Air Travel Thoughts

Sometimes as I wander through airports with a smile on my face, I get strange looks from people. Then I realize I’m one of the few people smiling and it starts to make sense; many people see airports as either frightening or rage inducing. I can almost understand them being unhappy or shocked that I’m enjoying my stroll through the terminals.

Not everyone finds airports peaceful, I get it. I didn’t always either.

Like most things in life though, it’s about making a choice.

Easier said than done though, right? Yeah, but there are a few simple things you can do to make sure you have a smooth(er) journey. I’ll go over them at a high level in this post, but feel free to ask me questions in the comments or on twitter if you have any specific questions.

Think Differently
I enjoy watching people get ready for travel. Don’t ask me why, I just do. It’s interesting to see the different attitudes that people use to mentally prepare themselves as well. Some people see travel as an adventure, full of new and exciting places and events that they’ve possibly never experienced anymore; this is me. Some are indifferent and treat air travel as nothing more than a large bus, which is probably the most rational mental state to be in as that’s really all it is. The rest of the people I see are pretty evenly split between either sheer terror, rage at the idea of walking through security and getting on a plane, or a combination of the two.

I freely admit I’ve been through all these states myself when traveling. However only two of them are really healthy for your psyche, and only one of them is any fun, and why not have fun? Treat the whole thing like an adventure and you’ll enjoy it more, especially considering you’re going to be stuck in a magical metal tube miles above the earth’s surface for hours on end.

Oh, and don’t think about the physics keeping the ~100,000 pounds of metal, jet fuel, and humans ~35,000 feet above a corn field. Most people wouldn’t understand them anyways and when you’re looking out the window, trying to rationalize the fact that you’re actually flying, you could find you need to borrow a Xanax from the single serving friend next to you if you’re not careful. If you have to take benzodiazepines while flying, you’re likely not treating it as an adventure.

Take Your Time
When I see people rush through airports and then wind up at the gate next to them, where they still have 40 minutes left until their flight is even scheduled to board (let alone actually board), I’m really quite curious what is driving them to ignore all the cool murals and such along the way, like this super happy one in Denver, CO:


Seriously, take your time and enjoy the sights. Spend 5 minutes walking down a hall way and you could find a hidden nook filled with rocking chairs facing floor to ceiling windows overlooking the runways like in Buffalo, NY. If you have 20 extra minutes and there is a SkyTrain, take a spin or two around the airport; I’ve seen gorgeous sunsets from the SkyTrain in Dallas and awe inspiring sunrises from the SkyTrain in Detroit. The theme here, in case you missed it, is to engage your inner child and explore! You’ll be amazed what you can find.

Ignore the TSA
I find conversations about the TSA to be quite possibly the most interesting, mainly as the thought of TSA agents used to be rage inducing for me. Why? Simple, they have no standards – not even between shifts at the same airport, let alone between airports – and they are frequently just not nice people. I don’t worry about it anymore though. I check my luggage and I’ve pared down my carry on to bare essentials so it takes me less than 30 seconds to get everything out of my bag, off my body, and in the tubs for the x-ray. I don’t even mind the full body scanner anymore, but then again I’ve already had all the kids I plan on having. ;)

Quite simply, all you need to do is take off your coat or sweater and put it in a bin with your belt, put your shoes on the belt, put your laptop in a bin by itself and walk on through. You will get randomly popped for various things, but it’s not as common as you’d expect. Probably one out of every 50 times I spin through, I get pulled aside for either random explosives screening (they just swab your hands and look embarrassed while you both wait for the results) or they want to dig through my bag because “You have too much [change|cables|stuff] in your bag and I need to check it”.

I find that if you stand still and smile at them silently the whole time they go faster with whatever they are doing, and if you end up in a pat down a “good job” combined with a smile and a wink makes a world of difference to the speed with which they finish patting down your nether regions. Who knew spreading cheer could effect a work ethic so positively?

Have A Meal
For your own sake though, don’t make it fast food. The pressure in the plane will be screwing with your body anyways. Instead go find a restaurant and have a quick meal, or even just an appetizer. Yes, it will be mildly overpriced but most (not all) airport restaurants make pretty good food. Not only do you get some tasty – and hopefully healthy – food prior to takeoff, but there is something to be gained from the peace you’ll find in munching on a BBQ quesadilla.

While you’re eating take the time to drink some extra water as you’ll end up dehydrated on the plane otherwise, which isn’t as fun as it sounds when you’re the one slowly shriveling up.

Bring A Book
I stopped counting the number of people that I’ve watched get on a plane and end up either sleeping or staring at the bulkhead because they didn’t bring anything to read, naively expecting there to be in-flight movies on every flight. Yeah, there isn’t. So do yourself a favor and bring something to read, either a book or a stack of magazines. If you prefer a Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader, you can now use them from takeoff to landing on most airlines, provided you disable all WiFi and/or cellular functions.

Questions?
Again, if you have any questions, or completely disagree with me for some reason, feel free to either comment below or hit me up on twitter.

