Saturday, March 26, 2011

Top 10 Tips For Visiting Angkor

Top 10 Tips For Visiting Angkor | The Expeditioner Online Travel Magazine, by Simon Mikolayczyk (that's me!)

Click through for the full article - let me know what you think...

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Decision Time... iPad 2 or Android?

Shortly before the holidays last year, the urge to get an iPad was swelling up inside me. I was seeing them everywhere, and was starting to cave to the social pressure of the coolness factor. Just as I was getting ready to pull the trigger, I heard the first whispers that version two would be capable of video chat. For me, living away from friends and family, this was a key feature and one I was willing to wait for - especially as the new version was expected to launch in the first quarter of 2011.

Since then, a number of things have happened - Android tablets have started hitting the market, the iPad 2 was indeed announced, and people have offered some good insights into life with an iPad. Taking these in reverse order:

Dan Frommer shared what 300 days with his iPad have been like. My take away from this is really that the device will not replace a laptop, but that for certain things it is enjoyable to use. Browsing is convenient, checking email works alright, gaming is a plus, movies/tv watching on the go can be good. But this is not the hyper productive work computer of the future, it is a fun toy that might be more convenient in certain circumstances.

The iPad 2 was announced yesterday, and reviews are pouring in. From the sounds of it, people are quite excited about the case... and everything else is a marginal improvement. While they have in fact added the video chat feature, and Steve Jobs says this is computing for the post-PC era, it does not sound like Frommer's experience of usage scenarios will be altered by the new version.

The Motorola Xoom (wifi only) model is set to release here in the UK a week after the iPad 2, and is priced to match the pricing of a similarly speced iPad. It offers the same feature set and positive reviews, but as Robert Scoble points out with a much more limited selection of apps, which is possibly a strong negative. On this point I'm forced to think about how Frommer is using his iPad after a year - he certainly mentions a few apps (Netflix, MLB, Twitter, etc) but says his focus is on browsing and email. With the assumption that Android will be the number 2 platform, if not number 1, in the long term these major apps are likely to become available. In the short term, does it really matter if they are there considering a tablet is mainly used for non-app tasks?

In fact, it's worth going a step further. I am a "Google User," meaning I use gmail, docs, calendar, reader - unsurprisingly these are indicatively better on the Android tablet. Further, most of my friends are gmail users meaning they are on gchat - text, plus many on video - and therefor I'm more likely to be talking to them through that - which they already have installed - than I am to be through Apple's Facetime - which I would have to convince them to not only install, but buy.

With all that being said, I still have yet to hold either - perhaps there is some truly tangible reason to pick the iPad 2 (it weighs a bit less, and is built more solid?). However, by deduction based on how I envision using a tablet, the Xoom (or an equivalent Android tablet) seem to be the way to go.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

(Kindle) Lending Club

As is apparent from my last few posts on the Kindle, I've become a huge fan of it. In the last couple months, Amazon has enabled you to "lend" certain Kindle books to others via the website - much like how you can lend a paper back to a friend - meaning you can possibly avoid purchasing another book. This is especially nice, as the pricing decision has moved to publishers there are now instances where the Kindle version of a book is more expensive than the hardcover (don't ask me why).

Alas, to effectively lend/borrow books, you need to know someone who has the book on kindle and then swap. I've been trying to work my way through Verne's reading list, but know very few other people who both have a Kindle and an interest in these books. Enter the (Kindle) Lending Club.

Shortly after Amazon announced the feature, a facebook group was started to match people who have books, with those who want to read them. This quickly evolved into a more structured website called the (Kindle) Book Lending Club - Amazon has subsequently made them drop "Kindle" from their name for trade mark purposes. A quick signup, and you can add a list of books you are willing to lend, as well as a list you'd like to borrow. I did this a few weeks ago, and then started waiting... To be frank, I was ready to write the site off as I hadn't had anything shared with me, nor requested from me until this past Tuesday when a book showed up in my inbox. A few clicks, and it's delivered via wireless to the Kindle and I'm off and reading a new book.

