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Plugging in: it’s an issue of power

Jennifer “Jay” Poole

"Hey, is there an outlet around here?"

Seems I fell asleep watching Boondock Saints on my laptop. I open my eyes and swivel my head around to see a woman about my age crouched next to my seat. She's clutching a laptop and its charger.

"Yeah, yeah… if you go about three cars up to the snack car, the lady running the counter-she has giant red hair-will let you plug in behind the coffee maker."

I'm on an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Oakland. And that is the only place I found to charge my laptop.

I suppose taking the train was my first mistake-it was cheaper, yes, but I was also on the train for about 11 hours. Having to amuse myself for that long is tough; having to amuse myself for that long without electronics makes me … a couple tacos short of the fiesta platter.

Earlier in the trip I was doing my best to be a good train citizen; everything was peaches and cream until the battery icon on my iBook went into the red. I looked around my seat, under my seat, along the wall near my seat-nary an outlet to be found.

I slumped dejectedly back into my seat, and started pawing through my backpack in search of something to do. I grabbed my PDA, navigated to my eBook reader and tried to finish Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

… until the battery on my PDA went into the red. Same deal with playing games on my cellphone.

Okay, now it's personal. Me v. My electronics. I grabbed iNertia (my laptop) and Wanderlust (PDA) and my chargers and teetered down the aisle in search of other electrical opportunities.

Nothing in the viewing car, nothing in the aisles- I have to say I was a little shocked, but far from thwarted.

I ended up in the mustard-yellow bathroom where I found an outlet labeled "Hairdryers Only."

Whatever. I'm powerless and a charge is a charge. I wasn't zapped, still have my eyebrows, heard no popping noises and saw no white-hot arcs of wanton electricity.

Hah. Victory.

… for about 15 minutes until someone else had to use the restroom.

And then just imagine the looks I got leaving the lavatory with an armful of gadgets. It was a collective car-wide blink.

Now I'm skulking around the cabins again, soundtracked by the Mission Impossible theme on my iPod. When I got to the snack car, I ran into (literally) the lady with giant hair. I blurted out my story, gesturing frenetically with my dead PDA and she let me plug in on the counter. My little geek heart thumped happily and I munched on the spoils of war.

Okay, Cheetoes and Coke. Same thing.

I had a talk with Giant Hair, who told me that yes! There were multiple charging opportunities on the train!

For the first class riders.

And yes, I understand that they pay more for their trip, and that this entitles them to certain amenities (seriously, while I was on the train there were three movies and a wine tasting announced for those passengers). But, you know, we plebeians jammed in the cattle cars in the back also require electricity, and I resented having to embark on a Promethean quest to use my stuff.

I became curious about the outlet availability in first class, and leaving my laptop and PDA to charge, I plugged into my iPod and slipped incognito into one of the "Sleeper" cars. And it was like an electricity Shangri La. Outlets in the floors, in the walls. I was agog.

Aside from the electrical caste system on the train, this situation replays itself often in classrooms, offices and homes everywhere. We have all the gadgets purported to simplify our lives and often they create entirely new problems with unanticipated consequences.

I've been using speed dial on my cellphone for so long I can't remember people's phone numbers on my own. I've been using my PDA for so many years I can't remember anyone's birthday. I can't remember assignment due dates, but I remember all my passwords.

Many of you would say that if outlets are so difficult to find, why not go low-tech and carry a pen and paper, a book and a deck of cards.

Mainly, because someone will steal my pen, I'll lose the book somewhere and I have no idea how to play Solitaire with actual cards.

That may seem rather pathetic, but let's remember that I was not the only power-hungry soul slinking around the train in search of a fix.

And one day we will rise as one and demand power for all!

… well, assuming our GPS units are charged enough to find headquarters, our laptops hold a charge long enough to write the manifesto and our mp3 players are on long enough to finish the Rocky theme.

Jay Poole is our resident techie. If you have comments about this column, e-mail