Treading Lightly

Hello rock!

The Travel Bug

Travel, whether it be to a neighboring state or outside our country’s borders, is an experience that many people crave. The problem is that travel is very stressful to many people, a feeling that is exacerbated by the sudden disruption in daily life that occurs when a person is “out of their element”. Little things, like the lack of cell phone service and non-ubiquitous internet, can compound the feelings of isolation that people sometimes experience. The “struggle” of travel, that is, the difficulty of moving from place to place with ease, can be compounded when baggage feels too heavy or cumbersome, or when the physical well-being of one’s belongings becomes an issue.

There’s no easy way to squelch these feelings, but there are ways to diminish them so that they become more or less irrelevant. I had the good fortune to be away from my home for over a month recently, and was able to put my mobile lifestyle to the test of international travel. I’d like to share all of my successes and failures with you so that you can be better prepared for any potential trips you may have coming up.

Getting there

One of the hardest things that any traveler will have to deal with is transportation. The stress associated with traveling—the documents, times, schedules, and logistics involved with shuffling belongings around—can be overwhelming at times. The simple solution, for me, was simply to know myself really well, and know how I handle things like documents, money, and tickets.


Big Skinny

For those of you who are used to carrying around a fat wallet, this section will probably be pretty easy for you, since you’re used to having something juicy in your pocket. I’m used to a wallet made by “The Big Skinny”, which is super-slim and almost nonexistent. For day-to-day use, it’s ideal, but that’s in the good ol’ U.S. of A. For international travel, it just didn’t quite fit the bill…or the bills didn’t quite fit. It’s a small thing, but other world currencies tend to be more square than our long rectangles. Despite the fact that my wallet really wasn’t designed for international travel, Big Skinny makes wallets that are, and I would highly recommend them due to their light weight and ruggedness. For extra protection against electronic/RFID theft, put a single sheet of aluminum foil in the outermost pocket—it’ll protect your passport and any RFID-enabled credit or debit cards.

Some folks like to travel with those under-shirt money/passport holders, but I hate those. Nothing irks me more than something pressing up against my skin while I walk through some crowded marketplace or beautiful scenery.

Why Is This Technology?

I listed these wallets here because I believe they’re among the best wallets produced today. They’re simple, lightweight, and can store as much as a traditional leather wallet at a fraction of the weight and size. They’re washable, durable, and easily carried, which means that they’re an improvement on the wallet as most people know it. Big Skinny took the design of a wallet and updated it to accommodate a more mobile lifestyle.


Chrome Berlin

Recently, I’ve taken up biking, and have also taken a liking to stuff made by Chrome. If you’re a biker, then you know what I’m talking about. Their bags are made to withstand direct hits from nuclear weapons, and come with a lifetime warranty. They’re expensive, I’ll give you that, but they’re amazing.

Some people will stop reading at this point and say, “Traveling abroad is completely different than biking through an urban setting,” and I will agree with them wholeheartedly. If you’re like me, however, then you want options for your travel, and the Berlin has just that. This thing has more space than you’ll need, guaranteed, and is still considered carry-on for flights. It also has the benefit of being tough as nails, waterproof, and padded.

Now, this is no backpack, it’s a messenger bag, and I’m recommending this over my usual go-to hiking backpack because of its versatility. If you’re checking into a hotel or hostel, you can pull some of the unnecessary stuff out of it to leave behind in the room and carry just what you need for the day—the bag has straps to pull it into a more compact profile. If you decide to go shopping one day and need to bring home all your swag, just let the straps out and you’ve got a house on your back. Done.

Incidentally, I was actually traveling through Berlin with this bag with a group of around 30 high school students, who decided that it would be a good idea to go to a club one night. I had space to hold 27 of their jackets, raincoats, and the like while they danced, in addition to some of the standard stuff I keep in there (iPad, charging cables, journal, pencil case with band-aids and medical tape, hat, bandanas, bungee cords, Leatherman Multi-tool, blanket). So…a lot of space. They’re also damn near impossible to steal from, since they’ve got so many straps, velcro, and buckles that someone attempting to open yours while it’s on you will most certainly get your attention. before they can grab anything.