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Spotify Year in Review 2013

This is pretty cool. Spotify’s year in review shows a selection of the top artists, songs, bands, and the like, all sorted by how many streams they’ve been played throughout the year. It also gives you a personalized card showing your Spotify year in review. Hopefully yours isn’t as awkward as mine. I’m not really sure how “Yoga Music for Massage” is my top playlist as it doesn’t even exist anymore. Maybe I left it playing somewhere for a couple weeks on accident. Find Spotify Year in Review 2013 here.

Spotify2013

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Current Podcasts I’m Listening To

Podcasts anywhere anytime

In a recent blog post I mentioned that I’m currently listening to 40+ minutes a day of podcasts and I’ve had a couple people ask me about what they are. Since it’s a bit of effort to put the list together – tracking down URLs and such – I figured I would post them in one place so everyone can reference them. First, a note though: I have rather eclectic tastes. I’m almost positive nobody I know will want to listen to all of these, but I hope you’ll pick and choose the ones that make sense to you and give them a shot. Also, this is a fairly fluid list; while going through the list I found a couple I didn’t enjoy much and axed them so I can focus on the ones that I believe to have a positive influence on my thinking.

TravelCommons | The first podcast I ever listened to. For quite some time – years in fact – this was in fact the ONLY podcast I listened to. It’s focused on business travel, with a tagline of “It’s more about the journey than the destination” and covers airlines, hotels, rental cars, and all the unique and entertaining experiences related to traveling. Website is located here.

The UC Architects Podcast | A (roughly) weekly podcast covering Unified Communications, focused on Exchange & Lync. This one I honestly have a love/hate relationship with, for no particular reason that I can discern. Sometimes I enjoy the whole episode, sometimes I stop listening ten minutes in. I met some of the guys on it at MEC last year, and found them to be great people. It’s worth a shot and the information you get out of it is priceless for anyone in the UC space. Website is located here.

HBR IdeaCast | “The analysis and advice of the leading minds in management” is how this podcast describes themselves, and that’s pretty much what it is. Produced by Harvard Business Review staff, the usually short episodes do pack a punch with the amount of information they manage to include. Occasionally I completely disagree with everything they say in an episode, but that in and of itself is more than enough reason to listen to it. Website is located here.

Inspiring Words of Encouragement | Excerpts of speeches from Zig Ziglar. ‘Nuff said. Website is located here.

NPR: Car Talk Podcast | Mostly entertainment, with the occasional factoid about auto maintenance thrown in. The hosts are hysterical (yes, I’m that guy laughing to himself in the car whenever I listen) and since it isn’t time sensitive you can listen whenever you want. Website is located here.

this WEEK in TECH | While I don’t necessarily agree with their self description of “the last word in tech”, it is definitely entertaining. I usually learn a few new things with each episode as well. Interestingly, I just noticed they also have “This Week in Enterprise Tech”, which I’m going to try out for a few weeks to see if I like it. Website is located here.

This American Life | This is a tough one to describe, so I’ll just copy and paste from their About Us page. If you’ve ever heard the show, then it’s a no brainer. If you haven’t heard it before, give it a shot. “There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe.” Website is located here.

I’ve also got a few new ones in the list, but I can’t recommend them yet so I won’t.

One last thing | While it isn’t a podcast per se, I would highly recommend obtaining some of Alan Watts’ recordings. He was a very interesting man and his recordings, even though they’re centered around Zen Buddhism, which I don’t practice, are peaceful, enlightening, and they force me to think about the choices I’m making in life and how I interact with the world around me. If you’ve ever watched Life, these are the recordings Charlie Crews is listening to all the time. Here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry, which I would also recommend reading through if you have ten minutes to spare:

Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Born in Chislehurst, he moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York. Pursuing a career, he attended Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree in theology. Watts became an Episcopal priest then left the ministry in 1950 and moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies.

Watts gained a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area while working as a volunteer programmer at KPFA, a Pacifica Radio station in Berkeley. Watts wrote more than 25 books and articles on subjects important to Eastern and Western religion, introducing the then-burgeoning youth culture to The Way of Zen (1957), one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism. In Psychotherapy East and West (1961), Watts proposed that Buddhism could be thought of as a form of psychotherapy and not a religion. He also explored human consciousness, in the essay “The New Alchemy” (1958), and in the book The Joyous Cosmology (1962).

Towards the end of his life, he divided his time between a houseboat in Sausalito and a cabin on Mount Tamalpais. His legacy has been kept alive by his son, Mark Watts, and many of his recorded talks and lectures are available on the Internet. According to the critic Erik Davis, his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity.”

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Shameless Self Promotion Tuesday

Shameless Self Promotion

When I initially thought about this, I was going to pick a single day of the week for shameless self promotion and thought “Hey, new movies are released to DVD & Blu-Ray on Tuesdays, so why not Tuesday?” It just so happens that I opened a new business and launched a new service at Cohesive Logic on Tuesday as well, so Tuesday seems like a natural fit to engage in shameless self promotion. So expect posts from me on Tuesdays whenever I have something new I want you to know about.

