Reviews

Plantronics Voyager 5200 by Erin Wade

Plantronics Voyager 5200

Okay - I realize that the days of anyone looking cool wearing a Bluetooth earpiece, if indeed they ever existed, are long since past. However, there are some types of work activities that truly do benefit from the use of these devices, regardless of whether they make you look douchey.

I’ve had my struggles finding good, uncompromising solutions in this area. As I’ve discussed here before, the market for high-end Bluetooth earpieces seems to be be dwindling, replaced largely by lower end items that either price the market down enough to drive out high end players, or work adequately for listening, but aren’t necessarily well set up for conversation.

For a while I’d decided to get by with my Jumbl Bluetooth receiver. This device has the benefits of working with any set of wired headphones, which lets me put the conversation in both ears - a bonus around background noise - and being inexpensive.

When my first Jumbl failed, I went looking again and came across an earpiece by Honshoop (nope - I’d never heard of them before either) that promised noise cancellation and a bevy of other features for about $30. While that seems too good to be true, the price of entry was worth the risk, so I took the leap. I wrote up a brief review of it... sort of. The thing is that, a couple of weeks into owning it, it disappeared from Amazon. There were other models under the Honshoop name, but not the one I’d purchased. This is not confidence inspiring, but given that I already had mine and it was working well, I moved on.

And the Honshoop worked great until I lost it. It just disappeared one day - I’m sure I must have dropped it out of my backpack - never to be seen again. And so the search began anew.

The remaining standout in the high-end market - aside from Apple AirPods, which I’m sad to say don’t fit in my ears - appears to be Plantronics. Unfortunately, back then when I tried to purchase one through Amazon I had to pay for shipping, and attempting to purchase thru the website got me nothing but an error page. I decided to look again and I was delighted to find I could now order a Voyager 5200 thru Amazon with Prime shipping.

With about a month of experience I have to say that this is what I’ve been missing from the dearth of high-end devices. Sound quality is very good, and I’ve actually had a colleague who thought I was in my office rather than in the car during a call. There is a video on Amazon that demonstrates the efficacy of the noise cancellation and, after experience, I believe it. The 5200 has a comfortable, over the ear design (similar to the Honshoop, which I assume copied from Plantronics). It’s lightweight and feels good even after having been on the ear for an extended period of time. It has multiple buttons with clear purposes, allowing for the activation of audio, such as podcasts, or for Siri, without any confusion between the two.

A separate button provides for on-device muting, which is an absolute bonus feature for taking calls on the go. This feature means you just have to tap the earpiece button to mute the microphone instead of reaching for the phone. An additional component of this feature is that the device detects if you start to speak with mute engaged and tells you that mute is on. This is a great idea, since you don’t have a visual indicator for it, and it promises to prevent unheard soliloquys that otherwise occur. However, in practice I’ve found the reliability of that feature to be mixed at best.

Battery life is good, lasting through long days with multiple calls so far. Putting it on towards the end of the day and hearing that it still has five hours of talk time available inspires confidence in the device. Plantronics does offer a case for it that has a battery pack in it for charging, similar in concept to the AirPods case. This is an extra cost item that looks well put together, but so far I haven’t run out of battery between charges. If I were traveling in a situation without easy access to other charging sources it might be worth considering.

Plantronics Hub App

An additional feature for the Plantronics Voyager 5200 is the Plantronics Hub iOS app that can be downloaded for it. The app offers some basic information, including an indication as to whether the device is connected, a readout of whether it is on the ear or not, and the amount of available talk time. Included here are also two components that function as a replacement for the paper owners manual. Buttons and Lights shows you what the different components on the earpiece do, while How do I provides the step-by-step instructions for things like pairing, answering, muting, and launching Siri (or your personal digital assistant of choice).

The app also offers the ability to change multiple settings on the earpiece, including things like ring volume, whether you want to use voice commands to answer or ignore a call, and the settings for the aforementioned mute features. Anyone who has ever had to follow the arcane multiple button-press dance that it used to take to set up these kind of features on a Bluetooth earpiece will appreciate the app for this reason.

And let me give a special mention of appreciation to the answer or ignore voice feature. In this day and age even cell phones routinely get spam calls. I don’t know anyone in Coral Springs, FL or Cumberland, MD, so I’m certainly not going to answer a call from them. However, the ringing of the phone takes over the whole device, so any such call that comes in interrupts the music or podcast that is playing until one dismisses the call. Typically that means reaching up to the screen and tapping "decline", which is not ideal in the car. With this feature you can simply say "ignore" and the bot on the other end simply disappears.

And given the disappearing act performed by my Honshoop earpiece, I also appreciate the fact that the app has a "find my headset" feature which, like Find My iPhone, makes your missing earpiece put out an audio tone to help you locate it. You’d still have to have a rough idea of where you lost it, but at least it’s a start.