Why Is This Technology?

I list this here because this bag was designed, tested, and produced by a company that knows mobility. They take pride in their materials, their craftsmanship, and the efficacy of their products. The bag is waterproof, incorporates a load-distribution system (by way of extra straps that can be tucked away when not in use), and has “hidden” compartments for things like blankets and hoodies that you may not need all the time, but are good to have around. This isn’t just any messenger bag—it’s the evolution of the messenger bag as interpreted by people who need to get around quickly and efficiently.

Swissgear Sling Bag

If you’re one of those people who would rather not have a large bag, swing by Target and pick up a Swiss Gear Sling Bag. If it’s out of stock, grab something similar, since they can pack flat and are lightweight. These can be great as a simple day pack, since they’re maneuverable and don’t get in the way of enjoying the moment.


Vibram Fivefingers TREKSPORT

There are lots of opinions on shoes, so I’m just gonna throw mine into the ring. I haven’t discussed these shoes before because I was holding off on picking up a pair for a while. Spending a month walking around in them, however, has totally changed my mind. Trucking through Berlin, Disney World, and now Chicago was an eye-opening experience. I don’t think my other shoes will be seeing a whole lot of use now that I’ve got these bad boys.

The shoes in question are the Vibram Fivefingers TREKSPORT, and they’re amazing. I picked them up on clearance from REI, so they were cheap for me, around $80. I’d recommend looking around a little to find a pair discounted from regular retail, since these may not become your everyday shoes. Vibram has introduced several new models of the Fivefingers shoes, so look around to see what fits you best.

Berlin was a relatively damp experience for us. By “relatively damp”, I mean the whole lot of us were completely soaked for four straight days on account of rain. These shoes aren’t waterproof, so my feet were absolutely sopping wet for almost four days straight. Everyone else’s feet were, too, but since there’s just a scant few millimeters between your foot and the pavement, stepping in a puddle is one of those “instant feedback” situations, in that you’ll know right away. You won’t have to worry about cutting your feet on glass or rocks since the sole is quite tough, but you will have to worry about sloshing through street water. If your travels are going to take you through destinations with lots of water-borne diseases, you’ll have to look elsewhere for footwear. If you’re going to be moving through cities and uneven terrain, however, these shoes can handle everything.

A further plus is the fact that you can just toss these in the washing machine when you’re all done (cold water only). Just let them air dry afterwards and you’re back in business. Just remember to take a brush to the soles beforehand so you remove any clinging gunk and organic matter from the shoes so you don’t have really gross stuff floating around in your washing machine water with the rest of your clothes.

A potential downside is that these shoes attract attention. Everywhere I went with them, I’d hear people talking about them. Potential thieves will, of course, see them as well, and if you’re in a country where these shoes aren’t sold, or where the shoes are a relatively new item, you’ll be pegged as a traveling American from a mile away, so be careful.

Why Is This Technology?

I listed these shoes here because they’re designed by a company that knows shoe soles looking to move the idea of a shoe into the 21st century. They’re lightweight, durable, and healthier for your feet than normal shoes. One look at these shoes communicates forward-thinking design and a novel approach to bone and joint health.

Having Fun, Staying In Touch

Once you’ve actually gotten to where you need to go, it’s time to set up shop, so to speak. There are lots of ways to go about doing this, but I’ve found that there are some well-known gadgets that make this process a whole lot easier.


Here’s my forté. I’m gonna rip right through some of the tech I brought with me to illustrate how it was useful or not.


