larger networks.

On the Holland-America Line, the only cruise line where Bauman has held his events, the Internet concession is run by Digital Seas. Digital Seas' satellite service for its onboard Internet café ($25 per hour and up) is provided via Marine Telecommunications Network, although both are owned by the same corporate parent, Verestar. Yes indeed, the company is charging itself high rates.

Other lines, such as the Norwegian line, home of MacMania II in June 2003, have direct relationships with Marine Telecommunications, which may allow Dunham and Bauman more flexibility.

MacMania: The Next Generation

MacMania II, to which this reporter has already committed to speak at, may offer a larger variety of local network services to enhance conviviality during its seven-day Hawaiian itinerary. The ship leaves Honolulu, hits another Hawaiian port, and then travels quite a ways to hit the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced keer-a-bahss), halfway from Hawaii to Australia, and back again. We should have more than a little time on our hands.

Searls suggested a Jabber instant-messaging network, while other speakers and attendees saw the utility of a shared photo library for exchanging pictures as practically every geek was carrying a digital camera and/or camcorder. Certainly, an onboard-SMTP server for spooling messages and even a POP mail relay to local mailboxes could assist with both latency and bandwidth. Perhaps Apple can summon up one of their new Xserves for its trial at sea.

Security will also be one of my private issues. I lectured on the topic, but it's obvious that more specific hands-on attention is needed. Randal Schwartz, the Perl guru and 11-time Geek Cruise speaker and/or attendee, used a packet sniffer to alert people to their passwords being sent in the clear.

The morning of disembarkation, after we'd had to clear out our rooms and wait for our number to be called, Schwartz called out names in the library as passwords whizzed by. After one of LeVitus' sequences passed by, Schwartz called out, "You need to change your password when you get home."

LeVitus replied: "To what?"

The conference next year will no doubt build on lessons in community learned during this one, although with one important difference: next year's cruise combines MacMania and Perl Whirl alongside an event thrown by a different group, Cruise Trek. Yes, a Star Trek convention.

Are Mac geeks and Trekkers compatible? Well, we do have John De Lancie in common now, but he knows where the real action lies: in convivial networking.

Glenn Fleishman is a freelance technology journalist contributing regularly to The New York Times, The Seattle Times, Macworld magazine, and InfoWorld. He maintains a wireless weblog at

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