Toolie Travel Blog

A million-mile flyer talks about the life of a business traveler.

Newsletter: Mobile Device Holders for Home and Away

The Holiday Season is upon us! McAlister and I have decided to keep things simple this year, so the challenge of coming up with great gifts on a budget is even more intriguing. In between flights, you're no doubt going to be facing the same challenge, so this month I'm sharing a few of my "finds" in the technology department. Hopefully they'll spark some gift ideas for you.

What's Holding Up My Internet Device?

I tend to think of my iPhone as my link to the world, and my Kindle as my portable entertainment and informational device. The truth is, either device can serve any of those purposes, it just depends on where I am at the time. The one thing they both evoke in me is the desire to find the best possible viewing angle. I spend a lot of time at a computer these days, and I want my iPhone and/or Kindle viewing to be hands-free.

For my iPhone, I purchased a 13-inch gooseneck, suction-cup, windshield mount that I use not only in my car but also at my desk. The suction cup base will attach well to a smooth surface, and the glass-top desks at my day job are perfect for that. I keep the iPhone on vibrate, but if a call or a text message comes in, the iPhone is at eye-level so I don't miss it. They're made by Amzer. When we upgrade our iPhones in a couple of months, I'll be back to buy the version for whatever phone we decide to buy, because these stand have been incredibly handy.

When I was trolling through, I found a rather clever free-standing phone holder that could be a lot of fun on the go. The Quadropod and Clamp Smartphone holder can assume a number of yoga-like positions, including attaching to the back of the seat in front of you on the plane or in the car. It would also work nicely on a seat tray and provide a good viewing angle if you're watching movies or listen to your tunes while you fly.

Alternate Uses for Microphone Stands and Tripods

I use a professional microphone as part of my home audio studio, and the mike is mounted on a swing-arm mounted on my desk with a big, heavy clamp. Prior to acquiring and installing that swing-arm mount, I purchased a microphone stand with a 3-foot boom arm for my mike. I use it from time to time, but not nearly as often as I expected to when I first purchased it.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that manufacturers are producing all kinds of holders for existing stands, including microphone stands. Why? Because more and more musicians are reading their music on iPads and other tablet devices. Some tablet holders mount on the stem of the microphone stand; some mount at the end where the threads for the microphone would otherwise be.

I detach from my day by watching Mythbusters episodes on my Kindle while I get ready for bed. Their world is completely different from mine, and the Mythbusters always make me laugh. I plan to buy one of those tablet holders for the microphone stand and put it at my bedside, so that the stand will hold up my Kindle while I watch lying down. Silly? Maybe. But I fall asleep happy and relaxed, without pills or melatonin. I think it is worth $30 bucks to put my unused mike stand to work!

The same manufacturer also has a tablet holder for tripods. Unless you're a photographer who is using your tripod all the time, I bet you have a tripod leaning against the wall somewhere, unused. Tripods are great because they're eminently adjustable for both height and viewing angle; you just have to be careful not to trip over the legs.

Depending on the weight of the holder and the size of your device, you might even be able to use one of those very small tripods while traveling.

Got a favorite mobile device holder that you like to use? Add a comment below!
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Newsletter: The Wonders of Reliable Travel Sources

As I was preparing this month's newsletter, I came upon a news story that said that Arthur Frommer had purchased back from Google the rights to the name of his original travel guide series for an undisclosed sum. I have to say I was thrilled to hear the news because Frommer's Guide to Paris was one of my first travel guide purchases when Microsoft asked me to travel on their behalf. I came to rely on Frommer's Guides in the early days of my business travel.

It was 1996; I was asked to present at the US-based TechEd in Los Angeles. I had moved away from LA just 3 years earlier, and with the new Convention Center wing being finished, I was looking forward to seeing it. Then the news came: I had also been selected to speak at the European TechEd in Nice in the south of France. I was beside myself with joy! I arranged to take a week's vacation right after TechEd Europe finished, and then I took a 6-week crash course in French for tourists at the local community college. My plan was to spend that vacation week in Paris for the first time ever, and I intended to use that year of French from grad school plus the crash course to my best advantage.

I bought my ticket to fly in and out of Paris; I looked up the Eurail Pass and figured out how to get from Paris to Nice and back. In 1996, the Internet was just an interesting experiment in online commerce. Finding this information was done by reading books, not by searching with Google, which didn't even exist then (it was incorporated 2 years later). And thus, Arthur Frommer became my new best friend. His plain- looking but information-packed travel guides led me to some of my best finds in Paris.

The first, most important and still-used hotel "find" was the Hôtel Brittanique. Located in the very center of Paris and just a half-block from the Metro stop that has 6 lines running through it, the Hôtel Brittanique became a haven for me. The staff spoke English well, and Americans and UK residents were welcomed with open arms. The rooms are tiny and the elevator even smaller, but after a long day of concentrating on French grammar, it was a relief to be able to lapse into English for the night. I stayed at that hotel multiple times over the years, and its central location was and still is a godsend.