As I thought before I left, I really didn’t like using the iPhone overseas, mostly because the one I was using was locked to AT&T and not useful abroad. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t just pop in a foreign SIM card to make calls without first unlocking the device. Despite great advances in the simplicity and efficacy of that process, unlocking is still potentially dangerous, and most people won’t want to touch it. I didn’t, and I found my iPhone fairly useless. Sure, I could still use it like an iPod Touch when in range of a Wifi signal, but that didn’t cut it most days. I’m sure my experience would have been different if my iPhone was carrier unlocked, but purchasing an unlocked iPhone is prohibitively expensive right now. If the Apple rumors pan out, maybe Apple will introduce a carrier-agnostic handset that people can take with them anywhere in the world. Fingers crossed, right?

The one place where the iPhone performed famously was in photography. I’m no professional, but the pictures I was able to capture simply because I had my iPhone handy are nothing short of spectacular, in some cases, and the ability for the iPhone to take panoramic shots with the help of apps like Microsoft’s Photosynth give it a huge leg up over traditional point-and-shoot cameras. Other apps that produce different effects, like SlowShutter help capture more drama. Hipstamatic is really a no-brainer, but spend some time exploring the app and learning to use the various lens-film combinations, since that will really help you snap the right photo with the right mood when you need it. Hipstamatic is incredibly versatile, so don’t discount it as a fad or toy—I’ve seen and taken some beautiful shots with it.

iPad/iPad 2

An amazing piece of technology that has changed the face of the mobile landscape completely, and also incredibly versatile while traveling.

The camera on the iPad 2 isn’t the best, but is great for capturing video, so take advantage of that, but also be aware that pulling either the iPad or iPad 2 out in public makes you a target. It’s not something that you can just slip into your pocket like a regular camera or iPhone/iPod Touch, and if you use the Berlin bag that I suggested above, you can’t exactly get it into or out of the bag rapidly, either. Exercise caution if you’re going to be shooting video with it in a crowded environment. If you want to shoot video scope out places you can shoot video from that aren’t too exposed, or that have limited access points. Getting used to doing this is a valuable travel tip in general, so make it part of your day-to-day preparation.

The main reason I suggest the iPad is due to its ability to fluidly transition from country to country. Since the iPad is not SIM-locked, you can purchase a data-only SIM card online or through a local retailer to use during your travels. This makes the task of communication much, much easier, and if you use a service like Google Voice, you’ll be able to communicate with anyone in the world the same as if you had a local phone. Skype is also a possible alternative, but I find GV to be a little more versatile and easier to use. Skype, however, has the ability to send SMS messages to more countries than GV, so consider that when planning which service to load up on.

Without an internet plan, however, the iPad is still more than capable. Any Wifi Hotspot can become a gateway to the world, and with the iPad’s ability to store hundreds of songs, books, magazine articles, and the like (not to mention a handful of your favorite movies), it’s easy to see why this little device is the ideal traveling companion. When I needed information about where to go, I checked with several of the guides I had downloaded, and language was never really a problem with dictionaries pre-loaded. The Google Translate app is really great, but requires that you have an active internet connection to function, so I recommend it only if you already have some sort of cellular data connection (or easy and ubiquitous access to Wifi).

While Android-powered tablets and phones will have some of these capabilities as well, they’re not as well-integrated, in my experience. Using an Android-powered tablet without internet, for example, is incredibly difficult, and many of the apps that I was able to enjoy on my iPad (The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Wired, just to name a few) really don’t exist on Android. Purchasing and reading books from the iBooks Store is incredibly easy, and having hundreds of books in my library makes long train rides bearable.

Writing on the iPad is also a great experience, but those who need an external keyboard for longer typing sessions should probably explore their options. I found the Apple Wireless Keyboard, coupled with the Origami Workstation to be a great solution, but can gladly go without either if necessary. If you have an iPad 2, then a Smart Cover is absolutely necessary. Not only is it great for protection, but propping up the iPad for typing is a great feature. I also have a clear screen protector just to make sure the screen stays safe.

