My list of favorite things this year is simpler than in the past, in respect for the difficulties of the past year. Everything is under $300, and I use these every day. Treat your surgeon well and she will give you a nice scar.
1. Lenovo Ideapad Duet. Cloud computing has diminished the need to carry processing power unless you are editing Pixar films or playing super high resolution video games. For composing words on the go, and sketching diagrams for patients, and putting together powerpoints, this Chromebook hits the sweetspot of price, battery life, and quality. It comes with easel stand and attached keyboard with trackpad. An Apple Magic Keyboard for the iPad costs more than the Duet! Battery life is easily all day, and in tablet mode, streaming movies is great. It fits on the stunted traytables on airplanes well because of its petite size. I drew this sketch for planning an arch repair on it. Can’t beat the price at $249 and cheaper with discounts. I got mine as a open box at Best Buy for $200.
2. Theragun Mini. It is a stereotype that middle aged Asians buy giant massage chairs, which are AMAZING, but if you want something more manageable, the Theragun Mini is the ticket. It is a personal massager designed for deep tissue massage, with a lithium ion battery built in. After a long day of operating, all the aches are pulverized by this machine.
3. Masterclass Subscription -During pandemic, diversions like enrolling in an MBA program and Youtube yoga, are the hot ticket, but for someone with a short attention span in need of non-work diversion, these classes are great! Penn and Teller teach magic. Steve Martin teaches comedy. And FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss teaches high stakes negotiation. All of these highly relevant to a vascular surgeon. Trust me.
4. Moleskine Backpack -I have struggled with overly heavy work bags, but need to carry my computer and some papers and maybe a water bottle, pens, a powerbank, some cables. I find black vinyl laptop bags generally horrible to look at, and too easy to overpack. Expensive leather designer bags carry a similar price as a handbag from Gucci or Louis Vuitton, and would not survive a day without getting scuffed. This backpack from Moleskine, yes the notebook company, is both beautiful to look at but practical as well. It is water resistant and holds everything I need for the day. Has a measured number of compartments and inner panels for pens, cables, and cards, and is well padded for carrying your electronics. Looks great, and would survive medical school.
5. Freewrite Traveler -a writing appliance, a typewriter. The original Freewrite was designed to look like a typewriter, and the spirit of the machine is it takes away all the distractions of the internet for the focus of plain paper. The Traveler is the second machine by the Freewrite people, and offers the same focused writing in a portable package. Not for everyone, this one, but if you like writing, if you must write, this is amazing. It features a Kindle-like e-ink screen, and you type without the ability to edit. Everything you write goes to the cloud of your choice, including Dropbox and Drive, and so you won’t lose it. It has internal space for thousands of pages, and a 4 week battery life. If you hope to write the Great American Novel, this is the gadget for you.
6. LED UV Blacklight -If you’re of a certain age, Spencer’s Gifts was one of the stops you made at the mall, and you always checked out the blacklight section, with its fluorescent posters and purple lamps that made your white shirt glow. As a surgeon, you want a Wood’s Lamp, but most hospitals do not have one, and most nursing staff have no idea what you are talking about. Good thing is that there are many cheap but powerful LED Blacklight options that emit UV light. This is great to have in the OR for a fluorescein test of gut perfusion (link). Take it camping in the deserts around here and you can see the scorpions at night! Or you can torture yourself by breaking it out at the next hotel you stay at and visualize all the glowing “protein stains.” Under $10, but slightly more for the higher power ones.
7. Old School iPod -This is as close as you can get to getting a Walkman without dealing with the inconvenience or poor sound quality of cassette tapes. In 2004, these were cutting edge, and Apple to its credit still supports file transfers of purchased (but not streaming) music files. The cool thing about these is that if you can do a carotid endarterectomy, replacing the battery and upgrading the memory are nothing, and there are many videos on line to show you how. These units are cheap to find on eBay, and there is nothing cooler than carrying around 10,000 songs in your pocket, without the need for a network, meaning uninterrupted music in the OR without relying on the network.
8. Golf Ball Stamps -These stamps are meant to mark golf balls, but they are incredibly useful for graphically marking up a printed list. Each of these symbols represents a status or an action, which lets me look at a list at a glance and remember exactly what needs to happen. At pro shops everywhere.
