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Travelling

Operational security tips to safeguard your privacy when crossing a border

GeneralEdward Kiledjian1 Comment
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Every week I read about another traveller that is hassled at the border to turn over his laptop, tablet or smartphone and their associated passwords. Knowing that a stranger has gone through your personal “stuff” feels dirty (similar to being robbed).

A question I get asked often by readers, friends and colleagues is “How do I travel through international borders without worrying that my life will be put on show for some stranger with a badge?”. You don’t believe that this can happen; here are some interesting articles:

Operational Security 101

The work of physical security and digital (cyber) security are merging fast and you cannot have one without the other. So what is a traveler to do?

  1. Identify your sensitive data. Before travelling, conduct an extensive analysis of the data you will be crossing the border with. This doesn’t just include intellectual property or employee information but remember that once authorities have access to your email, without you present, they can figure out what social media accounts you have, they can reset your password for any site, they can build a social graph of all your contacts (using your email, instant messages and contacts), etc.

  2. Prepare a lists of vulnerabilities you are subject to? You should consider everything from device theft to authorities riffling through your personal data with no regard for privacy.

  3. Determine your risk level for each vulnerability. As long as you back up your data and your device is encrypted, then your risk after a theft is limited to the cost of replacing your device or scrambling to buy a new one while in transit. You will realize your risk level quickly rises when you consider the exponentially increasing risk of having your device analyzed at the border.

  4. Design your countermeasure plan. For each vulnerability, design a mitigation or risk minimization plan. This is what the rest of the article will talk about.

Countermeasures

Like a broken record, I will now extol the virtues of the Chromebooks and why many security professionals rely solely on these devices when security is essential. I know many of you will email me to explain why Google is evil and shouldn’t be trusted. I respect everyone’s opinion, and if you believe using Google products and services doesn’t meet your security requirements, then, by all means, choose something else.

A Chromebook is designed to be reinitialized anytime and to restore its state very quickly. Log into a device connected to a respectable network, and within minutes, you are back up and running with your apps, extensions, bookmarks and settings. Your data is stored in the cloud, and local device storage is encrypted.

Theft

If some numskull steals your device, you will have to buy a new one but at least your data is safely stored in the cloud, and there is no unencrypted data locally to expose you. I have had my device stolen on a train in Europe (on my way to speak at a conference). At my destination, I bought a Chromebook, used the store's WIFI to restore my device, and I was up and running within 30 minutes.

Border inspection

Border inspection is a different beast because they have the authority to force you to turn over your passwords. In this case, the only protection strategy is trickery.

For people crossing the border with sensitive information, I recommend that you use a Chromebook and sync everything to the cloud. Before travelling, you Powerwash the Chromebook (aka set it back to factory default) and then log into it with a dummy Google account.

This Google account should have some emails, contacts, favourites, files stored on your Google drive, etc. It should look like it is an authentic and genuine account. When your device is inspected, it will have nothing of interest, and you will not endanger your “real” data.

Once you cross the border, find a WIFI network, Powerwash your device and log in with your “real” account.

What about your smartphone

I trust the Chromebook Powerwash process enough to reuse a Chromebook that was inspected by border security but not a smartphone. Smartphones (iPhone or Android) do not have the excellent backup and recovery properties of the Chromebook. In most cases, I travel with a real fully loaded smartphone and will destroy it if it is ever taken from me. I will immediately change all my passwords and implement honeypot style detection tools to see if they attempt to exploit me.

What are these detection techniques I am talking about? Well one example is to use the Free Canary Tokens to generate different honeypots in your work environment.

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As an example, you create an easy to find (weaponized) Word or PDF file (stored in your Google drive) and phone that sends out a beacon when it is opened. Think of these tools as motion sensors warning you that your digital being is at risk and that you need to take extraordinary measures to protect yourself.

Conclusion

An article about traveller airport border crossing security (OPSEC) can be very long, but I wanted to give you a gentle introduction. If you are a journalist, politician or senior executive at risk, hire a good security consultant to guide you. The most expensive advice is free advice.

If you are a journalist with a reputable organization working on high-risk reporting and need security advice, I am always available to provide free guidance. I believe free and open journalism is a pillar of our modern democracy.


