Category Archives: Review

Gift Guide 2014

In the spirit of “better late than never” I figured I’d throw up a few things I’ve gotten in the past year that worked out well for me and that I have enjoyed. They’re tailored for the always-traveling lifestyle, but will probably work out well for others too. Without further ado…..it’s!

Meandering Woods 2014 Gift Guide

I’ll break this into a few different categories for easy readability. These will be:

  • Travel
  • Tech
  • Podcasts

Travel Gifts

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 12.57.49 PMKnow Roaming gives you cheap international roaming when you travel, without changing your SIMk and cheap international calls when you’re at home by dialing direct. This is a small sticker you put over your existing SIM card that seamlessly switches between your primary wireless carrier and the Know Roaming partners. You don’t have to do anything differently, Know Roaming switches over seamlessly. I haven’t used this (yet) myself, but it was recommended to me by someone who was happy with the service. 

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 1.00.48 PMTravel Packing Cubes are life savers when packing and traveling around. You put your stuff in here and it stays neat, orderly, and you can put it all in your bag like playing Tetris. Aside from the millions of packing combinations you can make, and all the fun you can have playing that game, you get more storage from your existing bag. Seriously, it’s like using these turns your bag into one of Santa’s magical sacks that can hold more than they look like.

The cubes come in dozens of colors, sizes, styles, and brands. I prefer the eBags cubes because they’re inexpensive and very durable. They’re also made to fit the largest size of airline carryon perfectly so you can fit two medium and four small size cubes easily, and still squeeze into the overhead bin. I also like the slim ones for underwear and socks. Here’s a tip, roll your underwear and you can pack them more tightly. Same goes with tshirts into the medium size cubes. I just packed up 7 pairs of underwear, 6 pairs of socks, 7 t-shirts, two pairs of pants, and two thin sweaters in a medium and two smalls. Epic space.

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 1.11.50 PMPadded Packing Pouches are great for electronics gear. If you’ve got a lot of cables, and different sets of devices or toys you can easily keep them all straight. For instance, I’ve got a set of gear I bring around with me everywhere. USB sticks, SD cards, cables, chargers, etc. These go in one pouch. Then I’ve got a Chromecast, Apple Airport Express, HDMI cables (the Amazon ones are cheap and work great), and some other bulkier things I don’t want to carry everywhere. Finally I have some wireless testing kit that I take on some consulting engagements. These go into a third bag. Everything stays neat and protected in the padded pouches.

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 1.22.24 PMVelcro Cable Ties keep your unruly cables in line. These miracles can wrap around the ends of cables and stay attached so you don’t have to worry about losing them, unlike twist ties or other velcro ties. And they’re removable so your cables aren’t permanently bound up like with plastic zip ties. It’ll bring some sanity back to your life. I like to use them on my earbuds before I put them in my pocket. (I love my Etymotic HF-5s and Comply foam tips.) Otherwise I always end up pulling out a fistful of spaghetti and spend 20 minutes untangling the wires. Not cool.

Tech Gifts

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 6.47.55 PMiPhone 5s Battery Cases are indispensable to the Digital Nomad after updating to iOS 8. I mean come on, is there a Bitcoin mining trojan in that software? I looked around and read all the reviews I could find and the Lenmar Meridian iPhone 5s Battery Charger came out on top. The good folks over at The Wirecutter found the same thing and they know what they’re doing.

I looked at the Mophie cases as well, but they seem to be falling behind in the battery capacity department, though no doubt they’re pioneering in other areas. I will give props to my Mophie Powerstation Duo which has saved my bacon more times in the past couple of years than the number of times I’ve eaten bacon! (Note: I don’t count overcooked salted ham as bacon the way the rest of the world does. It’s a blaspheme to the good name of bacon and I will not participate in that kind of slander.)