Hopefully, The Book Lending Club will continue to attract more users. Only once true mass is achieved will that frustrating wait fall away. Additionally, Amazon leaves the decision of whether to enable lending on a book up to the publisher, at the moment there are quite a few books that you can't lend. Lastly, there's a 14 day limit on a lend, meaning that you need to finish reading in that time, or you'll never knows what happens. On that note I better get back to the book...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Artisan Products: Success Lessons for Businesses

I started the week reading The Atlantic piece on the new effort from the team that made Absolute and international brand: Karlsson's Gold. A unique "traditional" vodka they can only produce in limited quantities. Mid week I stumbled upon a review of Etsy, an arts and crafts marketplace that had drifted off my radar and was reminded of some amazing offers on hand made products. Somewhere along the line I was sent a write-up of Jack White's Third Man in Nashville - a music venue that produces music for the love of it on limited edition vinyl. Lastly, I ended up in the Camden Coffee Shop yesterday afternoon, where an elderly man roasts, grinds, and sells fantastic coffees.


In all cases, these individuals are producing what amount to artisan products - small batches of manually intensive products with a small but deep market segment they are appealing to. In all cases, they seem to be finding success of some measure (I don't have figures to support that, but anecdotally it seems the case - we passed three Starbucks before reaching the Camden Coffee Shop down a side street and still had to wait to be served). 

In a world increasingly overrun by commodities, these unique products offer the chance for individual experiences. Rather than being confronted with a "yea, I have that too" people are provided the chance to try something unique - something special. While that might be true of any limited release product, artisan products apear to take it a step further - they are the best at what they set out to be. That is ultimately the point of differentiation: being the best, and doing something because it's the way it should be done (even if it costs a buck more) will in turn garner the support of consumers who appreciate quality and who are keen for that one of a kind experience.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Book Review: Epitaph for a Spy

Epitaph for a Spy
Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler is credited as one of the first true spy novels. In it he details the fumbling adventures of a teacher caught in a drama of circumstance, which leads to him being accused as a spy. While I felt like I was reading the 1930's equivalent of a Dan Brown novel - quick page turns and a go-go plot - the actual quality of the writing was far superior. No detail was superfluous, and no bit of the story was left unresolved. This provides a sense of satisfaction, as it signifies a level of sophistication that makes it alright to be reading a spy novel, which is often considered literary drivel.

All that being said, in the note at the end, Ambler states of his book "I still like bits of it." So maybe don't take the above as a true literary judgement, but rather a justification for enjoying a fun story. I look forward to picking up some of his other books in due course.

Friday, February 04, 2011

2011, Where in the world to go?

After picking up a couple travel books lately, and also appreciating the proximity of Europe through our Athens trip in December, it seems the travel bug has got me once again. While in Asia, I managed to visit ~15 countries in a year. Since being in London, that number has shrunk significantly. So it's time to get back out there, and in the spirit of all the other "things to do in 2011 lists" here are the hopeful destinations for the year ahead:

(con't)

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Speaker Notes: Verne Harnish, The Growth Guy

I attended a lecture by Verne Harnish the other night. He's an interesting guy, who has spent his career surrounded by founders and growing businesses. From his insights and research, he's come up with some lessons to help foster growth in startups. I won't regurgitate them at length here, as his blog has most of it, but I did want to share a few of his points - and more importantly the reading list I walked out of the room with.

He shared with us "5 routines to help set you free." The idea being that by getting in these habits, you wont spend as much time firefighting, and have more time to focus on what matters:

  1. Get a mentor
  2. Get a partner (or 2!)
  3. Have a partner breakfast once a week to talk about the big issues
  4. Have a 15min partner meeting every day to focus on what you've learned
  5. Talk to one customer every day (or at least every week)
These steps will help you identify changes in the market place sooner, and react to them quick. In turn, you'll be positioned to out perform, and out grow your competition.

He reached these conclusion from a combination of personal experience, and also ties a fair amount of it to literature:

(If you have any of these on Kindle and can part with them for 14 days, I'd love to "borrow" them)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The next wave in location? "Don't Eat At ____"

I just saw this "extension" for Foursquare called "Don't Eat At___." If you are in New York, it will send you a notification if the restaurant you just checked in to has scored poorly on Health Inspections, hopefully before you order your meal.

I have toyed with Foursquare now and again, but ultimately don't use it because it seems mainly an exercise in vanity. I don't feel compelled to tell everyone where I am, and frankly I'm rarely in very cool places. Most of the people I know also don't use it, and if I want to catch up with someone, I'm much more likely to pickup the phone than track them down online and appear in front of them.