To protect the whole shebang, I have my iPad in a Targus Crave Slipcase that I also picked up at a steal for under $20. this isn’t necessary, but it adds to my peace of mind when packing my bag , since I know nothing’s going to crush my iPad.

Jawbone JAMBOX

This one was a bit unexpected, but has proven to be a total life-changer.

The JAMBOX is a portable speaker. That’s it. It’s a really good portable speaker, though, and it’s tiny, and wireless, and for those nights that have you exhausted and sitting in your room (soaked to the bone, in my case), it makes a huge difference when you can fire up some tunes that take you back home, or remind you of all the things that make life wonderful. It has an amazing battery life, and the sound quality, in my opinion, is phenomenal. It’s not a set of home theater speakers, and it’s not going to fill the streets with your beats when you need to do a quick breakdancing session to make some money, but it’ll fill the room with enough sound to get you there.

Optoma PK102/201/301

Another unexpected gem that you can pick up relatively cheaply now, depending on the model you’re interested in. I snagged then PK201 (an upgrade to the PK102) for my travels, but you may want the PK301 for the extra brightness. The PK201 and PK301 are capable of displaying the same resolution, however (720p).

I doubt you’re going to need this one on your travels, but if you’re moving from country to country with friends, sometimes it’s nice to have the ability to have an impromptu movie-watching session. The PK201 plays nicely with the iPad 2’s new HD video mirroring, and can also display HD video at really huge screen sizes. You will need a relatively dark room, however, since the PK201 isn’t exactly a spotlight. For travel, though, the PK201 does fantastically.

I used this projector primarily to display supplemental material on the wall during a three day retreat at an old German castle. There is a little bit of “wow” factor in this one, but it’s not too much to be distracting. If you’re the kind of person who likes a little bigger image to work off of, or if you need to get your content displayed for lots of people to see it, take a look at this one (or its big brother, the PK301). Also, coupled with the JAMBOX and an iOS device, the PK201 creates a nice little portable theater with decent sound and fairly good picture. It’s the little things, right?


Naturally, having the right adaptors for the job is of huge importance, and knowing the relationship between voltage and amperage can save you a costly trip to an electronics store.

One of the benefits of traveling around with an iOS device is knowing that the chargers work on 100-120 V current as well as the 200-240 V current present in many other countries. As long as you have the proper adaptor for the outlet, you won’t need to lug around an expensive transformer. Finding a free outlet, however, is another story, one that is easily solved by a device that has multiple USB slots, or one that splits the outlet. I opted for the former by using the ZaggSPARQ.

I think the ZaggSPARQ is the unsung hero of a mobile lifestyle, even more so on long overseas trips. The ZaggSPARQ, in addition to being a charger for multiple USB-powered devices, is also a portable power source all its own. It has a built-in 6,000 mAH, lithium-ion battery, which means that it can recharge your iPhone almost four times (real-world usage is probably 2-3 times), or get your iPad up to around 60% from 0% (real-world usage is closer to 55%). For anyone who’s ever been stuck without power for a while, this is HUGE. Thankfully, I was never in that situation, but the ZaggSPARQ is a powerful (haha…ha…) ally when it comes to being mobile in a foreign country. You won’t always have access to outlets, or may have to share them with people when you do, so having a way to keep your devices juiced up is pretty clutch. The downside is that, especially with all of the gadgets I’ve mentioned, this one brick won’t have enough power. You may want to get two, or try to find a power supply with a larger capacity (10,000 mAH or higher, if possible).

All the Rest

This section is for the little things that don’t really fit anywhere else. Some of these things will seem like common sense, some will be familiar to frequent travelers, and some may simply be a new take on an old standby.


The TSA bans flying with most multi-tools, mostly because they contain some sort of knife of cutting implement. There are, however, multi-tools that the TSA does allow, but the TSA folks you encounter will most likely be ignorant of their own rules and as you to discard it. That being said, if you’re checking luggage, just put it in your checked luggage bag. If you’re not checking anything, but are traveling with someone who is, ask if you can stash it in their luggage for the flight. If you’re traveling alone, try purchasing a tool under seven inches and without any sort of cutting implements or awl/icepick/punch tools. If you can’t get a multi-tool without these things, consider sacrificing a tool and just file off the offending portions.

