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Tips for Traveling with Technology

There was a Twitter conversation with Martin McKeay and Jerry Gamblin today talking about how geeks handle traveling with all our technology. Jerry suggested that Martin write a blog post, but I decided to beat him to the punch. 😉 This is part of an upcoming series of posts under the heading of Traveling Skills: The Art of Packing. In this post I’ll describe how and what I pack as a geek who travels with technology, as well as why.

My Travel Kit

These are the pieces of technology I pack with me wherever I go. Basically it’s my laptop, phone, camera, earbuds and a few cables and accessories.

  • Apple Macbook Pro, with charger
  • iPhone and USB cable
  • 16 or 32 GB USB thumb drive
  • 8 or 16 GB SD card (can double as a thumb drive in a pinch)
  • SD to USB adapter
  • Mophie Juice Pack and USB cable (iPhone battery/case)
  • Dual USB wall adapter
  • Mini dual USB car adapter
  • 3-foot 3.5mm male to male audio cable (for car Aux input)
  • Nikon prosumer DSLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens (usually, but not always)
  • Shure E2c (old mid-grade) earbuds with Comply Tx-100 foam tips
  • Fenix E05 flashlight and one non-rechargeable alkaline AAA battery (these last way longer in storage than the rechargeable ones do)
  • iPad (usually, but not always)
  • Special mention: 3G Internet card (I used to travel with one of these and they’re great, but I don’t anymore)

I like to keep it simple. I keep all the cables and accessories in a clear ziplock bag so I never have to dig too far for things. The earbuds I usually keep in an exterior pocket of my bag or in my pants pocket.

My Support Kit

There are a variety of things I keep at home to support my travel kit. Most importantly are my chargers. The Nikon rarely runs out of juice, so I don’t have to worry about that. I also have extras of the cables and accessories, in case I lose one on the road I’m not without it on my next trip. I also have a battery charger and use rechargeables. They’re a bit more expensive, but worth it in the long run. All these things would be nice to have, but I really don’t use them often enough to justify bringing them along.

That brings me to my first philosophical rule of traveling with technology…

When in Doubt, Leave it Out

Equally as important as what I bring is what I don’t bring all the time. These are things that are either too heavy, or used too infrequently to justify bringing. If I know the job will call for something special then I’ll bring it, but normally I try to leave as much as possible at home.

Most people want to be prepared for whatever situation they may find themselves in. For geeks that means a lot of technical equipment. Phones, laptops, tablets, portable hard drives, external speakers, adapters, cables, chargers, batteries, antennas, and potentially dozens of other “can’t do without” items. And that doesn’t even include clothing, shoes, bags, books, and everything else. But all this stuff gets heavy and odds are you won’t end up using most of it. Here’s what I always ditch.

  • Small portable speakers. I have a couple of great pairs, but I don’t use them often, they’re heavy and whenever I go to use them I find the batteries have already died.
  • Extra laptop battery. I have replaced the battery once and it may be time to do it again. But I’d rather spend a little extra to have a fresh battery than lug an extra one around for months without needing it.
  • Lots of camera lenses. I just use the one. It was more expensive than going with several lenses, but it’s a way more portable option. Plus, I treat my DSLR as a point-and-shoot anyway – I just want to whip it out and start snapping, not mess with lenses and such.
  • Battery chargers. I only have one thing that requires a battery and I carry a spare. My DSLR has never run out of juice on me while I was on the road. Even on multi-week trips with hundreds of photos!
  • Bigger flashlight or headlamp. I chose this one because it fits on my keychain, is bright and runs on a standard size battery. I don’t use it often and so it’s a compromise as compared with a headlamp or a big maglite or something.
  • External hard drive. Do I really need access to 1TB of movies, songs, funny videos, or whatever? No. Do I need to backup everything over the course of a week? No. (See below for backing up on the road.) These things are bulky, require special cables, heavy and hardly ever get used.
  • Extra laptop. Even when I was traveling for work and forbidden from doing personal things on my work laptop, I never brought a second one. I found that if my phone and iPad weren’t enough then it could usually wait until I got home. (See the next section for ways around that.)

Here’s a tip from my article on adopting a minimalist packing philosophy: Start packing with absolutely nothing, then ask. If the answer to 3/4 is “yes” then bring it. If not, leave it.

  • Do I know it will be difficult, expensive or impossible to buy there?
  • Am I positive that I’ll use it as much as I think?
  • If I don’t bring it, will my trip be substantially worse?
  • Do I use this every day at home?

Consolidate, Standardize and Compromise

Standardize on batteries and cables. Use interchangeable plugs and cables (for example, I have this dual USB adapter) to charge your devices, rather than a specialty one for each device. To the degree you can, get devices that run on standard size batteries so you can just buy new ones rather than having to lug a charger. That also helps in case your proprietary battery dies. And use the same size batteries across devices if you can so you can simplify things.

Ditch point-and-shoot cameras. Annie Leibovitz recommends the iPhone to a point-and-shoot. So do I. They’re way simpler and more portable, and you can share the photos right away. If you don’t like an iPhone, the one you’ve got will probably do just fine. And if not, I’m revoking your geek card. 😉 If you’re a serious photographer there may be no getting around a DSLR, but these days I often leave it at home unless I know I’ll be going somewhere photogenic.