Last year I remember reading a bit on passive location awareness, and how potentially this could help with things like ATM security - the thought being your phone is usually with you, and if it's not near the ATM that is requesting money from your account there's probably something funny going on. Great in theory, but persistant location sharing is still a privacy concern for many. This seems to be an early example of what the benefits of location could be. I'm no longer checking in for vanity, but rather getting utility out of the check-in. I'd love to see more services embrace this mentality, and could see it working for a great range of situations.

Sadly, I'm not in NYC at the moment and can't try it out. I'd enjoy hearing anyone's first hand experience.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Successfully Ported Number to Google Voice

Last week Google let me port my cell phone number to Voice. $20 and 24 hours later, my phone number moved from its home of nearly 11 years to a new home on the web. The advantage is that I am now not tied to any one mobile provider - if I decide to switch providers, I just hop online and redirect Voice to a new phone number, without having to tell anyone that I've made a change all my calls and texts still find their way to me. Additionally, my voicemail gets transcribed and emailed to me, and my calls ring through to my computer, meaning I have a no roaming number while in London.

The move was fairly painless. It took almost exactly 24 hours from the first email notifying me that the process has started until the the second email came informing me that everything was done. As I'm in the UK and don't get many text messages on the number I'm not sure whether there was actually a 3 day outage on that front.

I tried calling the number from Skype, and got a scare: "The number you have dialed can't be reached." Did I just loose my number? Why isn't it working?!! I picked up my cell and tried from that, sure enough G-Chat started ringing. After playing around with it for a few more minutes, it seems that the caller ID broadcast from Skype was preventing the call from going through - so if you're using Skype, make sure you have a different number on the caller ID than the one you are calling on Google Voice.

Now I'm without a mobile phone in the US. I've called T-Mobile and asked to add a line back to my account. In fact, they appear to be able to move my old Google Voice number to the mobile contract (yes, porting does appear to work both ways). So for those people that do have that number, they should still be able to get through to me.

I'm happy with the decision to port my number. I would caution that it is hard to get support - there is no one you can call when something doesn't work, and some people claim to have problems with the forwarding. That being said the advantages are there, especially if you're not in the US and want to have a working US based number abroad.

Dinner For One: a Drunk Butler & a New Year's Tradition

We spent New Years in Germany - and per tradition enjoyed Dinner For One. I remember watching this every year that I've been in Germany for New Years - I'm always amazed at how drunk he manages to get in about 10 min. Maybe next year I'll get that bear rug for Christmas...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Kindle Reading (part 2) / the Lack of Progress in Information Sharing

I continue to enjoy reading on the Kindle tremendously. Without sitting with a stop watch, I'd estimate it's easily in use for 1 - 2 hours a day and has made reading long form articles enjoyable again. This ties, in my mind, to the fact that there are no distractions - no outbound links to click, no flashing text to follow, and no chance to sneak a peak at the inbox to see what might have come in. The depth of long form articles is also the best way to learn - 120 characters, or even 200 words cannot communicate the subtleties of what's going on in the EU, or how life in Haiti has progressed over the last year - and therefore I would consider this a positive development.

What I begin to wonder about though is the realization that the internet is hyped as multi-media, and that this type of content is meant to become interactive online. Since picking up the Kindle nearly 2 weeks ago, I have only had two instances where I feel that I'm missing out on content due to its text bound limits. There have been a few stunning video clips that I've wanted to watch - Obama's speech in Arizona, or this video on NYC Underground - but clearly the black and white slow refreshing kindle can't oblige me there. I also just came across a NYT's interactive piece with pictures and audio interviews. Again, same problem.

In the grand scheme of things, I merely hit the Boxee "watch later" button and when I'm next on my TV enjoy the videos there, or click through the interactive feature on my laptop. What I am startled at, however, is that I've only encountered this issue three times in two weeks - has news / information distribution really only become digital text? It would seem that the wonders of the internet still haven't filtered through to establishments of the old media world. But, looking at a news source that is new media - huffington post for example - reveals much the same. Can this therefore lead to the conclusion that we, as consumers of news / information, simply have a preference that content is delivered via text? Again, the rise of cable news channels disputes this. While I'm not sure of the cause, I do find it remarkable that there has been no real innovation in this area, but rather only small tweaks to where the revenues come from, or how the news is gathered. I am curious to see if some of the tablet "magazines" manage to push the ball forward, or if this will remain an area ready for change.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Athens in the Snow

Athens - known to be the home of the ancient Greeks, center of philosophy, and a warm city in the sun on the Mediterranean - the perfect escape from the 4pm sunsets of December London. A quick 3 hour flight out on a Friday night would put us in the sun, and give us a chance to enjoy the stunning Acropolis, and other noteworthy sites like ancient Agora. Unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed when the pilot came on to warn of a bumpy landing due to the snow storm in Greece.