Just remember that even if you take all these steps, the TSA folks may still stop you and toss your stuff.

Why Is This Technology?

Tools have evolved over thousands of years into the forms that we know and recognize today, but are still made of materials that are heavy and difficult to transport. By re-imagining common tools, designing and engineering them to fit into more compact forms, and producing them with more advanced metals, people have taken age-old ideas and made them more portable without sacrificing strength or durability. Having a simple set of tools available in a compact form means that a traveler can be more mobile, confident, and capable than before. This adds to safety and security, since travelers can go places that may have been previously inaccessible.


Get a cheap LED-powered flashlight from Walmart or Target and bring a couple spare batteries. Or, pick up a USB-rechargeable LED bike light (red or white). I opted for the latter, since I already had a bike light. It fits the bill perfectly for when you need a little extra light, and the rechargeable nature means that you don’t have to worry about losing batteries. If you take my advice regarding the ZaggSPARQ, you probably won’t have to worry about running out of power, either.

Why Is This Technology?

Advances in battery and illumination technology have made it possible to carry around a light source hundreds of times more reliable, efficient, and powerful than flashlights of the past. Keeping a light source on hand at all times means that you don’t have to be afraid of the dark, and can even be used as a tactical tool to momentarily blind or distract an aggressor.

Velcro Straps/Bungee Cords

A few velcro straps can help keep your stuff together, and pack so tiny that they’re essentially nonexistent. Plus, you can usually daisy chain them together since they’re velcro. Grab a few and throw them in your pack for those strange times when you need to find a way to strap three umbrellas together to shelter your group’s bags while it’s pouring outside and the line to get into the bathroom is too long.

Bungee cords fill the same purpose. My favorites are the kind used for tents, since they’re simple and have no hooks to catch on things that don’t need to be caught. Again, grab a couple, and daisy chain if necessary.

Why Is This Technology?

Rope is heavy, cumbersome, and requires knowledge of knots to fit various situations. Velcro is easy to use and requires about one second to learn to use. People used to use rope because it was the only effective way to tie things together. With the development of elastic, even a short bungee cord could become much longer and more useful, so keeping these on hand will allow you to be more adaptable to whatever situations you may encounter.


I was turned on to the idea of a Shemagh or Keffiyeh recently by a friend, and I’m now wondering why these wonderful things weren’t a part of my life before.

A shemagh or keffiyeh is incredibly simple—just a large piece of cloth—but incredibly versatile. In hot climates, they can be wet down to provide long-term cooling and heat dissipation, or can be wrapped around the head to provide shelter from the sun. They can be worn around the neck or head to provide relief from insects, and even fashioned to protect the eyes while still providing visibility in the case of blowing sand. In cold weather, the obvious use for warmth also belies the ability to use the cloth as a shield for the eyes from blowing snow similar to blowing sand. Due to their large nature, they can also be used to tie things together (if you run out of velcro or bungee cords, naturally).

Bandanas serve a similar purpose, but, due to their smaller size, are more limited in their application.

The one issue with the shemagh/keffiyeh is its cultural acceptance. While many people in the world view the shemagh/keffiyeh as an accepted part of everyday life, there are still many people who associate this simple piece of cloth with a specific ideology or mindset. If you feel that you may be treated differently or unfairly because you’re wearing one, take the obvious course of action, and simply take it off. You can also make your own out of simple, non-patterned fabric by cutting large squares (usually 40-45 inches per side) out of fabric you’ve purchased yourself.

Why Is This Technology?

The use of a simple staple of life to fit multiple situations is a technology in itself. Learning to use something to make life easier is what technology is all about.