It should also be noted that the app works with multiple Plantronics models, so if a different version trips your fancy, the app may be available for that as well.

The two niggles I have with the device thus far center around the location of the volume buttons and the "earbuds" it comes with.

For some reason, the volume buttons are placed at the top of the device. Just to look at them this may not seem to be a problem, but in practice the location is not ideal. Try to simply push down on the buttons while wearing the device and you simply push the whole device down on to your ear. And because of where they are at, and the general shape of the earpiece, finding a location to hold against when pushing down is a bit awkward. Ultimately, I ended up placing my thumb at the bottom of the battery at the back of the ear to hold against it while pushing the volume buttons. This will likely become second nature over time, but it isn’t terribly natural.

In addition, when volume buttons are at the back of the device, as with similar models, the top button is "up", and the bottom is "down" - straightforward and intuitive. Because they are on the top, there isn’t an intuitive sense of which button is "up", and which is "down". They are marked with a "+" and "-", but of course you cannot see these when you are wearing it. It’s a small thing, but a curious one, because it appears as if there is room on the back for the volume buttons.

volume buttons

The challenge with the “earbuds” - and this is how the documentation describes them - is that they aren’t earbuds. They are flattish silicone gel discs. With some fiddling about I finally figured out that these are the Plantronics variation of the type of earpiece that puts gentle pressure on the inner earlobe to keep it in place and against (but not in) the ear canal.

Approached that way sound quality with the discs is good, even allowing me to hear clearly in my considerably not quiet car, and they even sound clear using it to listen to podcasts while riding my trike. Playing around with the three different sizes of these allowed me to select the one that made the earpiece feel secure on my ear as well - e.g. that it wouldn't jiggle about when I shook my head. For me, surprisingly, that was the biggest disc (I have smallish ears).

Although sound quality was good, I did decide to see if I could improve it with something like a more traditional earbud fitting. To test this, I ordered one such kit from Amazon. This was not inexpensive, given what you get - about $14 for what amounts to earbud gels and (what I suspect is the cost center) a bespoke piece that fits into the earpiece and mounts the earbud gel.

After some testing back and forth, I find that these do not result reliably in the earpiece being solidly in the ear canal. I wonder if it’s simply the case that the design sits too far outside for this to be practical. That’s fine, though, because I also do not detect any significant difference in sound quality between the stock silicone discs and the aftermarket earbud. And, given that the disc sits outside the ear, it may well be the case that they will be comfortable for longer time periods.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’d recommend spending some time with the stock earpieces before dropping coin on the aftermarket item.

TL:DR

In summary, the Plantronics Voyager 5200 turns out to be an excellent bluetooth earpiece. Notable features and pro’s include:

  • Exellent incoming sound quality
  • Phenomenal noise canceling features
  • On-device mute
  • Long battery life
  • Comfortable for long wearing sessions
  • The bonus of a supportive iPhone app for settings and features

Downsides:

  • Confusing use of terminology surrounding the “earbuds”
  • Less than ideal placement of volume buttons

If your needs include the type of usage that goes with a traditional bluetooth earpiece like this the Plantronics Voyager 5200 is an excellent choice. It’s more expensive than many similar looking competitors on Amazon, but you are getting what you pay for.

Civilization VI on iPad by Erin Wade

A couple of months ago Civilization VI showed up on the iPad App Store. The Civilization series) has been around for decades on desktop PC’s and consoles, and I started playing with either Civilization III or IV. This is a turn-based strategy game in which one is trying to build an empire. Of course, your empire has competitors, and each is headed by an historic leader. The capabilities of each empire vary somewhat based upon the historical makeup of that culture - the Indian nation, for example, has elephants as part of an available unit. Victory can be achieved through conquest, as one might expect, but there are multiple other routes to win, including religious, cultural, or scientific domination.

Some time ago I discussed here that I really didn’t want to play games at my desktop computer any more. I’ve made an exception for the subsequent chapters in Starcraft II - I have an enduring love for the gameplay and the storyline - but for most others I simply don’t want to spend the time at a desk. I considered making an exception for Civilization a couple of years ago - in fact, I’d gone so far as purchasing a download of Civilization V through Amazon that was deeply discounted for the holidays - but I never downloaded it. Looking back through my order history I can see it is still there, waiting...

Making it available on the iPad makes all of the difference for me. Now I can enjoy this game without being chained to a desk, segregated from my family. And while this is good for any game scenario, it is especially important for this type of game. Civilization is a time sink - a delightfully maddening time sink, but a time sink nonetheless. It is turn-based, so the end of each set of turns provides a logical stopping point, a potentially easy stepping off point to move on to other, non-digital things like, you know, eating and seeing to your personal care. Still, there is always this one more thing to accomplish - finish building this world wonder, establish one more new settlement, complete the takeover of that neighboring city. And of course, while one is in the process of accomplishing those things, one has started other projects that one would also like to see reach fruition, and so on it goes. It’s very much like the video game equivalent of reading a Stephen King novel.