Review of Quip's toothbrush as a service

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
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This blog article is not advertising and is not a sponsored post.

Quip is a new entrant in the competitive and packed electric toothbrush space. Unlike many of the larger bulkier electric toothbrushes, Quip is a sleek, shiny and well designed modern looking toothbrush.

Like all modern electronic works of art, it comes in different colours, finishes and materials.

It also has the seal of approval from the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance. The ADA website explains it as "To this day, dentists and consumers recognize it as the gold standard for evaluating safety and efficacy of dental products."

So what how is the Quip compare? Quip is a simpler toothbrush that delivers the basics: it has a vibrating alert timer (to measure brushing each quadrant) and has gently cleaning vibrations that won't harm your gums.

What does it come with? The basic kit comes with a pre-installed battery, brush head and a slim toothbrush holder (attaches to your mirror with micro suction cups but also doubles as a travel cover). I have had it attached to my bathroom mirror for 30 days, and it hasn't fallen off once. I have traveled with it once, rinsed it with warm water when I got back, and it stuck right back on the mirror.

How do you charge the battery? I have used OralB and Philips electric toothbrushes, and they each come with their charging bases (which are usually bulky and consume valuable counter space). The Quip uses a single AAA battery that can be changed within seconds. Since Quip is a Toothbrush As A Service, when you subscribe to their toothbrush head replacement plan, they also send you a replacement battery every three months. If you travel and run out of power, replace it with a cheap AAA, you can buy anywhere, and you don't have to carry a bulky charger.

How does it compare to a "normal" (non-powered) toothbrush? The Quip is definitely better than a normal plastic toothbrush because it offers gentle vibrations and helps with timing. Additionally, they send replacement heads automatically which means you never have to worry about timing replacements.

How does the Quip compare to other electric toothbrushes? It depends. The truth is that the newer electric toothbrushes that vibrate and rotate seem to deliver an easier and better clean. However, the Quip is less than half the cost, easier to travel with and effective when used as directed (in conjunction with flossing and regular dentist visits).

General recommendations included with the introductory guide are:

  • Use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste

  • Brush gently (don’t push too hard or you will injure your gums)

  • Make sure you brush every tooth from all directions

  • Brush for two minutes (30 seconds per quadrant)

  • Brush your tongue (the back of the brush head has a scraper)

  • Don’t rinse your mouth right after brushing

What are the cons?

  • The Quip is better than a plain non-powered toothbrush, but its performance is significantly worse than the modern sonic toothbrushes.

  • The Quip's bristles are better than a non-powered toothbrush, but they aren't as good as the ones on powered brushes that seem to have better reach into hard to reach crevices.

Conclusion: I like the Quip, but it isn't the most effective electric toothbrush. Not a bad offering but you need to determine what your actual needs are. I hope Quip releases another generation of their product with rotating bristles that uses real sonic pulses.

9 things you should pack on every trip

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
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As a frequent traveller, I have picked up some tricks that make travelling a lot easier. I wanted to share some of those with you and hopefully make your life a little easier.

Global WIFI Hotspot

I wrote my first review of the (gen 1) Skyroam Global hotspot in 2015 and it became one of my most used travel items. When they released (gen 2) a new LTE capable model, the Skyroam Solis, I bought one and reviewed it as well.

TL;DR: I have tested dozens of global roaming services (hotspots and global SIMs) and the product I carry in my bag every day is the Skyroam Solis.

Some readers have asked if my Skyroam tests were promotional and the answer is no. I have not received any compensation from Skyroam to test and review any of their products. When I find something that works well and is priced competitively, I recommend it.

I recommend you read my full review, but the summary is that the Skyroam Solis is a pre-paid global 4G (LTE) capable hotspot that works in 100+ countries. They offer an "unlimited" data package sold in chunks of 24 hours (day passes) for about $9 a day (or a monthly pass for $99).

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Most companies offering this type of service label their offering as "unlimited data" but this doesn't mean you can stream Netflix while cruising the french riviera. Every company I have reviewed imposes some type of "fair use policy". Skyroam's Solis day pass never cut-off your data access but does slow it down to a painful (and barely usable) 2G after you consumer about 500MB per 24-hour period. This period resets during each day pass.  This means that you shouldn't be streaming music or videos (Spotify, Google Music, Apple Music, Youtube, Netflix, HULU, Amazon Video, etc).