Document Sleeves

I tend to have a difficult time keeping papers in readable condition, so I always carry a set of plastic document sleeves with me to protect any sort of paper documents I may have. These are simple, and can be purchased from any number of office supply stores. I favor the kind of sleeves that are open on two sides, which allow me to get paper in and out quickly without having to worry about closing mechanisms that can rip or tear, compromising the structure and usefulness of the sleeve.

Why Is This Technology?

Folders have been around for as long as I can remember, and probably a great deal longer than that. I hate folders, simply because they have to be opened in order to be useful, and tend to tear fairly easily when twisted or stressed. My plastic sleeves are simple, have withstood years of my abuse (although I try to keep them as safe as I can), and keep all of my important documents together so I can travel more effectively.


Everyone and their mother will have an opinion about pens, but my favorites are the Zebra Telescopic pens and Parker Jotter, mostly because they feel great and write well. The Jotter is made of stainless steel, and I’ve used it to punch holes in leather, fish out keys from drains, and also, believe it or not, write a little. I tend not to go for the super-special space pens and write-anywhere pens because I don’t ever find myself writing upside down or underwater. That being said, if having a pen that writes while wet is important to you, go with the Inka, since it’s almost indestructible, refillable, and made in the USA.

Why Is This Technology?

Writing is arguably one of the most important inventions of all time, but writing implements have largely stagnated over time since, well, there’s not much more we do there. There are companies that are innovating constantly, however, like Livescribe. While pens like the Pulse or Echo are fantastic in classroom and meeting situations, most people don’t need them while traveling. The pens I’ve mentioned are more durable and more finely crafted than your run-of-the-mill ballpoint pen, and represent an intersection between research, quality materials, and good design.

The Best For Last

Sharpen your mind. It seems strange to bring this up at the end of a long article about stuff, but your mind will always be your best tool. When you travel, you will get tired, you will get hungry, and you will experience uncomfortable levels of heat, cold, and moisture (too little or too much). You will be surrounded by people you don’t know, who don’t know you, and who may even feel threatened by you. You may travel to countries that have a disdain for Americans, or see Americans as cash pots that they can take from.

All of these reasons compound the importance of having a sharp mind at all times. I’ve found that martial arts training, meditation, and yoga are all good ways to hone your awareness and center yourself in the moment. If you’re used to a life of comfort and trust, then find your nearest big city and spend time there as practice. People with questionable morals already take advantage of those they view as targets, and, when traveling, you’ll be identified as a target from halfway across the country. Making yourself more of a target by drinking in excess, taking drugs, and making poor judgment calls are all out of the question.

Also, understand that anything classified as “bad” at home will be classified as “absolutely horrible” when you’re in a foreign country. By that, I mean things like hospitals and jails. If you go out, do something illegal, and land yourself in jail, that’s it. The folks from the American Embassy might stop by to wave hello, but that’s about all they’ll be able to do. Traveling to a foreign country is the big leagues, folks, so remember that before you start buying cheap drugs or getting shlooshed at the nearest watering hole.

Why Is This Technology?

Martial arts, yoga, and meditation have been developed and practiced for thousands of years, but animal nature has not changed very much. The lessons you can learn through self-defense classes may not be able to win you a UFC tournament, but they’ll keep your mind focused on what’s important, while sifting out what’s not. Learning how to move comfortably, carry yourself well, and quickly ascertain peoples’ motives are very important tools that people have developed over centuries. Unfortunately, you can’t buy common sense or street smarts, but you can “update your firmware”, so to speak, by learning these skills.

Just like a firmware update, however, you can’t stop halfway through. Don’t think that a week or even a few months of training are enough to get you in the right mindset. Real training takes years. If you’re going to be a committed and regular traveler, consider joining a martial arts class before you start globetrotting.


