Friday, September 8, 2017

United Testing Boarding Processes

As I was leaving Cleveland, there was a great deal of activity around the gate next to mine. There were photographers, people with clipboards, and United branded polo shirt wearers. They were moving through the people lined up to board the plane, and that was when I noticed something different. The usual boarding signage for groups 1 through 5 was missing. In its place was a single sign. One side had a large "A," and the other side had a large "B."

So me being the inquisitive soul that I am, I approached on the polo shirt wearing, laptop holding individuals and asked what was up. Apparently United has been testing multiple boarding procedures over the last couple months to find something that their customers will ultimately prefer with emphasis on satisfying their elite customers.

We had quite an interesting discussion during which he mentioned many things that I found baffling about elite members, of which I am one. Many of the things he mentioned definitely didn't ring true for me, but apparently were typical of most passengers. Interestingly, most of these conclusions were derived from a series of questions that were not direct. They were "emotional" questions such as, "how does it make you feel when you see everyone lined up," and "do you feel less valued when disabled passengers, military members, and families with children are allowed to board before you." There were many more questions that he mentioned, but you get the idea. I will be very interested to see if boarding procedures change in the coming months, and in what way they change.

For me, the only thing I care about is having a place for my rollaboard. Honestly, if they guaranteed me a place for my bag(s), I wouldn't line up until my group was called like they request, but never happens. And I would check my bag if they would get it to me in a timely manner, and ensure that it made it to my final destination. That is unless I'm flying Southwest, in which case getting in line early is practically a must because people don't know that 34 comes before 35.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Great Lakes Are Truly Great

When one looks at a map of the US and sees the little mitten shaped state of Michigan and those bodies of water around it, one likely doesn't understand just how "great" the great lakes are. I'm speaking of their size. We know the land is massive because we recognize the distances of travel between those cities, but at least for me, I have a tendency to diminish the size of bodies of water.

As I was flying into Chicago (top three pictures above) a few weeks ago and then flying home from Cleveland (bottom four pictures above), I was really struck by how big the lakes are. When you look at a city the size of Chicago from the air, and then compare that to Lake Michigan, it really puts it into perspective. Even from 10,000 miles above the Earth you can't see the other side of the lake. And then I remember going to Duluth (pictures below) two years ago, and visiting the maritime museum and read about all the tankers that have sunk in Lake Superior and how deep it is, I realize again that the lakes are truly great in size.

Monday, September 4, 2017

How To Be A GM

I'm deviating from my blog topic of travel to discuss something that came up today when I was talking to my daughter--how to be a GM. After you read this, I would be greatly interested in your input as a GM and/or player, whether you agree or disagree, and what suggestions you would add to help someone be the best GM. At the very end of this entry, I'll provide a great video that I think epitomizes what a game should be like, and a link to a great site for learning how to be a GM and improving your skills.

I've been playing RPGs since my first foray into AD&D in 1980. A childhood friend of mine and his brother bought the three core books and we decided to give it a go. It was relatively easy to become a DM back then--buy a module (a pre-written adventure), read it, and then take the players along for a ride through the module. The module had all the text that described the scene, had the monsters that would be encountered during said adventure, and the treasure that would be doled out once the monsters were slain. And as young kids, we didn't have all the weight of reality sitting on our shoulders. There was little effort required to suspend disbelief. We just got in to the story and went along for the ride. We joked, we ate, we socialized. It was all about improving our characters to become masters of the world, and for the GM it was all about telling the story and finally sharing the secrets and surprises that the players had yet to uncover. For everyone it was about hanging with friends, socializing, and building memories that would be shared for decades. Unfortunately, so much of that has been lost over the last couple decades, and gaming has morphed into a "me, the GM, versus you, the players." This is not conducive to shared fun or fond memories. We've lost sight of the core of gaming, acceptance of fantasy, and especially what a GM's job is.

