VMworld Mobile Toolchest

 Update: Check out the #AdviceForVMworld tag on Twitter for more helpful hints from conference veterans, and add your own!

Update: Additional options for survival packs during VMworld

Conferences are a bit like camping: it takes you a few attempts before you figure out a good packing regime. You need to figure out if you’re carrying all your gear around the whole time, of if you’re car-camping and can take a bunch of heavier stuff that stays put the whole time. There was that time you forgot your socks, or took too many shirts, and the time you found the perfect container for teabags.

I’m not a road warrior by any means, but I cover a bunch of events both locally and internationally, and since I live in Australia, I’ve got the long-haul flight thing down nicely by now. It’s also skewed towards journalistic endeavours, so I’m taking a bunch of gear most people won’t need.

Here’s my plan. If you have suggestions for improvements, let me know in the comments, or just share your approach.

Surviving Long-Haul Flights

First let’s define long haul. From Australia to the continental US is a 14 hour flight. The door-to-door journey for me averages about 22 hours with all the waiting around you end up doing.

I prefer a window seat so I can sleep resting against the bulkhead/window. I also don’t get disturbed by people wanting to go to the toilet just as I managed to finally fall asleep. Other people prefer the aisle, and that’s fine too. You enjoy unrestricted access to the bathroom whenever you want, but you also get your elbows bumped by aircrew as they go past, and you get me clambering over you just as you manage to finally fall asleep.

There are also a few choice items you should obtain if you’re doing a lot of long-haul flying.

A carry-on bag that fits under your seat

I’m a relatively short 5’6″, so legroom is never a problem for me. I keep my carry-on bag with me so I can get at stuff throughout the flight, and I travel relatively heavy because of the media gear I take (on which more below), so I check a bag.

Don’t be one of those people who stuff huge bags into the overhead lockers. Check your bag, or travel light.

Travel Documents

Duh.

A Screw-top Water Bottle

Staying well hydrated is important if you want to avoid jetlag. The airconditioning in planes dries out the air, and you won’t notice how much moisture you lose just from breathing and sweating. You will feel several hundred percent better on arrival if you drink plenty of water throughout the flight, and the aircrew won’t supply you with enough refills unless you travel business class. Bring your own water supply, at least 500mL, preferably a full litre.

Buy a bottle of water with a screw-top lid. You want a screw-top because of changes in pressure when the plane goes up and down. A sports bottle with a pop-up lid will pop-up mid-flight and leak water everywhere, probably through your expensive electronics and all over your passport.

If you buy the bottle before going to the airport, it’s a lot cheaper, but make sure you drink all the water first, or tip it out before you get into the security line. Because airport security is 99% ineffective theatre, you’re not allowed to take even partly filled bottles of water through security. Yes, it’s stupid.

Either buy an expensive bottle of water once you clear security, or just fill up your pre-bought empty one at one of the drinking fountains.

If you have a connecting flight and have any sort of security clearance between you and it, make sure you drink all the water or empty it out. Chugging half a litre of water before you get on a flight means you’ll need to pee right in the middle of the flight delay when you can’t leave your seat.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

I have a set of Sennheiser PXC 350 headphones with active noise cancelling. They take 2 AA batteries that last for days, so I charge them up before I leave and then I don’t have to worry about them running out of power. These make the background hum of the engines disappear almost completely, so you can actually hear the in-flight entertainment audio. If you do a lot of travel, trust me, noise cancelling headphones are worth the investment.

Ridiculous Head-Rest Thing

You know those neck-pillow things you see people with? They work, but they’re not neck-pillows. They’re supposed to be vertical, between your head and the headrest, and the donut shape holds your head in place when you recline to sleep. Everyone you see with it around their neck is doing it wrong.

I bought an inflatable one so it packs down small and can live in my travel bag so I never forget it. It’s not quite as luxurious as the ones people have strapped to their luggage, but neither is economy air travel, and who needs a zillion things hanging off their bags?

