Sometimes My Office Goes with Me
A year or so ago, I wrote a short article titled "Network Go Bag". During the past year, I've gotten lots of email about that bag and actually quite a few questions about working while traveling in general. Lately I've been traveling again, so I thought I'd put together the "How I Do It" information into a single article. I often write about what I use, so you've probably already heard of some of these things, but nonetheless, here it goes.
Usually, if I'm staying at a hotel while traveling, there will be some sort of desk in the room that I can take over as a temporary workstation. The room I'm in this week doesn't actually have a desk, so I had to run to the local department store and buy a table. Figure 1 shows the table I bought. It was $29, and I have no idea how I'm going to fit it into the car to bring home. You can't see the chair in the photo, but it's a folding chair I "borrowed" from a conference room. Metal folding chairs hurt your rear end after a while, so for a cushion, I'm sitting on a bag of dirty clothes. Yes, I travel in style, and I'm super classy.
Figure 1. Yep, that's a party-size bag of saltwater taffy—and about 50 empty wrappers.
The other side of the room has a little nightstand (Figure 2), which was oddly placed nowhere near the bed. That's okay, because I used the table to set up a coffee station. The room also didn't have a coffee pot, so I picked up this single-serve Keurig-compatible coffee pot for $29. It's terrible. Seriously, if I reviewed coffee pots for a living, this would be my example of the worst coffee pot I've ever used. Still, I can't work in a room without coffee, so for the week, I'll just suffer. But I'm leaving this pot here; I don't want it at home. (And yes, I don't eat terribly healthy on the road. Ramen is about it. You can cook only so many things with a subpar, single-serve coffee pot.)
Figure 2. Coffee and ramen—the fancy creamers are for my wife.
Basically, I carry a router, a Wi-Fi extender, network cabling and extension cords. I've been in a situation where I tied my Wi-Fi extender inside a grocery bag with a lithium-ion battery and happily had Wi-Fi access in a cabin outside of range. I was my own superhero.
Once the gasping stops (yes, that's an 11" MacBook Air laptop shown in Figure 1). It's the best laptop I've ever owned, and I'm willing to take the shame for using an Apple product. First, it has the nicest keyboard I've ever used on a laptop. (I can't say the same for the newer MacBook 12" keyboard.) It's tiny, has 8GB of RAM, an i7 processor and a big 512GB SSD. I can run VMware Fusion and host Ubuntu MATE 16.04, and it runs better than it does natively on any other laptop I've owned. Plus, I'd be lying if I said I didn't use MacOS as well. Sometimes when I'm presenting, the only "projector" access is an AppleTV using AirPlay. With the MacOS running, I can share my screen and do all my demos inside VMware. Plus, the aluminum chassis is so thin, I probably could sword fight ninjas with it, should the need ever arise.
Apart from the laptop, I sometimes have to print handouts (I do this week), so I have a USB laser printer I tote along (also shown in Figure 1). I know there are truly portable printers, but since I almost always drive, something a little bigger isn't a problem, and it's a whole lot cheaper. This model is a Brother HL-L2320D, and it prints fairly fast. It also has a duplexer, so really, for less than $100, I'm not complaining.
For mobile data when Wi-Fi isn't available, I used to carry a MiFi device everywhere I went. It was awesome. Since at that time I worked for a school, I could literally get unlimited 4G data, and it cost the school $35/month. That unlimited deal was available only for schools, and thanks to people like me, it's probably not available even for schools anymore. Nowadays, I just tether to one of my phones. I always carry two. My day job provides an iPhone 6s on the Verizon network, and I have a personal Moto-E using Cricket Wireless (Figure 3). Since I have both AT&T and Verizon networks at my disposal, I almost always have connectivity. If I do much more traveling, I'll invest in one of those "Karma Go" devices, so I have access to the Sprint network in a pinch. So far, I haven't needed it, but if I ever decide to do an extended road trip, I'll probably have to do that.
Figure 3. I've honestly never spoken on this phone. I don't even know if the phone part works!
The only other things I carry with me, hardware-wise, are power-related. I have a 12v inverter for the car that gives me 120v AC on the go. I also have a big 24,000mah lithium ion battery (I got it from woot.com on special) charged up and ready for dying devices. My Anker five-port USB charger (Figure 4) is still the charger I use for mobile devices, and with that combination, I've never run short on juice. I kind of want to get a portable solar panel so I can top off my batteries during sunny days, but I don't really need that. I just want it!
Figure 4. I reviewed this back in the September 2014 issue. It's the Anker 40w five-port charger, and it's awesome.
I've talked about software before, but things change from time to time, so my most current batch of "must-have" software includes the following:
BittorrentSync: this works amazingly well. I have it installed on all of my computers and laptops, and also on my big file server at home. My goal is to move all my documents to BittorrentSync.
Dropbox: I'm still a little chicken, and I haven't moved all my documents over to BittorrentSync. There's really no reason I haven't, except for the occasional time I need to share a file with a public link. BittorrentSync doesn't do that yet (I don't think it does anyway), and I've used Dropbox for so long, it's hard to switch. Plus, I have approximately 24GB of free Dropbox storage that I earned with a slightly shady Google Adwords campaign, so I feel like I should take advantage of my ill-gotten gain.