Socializing, that's the core of gaming. If you can't enjoy hanging out as a group just talking, you probably shouldn't be gaming together. This is the first key point, and so critical to gaming in general. I've played with many groups over the years, both face-to-face and online, and the majority of those groups were not fun to be a part of. It could have been something minor like one of the players just constantly cracking unfunny jokes, something a bit more serious like favoritism among the established friends, to something pretty major such as constant arguing about everything that everyone was doing wrong. I saw it from GMs as well as players. Any injection of poison into the group will result in the dissolving of the group, or at the very least splintering, as irritated players leave the group. Sadly, this poison is almost always the fault of the GM, in the majority of the groups that I joined and then quickly left. (Note: I did not leave all the groups because of that, some I simply couldn't play with due to real life issues getting in the way, especially as I got older, so don't assume a player's departure is do to "poison." Communication is critical here.) As I just mentioned, communication is critical in any group. Everyone needs to be a respected member of the group and treated as an equal. If the group cannot communicate and be honest and open with one another that tends to indicate an underlying problem and the group should either work on fixing it, or breaking up before feelings are really hurt. This is one of the first jobs of the GM--communication. Not just taking the group on the adventure, but also making sure that everyone is treated fairly and equally. Every player should be given an opportunity to give input, and to make mistakes. If a player makes a mistake, don't ridicule the player - a little friendly ribbing is fine, but make it and keep it friendly. The GM is telling a story that is typically only faintly based in reality, after all who wants to play the game commuting to work and doing business after a week of really doing just that. Games are meant to be fantastic, fun, and frivolous.

Fantasy, not swords and sorcery, but the opposite of reality, is what the gaming worlds are set in regardless of the genre. It could be a gritty realistic mission set in modern day, trying to stop some evil corporation from controlling the minds of the populace, but it is still fantasy, and should be treated as such. I feel like the older we get the more we lose sight of the ability to suspend disbelief and we keep demanding more and more realism in our games, and I think this is a very wrong approach to take. Sure, you can go for a high level of reality, but if the players aren't larger than life heroes capable of extraordinary feats, what's the point? One of my favorite systems in my teen years was Aftermath, a game set in a post-apocalyptic world. The system is incredibly crunchy (high level of realism), and characters can die a million ways to Tuesday, but ultimately it was still fantasy. There were still elements of the game that were simply unrealistic and improbable, and characters could still live through attacks that would render any real life person hospitalized for quite some time. That's the point I'm trying to make. The world of your game, regardless of genre, needs to be survivable and have plenty of opportunities to be a hero, or be challenged within a acceptable level. It seems like more and more GMs are taking this "me versus the players" approach to the games, and regardless of what you may think, I believe this is a terrible approach.

GMing--game mastering--is not about you lording over the players, monologuing for hours on end, and/or trying to kill the players' characters at every turn. It is about revealing the world to players, making rules decisions, and being a part of the group. I've played with GMs that completely lost sight of one or more of those things, and it was a horrible experience in every case. I wanted nothing more than to immediately leave. In a couple cases, I actually did. GMs are really a lot like teachers, and there is a specific skillset required to be a good GM, much like being a good teacher. Skill number one: leadership. Skill number two: communication. Skill number three: empathy. After that are additional skills such as critical thinking, good memory, creativity, etc. But those first three are critical to the success of any game/group. You are effectively the leader of the group, but as a leader you don't bark out orders, you "lead" the group. You help them make decisions, guide them to conclusions, and make judgment calls. But you do all this by communicating clearly and empathizing with the players. Give them outs for poor decisions from time to time. Never take a player's suggestion if it goes against your gut, or your plans for the story. Listen to the suggestion and shelve it for later as a possible idea for a plot line. And when it comes to the rules (and you can find this in practically every system written) they are suggestions for play. The are not etched in stone and if the story would be better served by ignoring a rule this go around because the story would be better, do just that. But also be fair and open. Tell the players that you are ignoring that rule for sake of the story. And this next part is critical, only do that for the players. The NPCs (non player characters that the GM controls) should never be allowed to break the rules. The players have a set reality of rules that they are assuming everyone has to play by, and if you get willy-nilly with those rules for the NPCs, the players will lose their suspension of disbelief and thus the fun quotient will drop. Yes, this means that the players will "win" more often, but that's the point--players are the protagonists of their combined story. Who wants to read about the heroes of the story dying? It simply isn't fun, and fun is what gaming is all about.