Without further ado, I’m happy to announce the below today:

  1. At Cohesive Logic, we’ve launched our Hosted Exchange 2013 service into production effective today. We aren’t reselling anyone’s service – we own the hardware, designed/deployed the entire infrastructure, and manage the network that the servers reside in. We guarantee 99.9% availability (it’s been well above that to date for the Friends & Family we’ve been hosting) and really know what we’re doing when it comes to Exchange. So if you happen to need hosted Exchange, or aren’t really sure if you do, visit the informational page at http://www.hostedexchange2013.us and request information. We’ll be releasing a datasheet later today and updating our site to reflect the availability of this service later this week.
  2. While my close friends and some of my family are most definitely aware of it, I don’t think most know that my largest time sink outside of work for the last couple years has been preparing for natural disasters, civil emergencies, and the like.Being the unabashed capitalist I am, combined with the fact that I think people really need to prepare for how they’ll take care of themselves in a natural disaster, I’ve launched Plateau Preparedness, a small retailer of quality preparedness gear that I’ve personally tested and use myself. There aren’t many products there yet – I’m one man and I am manually entering and updating every product – but I will personally stand behind everything sold. If you don’t like it, if it doesn’t meet your needs, even if you just want to screw with me, I will refund your money if you aren’t happy.We’re also going to be releasing Personal Evacuation and Relocation Kit (P.E.R.K.) Bags in the coming weeks. These are designed to be small backpacks that you can keep in your home, your office, your car (or all three) that you can grab and go without worrying about packing them. They’ll have everything you need for 72+ hours outside of your normal environment. Think what you would do right now if you were at your office and an earthquake happened; would you have the supplies you need to get home safely?

That’s it for today, but seeing that my mind is continually wandering, and knowing the projects already in motion to release over the next 3-6 months, you’ll definitely see more of these in the future.

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Spinning Like A Top

twenty-one; spinning

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. – Ferriss Bueller

At the beginning of September, I woke up and realized my son was attending his first day of high school, my oldest daughter was attending her first day of middle school, my youngest was starting her last year of elementary school, I was days away from hitting the three year anniversary of starting my company full time, and I had been married for over fifteen years. Oh yeah, my joints hurt more than they did ten years ago also. I realized I was beginning to get old, and that feeling simply didn’t – and still doesn’t – work for me.

So I decided to accelerate the changes in my life that I had started upon in the spring. I’d been trying to eat better, and managed to somehow lose a few pounds in the process, but that was pretty much it. Nothing else had changed and that really bothered me.

See, when I retreated to Thailand in June for ten days, something happened: I saw the sights (gorgeous), met the people (kind and generous to a fault), experienced the tranquility of being in a timezone fourteen hours away from almost everyone that knew me, and generally decided that the life I’d been living wasn’t for me. I had a family that I rarely did anything with, my preferred daily activity was sleeping in and I’d managed to put the vast majority of my business on autopilot. I made a huge mental list of things I was going to change when I got back. Then I arrived home and promptly changed nothing.

A person should not believe in an “-ism,” he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.” – Ferriss Bueller

So, fast forward to that September morning when I woke up, swung my feet out of bed and decided to do everything I’d planned. A couple days into that, I said to myself “Jeremy, this is fun! We should do more things! We should do ALL the things!” Now that I’m fully in the middle of all the changes I implemented, hindsight is showing me that maybe I shouldn’t have done it all at once, but… eh, fuck it. To my knowledge, I’m only going to live once. So, looking back, what have I done in the past month?

  1. I’ve lost a ton of weight. I’m down 26 lbs from when I weighed myself in July, which translates to about 4″ off my waist somehow. This feels good. My joints ache less as well.
  2. Tried Couch to 5K. That didn’t end well for me as I ended up with shin splints in Week 1. I tabled it for September, kept walking and will be trying it again in October.
  3. Finalized a new service line that’s going live on October 1st.
  4. We’re launching a major marketing initiative on September 30th that will carry through the fourth quarter.
  5. Started another company that’s also going live October 1st.
  6. Realized I’m now running two companies and briefly wondered if I was insane.
  7. Decided to keep piling it on myself by transforming myself into soccer dad. I’m quite enjoying this so far.
  8. Started organizing the house. I’m currently working on my man cave, where I am consuming massive amounts of Sterilite storage boxes and label tape.
  9. I managed to attend, and actually focus on, all three curriculum nights for my children.
  10. Started attending events of any type almost every weekend. Tomorrow (Saturday) I already have ten hours of activities scheduled for example. This has been hectic at times but always amazing.
  11. Started planning for yet another new service line to go live on January 1st. It’s complementary to the service line we’re launching on October 1st, but I’m not sure if I could have picked a more complex service to launch and the technologies involved really aren’t my core competency.
  12. Began taking a conscious inventory of everything I consume and realized I’ve been putting a lot of crap in my body for a very, very long time. Now, I still put crap in my body, just not as much of it. I’m continuing to reduce the amount of crap I put in my body over time.
  13. I realized just how awesome I really am. Yes, I’m frequently cocky, sometimes arrogant, and occasionally ego-centric, but those things are part of what make me so awesome. I shall keep them.