Next, I found out about the Carte Musée, a multi-museum pass that got me into most of the places I wanted to visit anyway. And then there was the Carte Visite, a weekly pass for the Paris Metro. Now I had a place to stay, places to go, and a way to get there, all from Frommer's guide.

Finally, Frommer's pointed me towards Rail Europe, the organization that issues Eurail passes. I used one of the passes to get me to Nice from Paris and back again. So from that one source, I became a business traveler who was comfortable moving around a foreign location. Frommer's gave me the confidence to take on another 31 regions and countries during the height of my business travel days. So thank you Arthur Frommer! Keep up the good work.

Got a favorite travel guide series that you use? Leave your comments below!
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Newsletter: TripLingo Translation App for iPhone

I speak English as my first language and 4 other European languages to varying degrees of proficiency. I sat through endless hours of class, having conversations, puzzling over grammar, and memorizing syntax. In other words, I learned languages the old-fashioned way. I secretly resent the Rosetta Stone advertisements that explain that learning a language can be easy. I'm pretty facile at languages, and I don't remember it being easy to learn!

I didn't start out learning languages because I needed it for business travel, but being able to speak other languages WHEN I traveled was a huge advantage. So as I write my review of this month's language app, I'll remember the real reason for having such an app: communicating with others in a way that establishes respect for the culture.

TripLingo Lite for iPhone

I downloaded the TripLingo app and chose French for my language. The Lite version allows you to choose from 11 languages, but only one of them. If you buy a language pack, you can have more than one on your iPhone at a time.

Upon starting the app, I had to create an account for myself. I gave it my first name, my email, and a password, and the app started up. I was presented with a home screen containing the name of the selected language, the apps assessment of my language ability, a search box, and 4 buttons: My Phrases, Translator, Travel Situations, and Flashcards. Across the bottom are 5 more buttons: Dictionary, Culture, Talk Live, Word Bank, and Options.

As you might expect, the most enticing features require you to purchase something to add to the app, but I was able to utilize the Essentials list in the My Phrases section. There I could choose a useful phrase such as "How much does it cost?" and have the app show me 4 different versions of the phrase: formal, casual, slang, and crazy.

Naturally as a formal student of French, I chose that one, and from my iPhone came a perfectly pronounced phrase, "Combien cela coûte-t-il?" What I truly appreciated were 2 buttons just below the slider, marked Slow and Normal. As someone who loves French and who knows that the French appreciate their language being spoken to them, I was thrilled to be able to slow the phrase down so that I could practice it and repeat it.

Building Vocabulary

Other parts of the app encourage you to learn basic phrases by giving you a flash card quiz. It will show you a phrase in English, for example, give you a chance to view it in French, pronounce it for you, then ask you whether you indeed knew the phrase. As you learn the phrases, the progress bar showing your language status lengthens, and you've got an incentive to keep going.

Even though I took a year of French in grad school, I went out of my way to take a 6-week conversational class before my first visit to France in 1996. I realized then that the French I knew might not be very helpful in restaurants and stores. Well this app is like a conversational French class in your pocket. The only thing missing is someone who can give you feedback on how well you're pronouncing the words. If you can find a native speaker to give you feedback, that's the best option. Otherwise, you will no doubt receive feedback when you try your phrases on the locals. Be patient, be polite, and they will help you!
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Newsletter: The Shift to Electronic Travel Guides

I love languages. I was bitten by the language bug when I was in high school. I took 3 years of the Spanish language with Miss Staley in an accelerated course and got good enough at it to read a novel in Spanish. That was cool!

Next came singing in foreign languages in college. I didn't have enough elective credits to take language courses during my undergrad, so before and during grad school I took a year each of German, French, and Italian, and audited a linguistics class that pulled it all together for me. I finally understood what I was singing about, and that was cool!

Fast forward to the mid-1990s when I began traveling for Microsoft. They sent me to 24 countries and regions in a 7 year period, and I bought (paper) travel guides, language phrase books, and language dictionaries for each of those locations, and I hauled them with me on those trips. The books are currently stacked up in my office closet along with the paper maps I used on the trips.

So you can appreciate my slight resentment of the fact that now ALL of those items will fit neatly on my iPhone, and I can load and unload them at will. Bye-bye 50-pound (23Kg) suitcases; I can easily eliminate 8 pounds just from the books I don't have to carry.

Books vs. Electronic Devices

I admit that I still like books for most circumstances. People who visit my office are impressed with my book collection; there's an implication that I have read all of them, you see, which of course I have not. But they're there for reference, and I have used parts of nearly all of them at one time or another.

Now that I have both an iPhone and a Kindle, I can read books on either device. I like using the Kindle -- that is for what it was originally designed -- but there are times when being able to leaf through a book is much more efficient. Plus, you don't need an Internet connection or a battery!