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 6.58.30 PMThe PNY StorEDGE MacBook Pro Storage Expansion is just as indispensable to those of us who have Mac laptops as a good battery case.  To have an extra 128GB that’s faster than a portable HDD and doesn’t stick out like an external USB flash drive is pretty awesome. It just sits there holding countless movies, songs, photos, and virtual machines, encrypted with FileVault 2 for seamless security. I won’t apologize for gushing over this thing, it’s truly that awesome. There’s one for every MacBook model and in various sizes. If you didn’t want to drop obscene amounts of money for the bigger drive in your laptop this will make you laugh at those who did. But you’re laughing on the inside, cause you’re not a jerk.

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 7.57.26 PMPresentation Remotes are generally bulky, low quality, plastic feeling deals.  At one point I think I owned a half dozen of them and they all sucked. I’d be embarrassed to take them out for a client presentation because I didn’t want to look like I’d wasted my money on them. A colleague of mine wanted me to check out a presentation he was building a few months ago and I couldn’t give him any feedback because I kept stopping him to ask questions about the his Satechi Bluetooth MediaRemote.

This little device does exactly what it should, no more no less. It connects via Bluetooth, so no plug-in to lose and no loss of USB ports. It’s got all the buttons you want, plus a laser pointer. With its number pad, you can look like a pro when you want to jump to a particular slide. It lets you control music on your laptop or phone. There’s a lot more to it but I told you everything I like you’d call me a liar. Just buy it and find out for yourself.

Podcasts

If you don’t have money to spend but want to give a thoughtful recommendation to someone they can’t miss. Here are some of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. Some of them will take that long to get through. Seriously, these podcasts as good as audiobooks, but for FREE. Though definitely kick these folks some donations if you enjoy them.
  • The History of Rome [iTunes] Mike Duncan became legendary for this podcast. It spans over a thousand years of Roman history in 120 hours of storytelling and humor. It set a standard others have followed.
  • Revolutions [iTunes] Mike Duncan comes back with another podcast series. In this one he follows several different revolutions from ancient times to modern. The story of each is told over 12 episodes so you get a great balance of brevity and detail.
  • The History of Byzantium [iTunes] This is the successor, in timeline, to the History of Rome. The podcast series picks up where Mike Duncan left off and continues on through the Eastern Roman Empire until the ultimate fall of Constantinople.
  • Hardcore History [iTunes] Dan Carlin goes back through history and tells stories you don’t hear in other books, shows, or retellings. He often comes at well known people and times but with a very different slant. Worth paying for the back episode catalog.
  • Skeptoid [iTunes] Brian Dunning and guest hosts help cut through the BS in trends, fads, myths, legends, and rumors. It’s a great weekly podcast and a non-profit educational institution.

Note: I have linked several of these recommendations to my Amazon affiliate page. If you buy the items, or others while you’re in the shop, I’ll get small cut and it won’t increase your cost any. It’s a win-win!

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Review – Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer

I just finished reading a book called Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. I devoured it with almost the passion of Kerouac writing On the Road, in just a couple of days. In the book I found support for just about every crackpot theory and harebrained idea I’ve had about travel. All the conversations I’ve had in broken English – some of it mine – at 4am in some back street alley in China or random Baltic cafe or even just my neighbor’s basement. It was amazing (not to mention somewhat gratifying and a bit of a relief to know I’m at least not the only kook) to see my words and thoughts in his typewriting. I’m not going to review the whole book, but I at least wanted to recap some of the things that struck me as I read through it.

