A suitcase of cables

Stephen Fry explains the suitcase of cables he takes with him when travelling

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 18th October 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk” – The Guardian headline.

It’s farewell for quite a few months, I fear, as I head off to Africa, Mauritius, Indonesia, New Zealand and the Sea of Cortez to make a documentary about disappearing species. I shall be out of reach of broadband, mobile phone and even landlines for much of the time. That will not stop me from taking a suitcase full of cables, chargers, memory cards and connectors, however, and I thought I might, by way of valediction, give you an inventory of what this particular dork packs when he travels.

Photograph: Alamy

First of all, should all else fail, I will make sure that there’s at least one of Trevor Baylis’s products in my bag. Baylis, you may remember, pioneered the wind-up radio. On the eco-gadget site biggreensmile.com you can find his company’s practical and hardy hand-crankable media players, the latest (the Eco Media Revolution) offering radio, video, music, photo, text, phone-charging, memo recording and storage in most of the useful formats and codecs, all for £129.99. One minute of winding makes for 45 minutes of play, that’s the promise: a big British bargain. The same site has a Freeloader solar charger for £24.95 that will help with juicing up all my gadgets when I’m too hot and knackered to crank.

I shall also take my iPhone 3G, without which I’m pretty much an empty vessel these days, but I will bring along a collection of sim cards, too, and my unlocked first generation iPhone, which can run on any network, in case there’s a signal that the official iPhone can’t receive. Because they’re so colourful, pretty and neat, I will also pack one of the new iPod Nanos: they combine the old Nano clickwheel and anodised metal finish with a new-style accelerometer, so you can shake it to shuffle songs and turn it sideways to watch music and flick through album covers.

As for reading, well, I have a Sony eReader, a Kindle and an Iliad, all dedicated electronic book readers, but the fact is, the iPhone has already proved itself (according to Forbes Magazine) the most popular ebook reader on the market. Nearly half a million people have downloaded the free Stanza application for iPhone (from the iTunes store). Via Stanza files, just about all the classics in prose and poetry can be easily downloaded and read clearly and easily on screen. You can transfer Kindle and pdf files from your desktop, too, so a vast quantity of books and newspapers is available. Electronic books are made (as the name suggests) of electrons, which weigh nothing; whatever one’s view of the feel and qualities of a proper book, when travelling, zero ounces of electron is better than the heavy molecular mass that makes up the real thing.

For photography I shall take the Canon 1000D I reviewed the other week, enraging loyal Pentax and Nikon users, for which I apologise: if Canon didn’t exist, I’d be a perfectly happy Nikon/Pentax/Minolta user. I shall also pack a Sony Cybershot-W170, a competent all-round compact digital camera. I would rather take the slimmer and cuter Casio Exilim, but it has a complicated recharging station that takes up too much precious packing space.

Cables, of course, are the bane of any globetrotting geek’s life, and while there seems to be no perfect solution to the misery of self-knotting spaghetti, I am taken with the ease and simplicity of the Proporta magnetic cable tidies (£2.95 for a pack of two, from proporta.com). The same outfit’s Gadget Bag (£24.95) will house my Nintendo DS Lite, dozens of game cartridges and the phones and iPod. As for laptops, I shall flip a coin to decide whether to take a MacBook Air, the lightest of the MacBook range, or the Livono ThinkPad X300. Whichever I choose will come preloaded with as many films and TV shows as I can download. Their weightlessness will save me having to lug DVDs about.

Thank you for reading this column over the past few months. I apologise for errors and inconsistencies. Yes, I believe in Open Source and Free soft-ware, but I’m too much of a fanatic to be pure about it. I like to try everything, even if it’s proprietary and closed. And I like to share what’s out there with those who are less assured in the digital world. By the time I get back, who knows what goodies and innovations will await me?

This blog was posted in Guardian column

38 comments on “A suitcase of cables”

  1. jdaldous says:

    Dear Mr Fry, please make a public appearance when you visit New Zealand. I know this is quite unlikely but would be immensely appreciated. I hope you enjoy whichever quarters of New Zealand you do end up treading in.