So in conclusion, the GM's job is a big one. You have to juggle a lot of stuff at once. And it isn't easy. It takes time to master the skills required, and some never even do that. Not everyone can be a GM either. There seems to be this feeling in the gaming society that anyone can be a GM, and while I can agree with that to a point, I have to define it a bit further, anyone can be a GM, but only certain people can be great GMs. I've played with many game designers and publishers over the years and surprisingly, a lot of them are not very good GMs. They have the imagination, creativity, and rules knowledge, but they lack the three primary skills of leadership, communication, and empathy. Many of them I've found to be in the camp of "kill as many characters as I can." That is typically only fun for one person, the GM. Gaming is all about creating heroes, hopefully epic heroes that will become legends in time. How could that happen if the GM seeks to kill them at every turn? Don't get me wrong though, challenge is a major part of the game play. The players need to be challenged, they need to fear for their characters' lives, but at the same time the GM should be looking to making these challenges exciting, but survivable. Now if a player just goes and does something that is beyond dumb because they think it would be funny and they know it will result in their character's death, I say they kind of deserve it. But if they they just made a bad judgement call and they were solidly in character, and felt there was a chance, make it a learning experience and let there be consequences other than death. Ultimately, your job as GM is to help the players tell a story of heroic endeavors and guide them through the world making memories that will last a lifetime.

PS: There are a lot of tools that GMs can use these days, but I would recommend just starting with the basics: paper, pencils, and dice alone. Once you get the knack of GMing with these simple tools, you can start adding additional "tools" such as miniatures, tokens, maps, electronic devices, etc. Just remember that very little can beat the theater of the mind. But if you have players that struggle with visualizing, than definitely add those simple tools as soon as possible because you are an empathetic GM and want to help the players as much as you can.

This nine minute video really sums up what I want out of any game I play or GM, and is the pinnacle of what gaming is all about for me. If you haven't ever seen this, or even if you have, please do yourself a favor and watch it, and when it is done, ask yourself if you would like to achieve this as a player, or have this be your story as a GM, and as a GM what will you do to make it a reality.

As for a great resource to improve your GMing skills, find great ideas to try, as well as tools you might find useful, I strongly recommend this one: Note that there is a link to the blog at the bottom, and there is also a great newsletter that you can subscribe to that delivers content right to your inbox.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Uber Las Vegas

I recently posted about how Uber is a double-edged sword, but I have to say my Uber experiences in Las Vegas have been pretty good. The longest I've had to wait for an Uber  has been 8 minutes, and every driver has been personable and helpful. I got great suggestions for restaurants and things to do.

One of my Uber drivers was Westley Stevens--apparently he and Lionel Richie had a bet going about who could earn the most while driving for Uber, or something. I think we was just trying to pay the bills. Regardless, he was quite entertaining and had a fun story to tell.

I had recommendations for Casa Don Juan where I had the chicken mole, and another recommendation for The Cornish Pasty Co where I had a pepper steak pasty. I strongly recommend both restaurants to anyone visiting Las Vegas.

And I definitely learned that I do not need to drive in Vegas with the convenience of Uber. And because everything is so close to the strip, most rides are less than $10, and even cheaper if you go with the Uber Pool option. The Pool option also has a high probability of meeting some fun people as well. I met a couple from Arizona that were really enjoying their time in Vegas and just happy as all get out. Today I shared a ride with a couple young women that were staying at my same hotel and were obviously enjoying their time in Vegas--interestingly they were returning from the grocery store with a couple shopping bags of groceries because they didn't want to go out to eat at restaurants. And I shared a ride with a guy that was there to see his son who played football for the University of Nevada and who was being recruited for the NFL.

It is amazing how much people can tell you about themselves in a short 10 minute ride when they are happy and willing to share. Surprisingly none of these people were on their phones during the rides preferring to chat with a complete stranger instead. Almost makes me think driving for Uber could be a lot of fun, at least in Vegas.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Travel Kit

One of the common questions I get asked when I'm at a customer and the discussion of travel comes up is, "So, what are your favorite gadgets to travel with and why?" My kit started off based on fantastic suggestions from my friend Nick who also travels a lot for work. I've refined things over the years and what I carry now are all essentials, and as light weight as I can pull off.

Let's take a closer look and break it all down.

Starting in the top left and going right and then down:

External Hard Drive - This is a 1 TB USB external drive that serves a duel purpose--large file transfers and stores my music, books, and video library. You'll notice that it is in a hard shell case as well. After replacing my previous external drive, I really took a look at it and saw how banged up it was, and decided that a case would be a good idea for my new drive.

5 Port USB Charging Hub - This is my newest addition, and has proven essential for bulk charging tasks of all my gadgets. Unfortunately, it isn't a true USB hub so I can't use it for connecting devices to my laptop. But it does have the exact number of ports I need to charge up everything at once. It will come in very handy on my next two week trip. If I were to replace this, I would try to find one that is also a connectivity hub because there are occasions when I connect at least four devices to my laptop at once.