Surviving a Week Long Conference

Conferences are an endurance event, not a sprint. Get into that mindset.

Plan breaks and rest, and try to eat reasonably well. Yes, you can indulge, but if you go overboard on day one, you’ll suffer for the rest of the week.

Keeping reasonably busy will keep the tiredness at bay, because you won’t notice as much, but a quick nap of about 20-30 minutes mid-afternoon will recharge your human batteries a surprising amount. Combine it with a small snack, and you’ll be recharged for the afternoon and evening.

Your Trusty Water Bottle

Staying well hydrated makes it that much easier to get through the day. Caffeine only gives you a temporary boost, and sticking to water (particularly if you’re hungover) will get you through the day much better than endless caffeine. Also, conference centres are air-conditioned, so the air is dried out just like on planes. You need to put moisture back into yourself.

Afternoon Sugar

It also helps to avoid a lot of sugar, because sugar only gives you a temporary spike in energy. However, a quick hit of sugar mid-afternoon is a good idea, because it helps refresh the self-control bits of your brain. There’s some decent, proper science that supports this idea, and extra self-control is probably going to help you later in the afternoon/evening.

So go ahead and have that donut, but maybe stick to just one.

Berocca

I have no idea what it’s called elsewhere in the world, but in Australia we have this stuff called Berocca. It’s basically vitamin B in an effervescent tablet you drop into a big glass of water. Have one of these every night before going to sleep if you party at all. For starters, it’ll force you to drink a bunch of water (make sure it’s a big glass, the bigger the better, or use your water bottle from earlier), which you probably didn’t do in between all those shots, and secondly it’ll help replace some of the vitamins you stripped out of yourself with the alcohol. You’re far more likely to wake up feeling human if you do this. It won’t prevent a hangover if you went really hard, but it will take the edge off.

It’s made by Bayer, the same people who make Confidor™ and Canesten™, so you know it’s full of Goodness™.

Vendor Survival Packs

A couple of vendors are offering survival/recovery packs to keep you going through the week.

Coho Data (@cohodata) are offering a survival kit to fellow vExperts with electrons, a shirt, bottle opener, and an energy drink. Just drop by their booth #835.

XIO Storage (@XIOStorage) are also offering Hangover Recovery Kits at their booth #705.

Comfy Shoes

Find shoes you can stand up in all day, because you’ll spend a lot of time standing, and you’re probably not used to it, because we tech people spend all day sitting.

I have a great pair of custom-made boots that work with a suit or jeans that are comfy enough to wear all day. I still end up with tired feet, but I’m not in agony. I swap to a second, more casual and comfy pair of shoes if I get a chance to change before heading out of an evening, which helps to save my feet.

Wear the most comfortable shoes you can get away with in your role at the conference. If you do booth duty a bunch, invest in comfy shoes that work with whatever you have to wear when on booth. Future you, and your future feet, will thank you.

Tech Stuff

Try to pack light, so you don’t have too much gear to a) carry around and b) leave behind.

Electrons

Bring plenty of electron storage. You’ll need to judge how much you need based on your past experience of how fast you chew through power, because it’s so variable based on what you do (phonecalls, tweeting, taking photos). I have a Powertrip by Powerstick.com (courtesy of EMC from Storage Field Day 5) that holds 5700mAh, which is a goodly amount in not a lot of weight, and can be easily plugged in to mains power recharge. I also have another 2200mAh thing courtesy of Dell as a backup.

I bring a power adapter plug, because we have a different system here in Oz, but happily all my devices these days can deal with 100-220V power. I also bring a powerboard so I only need one adapter plug and can then plug in a bunch of other stuff, but I leave the board in my hotel room. Everything else runs off USB cables.

Connector Cables

Bring spares. If nothing else, you’ll make an instant friend when someone inevitably calls out for some obscure Apple branded non-standard cable that you happen to have with you. Or a mini-USB instead of micro-USB cable.