9. Swiss Army Knife -the first one I got was as a graduation gift from my dad, thought technically not a gift as superstition dictated I purchase it from him for a dollar, it was the same as this one which is currently my fourth, bought at a Boy Scout camp for about $10. I keep one in my checked luggage for use at my destination for opening bottles, uncorking wine, cutting salume and cheeses, tightening screws, and when the occasion arises, performing an appendectomy (need a hotel sewing kit). This one also has tiny forceps and a toothpick.
10. Skirt steak -rarely seen any more shrink wrapped at chain groceries, you generally have to ask the fellow behind the counter or know a butcher. This diaphragmatic muscle used to be cheap. Considered offal in many places, this formerly cheap meat ended up being the go to meet for tacos and street cart barbecues in Asia, but don’t sniff at it. As it is not a structural muscle, it is not tough, has great flavor, and while leaner than traditional steak cuts, not devoid of fat like a filet (which is not my favorite) giving it enough buttery fat tones to remind you it is meat. Because it’s harder to find, that means the people who supply it know beef. Here in Abu Dhabi, I ordered this from the CarniStore in Dubai. Dinner is served.
My Lenovo Yogabook C930 recently got a firmware update where the main screen image gets cloned to the e-ink display. By putting the device into tent mode, the LCD screen turns off and you now have a PC on an e-ink screen. Linked to a Bluetooth keyboard, it is a low power focused writing station, albeit with lag. Like other e-Ink screens, there is lag -kind of like a typewriter, but you can see it in full sunlight and theoretically there should be a benefit to battery life although I am holding my horses given the Intel chip burning in this device. I have been advocating for this feature for my e-ink Kindle readers. Imagine if you can write a book on a Kindle! It would be a simple OS update. Come on Amazon! Turn on a simple text editor and sync to the Amazon cloud and call it “Author.”
Kudos to Lenovo for the firmware update. I feel like I am part of a giant beta as the Yogabook C930 is gloriously half-baked. The fingerprint reader is still dreck. Freewrite should take note and hurry up with Traveler!
Distraction Free Writing: Portable, Disconnected, AA Battery Powered
Distraction free writing has been a buzzword. It used to be the norm with computers by their limitations and design to focus you on writing. Today, technology is increasingly put in front of you to entertain and distract. The problem for students and writers is that your computer and phone are gateways to music, video, and communication in ways that were only dreams twenty years ago. The key elements of distraction free writing are a decent keyboard, extended battery life, simple interfaces, lack of connectivity, and absence of party line operators. Each of these elements formed the core of our computers back in the 1980’s, when computers were rarely networked, they were all monochrome, and your words were all that you saw. This desire is driving the market for distraction free writing software and hardware, but you can find ways to create your own portable distraction free writing tools without dropping a fortune. And distraction-free writing is also intrusion-free -something to consider in today’s shifting privacy boundaries. At the end, the best distraction free options may be in reconsidering decades old devices that may be picked up cheaply used or at greatly reduced prices for new. Most current devices are made to last about a thousand recharges, and struggle with purposeful obsolescence. You may find that there are many fine older options that will suit your writing needs while greatly increasing your productivity while avoiding costs.
Consider the keyboards we had back in 1985. They were all mechanical spring keyboards which made a nice click sound. Writing was a tactile pleasure. This was in contrast to the membrane based keys seen on games and toys, and mistakes like the PCjr. You see them today as controls for microwave ovens. The moving keys send a message of accomplishment to your brain. Despite this, flat keyboards with no physical component are still being thrown up to see if they would stick. The smartphone keyboard on the first iPhone killed the physical ones on Blackberry and the Treo’s after all. Manufacturers are still experimenting with flat keyboards such as on the latest Yoga Book’s e-ink keyboard, and the upcoming Microsoft Surface Duo devices.
These software and touch display based keyboards rely on spelling correction and ultimately constant connectivity to minimize error. The push for ultra-portability means dispensing with the original mechanical keyboard which was descended from electric typewriters like the IBM Selectric. This resulted in the terribly mushy, mass produced keyboards introduced in the 1990’s, getting ever worse. The high point of this design viewpoint was introduced in the 2015 MacBook and recently retired in the 2019 Macbook Pro when Apple realized everyone hated typing on superflat keys meant to accommodate flatness over functionality. There is a welcome movement back to reasonable keyboards. I would even claim that the persistent life and value of the Thinkpad line is the focus on the keyboard that remains preserved after IBM sold it to Lenovo. The new-old keyboard on the 2019 MacBook Pro 16’s are a concession to the realization that typing is a core function of these machines.