6x8" Cocoon Organizer - When you have a lot of cables and little gadgets, you don't really want them rattling around in your bag, so this elastic mesh organizer is the perfect solution. The elastic bands make a web of varying lengths and sizes allowing you to find the perfect position for whatever you need to hold in place.

Various Cables - Just all the cables I have to haul around.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones - These would be the most expensive item in my bag other than my laptop. They are not cheap, but man do they live up to their reputation. These are essential for blocking out noise on flights and for listening to that movie or tunes that are helping the time fly by. I prefer the ear buds rather than the over-the-ear model because they are significantly lighter, easier to tote around, and can be easily thrown in a pocket when you need to run.

Hand Sanitizer - I work in the healthcare industry so this has become something I'm always aware of. It has a holder that hooks on to backpack making it always accessible whether I'm on the plane, or at a customer site. I actually buy a large bottle of it and use that to fill the small bottle. Saves on the landfill and the pocket book.

Towel - Yup. That's a towel. I actually travel with two of them. The small one you see here and a larger one that can also serve as a small ground cover or a bath towel. The larger one is stored in my rollaboard. This is a super absorbent towel kind of similar to the famous "Sham Wow" towel. It has various uses--go read Hitchhiker's Guide if you don't know why towels are so important. ;)

Multiport Video Adapter - As a technical trainer, I run into just about every type of video setup you can imagine so this adapter is essential allowing me to connect to just about every type of video connector I could run into.

Google Chromecast - When I want to watch Netflix, videos in my library, or have a customer that doesn't have the necessary cable for me to connect to, this things makes it all more enjoyable and easier to deal with. Most TVs in modern hotels have HDMI connections and a USB port or plug nearby. This is the Ultra model which allows for both USB or outlet power options.

Miniature Gripping Tripod - This doesn't get used all the time, but comes in handy when I need a steady shot, want to take a selfie at distance or even serves as a phone stand for watching the screen. The legs are flexible and can be positioned in all sorts of ways.

Microsoft Arc Mouse - I love this mouse! It lays flat until you need to use it. Then you simply snap it into an arc and it turns on. Super light weight, easy to transport, and can be used on any surface. It uses a Bluetooth dongle instead of a wire which is also nice.

Gorilla Gadgets Battery Pack - This bad boy packs 16800mAh, and has two output ports. It is also one of the heavier gadgets I have, but it now lives in my rollaboard attached to the external USB connection giving me a convenient charging option rather than depending on an outlet to be open.

Belkin Power Adapter - This is my most used and second favorite gadget. It has three standard AC outlets and two USB outlets. I am always running into situations where this comes in incredibly handy whether it is a customer site, or the departure gate at the airport. That last situation has earned me some friends when people were looking for a plug to charge up their phone but all the plugs are filled. I swoop in and offer to extend that one plug to allow four more people to charge their devices.

Wi-Fi AC750 Portable Router and Charger - This is my favorite gadget. This was actually given to me by my work's IT staff. I can not rave about this router enough. I use it during my training classes allowing up to 15 people to connect to my laptop's VMs. I also use it in the hotel room to give all my gadget's a single connection to use, rather than logging in from each device, including my Chromecast, which solves the problem of not being able to use a Chromecast in a hotel room. Plus this thing has a built-in DLNA server so I can plug my external hard drive into it and stream videos and music directly off it. Oh, and it is also a rechargeable battery for my devices should I need another one. Did I mention how much I like this thing?

Verizon 4GLTE JetPack Mi-Fi - Another work issued gadget. This thing is my safety net for connectivity. You have no idea how many hospitals have horrible WiFi networks. This also provides a safer connection than the typical public network you find in airports.

ASUS Nexus 7 Tablet - I use this tablet primarily for consuming media--books, videos, music--when flying. It is big enough to watch a movie on comfortably even in cramped airplane seats, but small enough that it can be slipped into a back pocket. I also play an occasional game on it.

Tripp-Lite Keyspan Projector Remote - (Not pictured) This isn't so much a travel gadget, but it is my "tool of the trade." As a professional trainer, I need a good remote for interacting with PowerPoint and my computer from a distance. This remote has an integrated mouse, presentation buttons, volume control, and laser pointer. Basically, it has everything short of a keyboard integrated into it.