Game play on the iPad works very nicely. This game series was originally developed long before the advent of touch screens, but the manufacturer has done a very nice job of translating it for this format. Occasionally one does run into issues when there are multiple things on a given area, where the game isn’t sure what you are trying to accomplish with your tap, but generally zooming in (which provides some separation between the things) or tapping a slightly different area will address this.

One caveat for players would be that, while you don’t have to be at a desk, you will want to be in proximity of an outlet. The game tends towards long play, as I’ve already mentioned, and it clearly uses some processing power. As a result, battery use is far higher than in non-gaming activities like browsing or writing. In fact, you’ll not only want to be plugged in if you are going to be playing for a while, but you will want to use a higher capacity charger. I’ve found that chargers designed at a iPhone’s charging level, for example, only slow the rate of battery usage while playing this game. Fortunately, the game does provide both a battery level gauge and a clock so that one does not entirely lose track of these real-world details during play.

The game is expensive by App Store standards. At a full price of $59.99, it’s priced like a desktop game. This is a primary source of complaint within the reviews on the App Store, and certainly one can see why folks used to typical app prices would find this jarring. However, this plays like a fully-fledged desktop game and has one important variation from other, cheaper games on the App Store: no in-app purchases are required to play it. The game does offer a couple of scenario packs, but these are enhancements that are completely unnecessary for regular gameplay. To my mind this compares quite favorably to games that are structured to put gameplay progress just out of reach unless one purchases "coins" or other game assets in order to move forward - a game design strategy that is pervasive in the App Store and which no doubt has the potential to be quite lucrative for game designers, since its difficult for a player to keep track of just how much they are spending during the course of a given game. I’m more than happy to pay a premium at initial purchase to keep this sort of thing at bay.

However, if the price is still off-putting, be aware that the game has also frequently been on-sale for as much as 50% off, so the patient and watchful buyer can get a foot in the door - and a settlement on fresh, virgin soil - for far less.

If this sounds like your sort of game I can highly recommend it. Now if only someone would convince Blizzard to make the next version of Starcraft for iOS...

Vacationland - A Review by Erin Wade

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do.

You’ve seen him in those "I’m a Mac..." commercials as the PC. You’ve seen him as the Resident Expert and the Deranged Millionaire (or Billionaire) on The Daily Show with John Stewart. You’ve heard him doing pieces on This American Life. He’s appeared on TV in Parks and Rec and Community and ever-so-briefly on Battlestar Galactica. You know him.

But you don’t. Not really.

For much of his entertainment career, John Hodgman has been playing characters. Over the course of the past decade or so he has written three books which purport to comprise the sum of all (fake) world knowledge. They are:

These books are delightful pieces, functionally presenting as almanacs with extensive bits of information that are entirely fabricated (though sometimes one wonders - perhaps the city of Chicago is, in fact, mythical). These aren’t just lists of made-up facts, though there is some of that, to be sure; in many cases, the concepts are woven into tiny short stories that can take on a life of their own, and presented convincingly enough that you may find yourself questioning what you think you know.

Because the theme is similar across the three - fake trivia and all - one might be forgiven for assuming that the second and third books are sequels, and more of the same. One might be forgiven, because one would be wrong - the books lay out more as a trilogy, reflecting a progression in the type of information, and in the character Hodgman plays as he writes it. It is not a spoiler (as it is on the covers of the books) to note In the first he comes to you as "a professional writer", and then as a "famous minor television personality" (the second book coming, as it did, after gaining the role as The PC). By the third book he has evolved (devolved?) into a deranged millionaire, the book coming just ahead of the Mayan predicted end of the world.

Ultimately, it’s a good bet that, if you enjoy Monty Python, you will enjoy these books (and perhaps not coincidentally, Hodgman interviewed John Cleese not too long ago).

They are made all the more enjoyable if one listens to them as Audiobooks, as this adds multiple guest appearances, including Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick), Paul Rudd, Sarah Vowell, Rickey Gervais, Brooke Shields, and others, (including Dick Cavett).

And now that I’ve provided you with this background, I have to let you know that this information isn’t a good preparation for his latest work:

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

With Vacationland, Hodgman sets aside the fake trivia and gets real. Literally.

Vacationland is a series of essays that centers around his experiences while away with his family in rural western Massachusetts and in Maine. This is too simple an explanation, of course, because on that journey he also delves into the struggles of raising children, of finding one’s way in life, and of losing a parent, among other things.