  2. William Hook says:

    Wow, that’s worse then what I take. :D

    Good choice on the MacBook Air though, it’s an amazing piece of kit and superbly thin too. Also, you misspelt “Livono”, it should be Lenovo. ;)

  3. Belgian Polar Bear says:

    Dear Mr Fry
    Searching for endangered species, running out of existence, what a project. How ironic as I consider yourself as an endangered species. Never seen such an immensely kind and erudite human being. Take care!
    Please note the following:
    There is a selling of an original sheet from the official Fust Bible (1462) on ebay that might interest you.
    I want to state clearly that this is no publicitary stunt or whatsoever. I won’t get any better from this selling.
    I just appreciate your work and by letting you know about this sale I might be able to thank you in a proper way for the most enjoyable and informative documentary on printing.
    Yours faithfully
    J. Van Aken
    When you return from the southern sphere, there might be an occasion to spot some weird rare creatures in the suburban spots of Flanders.

  4. bcrump says:

    I’ve cut down on the cables using an i-Go Everywhere system (from Maplins) that is a universal charger for all the sorts of things you carry with hundreds of tips available. Can charge on planes, cars and with sockets; allows me to charge 3 things from one plug. Now if only East Midlands Trains would fit WiFi to their carriages I could be quite productive! Happy travelling

  5. Selma says:

    I’ll second the first reply to this blog post – it would be lovely to see you when you visit NZ.

    I hope both our wildlife and wireless facilities are equally to your liking.

  6. amberzak says:

    Wow, you sound like me. I pack my DS, my iPod and various other electronical things when I go away too. The only think I haven’t got yet is the Macbook. I have an iMac instead.

    As for the electronic books, that is mainly what I use my iPod for. I find audio books so helpful, with the amount of book I have to read. And some book, in my opinion, are meant to be heard rather than read. Milton’s Paradise Lost as one example, is so much more magical when listened to.

  7. mmurray says:

    I recommend the products from http://www.boxwave.com and of course you will be taking the complete set of Harry Potter audio books — excellent for a long trip.


  8. thandi says:

    I third the comment by jdaldous, absolutely amazing to see you in New Zealand x

  9. Julian says:

    And if you’re not going to make a public appearance, feel free to stop by our place for beer or coffee instead!

  10. milly chen says:

    Yes, www is annoying to pronounce in traditional form. I find wuh wuh wuh awkward also though (I am famously clumsy-lipped). Someone else will obviously have thought of everything before, and nothing is a good solution until people take it up and turn it from archness into invisibly standard coinage, having said which: doubleyous; or even dubs. Dubs dot stephenfry dot com. How slippery is that off the tongue? Toadly.

  11. amberzak says:

    I second Milly Chen with saying Dubs dot stephenfry dot com. I think it rolls off the tongue nicely. Stephen, if you read these comments, perhaps try it, because while I giggled at you saying wer wer wer, I also felt it was still clumsy.

    The only other solution is the one I do, and that is to just drop the www bit altogether. I just say stephenfry dot com.

    Oh, and I looked up other countries .com equivalent. Can the New Zealanders on here please confirm, are you co.nz not just nz.

  12. The contents of your suitcase sound very similar to my husband’s. I’m just happy to carry my Ipod loaded with podcasts. Thanks to YouTube I’ve been able to watch the Stephen Fry In America episodes and both have left me with big smiles on my face. Your visit to Auburn University was especially meaningful because my sisiter and I , as well as her husband attended university there. The real excitement is that my brother-in-law was flying the F-18 on the right in the flyover you saw. He and another Auburn grad and a fellow who went to U. of Alabama had the honor that night and were reconized on the field at halftime. I’m so glad you got to be there on that special night.
    p.s. It was wonderful to hear you say such nice things about Georgia. It’s my home state and, as you might expect,I think it’s the best place on Earth.

  13. thandi says:

    amberzak: yes all nz websites i know of are ‘.co.nz’
    hope that helps x

  14. amberzak says:

    thandi, thanks. It does help.

  15. eldelaintuicion says:

    How lovely to know I’m not the only one drowning in cables. Pathetic Apple-loving geeks forever!

    I have just finished reading “The Liar” by the way, and in case you’re bored at some point and actually read this comment, can I say how good it was, you wonderful man. Know that you have no need for the incessant self-denigration, but are all the more lovable for it. Don’t change.