So that's it. There are a other things I carry that aren't gadgets, but are quality of life things for the hotel room, work, etc. like sleep mask, PostIt notes (that's another post for another day), and water bottle.

I hope this post helps you plan for your own tech filled trips, and if you have any suggestions that you've found useful, please share in the comments below.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Deep Sea Fishing

Last week while in Massachusetts I went on a team building adventure--deep sea fishing. I've fished in rivers and lakes, but this was my first time out at sea, and admittedly, it wasn't that far from shore, but technically it was still the Atlantic Ocean. I was a little concerned about sea sickness, even though historically I typically don't get motion sick, but since it was my first time I had my concern and I didn't want to be the guy that fed the fish (that honor did go to one of my co-workers who shall remain nameless),. Thankfully I didn't get sick at all, which made the trip even better.

I definitely recommend that you should take a charter some time and experience the fun that is deep sea fishing. By the end of the day I had caught four different kinds of fish--red fish, cod, haddock, and a sand shark.

The fish on the left was the first fish I caught and was the first for the trip. It is a red fish, and the bulging eyes are caused by the pressure differential. Apparently this fish is very pressure sensitive, and died on the way up. The fin on its back is actually venomous and if it sticks you, it feels like a bee sting. The fish I'm holding up is a cod, which unfortunately we couldn't keep due to some fishing law, so I had to toss it back. We did get to keep all the haddock we caught, but the sand sharks we caught had to be thrown back. By the way, sand sharks have a very sharp barb on the rear fin that faces forward and if you are a foolish predator and try to grab it from behind, the barb sticks in you and delivers some serious venom. Yet another reason the ocean will kill you.

The best thing about the trip was just being out in the open water away from people and the city, and listening to the waves, sea gulls, and the occasional boat. I kept my phone in the cabin while fishing, and only had it out during the trip out to the water. Here are some of the scenic shots I took while leaving port.

During the trip, we saw another "party" fishing boat, and the first mate on our boat talked about how those boats leave people mad, generally speaking. One of my coworkers had experienced one, and agreed. Apparently, fishing lines are constantly getting tangled and the time spent fishing is minimal. That said, aim for the smaller more private boats.

Once the trip was over we returned to the marina and took our fillets to the marina restaurant where they cooked them up and added some sides and drinks.

It made for the freshest fish and chips lunch I've ever had. Tasted great! Oh, and in case you are curious where we went, here's a Google Map of the trip. Disregard all the land connections. It kept trying to connect to non GPS locations. We chartered the Karen Lynn, and I want to give a special shout out to Collin and Bryce who made the trip a blast.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Are You Ready Player One?

Just finished reading Ready Player One, and if you are/were a geek child/teen of the 80s, this book is absolutely for you! There is also a movie adaptation coming out for it. More on that later.

The book is cover to cover references to geek culture from the late 20th century, and if you played RPGs /video games, and watched sci-fi/fantasy movies and/or Saturday morning cartoons, or read manga/watched anime, or enjoyed Monte Python, or anything related to any of that stuff, this book will keep you reading. I read it on the plane ride to and from Boston last week, so it was roughly a 14 hour read.

As you might be able to tell from that last paragraph, it touches on a lot of different things from that time, and has a little something for every geek out there. I won't spoil anything beyond what you can read on the back cover:

It takes place in 2044/45 mostly inside a virtual utopia known as the OASIS (it's an acronym, read the book to find out what it stands for), and the protagonist's quest to find the creator's hidden secret within the universe of the Oasis.

That description really doesn't do it justice, but trust me, you'll love it.

And there is a movie that is currently in post-production. You can watch the trailer here:

I watch the trailer, and there are really only a couple scenes and a handful of elements that I recognize from the book, which makes me a little sad. But Steven Spielberg is directing it, so I'm holding out a little hope that it will be well received. This article does make some some good arguments regarding it needing to be different/better than the book, but my primary fear is that it will lose its heart and core story in that transformation. But we'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Let's Talk About Uber

Where to begin? Uber really is a two-edged sword. It is both a fantastic service and a necessary evil.

As a frequent traveler that doesn't own a car, I need a way to get to and from the airport efficiently and safely, as well as a way to get around town when I'm in a location where renting a car simply isn't practical such as New York City, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. To that end, I typically turn to Uber as my go-to car service, and this experience tends to be a mixed bag. Almost every driver has made me feel welcomed and safe, but the problems start when I have to deal with Uber the company and specifically support.