The best part of all of this? I was preparing myself to crash and burn, but then I didn’t. Instead, a wonderful, magical, fantastic thing happened: I woke up Monday morning and realized I am truly enjoying everything I’m doing. Then decided to do more. In the past week I’ve taken up tea, started listening to 40+ minutes a day of educational podcasts, began studying the same things my children are (and realized just how much I’ve forgotten in the process), and started transitioning to actually being a leader.

I’m not sure what the coming months will bring, but I do know that it’s going to be one hell of a ride.

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I Carry Your Heart With Me

I feel the distinct need to up my game with home movies now…

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Travel Tech Essentials

I’m an IT consultant and I travel all the time, did anyone really not expect this post?

I’ve refined what I carry with me over the years and have it down to only the things that are needed. Below is a picture of the technology I carry with me, minus my iPhone 5, which I used to take the picture. The plastic sandwich baggies are to organize devices inside my bag; I cannot recommend enough that you find some method to organize. Just keeping the correct charging cables with the correct miniature devices is sometimes a chore and the baggies keep everything together in one place. I’m going to be experimenting with empty toilet paper rolls as a method of keeping cables from tangling; if successful I will follow up with a blog post.

Note that for some reason I didn’t get my Kindle in the picture and there is a car power adapter and audio line out cable for my iPhone. I use the audio line out cable with rental cars that have Aux inputs, which is most of them lately.

My Travel TechKindle

I read a large quantity of books while traveling – and even when not traveling come to think of it – so it should be no surprise that my Kindle Touch 3G is first in my list of Travel Tech Essentials. I can’t recommend Kindles enough due to their ease of use and the large library available via Amazon, 3rd party publishers such as Baen and even our local library system, which supports borrowing e-books with your Kindle.

The 3G version is highly recommended; it’s a one time fee and allows global 3G access to Amazon’s store, which is much nicer than trying to hunt down open WiFi or turning on your MiFi. I also can’t say enough about Amazon’s customer service – they’ve replaced two Kindles already, with both of them broken by me. Even after telling them “I broke it” they still replaced them under warranty with a simple $40 charge. Unfortunately the Kindle Touch 3G that I love is not available anymore but the Paperwhite 3G is out, and it has the benefit of a backlit screen – negating the need for the $60 lighted cover I use on mine.

Here are a couple pictures of my Kindle, both with the power off and with the flip up light. You can see why I might prefer a backlight, but this will work just fine for me until it dies.

Network Connectivity

I carry two hot spots: a Verizon 4G MiFi and a Clear Spot Voyager.

Since the inevitable question is “Why two?” :

The not-so-simple answer is that Verizon 4G, while fast and ubiquitous, is expensive. I pay $80/mo for 10GB of data. I also get most of my TV shows in HD from iTunes, where they average 1.25GB each. I don’t mind paying for network access to perform billable work, and I want quality and consistency when I’m working, so I use my Verizon MiFi for that.

However, I’m sure as hell not going to pay the $10/GB overage to download iTunes movies, hotel internet access is generally sub-par and guest WiFi is fairly rare at customer sites, so I picked up the Clear Spot Voyager. It’s WiMax and doesn’t work everywhere – Clear’s coverage is fairly spotty – but when it does work it’s generally fairly quick at 2-3Mbps and it is completely unlimited.

Tablet

At times, my engagements are ridiculously stressful and I quite simply don’t want to open my laptop when I get back to the hotel. Tablet to the rescue! I carry an Apple iPad mini with me and can’t say enough good things about it. I know that some people don’t appreciate the lack of a retina display but I’m coming from an iPad 2 – which ended up as the living room tablet at home after acquiring a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for it – so I really don’t notice any difference.

For other options, I’ve heard good things about the Kindle Fire HD with 4G LTE, which could possibly combine your Kindle with your tablet, thus reducing the number of devices you’re carrying. However, I’d be concerned about the battery life of the Kindle Fire vs Kindle Paperwhite as that is one of the big reasons I love my Kindle Touch; the battery life is phenomenal. I’ve also heard good things about the Google Nexus 7 as well, but I’ve never used one. The problem for me with both the Kindle Fire & Google Nexus is that I’ve pretty much locked myself into the iTunes ecosystem – willingly, mind you – and those are both Android devices. At this point I have no need to move to another platform even though I have DRM-free backup copies of everything I’ve purchased through iTunes.

Where’s Microsoft in all this? Well, I tried to love them and carried a Surface RT for a few weeks but can’t recommend it in the end.

Power

The part that people frequently overlook is power for all this technology. While more and more airports are installing power stations in boarding areas, they are still rather rare and it’s not easy to find an open spot to  sit and charge your devices. To that end I carry a Mophie Juice Pack, which is a very thick device that is essentially a large battery with three USB ports – two full size for plugging in your devices and one micro USB for charging the Mophie itself – that allows you to charge your devices wherever you may be. I’ve used other battery packs and been somewht disappointed with all of them. Not so with the Mophie – I’ve never drained the battery, even when charging my Kindle, my iPhone and my iPad in quick succession, and it also has a nice LED indicator of how much juice is left. The downside? It is really thick and quite heavy for how small it is. The photo below is side by side with a normal sized key fob for a 2012 Nissan Sentra. I still recommend it though.