And if you leave your main cable behind on day 1, you won’t be stranded for the rest of the week with plenty of electron storage devices but no way to recharge them.

Laptop

I bring mine, because I’m either blogging or journalisming. If you’re not, don’t bring your laptop. They’re heavy and expensive and will slow you down and hurt your back and feet. If your phone isn’t enough, maybe bring a tablet.

I ditch mine after the daytime part of the conference and get by with just my phone.

Local SIM

Roaming data charges from Australia are super-expensive, and phone calls are worse. You can generally get by with the free WiFi at hotels and the like, but inside conferences, the WiFi gets utterly slammed. Even at Cisco Live, where you’d think they might know the odd wireless engineer. And if you go mobile away from buildings, you have no data to look at Google Maps and figure out where to go in a strange city. And no Twitter. Whatever did we do before smartphones, eh?

A local SIM that works for your phone is a good idea, and pre-paid means you’re less likely to get hit with surprise charges. I’ve used T-Mobile a couple of times in the San Francisco/Bay Area and it’s worked well. You can order a SIM over the Internet and have it arrive at your hotel ready for you when you get there.

Audio Gear

You probably don’t need this, but I bring my Zoom H6 for recording interviews, as well as an external mic, 2 wired lav mics, an XLR cable and some other custom cables. In a pinch, my phone will do.

That’s my plan, anyway. What are you going to bring to VMworld?

Audio Recording Gear

My good friend Craig Waters (@cswaters) recently asked me about my audio gear on Twitter, and suggested I write it up. Hopefully this will help others who, like me, are relative newbies to audio and so don’t understand all the highly technical lingo.

Zoom H6, the Heart and Soul

The centre of my audio recording setup is a Zoom H6. It is a wonderful piece of kit. Utter overkill for the amateur, but I’m terribly pleased I invested in it when it was on special. I picked it up from sounddevices.com.au for under $500.

The two microphones it comes with are an X-Y, for left-and-right channel sound when you point it straight at something, and a mid-side microphone, which can record left and right sound as well as the ambient noise around you. With the mid-side microphone, you can use audio processing software to remix the left and right channel balance as well as the amount of “ambience” around the main audio.

The H6 also has 4 other inputs for XLR and 1/4″ style plugs that are the standard for most audio gear. Microphones tend to have XLR plugs, and guitars and keyboards tend to have 1/4″ stereo plugs.

XLR socket (left) and plug (right)

XLR socket (left) and plug (right)

 

1/4" plugs, mono left, stereo right

1/4″ plugs, mono left, stereo right

Microphones

There is an incredible amount to know about microphones if you want to dig into it, and I know almost none of it. But I’ve learned a couple of handy tips in the past few months.

There are 2 major types of microphone: dynamic ones, that are cheap to make and have decent dynamic range for voices. These are the ones you’ll find at your neighbourhood music shop, and they can take a real beating. “Dropping the mic” is unlikely to break them. The second kind are called condenser mics, and they’re what go into the high-end pro microphones that cost hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars. Condenser mics require power to work, and the Zoom H6 can supply that power, called “phantom power”, and at multiple voltages: 48V, 24V and 12V. The standard is 48V. Only the four external outputs can get phantom power, not the modular microphones that plug in to the top.

I bought a halfway decent dynamic mic from my local music shop, and it has worked just fine with the H6 and doesn’t require phantom power.

There’s also a thing called “plug in power” which is what smartphones and iPads and the like do for their microphones to work. They run off much lower voltages under 10V usually, and won’t work without this power.

I bought a couple of cheap ($30) lavalier (clip-on lapel type) microphones (PylePro PLM3) and these require plug in power to work because they’re condenser mics. Because I’m an idiot, I couldn’t get them to work with the H6 at first, but only because you have to turn on “plug in power” in the settings, like this:

Enable plugin power on Zoom H6

Enable Plugin Power on the Zoom H6

Once you turn that on, the mics work just fine.