  16. stephanie says:

    Dear Mr Fry, I hope you are enjoying your trip.

    (please exuse my english)

    Here in Norway we have the pleasure of looking at your America tour on a tv channel called Nrk2 now.
    I laughed my head off at your comment about Miami.
    We have also seen your program about being manic despressiv.
    That was quite interesting.

    We wish you a lovely tour, and in norweigan: Vi ønsker deg en fantastisk opplevelse :-)

    Hugs from Norway

  17. Liz A says:

    Tangled cables seem a very male-orientated problem to me; I, and most of my female friends, rarely ever find a tangled cable within our posession, yet as soon as any man comes near we find ourselves forever trying to un-knot our gadgets!

    I’m much the same with travel to be honest, but likely with an extra hard-drive and a few paperback books instead of an eReader (I haven’t yet mustered up the courage – nor money – to buy one).

    A (very) belated congratulations on reaching 2.0, too, while I’m here! I miss the old setting, but I do love the header of this one, so I’m sure my pain will soon ease!

    Good luck on your travels; I hope it goes well (despite the reason of the journey, I suppose)!

    Liz A.

  18. Mares2 says:

    Hope you’re enjoying your travels, Mr. Fry, and that your journey is safe as well as a happy one. :)

  19. paulmwatson says:

    Stephen, enjoy your visit to the country of Africa.

    Seriously my good man, the place is big. Really big. Where in Africa? You name New Zealand, a country smaller than the aid money for most African countries. I come from South Africa, you may be going to Egypt for all I know.

    Enjoy it all the same. Mind the lions.

  20. joegreenz says:

    Mr Fry,

    please excuse my English, here in New Zealand we are moving to phonetic version of txt language and the old ways are being lost.

    No doubt your researchers will have highlighted the plight of the Maui dolphin (a sub-species of the only slightly rarer Hector’s dophin) – hopefully either or both will get a look-in on your show. There are but 100 Maui dolphin left anywhere in the world.

    They are the subject my book Vanishing Act

    Of course I concur with my compatriots. If schedule permits – don’t be a stranger.

  21. zcat says:

    Just following up as a New Zealand geek, we have a few second-level domains

    .maori.nz (Angolia already had .ao ;-)
    .geek.nz (I have zcat.geek.nz)

    I’ve possibly missed a few, but I think that’s most of them.

  22. eowyningreen says:

    Hopefully you won’t have any trouble getting your suitcase full of cables through the airport!
    My DH works for Symbian and so, obviously, has large numbers of mobile phones, laptops, testing boards etc with him when he travels and often gets dodgey looks from those on security…

  23. frys fan says:

    Hello Stephen
    Have a wonderful time and please be careful no more accidents . When are you doing an expedition to Southport England? I’m one of those rare breeds a northener and would love to meet you. You wont need a suitcase or a passport I will look after you. All my love Gill xxxxxxxx

  24. frys fan says:

    Hi Stephen
    Have a fabulous time and take care of yourself. When are you back in the countryand when are you taking a expedition to Southport England? You won’t need a suitcase or a passport. Let us northeners know when your coming. Would love to meet you. luv ya Gill xxxx ooops better put love you x

  25. progcunt says:

    oh, you MUST make some sort of appearance in New Zealand, even if it is just for beer/coffee/whatevers.

    I loved “Last Chance To See” and I’m greatly looking forward to your update.

  26. sege says:

    I find myself perversely interested in your gadget collection for travel. As someone so famously emotionally attached to Apple products it is interesting that you take your 2g Apple Iphone with you in a jailbroken state to use foreign sim cards.

    Of course that is the actual problem with the Iphone. Sold in exclusive deals in each market so consumers can’t choose an Iphone with their favourite mobile phone carrier. Then Apple’s cat and mouse tactics to lock down the format so only their approved applications can be installed and no removal battery either.

    The world traveller, and arguably the general customer, has gotten used to a mobile industry that is a bit like the regional lockdowns in DVD players. The knowledgeable customer who wants to use different SIM cards to get cheaper calls when abroad will visit their local asian independent phone shop who will unlock the manufacturer tie-in for about a tenner. In the same fashion the knowledgeable film buff would by a region free DVD player from China and by the US vserions of movies from Amazon at half the cost.