The only other thing I can recommend as far as power accessories go is for when you do manage to find a spare outlet. Pickup a  travel power strip and not only will you only be able to charge more than one device at a time, there is also a good chance you’ll make a new single-serving-friend when you can share the last remaining outlet.

External Mouse

Trust me, you don’t want to spend weeks on end with the touch pad on your laptop. To that end, an external mouse is a necessity as far as I’m concerned.

Currently, I’m a big fan of the Arc Touch, which has the coolest power button in the world. To turn it on, click the lower half into place to use as a mouse and to turn it off you just have to click the lower half flat. Simple, stylish and the battery life is crazy; I’ve only changed them once in six months with 8-10 hours/day of use.

Prior to the Arc Touch, I was sold on  the Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook mouse and I still in have two of them as a matter of fact. They’re rock solid, bluetooth (instead of the mini USB dongle the Arc Touch uses) and have the normal quality level of Microsoft keyboards and mice. That said, they went through batteries quicker than I would have liked, to the point I carried a four pack of AA batteries in my bag.

When I was using a MacBook Pro, I had an Apple Magic Mouse, which worked, well, magically. Had no issues with it besides the fact that it ate batteries just as quickly as the Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook mouse.

Lions, Tigers & Cables

Sometimes I feel like Oprah when I open my bag. “You get a cable! You get a cable! Everyone gets a cable!”

Cables are the bane of my existence when traveling. I leave them all over the place – hotels, airports, rental cars, you name it. You will too. It’s like a sacrifice to the travel gods. At least it doesn’t involve blood; I’m pretty sure the hotel would charge extra to clean that up.

The only advice I can give you is to carry at least one of every cable you need – which is obvious – and if you want to win friends and influence people (as well as not be left short when you lose a cable), carry an extra of each. Buy generic when possible as they’re much cheaper to lose.

Personally I carry two micro USB, two mini USB and two lightning to USB cables for my iPhone and iPad. If you have an older iPhone or iPad, pick up generic sync & charge cables in bulk. They won’t last as long but you’re likely to lose it before it breaks anyways and you can buy a dozen or so before you get to the cost of an official Apple branded cable.

Extra Storage

You’re going to want extra storage, for two reasons: First, you will inevitably have to share files with a customer or colleague and the easiest way to do that while traveling is with a USB key. Buy a quality one and try not to lose it. Corsair makes really nice ones for example and I would recommend a 64GB key.

Second, and what will save your bacon at least once in your life as a road warrior, is a backup drive. I carry a 1.5TB Seagate but I’d recommend at least a 1TB drive. If you’re using Windows, your backups will exceed the size of your internal hard drive due to versioning and system images. For an example, my backups currently clock in at 566GB while I only have a 512GB drive.

Headphones

I own both the Bose QuietComfort 3 noise canceling headphones and Bose MIE2i earbuds/headset but only carry the MIE2i earbuds with me on a regular basis; they also function spectacularly as a headset for my iPhone and the softphone on my laptop.

The QC3 headphones work superbly but they are also quite bulky in my bag and I always forget to charge them so they hang out at home right now. Regardless of what headphones you choose to carry, for your own sake carry a pair with you. Blocking out screaming children and snoring passengers (I’m guilty of this myself) or simply being able to watch a movie on your tablet will make your travel experience immensely less stressful. You can also use them to listen to Travel Commons, which is one of my favorite podcasts.

Enjoy your travels.

 

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Parenting From Afar

The other day I was listening to the radio on the drive back to the hotel and an AT&T commercial came on that talked about a businessman traveling the country. Thanks to “the power of AT&T’s 4G network” he was able to always be there, virtually, for all the events in his children’s lives; baseball games, recitals and such. While I’m a happy Sprint customer that wouldn’t touch AT&T with a ten foot pole, the commercial still resonated with me as maintaining a long distance relationship with my three children – currently 14, 11 & 10 – has been made much easier due to recent advances in technology.

No, technology is not the ultimate solution. However it has allowed me to nicely supplement the time we have on the weekends and weeks while I’m not traveling; enabling me to help my children with their homework, kiss them goodnight and generally just be there more. Not all the way there, but half-way there is better than not there at all in my opinion.

So if technology alone doesn’t quite cut it, what else is left? Well, it’s an important piece of the puzzle and based on my experience, here are a few things to be considered when you’re parenting from afar:

Technology Is Amazing | Take modern technology and wring every drop of usability you can get out of it. With email, IM, video conferencing and cell phones there is no excuse not to be in daily contact with your children. I try for multiple daily contacts myself, which is made easier when I can text them when they’re waking up for school as I’m 2 to 3 hours ahead of them. I’m told it puts a smile on their face and brightens their mood but I do it in the hopes of solidifying a bond that could all too easily be weakened without them knowing I think about them every day.

I get odd looks when people find out all of my children have iPhones but we’ve standardized on iOS devices for two very important reasons; FaceTime & Messages. These two technologies together allow me to almost always be available to my children, even when I’m on a plane (as long as it has WiFi at least).