  • Latin American police “corruption” is just a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. Cut out the lawyers, judges, court clerks, paperwork and everything and just pay the cop a nominal fee. Typically travelers will be confronted for doing something like speeding or not having the right documentation. The officer will, in a roundabout way, imply that there’s a small fee that can be paid on the spot which will allow the traveler to continue. And the American traveler will become indignant. You got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to; pay the man. It’s a small price to pay to be back on your way and you can feel good that you helped the local constabulary put food on their table.
  • Most of the time the Americans are the most polite travelers. I’ve met more jackasses among the supposedly more civilized Europeans than anyone else. And that doesn’t count the numerous other of the English-speaking countries’ citizens that usually lead the pack in being idiots (I’m looking at you, New Zealand and South Africa). Note that this doesn’t apply to Americans in Tijuana and Cancun. I once watched a friend of mine scream in a hotel that he was the only reason anyone there had a job and he should be treated like a king. This despite the staff politely assigning him another room after he smashed his window and the glass fell into a playground. Even after his tirade they didn’t kick him out, though I was about to.
  • Travel is good for the soul and coming home is usually a bigger culture shock. After being somewhere else for a while you really start to see your homeland from an outsider’s eyes. For better or worse.
  • Horror stories are better than pleasant ones. There’s nothing quite as funny as hearing the near-slapstick comedy stories of misunderstanding and woe on the road. There’s nothing so compelling as hearing about a harrowing escape while getting shaken down by the Russian mafia. And there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing of a travel angel who saved your bacon each time.
  • Things are never as bad or as dangerous as you hear. Yes, there’s corruption and danger and squalor out there in the rest of the world. But there is wherever you’re from, too. You just don’t think of it that way. Some of the happiest and most generous people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the friendliest are in places people tell you are too dangerous. Some of the most honest and helpful are in the places supposedly most corrupt. When someone says “don’t go there” I usually put it on my to-do list.

But there were a couple of topics I rant about that I didn’t see in the book. Though he came close to these topics, the difference is enough that I feel like I have room to expound my ideas without stepping on the author’s toes.

The first crackpot theory I didn’t read about is that the worst words you can learn in a foreign language are “Do you speak English”. If they can, they’ll understand you in English. If they can’t, they won’t. But worse, it more often than not gives them the idea that you probably speak their language passably and so they won’t take the bait. But if you just go up and start talking to them, asking whatever question you had to begin with, they’ll usually reply back well enough or point you to someone who can. It wasn’t trial-and-error of an American lout that taught me that, but by observation of many a fellow traveler – also foreign but never American – who bristle indigently if the English is not good enough or the reply not polite enough. One of the funniest conversations I can say I have witnessed, though it’s only really funny in hindsight, is a Korean yelling at a Russian militia officer in his precinct and implying that it had been his colleagues who had stolen her DSLR along with her travel itinerary across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; each butchering my native tongue more the angrier they got. And neither pausing to apologize for not speaking the other’s language or suggesting such a dumb thing.

The second harebrained idea left unaddressed by the book is that I can never respect an American abroad who pretend to be Canadian. I don’t begrudge the Canadians at all, I’ve had great times with many of them. Nor do I resent Americans who are sometimes ashamed of their “home and native land.” No, it’s that these people tend to simply want to hide in the citizenship of the Great White North because they find it tiring to stand up to Eurotrash bullies whose only view of Americans has come through sitcoms and stereotypes. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to simply swim downstream because it’s easier? Why not go hang out at the Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and complain about the fascist capitalist pigs while downing another granola bar you pretend wasn’t made by a billion dollar conglomerate, sourced by organic corporate farming (not that I’m against corporations or corporate food – I happen to enjoy quite a lot of it – I’m just against the hypocrisy of the delusional pseudo-hippies who are exactly the kind who follow the Lonely Planet guides’ every recommendation and consider themselves better than those on a package tour even though the effect is the same…but I’m off topic). One of the biggest rewards of traveling is experiencing different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of life. And a part of the responsibility attached to that is to be a good ambassador of your homeland. I absolutely revel in helping a fellow traveler see my country through my eyes, and they usually come away from the experience with an increased respect for Americans and the country. Several of these folks had been sworn enemies of Americans and their bible-thumping, two-Bush-electing, Big-Mac-eating (a German in Australia once asked how Americans could survive with only one McDonald’s around, and it being on the other side of the city), science-hating, racist (I’ve never met so many racists living in the South all my life as I have in my limited travels through Europe and Asia) dimwitted Ugly American ways.

