Realizing that many houses are vulnerable around the holidays—for all you know, Santa could be casing the joint while you're out singing carols—IBM has just released a program that activates lights and appliances by sending electrical impulses through your wiring (it had previously been available on some IBM machines).
Though Home Director is geared toward everyday use (say you want music to greet you when you return from work), it is most helpful when you travel. You can set everything in your house—lights, radio, television—on a timer to give the appearance that you're home.
I've used lamp timers, but I wanted to see if this was any easier, so I took one to a friend's apartment (Home Director is for PC's only; Tim has a PC). Under the impression that it would be a snap to install, we made plans to go out for dinner and dupe the neighbors into thinking we were dining at home. We quickly discovered that Home Director's cable didn't fit Tim's computer. I called IBM's 24-hour help line and was told that we needed an adapter, which we picked up at Radio Shack for $5.99.
The setup was simple: we popped in the CD-ROM; strung up a cable; and plugged in the modules and the lamp. But a message on the screen said "the serial port is not recognized." The help line put me on hold indefinitely. We gave up and went out to dinner, hoping we could trust the neighbors.
After spending more time in tele-limbo the next day, I pulled journalist's rank and called an IBM executive for assistance. We figured out the problem: Tim's pre-Pentium computer was too old. ("I bought it two years ago!" he said defensively.) A friendly IBM techie later told Tim how to activate the correct serial port, but even Tim, a confirmed computer nerd, found the process too intricate.
So Tim took everything—CD-ROM, modules, and instruction booklet—to his office, where he hooked up the system one-two-three. Now his lights flip on every day at 8:55 a.m. (his boss still hasn't figured it out). I asked him to try an appliance as well, so he rustled up a blender, and it too worked via the PC.
Only one question remains: How do I find a job in an office with a blender?
Home Director Starter Kit (to turn on one lamp and one appliance), $99.99; Room Expansion Kit (to turn on three more lamps and another appliance), $89.99; 800/426-7235, ext. 4340.
Protecting Your Laptop
Safeware is a company that insures against theft, accidental damage, flood, fire, and power surge (800/ 772-0385; annual premiums start at $200 for $4,000 coverage, with a $250 deductible).
With Absolute Software's CompuTrace program, your computer periodically sends silent signals to a monitoring center—meaning the company can track your laptop's location (in the United States and Canada) if it's stolen. Once they've located it, they work with police to get it back (800/220-0733; $29.95, plus $60 each year).
For a copy of On the Road, a smart newsletter for travelers with laptops, E-mail