As with any article you read regarding travel, it’s important to understand that not everything I’ve experienced will fit your situation. I use my resources in ways that other people wouldn’t consider, and other people would use the very same resources differently. There are also lots of things I left out here, things like clothing, hygiene, and laundry. I think there’s plenty out there that you can find on your own, though.

When choosing your gear, make sure that you’ve got what’s right for you. It’s easy to read just about any travel article and think, “I’m gonna do the same thing!” and then run out and buy a whole bunch of new stuff. I don’t recommend buying new stuff for travel, since you’ll probably use it for a short while and then consign it to the rubbish heap. I do, however, recommend getting new stuff if you know you’ll use it after you’re done traveling, since it will both have more character, and keep you in a lightweight, low-impact mindset.

Ultimately, you’ll have to keep in mind that things won’t work the same while traveling. Your typical routine will be disrupted (sometimes significantly), and you’ll just have to adapt to it. Things that were easy to do here may take many more steps while you’re in another country, and things that were difficult in your native country may suddenly seem easy for no apparent reason. Try to strip away all your creature comforts for a few days to see how you might function without easy access to power, internet, and transportation. If you can do well without these things, then slowly add your typical host of gadgets back into your daily life to find a balance of mobility and presence in the moment.


Dodging the Bullet

It’s no secret that I’m significantly against the junk that a lot of the carriers setting up to ultimately bleed consumers dry. The mobile space evolved rapidly and, like the banking system, carriers are seeing a great opportunity to sink their teeth into some of that sweet mobile meat. They’re actively working (behind the scenes for now) to create a situation that is incredibly anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

As the Internet evolves and becomes increasingly more mobile, we will undoubtedly begin to see carriers introduce “competitive” mobile internet plans, “tiered” pricing, “premium” services and/or access to certain services, etc. We aren’t seeing that right now because most people access their internet through terrestrial (land-based) wiring. Cable modems, DSL, and fiber are still the de facto standard, but imagine what the Internet landscape will look like next year. How about three years from now? Yeah. Mobile carriers want in on that, and they’ll lie and cheat their way into that system to do so.

So how does the consumer protect him or herself against this impending battle?

My solution, thus far, has been the trifecta of Google Voice, Apple, and another unlikely hero: TracFone

I can hear you saying it right now. “Whoa whoa whoa…TracFone?” Yes, TracFone. Any other prepaid service will do just fine (Net10, StraightTalk, etc.)

To understand my thought process on this, we’re going to have to take a little trip in the Wayback Machine. Here we go.

Not so very long ago, Apple unveiled, with the release of the iPhone 4, a technology (or protocol) it calls “FaceTime.” I predicted a little while ago that Apple will be using this technology as a way to skirt the carriers and get all their iOS devices to level where they are capable of “making a call” to other iOS devices. With a huge number of people around the world using the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on a daily basis, it wouldn’t be far fetched to think that this can become a way for people to call each other and talk face to face (in case you haven’t noticed, we live in the future). I also predicted that they will be leveraging a rumored update to MobileMe that will essentially be the backbone of this new “service,” routing their FaceTime calls, allowing people to update their statuses so people know when they’re available or busy, etc. Now, the source link is outdated (I chalk that up to iPad 2 media insanity). We’re nearing the end of April and we haven’t heard so much as a peep from Apple. I still stand behind this idea, however.

People have asked me (as they always do), if I’m going to buy the next iPhone. This time, I don’t think so. I don’t think that the iPhone has the same value it did when it was first released, mostly because it comes with a pair of leg irons in the for of a service contract from either AT&T or Verizon. I wouldn’t touch either of those plans with a ten foot pole anymore. I believe that the iPod Touch is where it’s at right now. It does apps, does FaceTime, and any sort of Internet you can throw at it. It doesn’t come with a service contract, it’s thinner, lighter, and comes with higher storage capacity (not that you’ll need it with all this cloud stuff going on, but it’s good to have in case you would like to, oh, I don’t know, watch Star Wars.) If you look at my previous guide to get started with Google Voice, we can take it a step further.