FaceTime is Apple’s video chat service, built into all newer iOS devices, that we use on a daily basis to talk about our days, help with homework and just be able to see each other. I do believe that actually seeing each other is enough of a difference from a phone call to justify the added cost of iPhones for the whole family. An alternative and nearly ubiquitous technology is Skype but I’ve found the quality to be sub-par at times – especially over 3G connections – and the usability and integration just isn’t there compared to FaceTime.

Messages is essentially an SMS replacement service, with the exception that it functions over data instead of voice, which allows me to turn on my phone on WiFi equipped planes (you can turn on WiFi and leave airplane mode on), connect to GoGo and text with my children, learning about their day while I’m flying home to see them. It also lets me know when a message has been delivered and (optionally) when it has been read, which I’ve discovered is particularly handy with teens and tweens. ;)

Time On The Weekends | When you’re home, be there for your children. It’s as simple as that.

When you skip back and forth across time zones it is really, really easy to lose track of time and fall asleep at inappropriate times. When I’m traveling I just go to sleep when I’m tired and wake up whenever I have to. At home though, especially since I live on the west coast and most of my engagements are in the central and eastern time zones, I’m usually pretty tired as my body is convinced it’s hours later than it is. This is a common phenomenon and can easily be solved by going to bed earlier than your family. This is a trap in my opinion.

If you’re looking to maintain a relationship with your children, you’re not going to get there by going to bed before they do. You can sleep in your hotel as much as you want; when you’re home and have time to be with your children, be with your children. Sacrifice a little sleep and you’ll be able to hang out with them, play board games, shoot hoops, hold their hands on walks in the evening – whatever it is that you do with your children. You can’t do any of those things I just mentioned when you’re unconscious.

Your Spouse | I don’t see how my life could function as it is while being a single parent without bringing my children with me everywhere I go and enrolling them in Washington Virtual Academy. While I could always make this work it is about as far from ideal as one could possibly dream of.

Luckily, I have an amazing wife. She takes care of the children solo during the weeks I’m gone, makes sure they have birthday dinners and pats them on the back when they do a job well done. I could keep going but the list of things that can’t be done from thousands of miles away is endless. All she asks in return is some alone time on the weekends. Since I always look forward to activities involving my children, this might even be more of a treat for me than it is for her.

The downside of this is that it is easy for non-traveling spouses to feel unappreciated; they have all the responsibilities of being a single parent but none of the benefits. Let them know you care and make sure to thank them for the sacrifices they make during the time you’re gone.

Quit When You Need To | This is a last resort but I’ve done it twice so far.

Here’s the deal: Traveling takes a lot out of you, but it takes even more out of your family. If you can’t find the balance and make it work, then take the easy way out and get a local job that doesn’t require travel. You’re likely highly skilled and reasonably intelligent while working in an understaffed field. When you feel you’ve done enough for awhile – however long that is – start looking for a position local to your family.

You can always go back to being a road warrior later in your life, but there are some things that you can’t go back to once they’re gone.

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Business Travel Tips

I travel for work often and, mainly to maintain my sanity in hotel rooms, have decided to write more. Since the best advice I’ve ever gotten around writing was “Write what you know”, I’ve decided to start writing a series of posts on Business Travel.

For some background on me and why I think I’m qualified, read on: I fly quite a bit for both business and pleasure; at the moment I’m averaging roughly 20,000 air miles a month commuting between Seattle, Washington (where I live) and Louisville, Kentucky (where the customer is located). I’ve been traveling for business since 2005 and, while the above link doesn’t reflect it, I’ve spent well over half a million miles in the air. This is far from uncommon for those who choose consulting as their profession. Our skills are very niche so we have to go where the work is to make a living.

To get started, I’ve decided to post this quick list of business travel tips. Going forward, I’ll write posts on things that my team thinks I should have told them prior to me putting them on the road as well as things that I find interesting.

Without Further Ado…

Booking Airfare | Before you became a frequent flyer you likely used Orbitz, Kayak, Expedia or a similar site to find cost effective flights. Don’t do that anymore. In addition to the inevitable hassles when you need to change a flight or rebook after missing a connection, time is valuable when traveling for business and neither your employer or your client truly expects you to take red-eye flights with 5 hour layovers to save $100 on the airfare.

The only site you’ll need to use is Matrix. Go there, get familiar with it and use that exclusively. It will save a tremendous amount of time and frustration, especially if you don’t book your own flights. One very nice feature is the ability to email yourself a text based itinerary which you can forward to your travel department. Your travel department will like you for this, which is important.

One thing to note is that Matrix only covers larger airlines and doesn’t include JetBlue, Southwest or Virgin America for domestic flights inside the US. I’d recommend staying away from any of those airlines anyways, mainly due to the less than spectacular frequent flyer programs they have and/or due to the limited route network.