Bean: yes, Bean the OS X text editor. I use Bean to write articles for two main reasons. First, it has a running word count on the bottom of the window, so I know exactly how much I've blabbered. I can't find any decent text editor that does the same on Linux. All the ones I've tried get annoying after a little while. Second, when I try to do work on Linux, I get distracted. For some reason, two sentences into an article I find myself SSH'd into multiple servers, playing with Docker containers. When I'm using the native MacOS, I tend to get more actual work done.
Crashplan: because backups aren't just important, they're vital. Did you notice that in last month's issue there wasn't an Open-Source Classroom column? That's because I had a system crash, and my work hadn't been backed up yet. The world might never know the mysteries of running a syslog server, because I don't think I have the strength to write my article over again.
Final Cut Pro: I know, I know, you're losing faith in my Linux passion. Here's the deal, Kris Occhipinti—I've mentioned him often through the years, as he's a fellow reader and friend (Figure 5)—somehow gets his Linux video editing software to work amazingly well. Either I expect too much out of an editing package, or he is a much better technologist than I am. Since all I need from an editor is to overlay some text for the intro video every month, I suspect he's just better than I am. Nonetheless, for now, I use Final Cut Pro because it works.
TeamViewer (free version): this works on Linux, Mac and Windows, and it works amazingly well through NAT services. I know there recently was a data breach where all the logins and passwords were stolen, but as long as you don't leave it set for unattended access, it's a perfect way to help family members while you're away. In fact, my home router stopped forwarding SSH traffic, and I was able to use TeamViewer to log in to my office computer with the help of my daughter and fix the router remotely.
Evernote/Simplenote: I use Evernote for storing pretty much everything. The more I store, the more useful it is. I just discovered Simplenote, however, and for text, I might switch over. Based on my "switch" from Dropbox though, I'm not holding my breath, but I really do love the simplicity of Simplenote. Plus, it's open source now, and that does matter to me.
Figure 5. He's even better looking than me. You can find his videos here.
It will likely come as no surprise that going out "partying" isn't really my cup of tea. A nice cup of tea is more my cup of tea. So when I'm traveling, I tend to bring along my own entertainment. I have a bunch of different options, because I tend to be fickle.
Books: I usually take an actual dead-tree book or two with me whenever I go somewhere. I'm currently reading How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by John Muir because I recently bought a 1975 Volkswagen Beetle. It turns out I'm not much of a mechanic, so I'm reading a book about it—you know, like any nerd does. Can you learn to maintain a car by reading a book? I'll find out soon (Figure 6).
Kindle Paperwhite: I know there's a new model of the Kindle available, but my Kindle Paperwhite works fine for me. I don't actually read as much as I'd like on it, but I keep forcing myself to use it, because I know it's the way of the future. I usually keep a ton of sci-fi and fantasy books on it, which I've stored, converted and uploaded via Calibre. I also keep my entire Calibre library on my laptop, so I always can add more books from my collection if I don't want to buy one from the Kindle store.
Listen: most of my "reading" is done via audiobook. I love Audible, but I hate its app. Listen is hands-down the nicest, most incredible audiobook player I've ever used. It's an Android-only app and worth every penny. (I think it was $3.) I use FolderSync on Android to keep my audiobook folder up to date, and I just copy the audiobooks I want into a sync folder on my home server. Every night it does an SSH/rsync copy of books to my phone. Oh, and I use an LG HBS-730 Bluetooth headset for listening to the books. I imagine I could talk on the phone with the headset too, but I've never talked on that phone because who actually "talks" on phones anymore? (Okay, it's because my day-job phone has the number everyone calls.) Anyway, the combination of Listen, FolderSync and those LG headphones supplies about 90% of the entertainment on any given trip for me.
Plex: I seem to write about Plex every other issue. I'd apologize, but oh my goodness is Plex awesome. Now it even syncs photos from my family's phones, so we can all see each other's uploaded pictures if we want, even on the big screen. Nevertheless, Plex is perfect for remote entertainment, but beware of using cellular data to watch movies, because it eats up data quickly.
Fox Sports Go: what? Sports? Yeah, I know. I'm going to have to turn in my nerd card. First I use a Mac, and now I watch sports? It's really only one sport—baseball. I'm not sure if it's because of all the statistics, or because I can watch a baseball game while doing something else and not miss anything. I really love watching baseball, and the Fox Sports Go app might suck, but it lets me stream baseball games, even when I'm in the "blackout" areas.
MLB App: sometimes I don't have the bandwidth to stream the video of a baseball game, so I use the MLB app to listen. Seriously, I have no idea why I like baseball so much, but I do. Go Tigers!
Figure 6. Only I could make auto mechanics nerdy.
That and Pants!
Apart from regular mundane things like dad shorts (cargo shorts—I'm pretty sure dads everywhere have agreed to wear nothing else) and flip-flops, that's about all I take while I'm traveling. I do usually take a backup laptop in case something goes wrong and, of course, a pair of emergency pants. If you've ever presented to 1,000 people with coffee-stained pants, you know exactly what I mean.
One of these years I'd like to take an extended road trip with my wife and work from the road while we travel. I'm sure my go-bag will change significantly during that trip. All I need to do is buy that 1970s Volkswagen Westfalia camper (Figure 7) and convince my wife it'll be the trip of a lifetime! If you have any special travel oddities or tips, I'd love to hear about them. And heck, if you have a 1970s Westfalia camper, I'd love to hear about that too! Drop me an email at [email protected]
Figure 7. Someday you'll be mine.