Start there, contact me with any questions, and we’ll scaffold further over the course of the next week. For everyone with every possible phone need, there’s a plan that will work for a fraction of the cost you’re paying now, guaranteed.

A Mixed Bag

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe several classes at a local school that had received significant funding for a project that I had not yet had the privilege of experiencing first-hand. Every single student in the school, from top to bottom, was given a netbook. The make and model chosen for the netbooks is irrelevant to this article; it is the profound impact on the class that I wish to discuss. As I observed classes over the course of several days, I was struck by the implications this technology had for the students, the classroom, and the teachers, and how I see it evolving in the near future.

To set the stage a little bit, some background…

The school I was observing at is, in a word, privileged. The community that the school services is one with deep pockets, and the decision to equip the students with netbooks (or other similar device) was inevitable. The unfortunate reality is, however, that you cannot gradually introduce a program like this without some students in the school feeling left out, or without giving some students an unfair advantage/disadvantage (depending on which side of the fence you’re on). The only way to implement a shift like this is to simply jump in feet first. Within a few months, the school received hundreds upon hundreds of tiny portable computers, padded sleeves to carry them in, and extra SMARTboards for the classrooms. Not every single classroom is equipped with one, but most are.

Teachers had to receive training on the usage of the new technology, and students were also taught how to use some of the essential software that was installed on each netbook. Thus begins our tale.

By the time I got into the classroom to observe, the students and teachers had already spent some time using the hardware and software, and most were acclimated to the entire setup. Despite having time, training, and resources available to help troubleshoot any possible hiccups in the workflow (there tech support staff available in the school during the day), I was amazed at how much time was spent simply getting the technology to work. On some days, literally a third of the period was spent troubleshooting various problems that the students encountered while using their netbooks, getting the software to work, etc. The number of problems the students encountered was staggering. From connecting to their home’s wifi network to connecting to the school’s file servers from home, to even saving their work reliably, the students came in every single day with new issues. After spending a few minutes trying to address these issues the teacher would usually be left without a clear answer, and send the student(s) for tech support. Clearly, there is a problem here.

In addition to the students’ woes, the teachers experienced their share of grief as well. For many teachers more accustomed to teaching without screens and gadgets glowing and humming out of every corner of the classroom, the addition of SMARTboards and netbooks was an unwelcome distraction and unnecessary hurdle to overcome. That being said, they did welcome many benefits these new additions could bring, but simply felt too stretched to learn to use the hardware/software in a way that would be beneficial for their students.

In addition to the simple issues of usability are those of behavior and focus. Due to the vast difference in experience between the students and the teachers with this sort of technology, students often take advantage of the teachers’ unfamiliarity with the more obscure capabilities of the operating system. What ends up happening is a sad mix of frustration and unnecessary stagnation. The students see the technology as an “out” since they don’t see much value in what the teacher is trying to impart in them.

The whole thing could be so amazing. The synergy could be flawless, the technology integrated into the lessons. The main issue is at the system as it is remains incomplete. The only option students have is to use a system designed for the corporate world, not the classroom. In the corporate world, the network exists outside the individual, despite the individual. Workers plug in to the network with their device (computer, tablet, phone, etc.), do whatever they need to do, and leave. The “network” existed before they got there, and persists after they leave. The classroom, however, is different. All of the “networking” done in the classroom is ad-hoc, spontaneous, and fluid. The network in a classroom setting exists because of the students; it is the students and only the students, without a common ground to unite behind, the network falls apart. The technology that the students and teachers are given does not take this into account, and the entire system suffers because of it. What could be a classroom that moves at the speed of thought has become a classroom hampered by uncooperative thinking machines.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t potential. I’m sure there are companies and groups of people out there devoted to creating a complete, top-to-bottom solution for the classroom that allows the teacher to explore their subject area in ways we can only imagine right now. Until I hold that solution in my hand, however, I will continue to hope.