Uber's support is probably one of the worst support groups I've ever encountered, and the app itself, hard codes all the support options making it incredibly difficult to actually get help on the specific topic you need help with. To date, I have yet to get an issue resolved on the first go. In fact, I firmly believe that it is Uber policy to not offer help unless you push the issue further. Even worse, and as an IT professional this irks me in the biggest way, they seem incapable of reading a support request and comprehending the problem on the first go regardless of the verbosity of the description of the problem.

However, on the positive side, as I mentioned, the drivers for the most part are great. I get that everyone has a bad day, and sometimes you just don't feel like chatting, so I forgive those drivers that made me feel a bit meh. I have had some great conversations with drivers, and I think it is great that they come from all walks of life and different life experiences, and I've actually learned some interesting stuff from drivers. But I've also had a driver--NYC--scare the crap out of me dodging cars, driving on the wrong side of the road, and taking risks that I thought were insane. The good news is that when you rate these drivers, Uber is great about following up right away and taking action with these sorts of drivers.

The best advice that I can give you regarding Uber is always, always, verify the license plate number before getting in the vehicle. And compare the driver's picture in the app with the person driving the vehicle. Finally, read the Uber FAQ. This is probably the number one thing everyone should do before you start using Uber or before you start using them extensively. These same tips also apply to Lyft, by the way.

So have you taken an Uber ride? If so, what was it like? Any tips? Any of you drive for Uber? Any secrets you can share with us?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Went to Santa Cruz yesterday despite my broken toe. I wanted a day away from the computer, work, and thinking about either. It is important to maintain a work/life balance, and sometimes just getting away is the best prescription. I hobbled around all day, putting 14,790 steps (7.27 miles) on my FitBit, but enjoying the sun and fresh air.

The Boardwalk is a "tourist mecca," so anyone traveling there during the summer, or holidays, should expect crowds. It is also a bit on the pricey side. You can purchase a wristband that gets you unlimited rides and attractions, and/or a card that lets you do the same and to play midway games. One of the interesting things I found with the midway games is that children under 12 get an automatic win just for playing. I think this is a great idea, and certainly fair to the parents who are spending money for their kids to entertain themselves. It keeps the kids happy, and of course encourages them to spend more money, but at least you are always getting something for the money you shell out. There are also non midway games such as miniature golf, pool, shuffle board, etc.

The rides themselves, are on par with most fair style rides, but not at the level of the big amusement parks. There are a few roller coasters, spinning rides, and a couple drop rides, as well as a sky tram and a few others. But don't forget the Pacific Ocean, wild life, and all the scenery and of course food. According to Google most people spend 3 1/2 hours here, but you could easily spend an entire day if you take it slow and take in everything the location has to offer. There are also Friday night concerts and Wednesday night free movies on the beach at certain times of the year. There is also copious amounts of beach activities including volleyball and barbecues. Lots of people bring tents or canopies and spend the day on the beach as well as visiting the boardwalk.

The downtown area is less than a one mile walk away, and has a lot of really great restaurants and shops. As for accommodations, they are everywhere and range in price, but are within the affordable range. I've written reviews for three of them that can be found on TripAdvisor and/or Google. If you don't want to stay close to the beach there is a fantastic Hilton hotel about 10 minutes away by car on 17. I highly recommend it.

There are also a few other beaches in the area, as well as surfing, kite flying, and a various boat trip offerings. The red wood forests are within a short car drive away as well. I think about four days would give you the time you need to do everything at a relaxed pace.

And make sure to enjoy the sunset!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

TSA and Customs - Security Theater

As a frequent traveler it is important that you take steps to expedite moving through obstacles as much as possible. One of the biggest obstacles is TSA and a close second is customs. The unfortunate thing is that both of these, well the TSA anyway, are merely "security theater" to make the traveler feel like they are actually safe.

