Mission control
Even though you're not heading to outer space, today's rolling offices have more power than the NASA computer that put man on the moon

By Evan E. Lockridge
Special to Land Line

Back in the '60s, NASA used rooms full of computers to help send men to the moon. But all that computing power would add up to only a fraction of what's on laptops today. That means with a laptop on board your rig, you can do a lot more than Neil Armstrong ever was able to do - at least with a computer.

The real trick is finding someone who not only knows computers, but also understands the needs of truck drivers. That's where OOIDA members Allan Ewart and Nedra Headen of Sharps Chapel, TN, come in.

Allan had been a truck driver a number of years before he and Nedra married in 1991.    Today he's a leased owner-operator. Nedra was a team driver with him for about 10 years, before getting off the road in 2002 to develop their farm in Tennessee. Both have a very practical and plain speaking knowledge about computers, but each learned about them in different ways.

Allan took some college courses on computers and did several years with Xerox, including going through their tech repair program.

"I just developed a basic interest in all things electronic," he said.

Nedra, on the other hand, went into competition with her children, starting when they bought a computer at Radio Shack - the kind that had no hard drive, just a cassette tape recorder for memory.

"I bought a book and manually typed in a program and it would not run. My oldest son said if I put a semicolon at the end of this line it would run, but I told him that was stupid and I was going to prove it to him," she said. "So I put it in, and it ran."

That moment inspired her to take computer classes with her son, because, she said jokingly, she didn't like the fact that he knew something she didn't.

Had it not been for computers, Allan and Nedra may have never met.

"We met on a bulletin board, before the Internet was the thing to do," Nedra said.

With their combined backgrounds plus practical experience using computers on the road, Allan and Nedra have a good idea about what works and what doesn't. Although they don't offer computer help as a service, Land Line asked them to answer some of the most common computer-related questions from drivers.

Can I send a fax?
For the novice computer user, sending and receiving faxes may seem like a daunting prospect. It's not like there's a slot on your computer to slide in a piece of paper. But, Allan said it's easy and something he does quite frequently, because he receives all of his dispatch by inbound fax.

He subscribes to an online service that allows him to have a regular fax phone number that translates to an e-mail address. In addition to being able to receive faxes, with

Send2Fax.com he can send a fax via e-mail and the service translates it and sends it to a fax anywhere in the world.

"You can send a fax by using a document scanner to scan it into the computer using any of the scanning programs, and then send that document as an outbound fax," he said. "Or if you are generating a word processing file or something similar, it can also be sent as a fax."

To help save room in his truck, Allan said he uses a single-sheet scanner that's quite small.

"It will do only one sheet, like a bill of lading, that will go through it. You can't scan a book or something similar like you can on a flatbed scanner."

Allan pays less than $8 a month for the service, which allows for 100 inbound or outbound pages. There are also packages that allow for more pages for a few dollars more per month. No special software is required to use the service. All you need is a computer, an Internet connection and an e-mail account.

Which leads to the next question: Getting connected on the road. The best way, Allan says, is Wi-Fi.

Why Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is essentially a means of taking a signal from the Internet and getting it to your computer without using any wires. It's much faster than old dial-up connections, and the cost to use the service isn't bad, either.      

Most newer laptop computers already have Wi-Fi capabilities built in.

If you're using an older machine, getting it set up for Wi-Fi is pretty easy and not expensive. All you need is a Wi-Fi card.

"The two most popular are what's called a PCMCIA card, which plugs into the side of the machine. Using an external antenna on the card, you will have full coverage inside a truck stop or in the parking lot (at locations where Wi-Fi is available)," Allan explained. "The other is a USB card, which plugs into the USB port and gives you the same thing. I have used both and they perform pretty much the same."

Most of these cards also come with a utility that will help you find a Wi-Fi signal and display the system or systems available in a certain area, which shouldn't be too hard to find.

"(Most) of your major truck stop chains have Wi-Fi," Nedra said. "Most post a list of their locations, plus you will find Wi-Fi at many motels and fast food places."

Keeping the home fires burning
One of biggest challenges for many truckers on the road is taking care of business back home, including paying bills. Online bill paying helps resolve this problem - but in an age where identity theft seems almost epidemic, you may wonder if it's safe.

It is, provided you take certain precautions, including using an anti-virus program and having a firewall, as well as making sure the Web site you are using to pay bills is encrypted.

"Having a good anti-virus program on your computer will make sure you don't have any spyware or other malware (short for malicious software) on your computer," Allan said.

Spyware and malware are both culprits that could disclose personal information to a third party. Some programs with good reputations include Norton AntiVirus from Symantec, AVG Anti-Virus from Grisoft and Virus Scan from McAfee.

"A firewall will keep hackers out of your machine. It keeps people from the outside world (from) entering your computer without an invitation," Allan said.

You can also take your firewall a step further, he said, by setting it up so it will not send out anything to the Internet without your knowledge or permission.

The third part of playing safe with online bill paying is to use only encrypted Web sites. Fortunately, it's easy to tell which ones are and which ones aren't. Just look for a symbol usually at the bottom of the Web page that looks like a padlock.