Managing Reservations | For this, you need nothing more than TripIt Pro, otherwise known as “The Best $49 a Year You Can Spend”. There are two main features that really make it worthwhile in my opinion:

  1. Forwarding Reservation Emails – When you get your flight, hotel and rental car reservations all you have to do is forward them to plans {at} tripit.com and they will magically appear in your consolidated itinerary, an example screenshot of which is to the left. No more juggling emails and printed reservation confirmations. Everything appears on your smartphone, with flight numbers, confirmation codes, hotel phone and address information, rental car reservation info – everything you need in one place.
  2. Tracking of delayed and cancelled flights – Once your flight information is entered into TripIt – either by forwarding the reservation email or entering it manually – TripIt does a superb job of monitoring the flight information to let you know via text message or push notification to your phone if you should expect any delays or cancellations. As long as the airline is on the ball, it is not uncommon to get notifications before you leave for the airport. Also, during connecting flights it will notify you – again via SMS or push notification – of what gate you’re arriving at, what gate your next flight is leaving from and how long you have to make your connection and it will do all this before you even get off the plane.

Brand Loyalty | This one is pretty simple. Pick an airline, pick two hotel chains (I’ll get to why in a minute), pick a rental car company and then give them all your business. What do you get in return? They’ll be really, really nice to you to start with. And points. Thanks to points, I have only paid for two personal nights in a hotel in the past 7 years and I’ve never paid for a personal rental car. Air miles I generally use for upgrades or to gift to friends and family.

How to pick what brand you’re going to use is where it gets more sticky. Look, most airlines, hotels and rental car companies in the US – averaged out over enough time – are going to give you roughly the same level of performance and make the same number of mistakes. Anyone who tells you otherwise either isn’t paying attention or is delusional.

So, simple rules for picking a brand follow:

Airline | All major airlines will either be part of an alliance or have partnerships with other major airlines. You’ll inevitably get some combination of free first class upgrades, preferred seating, priority boarding, premium security line access at the airport and free checked bags – not to mention the bonus miles as you move up the tiers. The difficult part for a lot of people is choosing which airline to fly with. In my opinion, the choice comes down to picking an airline that a) has your local airport as a hub and b) is not currently in bankruptcy. If your closest airport is a ‘fortress hub’ such as Dallas (American Airlines), Atlanta (Delta), Dulles (United) or Charlotte (US Airways), you’re pretty much stuck with the incumbent unless you don’t mind making connections on regional jets every week.

Personally, I have my status with Alaska Airlines as they’re both a really, really nice airline to fly with (they still have hot meals in coach for example) and they are the only airline that uses SEA as a hub. Their route network is heaviest on the west coast but they’ve made significant inroads to the midwest and east coast in recent years, topped off by a large list of partners that can get me anywhere else I need to go while still earning miles and enjoying at least some of the perks of the status I have so painfully earned.

Hotels | The primary benefit of hotel elite status is that they will occasionally give you room upgrades and otherwise be very polite and accommodating. I would advise picking two hotel chains; one for major metropolitan and suburban areas and one for more rural locations. Marriott, Intercontinental, Starwood and Hilton are the major chains for urban/suburban areas and Choice Hotels is my pick for rural areas.

Personally, I’m a Hilton HHonors Diamond and Choice Hotels Platinum. I rarely have to stay in Choice Hotels – the last time was in Festus, Missouri – but it’s nice to have some status and get some points for something you have to do anyways. I was once an Intercontinental Platinum but moved back to Hilton as their properties tend to be maintained better. I tried Marriott a few times as well but wasn’t impressed at all. On the flip side, I know quite a few Marriott Platinums who won’t stay in a Hilton. *shrug*

Rental Cars | The main advantages of rental car brand loyalty are upgraded cars – I get anywhere from 1-3 class upgrades with every rental now – and the points you can rack up for free rental days. Avis, Hertz & National are the major chains. I’ve heard good things about National and their Executive Selection/Aisle Service where you reserve a mid-size and then take your pick from an aisle of cars. That said, I’m a Hertz fan and have been using them without issue for years now as a Five Star Gold Club member. Hertz has also recently started instituting Gold Choice, which is similar to what National offers.

In the end, the best advice I can possibly give anyone starting to travel for business is to take your time through the airport, try to eat as healthy as possible, get out of the hotel as much as possible and pick yourself up a copy of Skygods to read on the plane.

Oh, and enjoy your new single-serving-friends of course.

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Gadget Review: Microsoft Surface RT

Sad & AloneI had very high hopes for the Surface RT and completed my pre-order of a 64GB unit with black touch cover 13 minutes before pre-orders were supposed to go live. Upon receipt of the unit, I was amazed by the hardware and am still mostly happy with the design though ultimately I should have known that I would not fall in love with it when I set it down after playing with it for 20 minutes on launch day.

See that picture at the beginning of this post? That is what my Surface looks like 99% of the time; the screen is dark because I haven’t had a need to even touch it in the last four hours.

I’ve tried really, really hard to make this relationship work. I’ve schlepped it ~5,000 miles a week, back and forth from Seattle to Louisville, and set it up on my desk every day. I’ve gone out of my way to show it to largely uninterested customers, colleagues, family and single-serving-friends. Unfortunately, I just don’t have a use for the Surface in my life.

The only two times I’ve found a use for it so far were when I needed to take notes with OneNote. I might have been happy with an $800 note taking device if this had worked as hoped, but the first time I needed it OneNote wouldn’t pull up a recent copy of my notes from SkyDrive and the second time the touch cover had a worse than normal accuracy rate, rendering my notes useless.

