Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.

 

Use your best iPhone pictures as postcards

Last year, I stumbled across an iOS app called PhotoCard, by Bill Atkinson. This app allows you to create free, electronic postcards from your iOS photos, personalize them, and send them via email.

You can also convert your postcards into gorgeous physical postcards and mail them to other people. That, of course, is not free but it is also very reasonably priced. I've sent quite a few of them and they are beautiful and very noteworthy, since they are 8.25 x 5.5 inch cards printed in high-quality color printing and mailed by US Mail.

Editing a picture I snapped of The Gherkin tower in London, which I sent as a postcard.

The app comes with over 200 of Bill's own photos, so you can compose something beautiful, or you can use your favorite snaps from your camera roll or photostream.

You create both the front and the back of the card, including your message and the style of the stamp if you are sending physical cards.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, this is a great way to do it. I love this app.

Working out while traveling just got a bit easier

After quite a while of being a slacker, I have decided to pay a lot more attention to my diet and exercise regimen.  A big part of that is designed to help me follow much better habits while on the road.

One part of this change is to do some sort of workout or physical exercise every day.  It's been going well, but workouts on the road can be a challenge when it's hard to create a convenient time window to get to the hotel fitness center.

Bring the gym to you

Last week, I was in Dallas and decided to try out one of the Westin Hotel chain's "WestinWorkout" rooms in which you can reserve a room with fitness equipment in it.  I really like this concept - it allows me to get a workout in when I want to, under much more relaxed circumstances.  Here is a quick tour of the room I stayed in:

 

In the video, I mention I was expecting a treadmill (the bike worked fine, but I still like treadmills better).  Good news:  you can now specify whether you want a cycle or a treadmill, at least in some hotels - I had that choice when I booked at the Westin in Seattle a few days ago.

I hope this trend takes off and spreads to other hotels.  I'm a "Starwood guy" so the fact that Westin is a Starwood property makes me hopeful that other Starwood brands will follow suit. 

Review: Focused Space Incubator Backpack

I recently started using "The Incubator" backpack by Focused Space, and I really like it. In fact, I think it's one of my favorite laptop / travel backpacks so far (and I've used quite a few).

Looks and comfort

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This definitely feels like a high-end backpack, with quality on par with Tumi, Briggs & Riley, and other high-end backpacks and I think it is reasonably priced considering the quality.

 The Incubator backpack has a trendy design that looks business-oriented enough that you can take it to any meeting, but trendy enough that you can use it for non-business use.  It is very sturdy and the fit & finish is exceptional.  It is also pretty light, so it doesn't make things too heavy on its own and it keeps a fairly slim profile so it fits under the seat easily.

The straps are very adjustable, comfortable (memory foam), and have a sternum strap to keep it in place for longer walks or hikes.  I'm a pretty tall person and this fits me well (many business backpacks have dinky straps that don't work for me)  and it will also adjust down for the typically-sized person.

There is a handle on top so you can carry this backpack (the handle is a tad small, but works fine).  There are also a lot of small loops on the top and on the straps that you can use to attach things to the pack ( the hoops are handy - I use one of these loops with a small "Bandits" bungee cord to hold the bag on my roller bag when I'm walking through airports).

Pockets galore

One of the things I like best is that there are a lot of pockets in this backpack.  I have a lot of gadgets, charing cables, and small odds & ends, and this bag has enough small pockets inside to create a "place for everything" kind of organization system.

There are also two large zippered compartments on the fron for keys, breath mints, your phone, hard drives, and other things you may need to access quickly. 

Click to embiggen

For larger electronic devices, the main compartment features a laptop / notebook pocket with a very soft lining, which will hold a 15" or smaller device comfortably.  There is also a smaller, dedicated pocket intended for iPads or other tablets. 

There are smaller side compartments you can use for storage (I keep my backup hard drive in one, and my business card wallet in the other). 

There is a small pocket on the front that you can use for things like glasses (it's plush-lined), or earbuds (my preferred use for this pocket) to allow easy access.  

There is an additional, larger pocket at the top of the back panel that is hidden and can be a good "stash" pocket for ID's, passports, thumb drives, an MP3 player or other larger, special items. You can see it in the picture on the right, at the very top of the back of the bag, just underneath the top part of the shoulder straps.

Good organization, nice amount of space

These pockets make it easy to organize the small stuff, and leave a nice amount of room for everything else.  There is plenty of room for files and a couple of books, noise canceling headphones in a case, etc.

Speaking of folders, check out my earlier article on how to create backpack folders, which I created for my previous backpack.   They work great in this one, as well.

In spite of the large amount of space, this backpack doesn't balloon up like others I've had - which I consider to be a plus.  This backpack still stays snug and streamlined looking even when it's full, which makes it easy for air travel. 

Awesome, but not perfect

As I mentioned, this is my favorite backpack so far but it still has a few things that get in the way of perfection:

  • I mentioned that this backpack is snug.  If you are used to over-stuffing a backpack, you can't get away with that on this one - it doesn't stretch a lot.
  • While it isn't an issue for me, I now a lot of people who carry water bottles with them when they travel, and this bag doesn't really have a suitable external pocket for that.  If you have a water bottle with a clip / carabiner on it, you could clip it to the outside of the bag, but there isn't a water bottle pocket. 