There’s a follow-up book called To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism that just arrived and I’m getting ready to dig into it.

Spotting Fake Travel Reviews

I learned something today from AOL. I had to read that sentence a couple of times before I believed it myself. But it’s true! They’ve got an article on how to spot fake hotel reviews and it’s worth a look. Many of these are something that you look for anyway, but some aren’t obvious. After reading this I have a better sense of what I usually do when I spot a review and say “This looks like an ad.”

What I’m Listening To Lately

  1. BeirutGulag Orkestar
  2. Lee “Scratch” PerryLively Up Yourself
  3. The ClashTrain In Vain
  4. Tony Sly/Joey CapeAcoustic
  5. RodriguezThis Is Not A Song, It’s an Outburst:
    Or, The Establishment Blues
  6. Girl TalkFeed The Animals
  7. Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion

Vibram Five Fingers Review

A few weeks ago I grabbed a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers shoes after seeing them in a video blog post by Tim Ferriss and Kevin Rose. As soon as I saw them I said to myself that they were made for my barefoot lifestyle! All of the barefoot and none of the splinter and glass and getting thrown out of restaurants. Sandals are nice and I liked my Sanuks at first but they got tattered and stinky fast.

Wearing these things it feels like I’m wearing nothing at all (as Ned Flanders would say)! These are the closest things to being barefoot and, as such, you quickly realize that man was never meant to walk on concrete. But walking on grass or gravel feel practically wonderful. It’s always interesting walking on different surfaces and actually feeling the textures. For example, some carpets have odd textures you can feel. Your feet, long forgotten in the sensing world, are now giving constant feedback on your world. More than once I’ve stopped and looked down to see what I was walking on – some ordinary seeming ground feels different and interesting.

The soles are rubber and have striations which enhance their grip on slippery surfaces. After walking a while you will notice that you’re not walking on your heels quite as hard as you would in normal shoes. That’s probably partly because of the large amount of padding on the heels which mean less penalty for smashing into our heels and which contributes to the way normal shoe heels stick out a little by design (after going barefoot or wearing sandals for a few days I often find myself tripping on the heels like Hank Azaria in The Birdcage). In the Vibrams I tend to strike closer to mid-foot with the heel only used as a pivot point to redirect the force of the step. Striking the heel hard as in shoes stops forward motion and puts stress on knees, hips and back.

One caveat: you’ve got to be more careful where you put your foot. The soles are thin and briars and thorns go right through. Ouch. So don’t use these for hardcore hiking, but then you probably wouldn’t anyway.

A Quick One, While I’m Away

I just wanted to pop in here and post something new real quick. There’s not going to be much content for right now. November and December are crunch time in my business, so forgive the lack of updates.

I had a thought the other day that there should be a line in some song lyric about the sand of the hourglass of my life is getting heavy, or there’s enough for a beach, or something like that. I don’t know, it sounded good in my head.

I’m going to London in December! Sweet!

Music I’ve been listening to lately:
Ray LaMontagne – Gossip in the Grain
This is a great album. I’m not sure it’s better than his other two, but it’s definitely worth a listen if you like anything he’s done before. Best Tracks: You Are the Best Thing; I Still Love You

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois

This one is really out there. Lots of haunting piano, flute, harmony, etc. It’s good for background and isn’t as depressing as it sounds at first. Best Track: Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause for Your Step-Mother!; Jacksonville

Silver State – Cut and Run
This is a band I ran across in Grand Junction and San Francisco. They’re really good live and Memorex. I’m not sure what they’re up to these days, but these guys should get more airtime. Best Tracks: Faith, You’ve Changed Your Name; Gotta Cut

SpoonGa Ga Ga Ga Ga and Gimme Fiction
These guys are getting more airplay now, though mostly on college radio. They’re really amazing and if you haven’t checked them out yet, I highly recommend it. Best Tracks: You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb; The Underdog and I Turn My Camera On; The Beast And Dragon, Adored

Lou Reed – Transformer
This is a great old album, full of gems. Best Tracks: Satellite of Love; Andy’s Chest

The Beatles – Love
This is a great all-around album. No favorites here, I listen to it first to last.