To be clear, Vacationland, like his previous work, is funny - Hodgman has a way of finding little bits of pleasure and joy in even the most mundane of topics. For example, on growing facial hair:

And I grew my second mustache for the same reason all your weird dads grew theirs: it is an evolutionary signal that says "I’m all done." A mustache sends a visual message to the mating population of Earth that says, "No thank you. I have procreated. My DNA is out in the world, so I no longer deserve physical affection."

It is funny, but it is also wry, very candid, self-deprecating, and emotional. Like his previous works, Vacationland made me laugh, but unlike those, it also made me think and, at one particular point, literally made me cry. I can not recommend it highly enough.

This is work that is similar in vein to essayists like Tom Bodett and David Sedaris; and like David Sedaris, again made better still if you listen to the audiobook, which is read by John Hodgman himself. If you have friends who like to read (or listen) to authors like Bodett and Sedaris, this book would make an excellent gift for the holidays, or for whenever. And when they say "John Hodgman?" You can say:

"You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do..."

Pessimist Archive Podcast by Erin Wade

The Pessimist’s Archive Podcast is a treasure trove of historical information about people’s reactions to new technology as it emerges. Before I go into detail on it, here’s a little spoiler: they typically don’t like it.

The podcast has been out for about a year, and it has a... casual release schedule (there are 9 episodes so far), but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up in quality. The episodes are well researched and tightly produced. The host is Jason Feifer, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Entrepreneur magazine. Each episode also features a variety other voices from people related to the topic on one way or another, and the delivery is done in a delightful tongue-in-cheek fashion. Episodes run around 30 minutes, give or take.

They also run a wonderful twitter feed that provides details supporting both the podcast and the general concept, like this one:

4 MPH?

Overall, the podcast and twitter feed bring a new perspective to the very common complaints we hear nowadays about how screens, or social media, or fill-in-your-own-example-here are a menace and/or are destroying our society.

Perhaps my favorite episode thus far, unsurprisingly, is Episode 6: Bicycle, which reviews and reveals the severe dangers to society, the economy, and women’s morals, represented by the demon two-wheeler. All from the perspective of the 1800’s mindset, of course.

As is always the case, each episode is also accompanied by a list of links to the articles and references discussed, giving an opportunity for a deep dive into the topic in question (How the Bicycle paved the way for Women’s Rights, might help explain that concern about the impact on women’s "morals", for example).

If the general sky-is-falling perspective on our ever-changing times makes you a little crazy (as it does for me), or if you are just a fan of the bicycle and all of its iterations, I highly recommend checking this out.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - A Review by Erin Wade

Weird on the Internet

This one is a memoir, written and read by Felicia Day. Odds are good, if you are reading this, that you know who Felicia Day is, but if not, you may have seen her in:

...And many, many others. Basically, if it's geeky and good, Felicia Day has very possibly been involved with it.

This particular book is, as mentioned, a memoir. It recounts her life, beginning from a childhood in the Deep South, home schooled and living a self-described off-kilter life, and continuing up through her professional career, into very nearly current day (the Audiobook was released in 2015) and reflecting her struggles with Gamergate.

Anyone can relate the details of their life, moving from time to time and from event to event. You've probably had an uncle or grandparent do this to you at family gatherings while you desperately looked for some means of escape. What so often (if not always) makes the difference is the telling of the story. And it is in the telling that this book truly shines.

It's a rare book that can truly make me laugh out loud, but this did on multiple occasions. The writing is quick and delightfully clever. She manages to be both wonderfully self-deprecating and reflect pride her accomplishments, sometimes simultaneously. As I mentioned before, it's read by Felicia herself, and this magnifies the telling - like the best audiobook performances, the narration feels like a conversation, a storytelling, not a reading. It's intimate, familiar material for her, and she delivers it with all that entails. I was genuinely sad to reach the end of the book.

As a bonus, because the audiobook was recorded after the tree corpse version's release, there is additional material about events that occurred as part of her book tour. These are very fun as well.

So look - if you are reading this, you probably already know and love Felicia Day's work. You owe it to yourself to pick up (or download) this book.

Station Breaker - A Review by Erin Wade

Station Breaker

Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne is a speculative fiction piece surrounding a private company astronaut, in a near future setting, where trips to and from space are handled by a Space X-like company. The setting is somewhat reminiscent of The Martian, in that it presents bits of technology that might not quite yet exist, but you know are just over the horizon.

That setting in time, however, is where the resemblance ends. Astronaut David Dixon is on his first actual space mission and, even before liftoff, things don't seem quite right. Why is the mission commander, a seasoned NASA astronaut, surreptitiously packing along a pistol?