(con't)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

del.icio.us, kindle, instapaper - my news reading habits

It was recently announced that yahoo is shutting down / selling del.icio.us. I had been a long time user, and as any of you who subscribed to my RSS feed will know, used the service mainly to share articles I found interesting - sort of a what I'm reading list. With the uncertainty around del.icio.us' future, like many others, I've decided to find a replacement.

As I never really used it as a bookmarking service, but rather an article sharing method, I've decided on Instapaper as my replacement. Instapaper offers a "Read Later" bookmarklet - whenever you find an interesting article, a quick click and it's added to your queue of things to read. This queue can also be shared (as I've done on the right of my blog) so that others can see what you're reading.

The main premise around Instapaper is that it allows you to save lengthier articles for later - when you actually have time to sit down and read them. This is great, as I'm frequently emailed links, and don't always have a chance to read them then and there. Additionally, they offer the ability to send the articles to a Kindle - taking them to a screen which is much more eye-friendly; something I've come to appreciate dearly since spending more and more time in front of a computer.

As many of you will be aware, Amazon charges a data transfer fee if you use their "@kindle.com" email address to send things to the device. If you have a mac, there's a neat workaround in the form of an automator script. This little hack detects whenever you plug in your kindle and automagically downloads whatever articles are in your Instapaper queue for easy reading in "newspaper" form on the Kindle.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book Review: Lost on Planet China

Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation
Lost on Planet China is my favorite kind of travel book - written in a light spirited fashion, Maarten Troost explores what current day China is like. In the first few chapters, as he explores Beijing, I was repeatedly reminded of my own trip there - the combination of an over sized city (compared to what seems normal after New York or London), the smog, and the millions of people all trying to find their fortune creates a surreal environment. He goes on to travel throughout China, including a trip into Tibet, and does a fantastic job capturing the energy that is currently flowing through the country. 

For anyone considering a trip to China, I would strongly recommend this as an additional travel book. And for anyone not considering a trip, I can only say that China is where it's going on and you really need to experience it first hand. 

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Running 2011

I've been running more regularly since about mid-year last year, and am hoping to step it up in the new year. In the hope of reaching my goals, I'm trying two different tech toys to help me track my workouts:

RunKeeper Pro: running on my phone it tracks my route via GPS. It provides a lot of speed / elevation / distance statistics, which are interesting to see. Also, while I'm running the program announces my progress - time / pace / distance, which is great as it provides a way to gauge whether I'm slowing or speeding up (I should add I have ear buds in for music already, so this isn't a lot of extra effort).


Garmin FR60: A birthday present that I've only recently started getting comfortable with, the FR60 combines a heart rate monitor and a cadence tracker. The heart rate monitor should help me with pacing by ensuring that I'm in the best performance zone. Unfortunately, out of the runs I've taken it on, it's only worked all the way through the run once - as such I'm therefore not sure how good it will be. The cadence tracker is interesting as it shows whether my stride is shortening as I run; this would indicate more effort to achieve the same distance.

Unfortunately, it's not currently possible to combine the two sets of data. But switching between them gives a pretty good indication of my overall performance on the run. From yesterday's run, I can see that my pace and cadence were fairly constant, with my HR increasing throughout. At the end of the run I wanted to see how quickly my HR would come down, and then go back up - hence the dip.

I'm looking forward to increasing the data amount over time. Hopefully, I'll be able to see progress in the course of the months to come, and use this as a form of motivation.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time
I recently finished Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson's story of the struggle to build a series of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After failing to summit K2, he finds himself lost in the middle of Pakistan. He stumbles into a small village where he is nursed back to health, and in exchange promises to build the villagers a school. The story of his struggle - nights working in San Francisco's ERs and days spent sleeping in hallways and the back seats of cars - to raise the funding for the school, and the experience of building the first school are moving. More remarkable, however, is the insight into a culture very foreign from our own - one where education is not readily available, and customs dictate how many interactions play out.