Use the Cloud for everything you can. Yes, cloud security is an issue, but you can find ways around that. Crash Plan or Jungle Disk can replace your portable hard drive for incremental backups. Tablets and smart phones can replace a lot of what you’d need a full size computer for. Google Docs works fairly well for simple editing, and CloudOn is a full-blown Microsoft Office instance accessible through an app. If you ever find yourself seriously in need of a computer, the iPad has apps for that too. Consider LogMeIn to remotely connect back to your desktop at home. Or OnLive Desktop will provide you with a virtual Windows desktop.

International Tips

Get multiple power adapters, rather than one universal one. They’re usually smaller and easier to pack, plus you don’t have to carry them all if you’re not going everywhere. I bring 2 of these small European plug adapters and one of these multi-plug European plug adapters, as well as a 220/240v power converter (make sure you read up on how to use it) for devices that won’t handle that much voltage.

Your Tips

Have I missed something that you always take with you? Is there a good idea that you want to expand on? Let me know what you think.

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TED Talks

If you’ve never heard of the TED Talks, you should head over and start watching videos. TED is a group dedicated to Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED), as they describe it. But in reality it has grown to become a centerpiece for people coming together to try to change the world for the better. It is a community of some of the most intelligent people passionately discussing some of their ideas for the future.

But as the second word in the name of the group indicates, they’re about entertainment. So they’ve put many of these talks online. And they’re some of the most entertaining things you can watch and listen to. Their purpose is not just to entertain but to inspire and they definitely do that.

Each one is about 5 to 20 minutes so they don’t take long to watch and you can fit several into the space of time it takes to watch whatever popular reality show is on. Pick any one you want and it will be more entertaining and yet will educate and inspire. Try this exercise: pick one that looks the least entertaining and watch it. I found one called “Nathaniel Kahn on My Architect” and watched it and it was moving.

But more than being entertaining, I think, these short clips show you that it’s OK to pursue your own way of thinking and doing. Some of these people have done their thing since birth but others got to a certain point in their lives and started living their lives their way. They took their background and used what they’d seen and where they’d been to do something. To chart a strategy or forge a path that has led them to where they are now.

Now not all of these talks are deep and inspirational, but they do all have a point. Take “Ze Frank’s Nerdcore Comedy” for instance. He’s as funny as a standup comedian but he can educate as well. He makes some points about social interaction near the end, but the more important message to me is that this guy can do all these things and not live on the streets – he’s got to be making a living somehow, right? He’s not working the traditional 9-5 and he’s still doing alright. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us who want to shed the corporate skin and go down our own road.

iPhone Abroad

I’ve jailbroken my 3G iPhone so I can use it in Europe. AT&T can’t seem to figure out how to make their service work over here (no matter how many times I call and they tell me I’ll be able to use it) so I took it upon myself to do it. With the tools from the iphone-dev team it’s a snap. Turns out the iPhone works great here.

It will even do WiFi channels 12 and 13, verboten in the US, but loved by the Euros – possibly because our eqiupment can’t pick them up. Who would have thought Europeans would be exclusionary? So while the cafes and hotels are unapologetic to the legions of North Americans (yes, Canada, you’re screwed too) who can’t connect, I surf happily, albeit limitedly.

The first thing you’ll need to do when you get here is to grab a new SIM card. Check rates before you arrive and you can probably grab your choice at the airport in many cases. But keep in mind that roaming to a different country can get expensive, so don’t put a lot of money on the card unless you think you’ll use it all in that country. Since data and calling costs vary from country to country, you’ll have to figure out how much is right for you.

There are also some quirks to European networks. For example, it’s cheaper to call the US than Ireland from some Irish carriers like Vodaphone. Here’s another quirk: The O2 network in Ireland will charge you between twice and infinitely as much as you should pay. After “topping up” (adding money to the SIM) by 10 Euro, I visited the O2 website – 100kB, according to O2 themselves – and all my credit was gone. After topping up again, I used 5 Euro while my phone was off.

Something I’ve run into here a couple of times is that the SIM cards don’t work on the iPhone for data. I finally figured out why and after a few configuration changes, I was up and running. It turns out that there’s something called “APN settings” which consist of an APN name, username and password – all of which are well known, and all of which are different for each network. If you don’t have these, you can’t get online. There are lots of tutorials out there, but most of them are complicated or didn’t work for me. So here’s how I did it.

1. After you’ve got the SIM card in the iPhone, go to Settings -> General -> Network.
2. If you have the Cellular Data Network menu, enter your details there (google for your SIM card’s APN settings if they didn’t come with the package) and you should be set.
3. If you don’t have that, don’t fret. Turn your phone off, put in your old SIM card, and power it on. You should now have the menu. What use is the menu on the old network?
4. WARNING: RISK INVOLVED. But I’m guessing if you’ve jailbroken your iPhone you don’t care about that. So pop out your old SIM while the phone is still on and replace it with the new SIM card.
5. Configure your new SIM’s APN settings – you should see the 3G icon appear. If not, you may have to restart your phone.
6. Now you should be on the Internet! Impress your friends and the locals!
7. Don’t contact me if you have problems, this worked for me and that’s all I know.

FYI, for a pay-as-you-go SIM card on O2 UK, you have to change the APN to payandgo.o2.co.uk – leave the login and password the same (vertigo/password).

Internet Rush Hour

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