"If the lock is open, the Web site is unencrypted," Allan said. "But when you connect to one that is encrypted, the lock is closed, letting you know that information that passes from your computer to the Web site is not capable of being read except by you and who you are intending to send the information to."

Such concerns about security and computers also bring up one of the latest threats - "phishing" scams. These are e-mails that look like they come from real companies, such as financial institutions, banks or online payment services such as PayPal. However, they are anything but genuine.

"If you follow the link in your e-mail, it will take you to a dummy copy of a Web site, which is run by a scam artist," Nedra said.

One of the best ways you can tell if a Web site is a scam artist's is to look for the padlock symbol the Web page.

"In most cases, the little lock is open, meaning the site is unencrypted, where a legitimate Web site from a bank or credit card company will be (encrypted)," Allan said. "The bottom line is - if you are not on an encrypted Web site, you don't ever give out personal information or account numbers."

Of course not everything you can do with a laptop on the road has to revolve around business. It also can be used when you just want to relax at the end of the day.

I want my computer TV
Most laptop computers come equipped to play both CDs and DVDs, but even if yours isn't, the solution is simple. Buy an external one, and pretty soon you can be watching your favorite movie or listening to music in your bunk. You can also use your laptop to watch broadcast television.

"I have a special card that plugs into the USB port on the computer, and it scans for any available stations in the area I happen to be," Allan said. "It's pretty cheap, costing about $100 or so, and it also saves you from taking up bunk space with a television."

There are several makers of such cards, with the video being as good as what you can see at home, Allan said. But do remember it does also require the use of an antenna to pick up these television stations.

"You need an external antenna because the card itself is simply like the guts out of a television," he said. "The Volvo I drive has a built-in TV antenna and it provides the signal to the video card, which translates the signal into something I can watch on the computer."

When it comes to video, you can take it a step further by making sure you have a record of your travels.

Big Brother watches out for him
Allan has a dash cam set up on his rig. Using a Web cam that's connected to his onboard computer, it records the area in front of the truck whenever he is on the road.

"In the trucking industry there are always a lot of bad things that can happen, and usually it's always assumed the truck is at fault. It's your word against another person's," he said. "But a video recording takes this out of your life."

Allan knows this first hand. Years ago he had a bad experience behind the wheel, followed by six years of court battles he says would have been prevented had he had a good recording of what happened.

"If you're in your lane . trucking along . and someone does something to you (and statistically most truck accidents are not the fault of the trucker), a dash cam will clearly show who is at fault," he said. "It can save your butt - but it can also hang your butt if you're in the wrong."

The only other equipment Allan uses to make these recordings is some surveillance software that cost about $35. It stores the video in 30-minute movies, saving the last 24 to 36 hours' worth, erasing the oldest of the video as the newest is recorded.

Of course, doing any of these things Allan and Nedra have mentioned means you have to have a working computer. As sure as death and taxes, you'll end up having computer problems when you're as far as possible from home.

My computer has fallen and it won't boot up
The bad news for anyone needing a quick computer fix is that such a thing usually doesn't exist. Most repair centers take a week before they can even get around to seeing what the problem is.

For truckers, getting repairs on the road can be even harder, because there aren't many truck-accessible computer repair shops. Depending on your problem, this may mean waiting until you get back home - but not always.

"When we were a driving team, we had an extended service contract on our machine that involved mailing the computer to the manufacturer," Nedra said. "We would then have them mail it back to our home or where we were going to be on the road."

An extended service contract on a laptop that travels in your truck is also a good idea because of the potential for damage to the computer when you're on the road - not only vibration, but also the possibility of a fall to a hard parking lot.

It may also be worth your while to have an extended period where you can receive phone support from the manufacturer.

When you experience computer problems on the road, it may be tempting to get help from a buddy or someone you've met who said they know about computers.

However, that may open the door to more problems, because some people are not as knowledgeable as they think they are.

"You really need to know the person," Nedra said. "We have helped fix a lot of operator-induced problems over the years for other drivers we have met."

Taking proper care of your computer on the road is one of the best ways to prevent physical damage. That means not leaving it free floating on the seat or in the bunk. It needs to have a place where it can get air for ventilation and cooling, but it also it needs to be in an area where it's strapped down, especially if it's used going down the road.

"In my Volvo, there is a table in the sleeper, and the computer is on a Velcro base with a bungee across the top. What makes this usable for me is that I use a remote computer monitor, which is legal in most states," Allan said.

"Since I don't have a passenger anymore, I put the remote monitor on a stand I built that's strapped down. That way, I can see the monitor while I am driving, which gives me my GPS mapping program, which I run constantly, but also my logging program if I need it."

Faxing, e-mailing, Web surfing, watching TV, listening to music, paying bills, accounting, logging, getting directions to your delivery - and to think, Neil Armstrong just used computers to get to the moon. 

Evan Lockridge is a freelance truck writer and contributor to OOIDA's daily radio show, "Land Line Now." His interview with Allan and Nedra on computers was broadcast late this past year.