Saturday, December 26, 2009

Random Thoughts on Travel Tech




Portable flash drives, or "thumb drives", are well-established as a convenient way to carry around important data. I bought a couple of these "TAC Drive" thingies from TAD Gear (www.tadgear.com) and have been wearing one on its dog tag chain. The TAC Drive is billed by the manufacturer as a "rugged USB flash drive" and claims to be able to withstand saltwater immersion to 100 feet for 60 minutes, temperature extremes, and some shock/impact drop tests. The TAD version has that company's signature skull logo. I have a lot to say about TAD Gear, but for now I'll just state for those unfamiliar with the company that I think TAD is a great outfitter for what I will term "paramilitary global nomad chic".

TAC Drive is intended for use as a personal medical records system---in that regard, it would benefit from "positive externality network effect" economics (i.e., the more people that carry their health information on portable USB drives, the more valuable the approach becomes as the health care system becomes configured to take full advantage of the technology).

I use mine a bit differently. I downloaded a freeware product called "Portable Apps" (www.portableapps.com) to my TAC Drives. This application allows you to plug your thumb drive into a USB port on a host computer and then do some basic Internet work through the thumb drive, rather than directly through an application on the host computer. The idea here is that you are overseas at an Internet cafe or hotel business center computer or equivalent, wish to check your e-mails or surf for info, but do not trust the security of the computer you are working on. With an application like Portable Apps, you would do everything through the thumb drive and thus reduce your exposure to issues like identity theft. Portable Apps also gives you some relatively easy to use encryption capability for the information you store on your drive. Installed in a TAC Drive, it is a bit like wearing a small, rugged, external hard drive around your neck. In case this is important to some readers, I will note that I have worn a TAC Drive USB dog tag through airport metal detectors and it cleared them with no problem (your mileage may vary).

To be honest, I feel that my first line of defense against travel infosec problems is to just bring a netbook. I found that a normal laptop was just too much for me to lug around on field/expeditionary travel related trips, but I found myself at a bar with Junichi Ujiie, the chairman of Nomura, while attending a conference in Tokyo in October and became interested in the little Sony VAIO W netbook he carried in his briefcase. I picked one up a month or two ago and found that it is about the perfect size for what I need---the screen and keyboard are still quite user-friendly, but the overall footprint is about half the size of a traditional laptop. You do give up some features (for example, no DVD drive), but it may be worth it depending on the nature of your trip. Loaded with appropriate apps (Skype, Google Earth, Nikon Transfer and ViewNX, etc.), it's an agile, elegant solution.

As a reviewer for National Geographic Adventure recently put it: "...a lightweight, no-frills machine with a screen that is bigger than a smartphone's is a godsend. If you really crave computing power, limited memory is offset by free online storage devices...if I were planning an extended trip---a month of trekking, say---I'd pack a netbook, rely on Wi-Fi, and avoid Internet cafes altogether."



(...took this picture of the grounds of the Imperial Palace just hours before discovering the joys of the VAIO W netbook and shot glasses of ice-cold sake)

I also recently ordered a VAIO UX after seeing Christian Bale/John Connor using one in "Terminator: Salvation." It looks pretty cool, although I suspect I will use the W a lot more.

Another gadget that I just picked up is a Cinemin Swivel (www.wowwee.com/en/products/tech/projection/cinemin/swivel), a palm-sized DLP projector system for iPod or laptop. I have only watched a couple of downloaded music videos with it; the clarity is not the greatest unless you have a pitch-black room. You can project movies onto the side of a tent and do some other interesting things with the playful little device. I put it in a Maxpedition FR-1 pouch along with a couple of iPods, headphones, an external battery juicer, and stuff like that. I'll show my whole travel bag set-up in a future blog entry and explain what I like to carry and why (noting that this is a highly subjective area, of course).

(VAIO W netbook and Cinemin iPod projector shown with standard hardback book for scale)

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