Stereo from Mono

These lavalier mics are monophonic, not stereophonic, so they only put sound on one channel. It goes on the left channel, because of the way the plugs are designed: the shaft is the ground, left signal is the ‘tip’, while right channel is the ‘ring’ on a stereo plug. Mono plugs don’t have the ‘ring’, so the right channel is connected to ground.

Because I thought my mics were having problems due to the mono plug (because I didn’t really know anything before doing this investigation) I went and bought some mono plugs from a local electronics hobbyist store so I could wire up a mono to stereo adapter cable. As a bonus, I figured I could send the mono signal from one microphone to the left channel, and send the other mic to the right channel. Then I could record from two lav mics at once, into a single stereo channel.

I used an old stereo to RCA cable (the kind you used to use for component audio on VCRs. Remember those?) and just chopped off the RCA ends. The wires on this cable have ground on the outside and signal on the inside, so I just stripped back the ends and soldered it to the mono plugs.

 

Custom dual-mono to stereo plug

My custom dual-mono to stereo plug on the left, with mono plug lavalier microphone on the right

Once I’d turned on plug in power, this cable let me run both lav mics at once, with one recording on the left channel, and one on the right, using the LR channel on the H6. As an added bonus, this cable means I can use these mics on anything that accepts a stereo 3.5mm plugin power microphone input, including computers, and I already have 3.5mm to 1/4″ plug converters.

The one downside to this approach is that I can’t use the mid-side or X-Y mics at the same time as using the lav mics, because I have to use the plugin power socket on the X-Y mic to make them work. Still, if I need ambient background, I can use my dynamic mic to record it and muck around with software to change the way things sound.

My audio software of choice is Audacity, but more on that another time.

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Storage Buyer’s Guide Update: Extract in iTNews

An update on my Buyer’s Guide to Primary Storage: I will be publishing an extract of the full report in partnership with iTNews.com.au, to be completed in late-September.

The full report will be available for purchase soon thereafter.

That gives me enough time to meet personally with storage vendors during VMworld, which I am also covering for iTNews, and include updates into the report.

There are vendors on my coverage list that I’ve not spoken to personally yet, so I will be contacting them shortly to arrange a briefing, either over the phone in the next few weeks, or in person at VMworld if we can find a schedule slot somewhere.

If you’d like to talk to me, get in touch soonish so we can book in a time. I arrive midday Friday 22 August, so Friday afternoon and evening, Saturday, and parts of Sunday (I’m doing the fun-run) are available, as well as various times at VMworld proper when I’m not busy doing my press job.

It’s going to be a hectic week!

VMworld US Here I Come

For the first time ever, I’ll be at VMworld US this year, covering the event for iTNews.com.au.

Well, assuming the US government lets me have an official journalist style I-visa after my interview in a couple of weeks. Since I’ll be getting paid (freelance, so only for what I actually produce and can sell, natch), I need a proper work visa, not a B1/B2 conference style visa that I would normally use under the Visa Waiver Program when I go to the US as just me.

Nerd Herd

Watching the Twitter feed last year, I could feel the energy of VMworld through the tiny mobile screen, and I had a palpable sense of missing something wonderful. It was like hearing all about this great party that you missed because you had to work. The nature of our far-flung industry is that I only tend to see my Internet Friends at the occasional conference, and the fact that I’m in Australia makes it that much harder to see them, because all the major conferences are either in the US or Europe.

It’s shaping up to be a great event, with all the action on the storage front in recent years, the explosion of software definitions, and a rekindled enthusiasm for networks. It’s a busy time for the industry, and I look forward to tapping into the zeitgeist at one of the premier technology conferences in the world.

Say Hi

If you’re there, do come up and say hi. I’ll be tweeting up a storm as @jpwarren as usual, so tweet at me if you think there’s something cool I should come see. I’ve even updated my avatar to a recent photo so you’ll know what I look like.