This story is a breakneck-speed adventure from start to finish. Setting development is efficiently handled, giving a feeling for time and location while trusting the reader to come along quickly, and then never looking back or slowing down. The narrative is in first person, mostly present tense, giving the impression you are seeing things as David Dixon sees them, and keeping you directly in the moment. You, as has David, have been dropped into a very difficult situation with no explanation of what is really happening, nor of why, keeping you on the edge of your seat.

For the hard science fiction aficionados there is real time and attention paid here to the physics of things, both in space and otherwise. Still, this is done in a way that won't be intimidating to readers unfamiliar with these components - if proper physics is important to you, it's there. If it isn't, you won't be forced to pop over to iTunes U and take a course to understand what is going on - it's nicely laid out mostly as color to the overall story, and briefly, clearly explained when it's more important to what is going on.

The physics, and the story, don't only happen in space. This story rolls its way across multiple locations, Indiana Jones style, with some considerable effort on the part of our main character. It's an adventure from moment one.

As (almost) always, I experienced Station Breaker via audiobook. This story was my companion for many a bike ride thru the countryside (one ear only, the other open to the road, of course). It is read by Kyle McCarley. He narrates a number of audiobooks on Audible - 61, based on a narrator search - but this is my first experience with him as a reader. It sometimes takes me a little while to adjust to a new reader - each narrator has their idiosyncrasies, and while an audiobook is certainly the presentation of the author's material, it's also a performance, and the narrator is absolutely a factor in the experience of the book. In this case, I enjoyed his voice, but initially found his way of emphasizing certain words - particularly the word blood (which appears several times early in the book) - took a little while to adjust to. However, I often find that, if I press on a bit, I do adjust, and this was the case here. And in fact, given that time I found that Mr. McCarley does an excellent array of voices, and is able to maintain them consistently throughout, which is certainly not the case for every narrator.

All in all, the book was an excellent companion for multiple rides. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and there is a second book in the series - Orbital - which I have lined up in my cue. Notably, the second book is also read by Kyle McCarley, which offers a nice bit of continuity - it can be somewhat jarring when the narrator changes partway thru a series and all of the characters you've come to know sound different.

If you are looking for a high-adrenaline thrill-ride, with a bit of a science fiction angle to it, I can happily recommend Station Breaker.

Another Fine Myth by Erin Wade

Another Fine Myth Cover

I periodically enjoy going back and consuming entertainment from my youth - movies, TV shows, music, and books that I have fond memories of and/or remember enjoying. Sometimes this is more successful than others

When I'm in this mood in relation to books from my past, I will check Audible to see if they happen to have been produced as audiobooks yet. There was a long, dry spell for this in the early years of the service - apparently science fiction and fantasy novels from the 1970's and '80's were not viewed by the company as a growth market (I can't imagine why). This seems to have changed over the past several years, I suspect due in part to the increased level of resources made possible when the company was purchased by Amazon.

The MythAdventures series by Robert Aspirin has been one of the collections I periodically check for. I read and re-read these over and over again as a pre-adolescent and teenager. I remember the books being fun, and each was relatively brief - they were, frankly, just about the perfect type of book for bringing to class and reading under the desk while the teacher droned on and on about... well... about whatever they were talking about. How should I know? I was lost in another world.

I don't recall exactly what made searching for the MythAdventures occur to me this time. Often it's little things - someone, somewhere, offering a turn of phrase that reminds me of the books might do it. But regardless, I decided to take a look a few weeks ago, and there they were!

Another Fine Myth is the first book in the series, and it's apparently been available on Audible since April of 2013 (I would swear I do these types of searches a couple of times a year; clearly my perception of time is a little off).

There is risk to going back in this way. Somethings turn out to be as wonderful as one recalls, and others turn out to be... disappointing. I am frightfully aware of this each time I take this plunge. Fortunately, my return to the universe of Aahz and Skeeve was an enjoyable one.

This first book is an introduction to the characters and the universe, as one might expect. It is a little bit friendly satire - poking fun at the tropes of the fantasy novel universe of the era - and a lot of silly, with self-aware use of puns and delightful turns of phrase (for example: Aahz is from a dimension called Perv, the inhabitants of which are called Pervects, he insists, but which everyone else refers to as Perverts...). In many ways, what The Hitchhiker's Guide was to science fiction novels, the MythAdventures series is to fantasy.

The book holds up well - in most ways it reads as a road novel, moving from place to place with each setting a backdrop for the fun the author wants to have. There is a central storyline - a bad guy who wants to rule all of the dimensions must be stopped - and it reads fine, but it is secondary to the overarching mission of the book, which is to have some fun. The narration is mostly good, and I see that it's the same narrator for almost all of the books, which is always preferable. It's not perfect - the narrator forgets the voice he used for one particular secondary character later in the book, a failing that is easy to notice in such a short piece. Still, overall the reading is good, and complements the story. Some of the lines in the book actually benefit from hearing over reading, particularly the introduction between the two main characters: "my name is Aahz - no relation".