I have a bit more confidence in customs, but that is apple to oranges comparison. Either way, they are an obstacle that has to be overcome, and to that end I strongly encourage any frequent traveler to get TSA Pre. And if you are an international traveler, consider Global Entry for getting into the US, or NEXUS for Canada. I actually discovered that NEXUS is superior to Global Entry in that it includes Global Entry and is half the cost at $50. (Note that if you are coming into a US customs location from Canada, you use Global Entry entry via your passport.) The downside is that it is a bit more difficult to get since you have to go to a Canadian entry point that offers it. I got mine when traveling to Vancouver. But it is well worth the effort if you travel frequently between the US and Canada. My first time into Canada I waited in a customs line for almost 45 minutes. Subsequent visits were about 5 minutes. And coming back into the US it is a wonderful experience walking past hundreds of travelers waiting in line and walking straight up to the customs agent. The time saved easily pays for the cost. Also, because both systems are automated, you don't have to go through the interview process, you simply present a receipt to the agent and get maybe a question or two and then on you go.

Mexico also has a similar customs access, called SENTRI, but that is for car travel rather than airline travel, and requires using a specific vehicle every time. I don't travel to Mexico for business, so I didn't get this service.

Back to the discussion about the TSA. Here are some tips: do your research regarding TSA requirements before you go to the airport, even if you have TSA Pre, and have all your ducks in a row. If you have TSA Pre, know what you don't have to do and have to do, and be prepared to comply before you get to the agent. When you get to the agent, smile, be polite and friendly. You can imagine what a thankless job they have. A little friendliness, tends to help a smidgen and when they profile you (don't be fooled, they absolutely profile) they will be a bit more forgiving if there is a question about something in your bag - sometimes. Also, being prepared and moving quickly through the process, also tends to make the agents a little happier and less frustrated. Don't get me wrong though, they still have to comply with their "security" required checks, so you aren't going to be able to get out of a search if you do something you shouldn't, even if you do it with a smile.

I hope the above proves helpful to you on your next trip.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Privacy is Good

I backed a campaign on Indiegogo a while back for creators of a super thin, as small as possible webcam cover, and they arrived today, and I'm quite pleased. They are so thin that they were mailed in a standard envelope. I've already handed two of them over to family members and will be using up the last three in short order for my own devices and one more family member.

In case you are not aware, webcams can be hacked and controlled without you even knowing. In this day and age, you really have to protect yourself. Software isn't always the solution, and sometimes a simple piece of tape is all you need. However, when you do want to use your webcam, you really don't want tape residue making the image bad, so enter the webcam sliders. There have been a lot of models made to date, but this one is by far the best I've seen thus far.

Each one is only 1 mm thick, and the opening is just slightly larger than a standard webcam. I believe they actually come in a few colors as well.

So if you are interested in keeping just a little more privacy, or are concerned that you might not have the level you think you have, you might want to get some of these.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Mission Valley/Stadium

The first room that they put me in was on the fourth floor, which I would normally prefer--high floors tend to be quieter--but the room was actually located right next to the elevators and ice machine, which seasoned travelers know is a terrible location for a room. But the staff was very understanding and happy to move me to a different room on the third floor that was near the end of the hallway, which tends to be the quietest rooms. The pictures below reflect both the rooms, so you can see the differences, or lack thereof, between the rooms.

The Good: There are a lot of good things that can be said about this hotel. First and foremost, the rooms are very dark at night and very quiet. I never had any problems falling asleep, and there were no "extra steps" that I had to take to make it easy to fall asleep. The staff were all friendly and helpful, and I never once had anyone deny a request and they were always happy to help. The room was also very clean, and well maintained. The hotel restaurant is quite good, with only one thing disappointing me (see the mention of bacon below). I ate dinner there every night except one, and every meal was great. The Internet access was very good and I never had any problems connecting. The room had adequate space, including the restroom. The hotel's location is also very good - depending on where you need to go - being located right off the freeway, and on a non-main road for commuters.

The Bad: The location of the couch next to the bed led to me literally breaking my toe on the foot of the couch my first night as I was going to bed. The bacon at breakfast was kind of hit or miss with it be firm, thick bacon on one day and limp and paper thin on others. The parking spots are incredibly tight, so much so that most people double park just to fit in, which means fewer spots for everyone. There is a "parking garage," but it is very small, and the large columns make parking in a lot of the spots challenging. To add insult to injury, they charge $14/night for parking, which still amazes me that hotels are still charging for parking separately. Why not just roll the cost into the nightly stay and spread it out to everyone and lower the overall individual cost for the parking, but still have enough to pay the bills?

The Ugly: Nothing would prevent me from staying here again.