    Worse still is the massive charges made for data while abroad so getting a cheap pay-as-you-go sim is a necessity with any internet aware phone. Apple and the carriers acknowledge this by telling you how to switch data transfer OFF while abroad and thus kill 90% of the reason the iphone is useful in the first place.

    Like Microsoft the guys at Apple find themselves in a near monopoly situation. They have devices of desire such as ipod and iphone but lock you into the Apple “jail” where they battle to keep their exclusive deals so “jailbreaking” an iphone is highly appropriate.

    In this respect Microsoft’s mobile device platform and the new Android platform are far more open. Devices can license the OS and this leads to consumers being able to get the phone from the carrier they want at the tarrif they want. They can leave a battery recharging in their hotel abroad while using another one and, after unlocking their phone, can put any SIM they want in with out fear of an update locking them back in.

    There was an assumption by many people that not being Microsoft made Apple more loveable. Their slogan “think different” said as much. However having to “jailbreak” an Iphone is really about Apple “thinking the same” as the other manufacturers that want to tie in consumers.

    Just some random thoughts.

  27. mapleleiah says:

    I very much recognize the “cable and charger packing” issue … I once took a picture of the nightstand in our hotel room and it was shocking to see how much technology we had to drag along to take some pictures and make a phone call …

    You’re always welcome to drag that puddle of cables into Belgium some day …


  28. marksimon says:

    it would be nice if the iphone had a special no-backlight reading mode.
    as the backlight on tft’s makes my eyes sore after about an hour of full-on reading.

    for casual reading less than an hour the iphone is a great device, i haven’t tried ereaders because i find them too expensive but once the prices are halved i might take a look at them.

  29. jasonslater says:

    too true – the number of cables seems to be inversely proportionate to the size of the device.

  30. Hannah says:

    Just to add to the other New Zealanders desperate pleas…. Please make an appearance while you’re over here. Please. :P

  31. bravegirl says:

    Happy New Year and a may your journeying be safe and happy.

    And just in case you’ve got a spare moment on your hands,

    twitter loves you, Stepen Fry! And it is so fabulous that you’ve embraced social media so vigorously!

    Since you’re quite active on twitter.com you probably already know about Twestival – which began in London in September and was a huge success.

    It’s very hush hush at th moment and we are making the announcement on Monday that Twestival will be held in no less than 47 cities and in multiple countries on January 22nd! What’s more exciting is that the event will be broadcast live over the internet!

    We will be raising money to benefit Charity Water (http://www.charitywater.org), a non profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
    They give 100% of the money raised to direct project costs, funding sustainable clean water solutions in areas of greatest need. They also work to raise awareness of the water crisis through events, fundraising exhibitions and other public awareness campaigns.

    Would you be interested in supporting our cause with a short video endorsement to be shown at the venues and online? It would be absolutely top secret and a huge thrill for everyone who sees it. And of course it would boost our fundraising efforts exponentially to have you egging us on – erm, I mean encouraging us.

    We’re even thinking of getting someone like Robert Scoble (or that mashable character) or Sizemore to do something outrageous like shave his head or get a twitter tattoo live while people donate online all evening!

    Of course you could shamelessly plug stephenfry.com and any other projects you’re working on. And if by some coincidence your travels bring you to San Francisco that evening you’d be our guest of honor. Would you like to help us?

    Thank you so much – for the pleasure and enjoyment you’ve brought us through every word that has passed through your lips and into our hearts. What a joy that we can be exposed even a tiny bit to the workings of your mind through twitter. The world is a better place because of you!

    Most Sincerely,

    Alison Potvin


  32. marcusadams says:

    Technology, what can we do with it and without it?
    I have just software unlocked my iphone 3G, after much hassle and frustration with piggy back SIM cards. Nice to see you are a technology lover Stepehen, my iphone now works! Hooray and bah humbug to Mr Jobs fro trying control the world.

    Thanks to the DevTeam. If it is any use to anyone my iphone experience can be read on: http://blog.marcusadams.eu

  33. Surrender Monkey says:

    Dear Stephen

    Santa gave me ‘America’ in my stocking. He’s good like that, don’t you think? The only reason I have taken so long to finish it is … errm …. I put it in the bathroom. I try not to spend overlong there.