As an example, the GeefiGlobal WIFI hotspot fair use policy says "GeeFi will begin limiting the download speed after you exceed 500 MB (megabytes) of data in most countries".

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Frequent travellers can buy a Skyroam Solis WIFI hotspot for $149.99 (includes one day pass worth $9). Infrequent travellers can rent a Skyroam Solis with the appropriate number of day passes for $9.95 a day (basically $1 per day to rent the unit plus shipping costs back and forth).

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Collapsible water bottle

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I wrote about the Nomander collapsible water bottle in 2016 and still recommend it for travel.

TL;DR: The Nomander water bottle is a light flexible easy to pack piece of kit you can store easily and use when needed. It avoids having to pay $5 for a 500ml bottle of water that would otherwise cost $0.50 anywhere in the "real world".

The Nomanderis made from food grade silicone so it doesn't retain smell.  It is leakproof. Where my older recommendation (the Vapur) becomes giggly when less than 3/4 full, the Nomander retains its shape fairly well for a foldable bottle. 

With the plastic sleeve in the middle, the bottle is sturdy enough to stand on its own.  The Nomander is (top rack) dishwasher safe, You can also freshen it up, like most other water bottles by soaking a mixture of filtered water and fresh cut lemons for 24-hours.

The water filter

Browse the aisles of any camping goods store and prepare to be amazed at the dozens of water filters available for your immediate purchase. I have been camping most of my life and have travelled to many locations known for terrible horribly diseased water.

I have tried over a hundred filters, tablets and sterilizers. The one I keep coming back to over and over is the Grayl. I first wrote about the Grayl water filter in 2016 and have been recommending it since. It beats every other filter I had tried before or that I have tested since.

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TL;DR: The Grayl water filter is the easy to use, easy to carry, low maintenance and high-reliability water filter you want when in the backcountry or when travelling to locations with questionable water sanitation practices.

When using the orange travel filter, you purify and sanitize the water with one (strong) push. This means I no longer carry a UV sterilizer (Steripen) in addition to a filter (Lifestraw or Sawyer mini).

The Grayl Orange Travel filter removes:

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Each cartridge lasts about 300 uses (with 3 full uses a day, a single filter would last 100 days). The filtering process requires a bit of brute strengh but you never have to worry about batteries and there is no need to backwash the filter. 

Portable laundry machine

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Everyone starts travelling with lots of extra clothes and big check-in pieces of luggage. Eventually, you learn that one-bag travel is the only way to go. One-bag travel does mean you are travelling with the minimum and thus may need a way to clean your clothes while on the move. 5 years ago I bought a Scrubba wash bag and have brought it with me on almost every trip (longer than a week).

TL;DR: The Srubba is a waterproof bag with scrubbing "teeth" you can use to clean your clothes anywhere in about 10 minutes.

Scrubba has become a trusted travel item for business trips and family adventures (vacations with kids, camping, road trips, etc). I use this with either  Woolite Travel Laundry Soap individually packaged travel packets or Dr. Bronner organic Castille soap. Both of these detergents are gentle, work with all types of materials and wash out easily without leaving a soapie residue.

Airborne and NoJetlag

I started taking both of these products 6-7 years ago and believe they help keep me healthy when travelling (particularly the long North America to Asia flights).

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I am not a doctor and the effect could be nothing more than placebo but since I started taking Airborne on longer flights, I find I get sick a lot less Worst case scenario, it is a vitamin C supplement but my experience has been very positive. I have managed to stay healthy even with colleagues have gotten sick.

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When travelling to faraway destinations, I started using No-Jet-Lag. While consulting for Cathay Pacific Airlines (based in Hong Kong), a flight attendant recommended it and I have used it ever since (when travelling through more than 4-5 time zones).

The simple rule of thumb is to chew on one tablet, every time your plane takes off and every time it lands.  Then chew on one tablet every 2 hours while in flight. I normally follow the manufacturer instructions and take it an hour before or 2 hours after a meal.