Although I lost track of the series towards the end of the 1980's, Wikipedia tells me that Robert Asprin went on to write another 11 books in the series on his own, and teamed up with author Jody Lynn Nye to write several more up till Aspirin's death in 2008. Nye has written at least two additional books in the series since then, with the most recent coming out in 2016. Ordinarily I'd be dubious about co-authored books, but Robert Aspirin had a long history of collaborative work, most notably the Thieves World fantasy series, which I also remember fondly (but which is not available on Audible. Perhaps I should say not yet - whaddya think, Audible?). This gives me some confidence in the collaboration that I might not otherwise have.

If you lean towards fantasy novels, and are looking for something fun to fill a few hours of time - this could easily be read or listened to in one long sitting in the car, on the beach, or under a tree in the woods; or perhaps over multiple sessions in the back-yard hammock - I can heartily recommend Another Fine Myth. I enjoyed it enough that I've already dropped the next two books in the series into my Audible shopping cart.

Tom Bihn Synapse 25 - Six(ish) Month Update by Erin Wade

Back in December of 2016 I purchased a Tom Bihn Synapse 25 and, after a couple of weeks of ownership I wrote up an initial review.

I've now been using this backpack for over six months, and that time allows for a few additional observations on it. When I first ordered it, it was in part because I was traveling more, and wanted the ability to carry more things in a single case. My primary concern, then as now, was things like workout clothes, and it has worked nicely for this. But I also bravely predicted:

The central compartment swallows a lot of stuff. I can easily fit a martial arts uniform and basic gear (belt, ankle brace, mouth guard) or winter biking gear along with a bag of trail mix or a lunch bag. In fact, if you aren't a heavy packer I suspect this bag could easily be used as a carry-on for flights.

I've had the opportunity to use the Synapse for multiple overnight trips, and the central compartment readily manages everything that is needed for such a trip. What's more, having the single bag to keep track of simplifies the travel quite nicely.

And the carry-on question? That turned out to be more interesting than I expected.

In my relatively limited air-travel experience, it seems that most airlines will allow you both a carry-on item - generally a small luggage item - and a "personal item" in the cabin. The dimensions of the carry-on luggage are pretty well established - there's usually a metal frame at the gates you can stick your carry-on bag into in order to see if it fits, and several luggage companies make specific pieces designed to fit within that size window. The size of the "personal item" is less well defined, but as a general rule seems to involve being able to fit under the seat in front of you. In the past I've used my Ristretto as my personal item, it being able to carry my iPad, iPhone, wallet, etc, nicely enough.

For our recent trip to Detroit - a five day adventure - I decided to put my previous prediction, as well as my minimalist packing skills, to the test, and use the Synapse as my carry-on luggage. I also brought along my Ristretto, figuring I would pack my iPad and such in it after I arrived at the airport and use it as my personal item.

The Synapse worked quite nicely as a carry-on item. In most respects this is not surprising - it's measurements are just below the standard size requirements for such an item. What was more surprising was this: it actually appears to work as a personal item.

Which is to say that, tightly packed with clothing and hygiene supplies sufficient for five days of stay in The Motor City, as well as my iPad, and all of my usual supplies (minus my Swiss Army knife and nail clippers, of course) the Synapse fit under the seat in front of me. While I packed the Synapse in the overhead and used the Ristretto on the way to Detroit, I set aside the Ristretto for the way back and simply slid the Synapse under the seat in front of me at the required intervals.

Your mileage may vary, of course - this one example may not be indicative of what other airlines, or other circumstances, might allow. But it did mean that I had access to all my stuff while in my seat, and did not have to experience the relative risk of my bag being in a compartment which may or may not have been near me.

This trip also allowed some additional comparison. LB and I were flying together for this trip, and we used similar backpack packing strategies. One of the things I noted, however, particularly on the way home, was that LB kept taking their backpack off and carrying by the handle strap, or simply setting it down. When I asked why, LB said that the pack was making their shoulders sore. I suggested we swap bags for a bit.

LB was using the backpack that they also use for school. It's a standard, big-box store bag that one might typically see as a part of a wall-o-backpacks. It's approximately the same size as the Synapse, and LB has been using it for the better part of the past year to cart books and such back and forth.

About five minutes into wearing it, it started to make my shoulders sore.

Whether it was the angle of the straps, or the amount of padding, or how they were designed with respect to the weight distribution of the bag, I can't say. What I can say is that the bag provided a cutting sensation into my upper shoulders that I've never experienced when carrying the Synapse, and it took virtually no time at all for the discomfort to present. At the same time LB pronounced that the Synapse was significantly more comfortable to carry than their backpack. I suspect I may have to keep a vigil to prevent its disappearance...