Miscelleneous Songs
Any of these alone would be worth the price of the album, in my opinion. Especially since the first two are available on my Emusic subscription. The Streets – On the Edge of a Cliff – I really love this song. It’s really upbeat and I think it’s got a really great line in there. There’s a couple more good songs on the album, too. Gov’t Mule – Soulshine – The song that made me break down and buy an album by a hippie jam band. It’s really bluesy and great. Fun to sing in the car when nobody’s listening. Elbow – Grounds for Divorce – This sounds like a Black Keys song or something. It’s really great, and the other songs on the album aren’t too bad. Listen loud.

Bag Review: Rick Steves’ Convertible Carry-On

I travel a lot and I’m always looking to make the necessities easier so I can focus on those things that are unique on each trip. Getting the right bag to fit all my stuff is a big part of that. So I figured I should start talking about all of the bags I’ve gone through.

First, a few requirements that I have. I’m very picky about what I carry so my requirements are fairly strict. First, I want something I can put on my back or over my shoulder backpack style – roller bags are for dorks. Second, it’s got to fit in the overhead compartment and/or under the seat in front of me – checked bags are lost bags. Third, it’s got to be able to fit my basic outfits:

  • Two-piece suit – preferably without wrinkling it too much,
  • Two business shirts,
  • Two to Three undershirts,
  • A week’s worth of underwear,
  • A week’s worth of socks,
  • A pair of shoes,
  • Toiletries (inside a plastic bag in a convenient location), and
  • A t-shirt and pair of shorts/pants.

Those are the minimum things that I look for in a bag. Other niceties are things like someplace to put extra books, roller wheels (hey, sometimes my shoulder gets tired), internal structure, tie and belt compartments, lightweight, etc.

I took the Rick Steves’ Convertible Carry-On on my trip to Dallas. I’ve had it for a while but just didn’t put it to much use. So I pulled it out of the attic and opened it up. The bag is at the maximum allowable size for carry-on luggage by most airlines, which makes the interior cavernous. Also it expands a couple of inches. As far as carry-ons go, this is as big as you’re likely to find.

I put all of my stuff in it and still had room to spare. There was a good amount of room for my suit and business shirts and I locked them in with the internal straps so they wouldn’t go anywhere when I slung it on my back. Unfortunately everything else sagged to the bottom.

The bag is kind of lumpy and awkward. Even filling it up took effort as I had to lay it out, move it around, fit my clothes in, and move it around more. It’s like filling up a grocery sack – if you’ don’t just cram stuff in it’s not going to be pretty. And wearing it around felt funny. There’s just no structure to it or anything.

Pros:

  • Fits anything you’re likely to carry, short of a VW.
  • Extremely light and flexible

Cons:

  • Awkward when empty and uncomfortable to wear
  • Ugly

Conclusion: If it’s fully packed out, this bag is probably great. But nearly empty it’s just cumbersome. I’s built for trecking across the globe so that’s no surprise. The bag is very light so that’s also good for long hauls, especially in the Winter when you’ve got to pack lots of bulky stuff. But at that point you would probably be better off just grabbing a frame pack and going with that.

Score: C

Cheap TSA Friendly Laptop Bags

The TSA recently allowed you to leave your laptop in your bag to go through screening. But not just any bag qualifies. Basically, the bag has to allow the screener to see through the material without any cables or other things over it. There are lots of custom bags out that will do this. But here’s what I’ve used a couple of times: a plain siliconized shopping bag that you may get from clothing stores.

You can carry the “laptop bag” with you up to the screening point, then stow it in one of your carryon bags if you want. Or if you just want to have easy access to the laptop in your bag, the silicon seems to be easier for me to grip when sliding it out. For me this is a better process than buying a new bag just for ease of use.