    Needs said that I have insisted a certain anti-USA friend read at least the introductory pages. For me you nailed it. Me, a born and bred little Englander, spent 15 years, in two spells, in the USA and rarely encountered anything other than friendliness and openness. Granted, I stayed away from big cities, but real USA citizens, of whatever nationality, seem to ooze help and care in a way which is alien to the tight arsed UK.

    All life is there. Omaha NE was exceedingly good to me over 6 strange years, whereas Topeka KS was just strange. Portland OR was a trip, whereas Seattle was merely trippy. Worcester MA was real, Boston was anything but.

    I’d like to think your book will do something to get the dining rooms of North London to stop sneering at the wonderful people to be found in the USA.

    Two points: It’s not ‘America’ it’s the USA: there are two rather large nations to north and south. And you forgot ‘copacetic’ in your glossary. You are bad.

    Remember your cheese, fellow travellers. And tell Steve ‘Hiya’

  34. rtj says:

    As interesting as ever. Thank you Stephen. I have to confess to be something of a pedant. I sometimes think that having been a teacher to 16-19 year-olds, one has to be. The essential point is that the language (especially scientific language) should be clear, the beauty of the use of various words/sentence length/metre is important – but of secondary importance. One ‘new’ expression that really annoys is the mixing of the perfect and imperfect tenses as in “we were stood…” Split infinitives, however, are not important at all, and the distinction between ‘may’ and ‘might’ although said to be a very irritating habit by a recent Times columnist, hardly needs mentioning!

    Obviously language evolves, (“Modification through descent” as Darwin defined it), but that does not mean that all changes are beneficial. Many changes/mutations are either neutral, or more usually, harmful, and so it may seem to most of us in the field of language. New words (e.g. ‘transistor’) are perfectly acceptable but expressions such as ‘we were sat …’ are not. (IMHO).

    One possible reason why the English purists are so aghast at this language evolution is that they discern it as ‘bottom-up’ change. In other words the patois from Rap music and The Street appears to be taking over. If on the other hand, changes were instigated from on-high and thus would have the blessing of some intellectual credence – all would be well. It is thus somewhat ironical that Stephen Fry’s name would be at the top of many peoples’ lists!

    Keep it coming. I’m not sure Truss and Humphries are ‘semi-educated’. I thought that was a little OTT (to use a new phrase). How right you are about how expressions can change their meaning completely. My favourite is ” by(e)-and-large”, a Royal Navy term for the direction of the wind relative to the mainsail, now meaning ‘on-the-whole’.

    Very best wishes,

  35. Hey Stephen, can you imagine travelling without any electrical devices? Hardly. Me too.
    But we did before many times :)

  36. SMF says:

    I too have a suitcase full of cables! I am a musician and have over the course of the last 20 years gathered nearly every known UK cable, plug, socket and adapter. This case is an old one from the 1940s I think, my feet are resting on it at this very moment.

    One never knows when a cable related disaster might occur.

    Kind regards

  37. -Jez says:

    Cables? who needs bloomin’ cables? I’ve been using an Alphasmart Neo (700+ hours – no cables required), and I’m enjoying the increase in my written productivity.

    Sure, I copy edit The Latest Best-Seller (well, you never know) on the laptop with Jer’s Novel Writer for Mac, but when commuting or traveling, this device has no serious competition, other than its sister product (the Dana).

    Go on, Stephen, save the back-ache, dump the laptop on your next trip, get a Neo and give it a whirl.

    BTW, just watched your episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” very moving, very emotional; my wife and I were blubbering like babies.

    If you’re really reading this, I want to thank you for your splendid Pod casts, “dated” now as they maybe. You’re speech addressed to the BBC was extraordinary, sir. Erudite, thought-provoking and entertaining. Now, how about ditching one of those iPods you mentioned above, replacing it with a microphone, and recording another round of podcasts, hmm??


    – Jez

  38. Dear Mr Fry,
    I too have to decide which laptop to take when traveling. My trusty 15″ macbook pro, or my wifes dell mini 9 hackintosh now running Snow Leopard with built in 3g modem.

    Being a bit of an Apple die-hard, it pains me say that I really like the dell. But if Apple are not going to produce a tablet any time soon, then the dell mini is a pretty good solution.

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