The bottom line 

In summary, the Focused Space Incubator backpack is an impressive, business friendly backpack with strong organization, good protection for your gadgets, and a very comfortable travel companion.

8+ Practical Tips for Avoiding Pickpockets

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A week or so back, I was in Amsterdam and my phone was stolen from my pocket on the street.  I'm usually very cautious, wary, etc. when I'm in an area known for pickpockets, but I let me guard down for a few minutes and paid the price. 

With that in mind, here are some good general tips to protect yourself from pickpockets. 

  1. Be an informed visitor.  You can usually find out if the city you're going to is known for pickpockets with a quick search of the internet. Searching for "pickpockets <city name>" will usually let you know pretty quickly.  I already knew Amsterdam was known for pickpockets, since I used to live in The Netherlands.  Other cities that are infamous for this are Rome, Barcelona, Prague, Madrid, Paris, and Florence.
  2. When you go out, only take what you need.  Leave your passport, spare credit cards, and other belongings in the hotel safe.  I usually only take some cash, and an "emergency" credit card with me and lock the rest away (along with my iPad, computer, camera, etc.)
  3.  Put the things you do take with you in a front pocket or a hidden pocket.  It is much harder to get things out of your front pocket without you noticing.  Also, if you just have the cards and some cash in your front pocket, it is much less conspicuous.
  4. Avoid walking into or through crowds.  This one can be a challenge sometimes, but avoid crowds where you can - inside a crowd, people can rub up against you easily, and you can't tell what they are doing.
  5.  Try to blend in.  Pickpockets are on the lookout for people who look like they are lost, unfamiliar with the area, etc. so avoid looking at maps, wandering around in a confused or disoriented way, or other things that would indicate you are a tourist.  This includes trying to dress in a way that is consistent with the locals, if at all possible.
  6. Don't talk to strangers.  If someone approaches you to engage with you, be very wary - they may be trying to distract you so that an accomplice can grab your goodies while you aren't paying attention.
  7. Consider carrying a "decoy wallet."  I have a friend who carries an old wallet in his back pocket with some old hotel room keys (they look kind of like credit cards) and a few $1 bills in it.  He keeps this in his back pocket as bait for a pickpocket, and follows the guidelines above.  I don't know if it works or not, but it seems like a plausible idea.
  8. Know what you have, and have a backup if you can.  Make sure you have an accurate inventory of what you've taken with you, even if you plan to lock it in your room safe.   I have scans of the front and back of my credit cards, my passport, and my drivers license in an encrypted file on cloud storage (I use 1Password for this) so I can get to it from anywhere.  This tells me what I've lost, what number to call, and provides me with a "punch list" of the things to cancel or have replaced in the event they get stolen.

    Along these lines, also make sure you have information on whatever electronics you're carrying - serial number, make & model, IMEI number if it's a phone, etc.  It is also a good idea to permanently mark your gadgets with your name if you're comfortable with doing that.

OK, OK...I knew all of this.  So what did I do wrong?  In hindsight, I violated rules 3, 5 and 6.  

  • I violated rule 3 by letting my guard down and putting my phone in my outside jacket pocket for easier access.  
  • I violated rule 5 by looking at my phone periodically to make sure I was on the right street using Google maps.  This probably made me stand out as a tourist. 
  • I violated rule 6 by talking with someone who was asking me a bunch of questions, and I foolishly engaged with him (he turned out to have a couple of nearby accomplices that I didn't notice at first and who were smooth enough that I didn't think of them til later).

Rule 3 is probably what did me in, though.  Had I kept my phone in my right front pocket (as I usually do), I don't think they'd have gotten it without me noticing.  As it was, they got my phone, which I noticed about 5 minutes later but they were long gone by then.

By the way, as soon as I got to my hotel I called AT&T and reported the phone stolen and they blacklisted it on their network and disabled my account.  I'm sure glad my phone was locked with a password and had a short auto-lock timeout!

I'm also glad it wasn't my passport or anything else essential.  That reminds me - if you carry your phone with you, make sure you have copies of all your vital information from the phone, so you can re-provision it when you're done.  For iPhones, this means backing up regularly to iCloud or your computer; for Android phones, this means ensuring you're syncing with Google regularly, or using one of the many backup apps available in the Google Play store.

What about you?  Any tips to add or pickpocket stories to share? 

Pack a sport coat, suit coat, or blazer without wrinkling

Last week, I shared some of my tips for packing without wrinkling.  I mentioned the Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Folders that I love, and stated you can use them for dress shirts, pants, and jackets.  That is true, but I stopped using them for jackets in favor of another method.

You see, I am tall, and have wide shoulders, so my jackets didn't fit inside the Pack-It folders very well.  I now use the method shown in the video below.

This method works very well and I use it all the time.  When you arrive at your hotel, simply unfold and hang the jacket in your closet, and it will look great the next morning.

This method has another advantage - if you decide you want to toss your jacket into your suitcase (to be more comfortable on the plane, for example), you simply fold it like this, open your suitcase, put the jacket inside on top of your other clothes, and carefully zip the suitcase shut.  Very simple.