There is a push back as writers, office workers, and gamers have created a market for mechanical keyboards. These are usually Bluetooth connected devices, and typically paired to tablets for writing. Unfortunately, separate keyboards connected to tablets are not as portable as a laptop.
I would argue that laptops are not as portable as they could be. The Freewrite (link) was designed with writers in mind as an update to electric typewriters with cloudbased file management and an e-ink display with days of battery life on a single charge. I almost bought one but the small display and the relatively bulky size kept me from springing. I have ordered a Freewrite Traveler (link) which is their mini-laptop version, but since I ordered one last spring, it has remained vaporware with its delivery date pushed back from summer 2019 to spring 2020.
Battery life is a sore point for me. Laptops are now expected to be wonderful if they exceed 8 hours of battery life, but I remember that the original portable computers like the Radio Shack 100 series could go days on AA batteries. Writing appliances were introduced in the 80’s including electric typewriters with single line LCD displays and single file memory which would allow you to compose and edit. I had such a device from Japan in high school that had a four line LCD display, built in thermoelectric (fax paper) printer, and battery life that went several days on 4 AA batteries.
By using computers and smartphones, which function as portable televisions and multi-function, shopping kiosks which use Watts of power, the trade off is battery life and constantly worrying about plugging in for a recharge. We forgot the days of battery life and are happy with 8 hours. The battery power bar is terribly distracting for me and I tend to stop working to find an outlet to recharge when it inevitably drops and when my productivity is nearly always highest. If I’m traveling, this means carrying the power brick, another injury to this one who remembers AA battery powered writing tools.
In 2017, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was famously recalled after spontaneously combusting and were banned from airplanes. All Lithium batteries must now be hand carried. Just recently, I was told while checking in that Apple Macbooks could not be turned on during flight because of heating issues. This is a consequence of the greatly increased energy densities of Lithium cells and their chemical volatility. AA batteries and their nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable variants suffer from no such problem.
Even with great battery life, you have to remember most of that power, and therefore bulk and weight of the Lithium batteries is devoted to painting vivid colors on the screen, communicating via radio signal to the world, and keeping dozens of apps updated on your activities, and not to writing.
The Lithium battery which can power a car because of its energy density is overkill if all you want is to write. The modern computer operating systems, Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, are all over-powered for the simple act of preserving words. Consider the lowly text file to a modern Word file. The text file for a novel might take kilobytes of memory, but the same Office Word file is measured in megabytes -thousands of times bigger. Try emailing a fully formatted Word file through your corporate firewalls if it exceeds your company’s limits on attachment file sizes. The size and complexity of information that is exchanged burns power. Compare that to the notes you might write onto paper. The few microcalories used to power your neurons and move pencil on paper, the motor and optics circuitry processing the information at a speed suitable for your ape brain.
My friend and early mentor, Professor David Tilson, refused to relinquish his DOS based word processor even well into the Windows era. And I understood. The monochrome and monotype letters forced you to look at the words and not the style of the words. While I admire Steve Jobs, and his introduction of fonts to our everyday lives, the ability to shape the look of your writing intrudes on its composition. Monochrome does not mean monotonous, and modern distraction-free software efforts like IA Writer embrace simplicity. The emergence of dark mode is another effort at rolling back the clock. When you enable it for your iPhone, it reaffirms the utility and critical need for focus and simplicity. Do you need millions of colors or just letters on a simple background? While you can change the color setting of your laptop screen or your writing software, the ultimate in monochrome experience is an e-ink display.
The e-ink display is what you see on Amazon Kindles. Originally meant for low power usage, high contrast functions like in store signs, e-Ink is currently used for e-Readers, although there is a niche market for e-ink based displays and tablets which do offer the low power hi contrast display perfect for a focused writing work station – you can find them on Amazon and eBay. Unfortunately, because these e-Ink tablets are run typically on Android, there is no escaping the internet on these, and because they do so, their battery lives are not that much different from standard tablets. What the we need is for Amazon to gift the writers of the world with Bluetooth or wired keyboard functionality to their Kindles and offer a text writer that can be synced to their cloud..
What the we need is for Amazon to gift the writers of the world with bluetooth or wired keyboard functionality to their Kindles and offer a text writer that can be synced to their cloud.