I'm the first person to admit the questionable medical value of homeopathic products and my results may be nothing more than a placebo effect but it has worked for me and has been recommended to me by about a dozen different flight crew members.

Tom Bihn Synapse 25 backpack

Talking about backpacks is almost akin to talking about religion. It seems people are easily offended when you recommend something different than their preferred bag.  Unlike the average traveller, I have 1M+ miles under my belt and have recently tested about 25 different (well rated) backpacks before I recommended the Tom Bihn Synapse 25 backpack February 2018.

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TL;DR: If you can only buy one backpack (EDC, work and travel), I recommend the USA designed and manufactured Tom Bihn Synapse 25 backpack.

I recommend you read my full review here. This bag is light, durable and has carefully designed features that will make travel much easier. Plus it is built like a tank and will not break on your mid-trip.

Best carry on luggage

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I first recommended the RedOxx AirBoss in March 2012 and it has been my favourite carry-on luggage since. I have tried 50-60 different products since and always come back to this thing. It is designed to last and comes with a no questions lifetime warranty. Along with Tom Bihn, RedOxx offers the best warranty in the business. 

The RedOxx AirBoss is a 100% USA designed and manufactured bag. It is made from incredibly resilient materials. The bag you see above has travelled 1,000,000 + miles since 2012 and it looks almost brand new.

  • Since does not have wheels, I am rarely asked to check its size.
  • It has a flexible shell which means I can push and shove it into even the smallest overhead compartments.
  • It doesn't waste any room on wheels and a pull handle which maximizes available space
  • It can be used with or without packing cubes

If you could buy only 1 luggage that will have to last 10+years, this is the one.

Pacsafe anti-theft packs

There are times when you will be travelling to riskier destinations where theft is a real constant concern (Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai, Barcelona, etc). Then travelling to these "special" locations, you may have to take specialized gear to stay safe and no one offers a wider selection of anti-theft backpacks, packs and bags than Pacsafe.

I own both a Pacsafe backpack and a shoulder pack. Both of my products are no longer offered but you can easily find something that would meet your needs. During "normal" trips, I would choose the lighter and more functional Tom Bihn Synapse 25 every time but when I need extra security, the Pacsafe products are a must.  The bags are lined with a metal mesh to prevent theft by slashing. Even the shoulder straps are reinforced with metal mesh to prevent a slash and go incident. Best of all, the Pacsafe bags look like normal everyday products.

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I own an older version of the Metrosafe and found an everyday use for it you may find interesting. In addition to keeping my valuables safe while I travel, I use it when at the beach or public pool.  I lock it to a bench or medium tall tree and know my valuables (glasses, wallet, cell phone, etc) will be there when I get back. When at the beach, I can go swimming without worrying that someone will steal my wallet. All you have to do it pair it with a travel cable based lock. 

Review of the Tom Bihn Synapse 25 EDC backpack

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
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If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know I evangelize the benefits of one bag travel. My go-to bag for the last ten years has been the RedOxx AirBoss, but I regularly get questions about Tom Bihn bags.

My 5-11 Rush 24 work backpack was starting to fall apart, and in my quest to find the "best" bag for me, I spend three months reviewing various bags. Here is my review of the Tom Bihn Synapse 25 backpack. 

The Tom Bihn Synapse 25 should be considered an Every day Carry (EDC) type of bag. While reviewing the bag, I wanted to evaluate :

  • the capacity
  • will it last
  • the look
  • daily use experience

The bag

I own many RedOxx products, and they are all made from a super durable canvas like material. RedOxx bags have a particular look and are designed for adventure first and foremost. This comes through immediately when you see the bag's metal clips, crazy strong claw strap, YKK number 10 zippers and the incredible stitching. 

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Although the Tom Bihn looks more "conventional", the materials are all high quality, and you see this immediately with the zippers. The main section uses strong YKK #10 zippers Aquaguard, which are water resistant. The other compartments use YKK #8 Aquaguard.  You immediately notice that every component was purposefully chosen for looks, use, and durability. 

Color matched rubbery coating on the inside of the zippers.

Color matched rubbery coating on the inside of the zippers.

Whereas my RedOxx bag zippers' chunkiness is immediately visible, the Tom Bihn Synapse 25 design blends them into the overall bag. 