As for the rest at six months - the bag shows virtually no wear and tear at this point. The central water bottle holder still works very nicely, and I've only managed to spill my coffee in it once (so far). The only complaint I might have in that regard is that the bottle pocket is not water- (or coffee-) proof, so this event (which involved me carelessly setting the bag down and walking away, not realizing that it had fallen over with the travel mug inside) resulted in coffee filtering down into the adjacent pockets.

This may have, possibly, been more my fault than that of the bag. Maybe.

I can say that it cleaned up quite nicely with a little stain spray and then wiping down with a wet cloth, and no longer bears the signs of this unfortunate event. I do have a fair amount of practice dealing with coffee stains, but I was surprise at how completely they came out of the material. Going into it I was resigned to going from having an orange backpack to now having a backpack best described as "orange with coffee highlights"...

As with all of the Tom Bihn products, the Synapse is not inexpensive. However, as is often the the case, where the extra cost reflects thoughtful, careful design, it readily turns out to be worth the difference in price.

Norse Mythology by Erin Wade

![Norse Mythology](FullSizeRender (3).jpg)

Neil Gaiman probably needs no introduction for regular readers. He is a prolific author primarily of fantasy and fantastical stories, sometimes bordering on horror (and sometimes stepping over that line with works such as The Graveyard Book). He has embraced a variety of formats, stretching out beyond novels and short stories and into comics and children's books. He collaborates with illustrators across multiple formats, often to great effect.

One of my personal favorite examples of this is The Wolves in the Walls. This is an illustrated children's book I read to my child so many times that I can simply close my eyes and immediately picture entire sections of the book. It's a delightful read that uses its illustrations not just to entertain, but to guide the reader - it's clearly meant to be read aloud, as the hand drawn text changes size and shape as stage direction for the intensity and volume the reader should employ. To this day I can say to my child "when the wolves come out of walls..." and get the response "...it's all over". The experience with this book led LB to seek out Gaiman's work as they were seeking out other material as well.

When I learned that Neil Gaiman was putting out a book on the Norse Myths I was both delighted and frustrated. Delighted because it's Gaiman writing in an area of long-held personal interest - I grew up on Marvel comics and I've always been particular to Thor (Hercules and Zeus can suck it). That had led me to seek out and read accounts of the myths themselves. I've returned to them again and again over the years, and I always find them as old friends.

Frustrated because I've always thought of them as fruitful ground for my own writing, well, you know, eventually. And here Neil f&@king Gaiman is, stealing my thunder (<--that's a Thor reference. Get it? Anyone??).

Turns out that the stories he presented here are different than I expected. For the most part he's hewed closely to the original stories, modernizing them slightly in terms of language, and fleshing them out just a bit where some additional detail is needed. It is, frankly, a demonstration of storytelling mastery - he knows the core of the stories are strong, and only adds what is needed to make them more accessible. It's a real service to these tales, which do reflect human struggles as shown in the lives of gods, but can sometimes be culturally different in a way that may make them hard for the uninitiated to follow.

As is typically the case, I listened to this book rather than reading it. There's an additional bonus here for the audiobook customer, because Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller. He routinely reads his work in public, and virtually always reads his books when the audio version is recorded. In a lot of ways, his writing style reflects this - he writes like a spoken storyteller, and while his stories are fine to read silently to ones self, they are virtually always improved by being read aloud, and never more so than when being read by Neil himself.

These tales are from a different culture in a different time. The motivations of the characters are unimpinged by many of the consternations that modern western audiences will be familiar with (though fans of the show Vikings will likely find similarities here). They are very much worth exploring, and never more so than with this opportunity - explore them with a master storyteller to guide your way. And - if you can - take the opportunity to do so via audiobook and let Neil take you all the way there.

Tom Bihn Synapse 25 by Erin Wade

For most of my professional life I've been a backpack guy. Early on I did work with a handful of bags that would fall more into the "briefcase" category, often centered around carrying a laptop, but these would quickly demonstrate their limitations as soon as one had to walk any kind of a distance carrying them. Shoulder strap or not, any bag big enough to carry a 1990's era laptop makes you sore in a hurry. I became acutely aware of this when I was in graduate school, having to cover territory carrying books and bulky electronics along Milwaukee city streets to get to my class (Marquette University offered parking conveniently located approximately 15 miles away from any classroom[^1] ). And it reminded me of the relative value of a backpack, which I'd used when I had last had to travel a campus with books in tow.

To that end I purchased and used a "Backpack Briefcase", designed by Trager, for the longer part of a decade. But when the iPad came out, and it became clear that I no longer would need to carry a bulky laptop or its support crew[^2]. It offered the opportunity to pare down my daily carry to something more streamlined. I began to investigate, and ended up choosing a messenger bag from Tom Bihn - the original Ristretto.