I can’t even find a use for what I originally purchased it for: Showing it to customers and explaining how Exchange and Lync work with it. That could be because the Exchange integration is embarrassing but I’m getting ahead of myself there.

All that said, the Surface does have some redeeming values:

  1. The hardware is absolutely gorgeous. The VaporMg case is smooth to the touch and seems to resist the abuse I heap upon my laptop and tablets quite well. This seems like the design you’d get if you handed a blank check to a Finnish designer with a shaved head, a goatee and rimless glasses and said “Make me a tablet unlike any the world has ever seen.” The hardware is, by far, my absolute favorite feature of the Surface.
  2. The battery life is fantastic. I haven’t had to plug it in since last week actually. Bear in mind that I’ve used it probably around 5 hours since I last plugged it in though.
  3. My daughter really loves the Fresh Paint app. Luckily I travel a lot so she’ll likely forget about it.
  4. A full sized USB port! This is a tremendously useful feature that I’ve used many times to charge my iPhone in the airport.
  5. The MicroSD slot is handy as a way of transferring files to it. Yes, I could use WiFi but hotels have a habit of blocking WiFi traffic between devices and – silly me – I don’t carry an access point on my travels with me.
  6. Lync is pretty nice. Not an amazing implementation – and missing some key usability features the desktop client has – but it’s decent and has proven to do everything I needed it to do.

Unfortunately there are many more downsides to it. I’m only listing the big ones here as they’re the ones that are pushing me to sell this absolutely gorgeous device.

 Before I go into the downsides I feel the need to point out a few things. First, these are my opinions and mine alone. I know a few people who seem to really love their Surface. Second, I make my living from Microsoft technologies and I really, really wanted them to knock this out of the park. Third, I did not even bother trying the type cover because I don’t see how it can improve upon the experiences I’ve had.

  1. While the hardware is gorgeous, it also seems ‘cheap’ at times. The kickstand that I heard so much about? It feels plastic. I’ve had two people pick it up and ask why it has a plastic kickstand even. While two is a small percentage of the dozen or so that have picked it up I at least know I’m not the only one that thinks this.
  2. WiFi occasionally malfunctions after going to sleep. When waking the Surface from sleep it sometimes just doesn’t see any wireless networks without a reboot. I have no idea why and it’s quite aggravating even though it doesn’t happen frequently.
  3. The touch cover randomly disconnects when simply closing the device. I first encountered this on day one, then went and actually read the manual to make sure I was attaching the cover right. Yep, I was. It’s happened a few times since then, including once where it almost ended in a fall to a hard floor. It is NOT as strong of a connection as the demo videos show it to be.
  4. The glossy screen seems to attract fingerprints and smudges much quicker than my iPad or iPhone. This is obvious even in the picture above. I use it much, much less than either of my iOS devices that also have glossy screens but it just gets dirtier, faster. The screen also appears more reflective in my opinion.
  5. It has already crashed and rebooted once in a total of ~20 hours of usage. I have no idea why. I was installing an app from the store and it just… rebooted.
  6. Outlook is missing and the built-in mail client is nigh unusable. Yes, some people might find it to work just fine and dandy. I’m not one of those people. The interface is non-intuitive to me, the editor is a joke and the ActiveSync implementation is slow enough to be noticeable. I can have this on the desk with my iPhone and iPad and laptop and I’ll hear three dings almost simultaneously, followed up 2 to 3 seconds later by the Surface. This doesn’t impact me directly but it shows a distinct lack of ‘polish’ to the device in my opinion.
  7. Outlook is missing and I can only setup three push accounts on the mail client. To move past this I’ve setup my three main email accounts as push accounts and the rest as pull accounts but I’d be really, really curious to hear the reasoning behind this.
  8. The Windows Store is anemic. Not only does it have less selection than either Apple’s App Store or Google Play – which is something I could have lived with – but it also has a distinct lack of core apps I use, including Dropbox, Box, Facebook, Twitter and TripIt. Those are apps I live with all day long, every day and while Microsoft isn’t completely to blame there, it is just a simple fact that I need them to function.
  9. Did I mention Outlook is missing? Even if everything else had been perfect this could have been a deal killer all by it’s lonesome. I live and breathe in Outlook and can’t think of a single reason not to include it.

In the end, I really can’t recommend it for most people. This isn’t even a device I would gift to my parents when I consider that I would be doing tech support for it. Kids? Yeah, maybe. The games on it are quite cool. An Xbox and PS3 combined are cheaper and less likely to be dropped though. I might give it to my wife as she is reasonably tech savvy but I think the learning curve moving from Windows 7 and and iPhone to Windows RT would be huge, and I’d still be doing tech support for it, just not as much.

The ultimate verdict? I’ll likely sell this Surface RT. I’ve purchased an iPad Mini to replace it, which has already gotten a large amount of usage in the few days of I’ve had it. I’m willing to give the Surface Pro a shot whenever it comes out but I’m fearful they’ll price it close to a laptop, in which case I might pass.

TL; DR – Pass on the Surface RT. Surface Pro? Maybe but likely not. Tablet for business use? I think for Windows 8 tablets the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 might be the best option and I am really looking forward to trying it out.

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