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Most backpack manufacturers throw two external size bottle holders, and the Synapse 25 only holds one bottle, but you realize why. The designers created a special bottle holder pocket in the middle of the backpack (it expands outward, so you don't lose packing space). At first, I found this strange until I realized this was done to maintain the proper balance of your backpack. As you use this bag, you realize a lot of thought has gone into every aspect of it. 

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Right underneath the water bottle pocket is a smaller throw anything type pocket. When traveling, this is a great place to throw keys, your wallet, passport, small bud style headphones at the security checkpoint. When you realize how many personal items people forget at security checkpoints, you stop throwing your stuff in those plastic bins, and you want to shove them in these types of pockets. During daily use, I have a small personal first aid kit I carry here. 

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Each side has a medium sized longish pocket where I store my beloved Julbo sunglasses. The right-hand pocket has a small organizational sinch pocket. The left one has storage for pens and a small/medium multitool. 

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There is a bottom pocket that can be used to store (while traveling) packing cubes, small shoes, snacks, a jacket, toiletry bag or other items you may want quick access to. During my day to day use, I store my laptop power adapter and sizeable OmniCharge battery here with an assortment of cables. 

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Loops, loops, and more loops (aka O rings). All Tom Bihn products are made to work together, and these loops are the key. You can use the countless loops to attack their cubes, caches or organizer bags inside any of the pockets. The Tom Bihn laptop sleeve allows me to pull out the sleeve at a security checkpoint for review, without the risk of forgetting my precious laptop at the TSA checkpoint.

The Freudian Slip

First, you have to laugh at the name and acknowledge these designers have a sense of humor. The Synapse 25 was designed to go from an EDC office bag to a travel system but how do you organize your office knick-knacks without permanently sacrificing space when traveling? You make the office organizer removable. 
The Freudian Slip 25 is designed to fit perfectly in your Synapse 25 and has 15 organizational pockets to store all of your stuff. It has two folder pockets, four open top pockets for small electronics, two mesh pockets, two pen pockets and of course a business card pocket. 

It costs $50 but can be a real organizational dream for Every day Carry. I use mine every day to carry papers, a notebook, my Skyroam Global Wifi hotspot and more. There are so many pockets most of mine are empty but still a wonderful add-on I highly recommend.

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The lighting

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They sell an Action Lights Guardian light on a strap you can hang on the inside of your bag (so you can find your items even at night). I already own a couple of guardian lights and love them for their durability, but I think they chose the wrong light for internal illumination. Don't get me wrong, the Guardian light is good for internal illumination but the GloTube is much better. There is free advice to your Tom Bihn designers. 

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The bag also comes with an external strap that blends in and is invisible when not used, but allows you to strap an external Guardian light for visibility at night (walking, bicycling, etc.)

The details

Tom Bihn offers dozens of pouches, organizers, and straps that you can add to the Synapse 25 to customize it and make it your own. Evey accessory has a strap, hook or locking system that allows you to use it with every one of their products. These hooks are always robust and easy to use. 


It is only after a couple of weeks of use that I started to realize how much thought and care was given to every aspect of the backpack. As you use the bag and realize all of the design decisions they have made to make your life a little bit better, you can't help but fall in love with the product. 

The durability

In addition to very carefully thought out design, this bag is built durable without looking like it came from an Army Surplus store. I carried this bag into executive meetings and never felt out of place. This is especially surprising when you realize the quality of the components they have used. 

Tom Bihn advertises the shell material as 400d Halcyon which is a 420 denier ultra-high-molecular polyethylene ripstop material coated with a light urethane to make it water resistant. 

It feels like a soft high-quality nylon that can withstand being overstuffed and force zipped. The stitching is hidden where possible and where you can see it, it is high quality and you know it is going to be durable.  

The straps are basic and nicely padded. It feels solid and is comfortable for extended use. Many of the tactical bags have more padding but even when loaded, the Synapse never felt uncomfortable. 

This is the type of bag that will probably last for20 years without any issues.

The look

This is a bag designed for techies and not for ultra-modern style conscious turtleneck wearing millennials. Bags like the Minaal are much appropriate for those looking for stylish minimalist bags that can blend into the snobbish New York design scene. 