I liked my travel guidebooks, especially the Dorling-Kindersley series of travel guides. They were printed on glossy paper with compactly printed, well-organized information, etc. Now they appear on glossy screens and the information gets updated regularly. THAT I can appreciate.

Guarding Your Devices on the Road

While I am waiting for the commuter bus, I look around to see how many of us have electronic devices in our hands, and it's usually 40%-60%. Given that I live in Seattle (one of the premier high-tech locations worldwide) that's not surprising. Since I'm here near home, I don't feel concerned for my safety standing around looking at my iPhone. But I also make sure I keep it close to my body so that it would be difficult for someone to snatch it and run away.

You see, we carry so much personal information on our electronic devices that losing them through our own missteps or by theft could be devastating. So I think twice about the idea of walking around another country with my travel guidebook on my Kindle. I even think carefully about reading my Kindle on the bus, lest someone snatch it from my hand as they head for the door. I can't run as fast as I used to, though I would very motivated to try.

So I would offer the same advice to those of you carrying electronic travel guides and maps as I did for the paper versions:

  1. Plan your walking tours carefully; know where you're going. Have a clear idea in your head about which direction you're headed. And if you get turned around, use the compass or map on your device to re- orient yourself.

  2. If you must stop to check the map or your travel guide on your electronic reader, step into an alcove or some non-obvious place before you put your head down to start reading. This practice keeps you from appearing vulnerable. Walking confidently is the easiest defense against observers who might consider confronting you.

Reviews of Language and Travel Guide Apps

In the next few issues, I'm going to review some of the language and translation apps as well as various travel guides. If you have a favorite travel or language guide series that you like, leave a comment below, and I'll include your recommendations in the appropriate issue of the newsletter.
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Newsletter: Entertainment on the Road and at Home

Well, my appreciation of the Kindle only increases as time passes.  I'm very pleased with having my 7" Kindle Fire HD as a regular companion.  I haven't done much travel lately (except back and forth to Seattle), but I certainly have made use of the Kindle whenever I'm in transit.  But I also watch TV while I work on tasks that don't require much brain power, like website link checking and data entry tasks.  I usually watch (or rather listen to) movies that I've already seen so that I'm not too distracted.

I've been watching the Amazon Instant Videos that are available as part of my Prime Membership, including my nightly dose of Mythbusters episodes.  Last week though, I took the next step in the permanent tethering of the Kindle to my day bag: I added Netflix streaming movies to my existing subscription to Netflix DVDs.

The Amazon Instant Movies in the Prime Membership are not available to McAlister's iPad, so I felt it was only fair that he have access to the same movies I had.  Or so I thought.  Amazon has a long way to go to match the availability of movies that Netflix has.

Wireless Movies Everywhere

McAlister and I are movie buffs.  I took up watching movies after I found myself single again in the early 1990s.  McAlister has a minor in film, meaning he studied the production aspects of filmmaking and actually made a few films himself.  When we first met, our standing date on Fridays was to leave the office a little early and catch the 5 pm showing at the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California.  We track actors' careers, discuss plot lines, appreciate good screen writing, and inhale great acting like the air we breathe.

We don't get to go OUT to the movies as much anymore, but we are no less enthusiastic about them.  So to have Netflix stream movies on my Kindle while I develop websites, and on his iPad he works on his wax sculptures, is positively heavenly.  Of course one needs high-speed Internet to stream that much data, so I'm now in negotiations with Comcast to get their high-speed connection into our house.  If you've ever dealt with Comcast, you know what I mean by "negotiations."  Don't get me started....

Leaving the DVDs at Home

It's time for me to get back on the road; long overdue in fact.  I'm looking forward to being able to throw my Kindle in my carry-on bag and not having to worry about my standard pack of movie DVDs disappearing from my checked luggage.  It's happened to me!  On one trip a couple of years ago, I lost over $200 worth of movies and even some software Cds, and I'm still angry with TSA over that little stunt.  Now I can carry just the Kindle (or just my laptop for that matter) and my Netflix subscription, and get movies wherever I can get a connection.

That's not to say I don't use my DVDs anymore; I still do.  Netflix doesn't have every movie I like to watch, so I am keeping my Netflix DVD subscription for the time being.

Not Just Movies

I mentioned the Mythbusters in passing, but I have to tell you that I'm thoroughly enjoying having free access to 9 seasons of their show as part of my Prime Membership.  I watch at least 1 episode every night as I get ready for bed.  It helps me unwind; it's completely different than what I do all day; I learn something new; and it's wonderful to watch people who love what they do.  I didn't get much science in my undergrad education, so I pick up some pretty interesting stuff along the way.

I've also put every season of Julia Child's The French Chef episodes on my Amazon Instant Video watch list, because my rather bland cooking needs some HELP!  I've also snagged 3 seasons of the original Star Trek TV show.  I will finally get to see all of them!

May you also find the portable movie-viewing device of your dreams...!
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