The constant need for connectivity drives software and hardware inefficiency. Writing requires intimacy and privacy. Just as you cannot write while engaged in a shouting match with someone, you cannot write with notifications of arriving messages, pictures, and videos. I cannot write while watching a movie or listening to certain music, but all of these distractions are baked into the function of modern computers and smartphones. This uses up battery life. The devices are in a race to maximize the battery and screen size at the cost of purpose and meaning aside from commerce.
Party line operators were a feature of the early telephone systems. Your locality was serviced by an operator that routed your calls and inevitably your conversations were open to intrusion both intentional and unintentional. When all your work is kept on a cloud server, it really is no different. And it isn’t that hackers that may take all your work. My generation grew up with the Cold War, and its dark tales of thought crimes and writers imprisoned for samizdat -ideas forbidden by a state entity. In a time when your social media is a subject for governmental and not just consumer interest, returning to off line options is something to consider seriously. The meaning of party line operators is in this context wholly changed.
The one feature of cloud based options is the convenience of accessing it across all of your devices. But are you really going to be writing on your iPhone, then on your desktop, then on your laptop, then from an airport kiosk? Your file can be lost during the sync process or changed to a competing version from another computer you were working on. And goodbye work if you get hacked or if your cloud service shuts you down or out. While you write, you have to keep a local version and back up to a nonvolatile storage option.
Not connecting to the internet saves you battery life. It also frees you from taking deep YouTube dives into funny cat videos or answering emails or Facebook posts. The stillness you need to just write is difficult to achieve with a modern laptop, tablet or smartphone. It can be attained with these older devices which people in the know still value decades after they left their boxes. I suggest these options if you are thinking of trying a focused writing appliance (a typewriter!).
Option 1: King Jim Pomera DM100 (link) is best described as a writing appliance designed in Japan adapted for the English speaking market. It is a sleek thin portable that allows one to type words unencumbered by internet. The files on it can be transferred to another computer by Bluetooth, and to smart phones by QR code which is cool. It runs for days on AA batteries, and has a backlit monochrome LCD screen. It is priced on th high end at 392.61, but receives the best rating on Amazon which to me is a 4.5. I never come across 5 star reviews that aren’t fake. One reviewers comment that the keyboard is cramped and takes getting used to. It can be used as a Bluetooth keyboard and stand for iOS devices.
Option 2: Neo 2 Alphasmart Word Processor with Full Size Keyboard,, Calculator
The Alphasmart Neo2 (link) was the last of a line of writing appliances put out by a pair of former Apple engineers who wanted to provide affordable word processing options on a full mechanical keyboard. The Neo2 is the most available and apparently the most usable, allowing one to type out hundreds of pages and transfer to a computer via USB connection. The screen is an LCD screen like on a calculator. The killer feature on this device is nearly forever battery life on AA cells. It has a rabid following of professional writers who appreciate the pared down experience for productive writing. It achieves that perfect 4.5 star rating. This is for a device discontinued in 2007 and sells for about 40-50USD in used condition. Reviewers rave about turning it on and instantly being able to type without bootup, and avoiding distraction by email, notifications, social media etc.
Option 3: Psion Series 5MX
The Psion Series 5MX represented the apex of portable computer design in the late 1990s. It was a computer made from the ground up from circuits, hardware, operating system, and apps by British engineers and it was a thing of beauty. Made in the late 1990’s, this device’s killer features, long battery life via AA cells, ultraportabiity, and lack of easy internet access puts it in a separate class. Not everyone like the keyboard, but I have long been able to type on it without difficulty with average to large sized hands. I had one during residency in the 1990’s and it followed me into fellowship. Before EHR, I composed full consultation notes and H&Ps on it and filed them on my password protected CF drive for later retrieval and update for frequent flyer patients. I picked up a pair of these for about 90USD from the Netherlands, but the going priced varies from about 70 to 200USD for a used one in good condition. New ones pop up but they go for nearly their original price -they are that good. I suspect I got a deal because they were Ericsson MC218, a Swedish licensed clone.
It has a compact flash drive, and with the save as text file function in the built-in word processor which works fast and reliably, it is possible to back up to a nonvolatile memory (the CF drive) and transfer to a regular computer. The one caveat is that the maximum size of CF drive it will see seems to be 128mB -that is megabytes which is hard to find. In certain older industrial machinery, instructions are uploaded via CF cards of these size, and so these cards are available on Amazon. Or look in a drawer for an old unused CF card.
I wrote this post on the Psion, and never once looked at emails, social media, or Youtube.