The Synapse 25 isn't "sexy" because it doesn't have a "modern" look. It doesn't have any waxed canvas or leather accents. 

The Synapse 25 is an ultra-utilitarian functionality first bag. Now to be clear. I carried the 5-11 Rush 24 tactical bag, so I am more concerned with usability than looks. 

Regardless of the "lacking" looks, the bag is so wonderfully designed and put together that I am convinced you will fall in love with it. But look at the pictures and judge it for yourself. You will either love it or hate it. 

When using this bag, you realize all of the small carefully thought out design decisions the Tom Bihn team made aligned with their design philosophy. This doesn't just feel like a $40 bag quickly put together to sell in bulk at Costco. 


Every time I use this bag, it is like having a conversation with the designers and learning how to use it better. As you use it, you will change your carry model and realize they thought of optimizations you may not realize until you've carried this for a couple of weeks.

Daily use

To truly rate the usability of a bag, you have to carry it for at least a month. After a month of daily use, I can tell you that the Tom Bihn Synapse 25 is a delight to use. 

Even when carrying it for hours across busy airports, it was comfortable.

The external organization pockets mean you can easily store and find your items without having to dig into a cavernous deep main pocket. 

The bag is packed with innovation that will make travel and daily use a joy, all packed in a deceptively simple looking bag. 
 

Recommendations

Handles on bags are important when you travel, and although the belt-like carry strap is durable, I wish it was a little more padded. For a bag that is so well designed, this top carry strap felt a little underwhelming. 

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Like the carry strap, the belt strap (which is removable) is a thin strap of webbing material IT will definitely last but isn't very comfortable to use. Luckily it isn't something I use often, and I disconnect it and leave it at home

As mentioned above, I would replace the internal light (which is back ordered as I write this) to a GloTube instead.

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I bought the chest strap upgrade that includes a whistle but it is a pretty useless whistle. They should have made something that sounds more like a JetScreem whistle than a quacking duck.

Conclusions

Using this bag for a month convinced me that this is my new every day carry backpack (and not just something I test, review and forget about). 

Every couple of days I slightly optimize my storage strategy and realize that this bag was conceived by incredibly talented designers, with strong knowledge of bag design, and that everything was done with intention. 

Using this bag is like having a conversation with the designers. This is the best way I can describe it. 

As long as the look pleases you, you will be delighted with this bag. Over the coming year, I hope to get my hands on more Tom Bihn products so I can review them for you. 

When I bought my first RedOxx product, I felt like I started a relationship with the company because they had a design philosophy I agreed with and subscribed to. 

Most bags since (even the Minaal, Tortuga, AER, etc. ) didn't have this special feeling. They felt like products. 

Having used the Synapse 25 for over a month now, I feel the same attraction to Tom Bihn as I did (and do) for RedOxx. These are companies with strong design principles that permeate throughout their entire product line. If you agree with those principles (and you really should), the Synapse 25 may be the gateway drug that draws you deep into the Tom Bihn line.

So do I recommend it? Absolutely without any reservation.

Changing Google.com country domain no longer works

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

Google power users knew that changing the Google country top-level domain (ccTLD) would allow you to find results optimized for another country or language (e.g. searching Google.ch instead of Google.com to get more swiss biased results). 

There are a tone of reasons why I used this little trick:

  • Accessing Google.com results when terminating a VPN in another country
  • Travelling to a European country that skews results (right to be forgotten) and wanting "real" information returned
  • and much more

In a blog post, Google announced that results will now be customized based on the user's location (without regard for the country ccTLD input in the URL). So if I am in France and try to access American results by using the Google.com site, I will still get french results.

Google explains that 1/5 searches are location dependent (therefore detecting and using the user's actual location makes sense).  If I am traveling to Paris and search for pâtisserie, the logic motivation is that I am searching for a pâtisserie in Paris, not Toronto (my home city). 

You can still search for results in another location but the process is much more complicated now (you can still go into settings and select the correct country service you want to receive.) 

It’s important to note that while this update will change the way Google Search and Maps services are labeled, it won’t affect the way these products work, nor will it change how we handle obligations under national law.
— Google blog post

Source: Google Blog