This bag has worked well for me for several years. The decreased weight of the iPad means that it isn't problematic to carry the way that the older briefcases were. And it's design is more along the lines of a satchel than of a traditional messenger bag, meaning that you look a little like Indiana Jones carrying it.

Yes - Indiana Jones. Not this guy.

Over the past couple of years, however, I've found that I am traveling more, and as a result I am needing space to carry additional things - particularly food and changes of clothing for working out. For a while I've managed this by periodically carrying two bags - my Ristretto and a backpack borrowed from my kid. But you only have to forget to pick up your second bag on the way out the door a couple of times - leaving yourself either hungry, unable to work out, or both - before the idea of simplifying the number of bags occurs.

I've had extremely good luck with the Ristretto - it has performed flawlessly and, seven years in, I find it has weathered well. I've been very happy with it. Given that, I decided to look at the backpack options Tom Bihn had to offer[^3]. Spending a little time on the site, I decided on the Synapse 25.

The Synapse 25 ticked off all the boxes for me - organizational compartments in the front that allowed free access to the things that I need on a regular basis, it has a specialized carrying system for the iPad Pro, and has the room in the center that I needed for the additional things I have been using a second bag to carry. It also has one clear bonus feature in the form of a center pocket designed to carry drinks up to the side of a one-liter water bottle. As a person genetically predetermined to spill coffee on himself, the mesh side pockets on most backpacks are a disaster waiting to happen.

The Synapse came in a large box right to my home. As you can see, I chose the Burnt Orange/Northwest Sky option.

Synapse in the box

Synapse back

Zipper Pulls

I like orange, and it makes things easy to see and find. I would have preferred a different interior color - maybe "island" - but that wasn't an option.

It quickly became clear that all of the things I carry in the Ristretto...

All my stuff

....Would easily be able to fit inside the Synapse:

Ristretto Inside

Yup - that's my entire Ristretto being readily swallowed up by the Synapse.

I ordered my version with a Cache - a padded internal bag - sized for the iPad Pro. I did not realize until it came that it would include a set of internal "rails" to allow the cache to slide in and out of the bag while keeping it attached.

iPad Pro Cache

Cache is on rails

Yup - Rails

I've been using the Synapse for about two weeks now. The size difference between the Synapse and Ristretto took a little getting used to, but that went by pretty quickly. What became clear was that it does exactly what it promised - it holds everything I want to carry easily, and does so without seeming overly large. It's comfortable to carry fully loaded, and the pockets on the front mean that, when I'm at a work site I can easily get to all of the supplies and materials that I need quickly - they are just a zip away. Similarly, the cache on rails means that you can easily find your device even when the main cargo compartment is fully loaded.

The central compartment swallows a lot of stuff. I can easily fit a martial arts uniform and basic gear (belt, ankle brace, mouth guard) or winter biking gear along with a bag of trail mix or a lunch bag. In fact, if you aren't a heavy packer I suspect this bag could easily be used as a carry-on for flights.

And that final, bonus item? The bag really does readily hold a drink in the center compartment. I can easily fit a 16 oz travel mug in the compartment and zip it closed. The sides of the compartment are elastic and taper in towards the bottom to more securely hold the item.

yup - the cup is orange too

It's deep enough to allow for my mug to be zipped into it.

Deep coffee

It works perfectly, and carrying the drink in the center - instead of on the side - of the bag absolutely keeps things from flying about. Additionally I'm finding myself less likely to leave my cup behind when I'm finished, since I can just put it back in the bag when empty.

Thus far the only downside is that the iPad Pro cache appears to have been sized for an iPad Pro without any kind of a case on it. It's a tight fit with the Smart Cover and the ESR backside cover on it; the Smart Cover is designed not to be slippery (for good reason), so it is a bit of work to get it in and out. Two weeks in it is starting to stretch a bit and get easier to use, but anyone using a larger case would want to consider a cache designed for a larger device. Fortunately, the company provides a dimension chart for all of their products, including the caches, so you can measure your device in the case before buying.

The Tom Bihn bags and accessories are not inexpensive. If you are someone who changes bags often, or uses them for only a short while before moving on, they may not be for you. If, like myself, you want a bag to use for a decade or longer, they hold up extremely well and easily justify their cost over the longer term.

[^1]: Its possible that I am exaggerating slightly.

[^2]: Modern laptops notwithstanding, my laptop usage was from an era in which you could not expect to leave home without a power cord.

[^3]: For the record, I'd also had good luck with the Trager backpack, and I still use it to carry supplies for presentations (projector, cords, etc). Unfortunately, the company no longer has a web presence, and a little homework suggests that it appears to be defunct. This article indicates "Records at the office of Washington's Secretary of State indicate that the Trager Manufacturing Company, Inc., formally expired on September 30, 2004".