Suggestion: Hilton needs to start looking at what competitors are doing regarding the modern traveler and technology needs and desires. I stayed at a Marriott a couple months ago, and they had an integrated entertainment unit that allowed guests to easily plug in devices like Chromecasts, laptops, etc. But even better, the TV was a smart TV which directly allowed me to use my Netflix account, and then automatically deleted my account data upon check out. We need to see more of this happening in the hotel business.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

When Things Go Very Wrong

Sometimes things can go very wrong while traveling. I have been learning how to drive crutches thanks to a terrible accident involving a broken toe. How did I break my toe? I stubbed my foot on the leg of the couch in my hotel room. It was an incredibly good(?) shot because I hit the corner of the leg in such a way that it snapped my toes apart cracked the bone. At one point my foot had swollen so much that it was pushing against my shoe. On the plus side, I should be able to get pre-boarding on my return flight. Please note, I don't recommend going this route just to get a better seat.

Hobbling around on crutches is not a fun experience, especially if you've never used them before. But the really good lesson has been how to get medical help while traveling, and just how long it takes. You really appreciate home and the resources that you take for granted.

The next eight weeks are going to be quite interesting to say the least.

Monday, July 17, 2017

How Does This Happen?

When I see articles like this from respected travel bloggers, I really get a icky feeling. The first thought that comes to mind is "sellout," followed by "misleading." I understand that these sites and bloggers need to make money (why do you think I have ads turned on for this blog?), but so much of this article is full of just blatant misleading advertising that it leaves me scratching my head.

If you are an experienced traveler, you should know the pitfalls of days travel, and not be recommending things that will not only not help, but could actually make the travel experience worse. It's bad enough we have to contend with the airlines. Why would you want travelers to waste their hard-earned money on toys that are unnecessary?

I want to run through the list real quick to provide clarity based on my own personal travel experiences.

Charging Case

I completely agree. You have to have power available to you, but there are a lot of options out there. I prefer the largest power battery pack I can find that isn't too large or heavy. Honestly anything touting recharging more than three times, isn't worth it because it is very rare to have a situation where you are going to burn through that much power without being able to use an outlet along the way.

Laptop Charger

An extra battery is all you should consider. Laptop charging packs tend to be MASSIVE, and I would hate to travel with something that weighs just shy of a tank. An extra battery is bad enough.

Mobile Scanner

Use the camera on your phone. I've never ever found a need, or wished I had a mobile scanner. If you get the ExpenseIt app, that will automatically move receipts into Concur, and fill in all the expense details via your phone's camera. There are also apps that you can use for document scanning, business card scanning, and even language translation--all done with the camera you already have.

USB Ink Pen

Are you kidding me? Seriously? I need a pen maybe once a week, if that, and something like this is just an unnecessary expense. Get a decent sized USB drive, which the pen won't be, and toss it in your bag. If you need an occasional pen, toss one in your bag, but most people have a pen in their office when you really need one. Most of your work can be done on your laptop or tablet.

Smart Luggage

I just posted about this the other day--NO! It's a complete waste of money. I just purchased and received a TravelPro bag that has a nice pocket on the side for a battery pack to be dropped in to, and a port on the back to plug a device into. That's the furthest I would go with luggage. Anything else is a waste of money, and will definitely inconvenience you when you try to get through TSA.

Micro Projector

I have yet to see a micro/mini projector that can project a satisfactory professional level image. It might be useful in a pinch, but you're much better off using the proper tool. I make sure all my customers are aware of my requirements before I arrive and never have a problem providing a projector or monitor. What I would suggest is a multi-video adapter that has all the possible connections on it.

Mobile Hotspot

I agree with this section. I've saved my sanity many times by having a Mi-Fi available.


This seriously doesn't belong in this article. You either have a watch or you don't. I wear a FitBit Surge to track steps and because we have competitions at work, but it isn't even close to being essential for travel.

Noise-canceling Earbuds

I agree with this one as well. Fantastic for planes.

Perhaps somewhere along the line, if people are interested, I'll do a post of what I carry. Let me know in the comments if that is something you would be interested in seeing.

Friday, July 14, 2017

1 Year Ago Today - Toronto

One year ago today, I was in Toronto and was amazed at all the cool architecture in the city. I also learned that this was where the TV show Suits is filmed.

I also had the opportunity to go up in the CN Tower, and experience the city from an incredible height. If you look very closely near the top of the tower in this picture you can see the people in orange jumpsuits doing the sky walk--the hook you up and you walk around the edge of the tower.

And here is a great view of the city skyline from up there: