What’s in my bag? – Laura Welcher

By training, I’m a linguist. I’m fascinated by systems, especially complex yet economical ones — like human language — that elegantly solve problems. To feed my inner geek, I look for tricky aspects of daily life that can be improved by the development of such systems, and then put the system together with just what is needed to make it all work just right. And then let it run, with minimal input, like clockwork.

Several years ago I was faced with such an problem by the introduction an extremely annoying 3-hour-a-day commute. Liking my job a lot, but hating being sedentary and stuck in traffic for hours at a time, I decided to ditch the car and become a bike commuter.

However, my particular commute (in the San Francisco Bay Area) presents several challenges. Part of my ride involves either riding BART or taking a bus across the Bay Bridge. This means quickly donning and doffing a bike bag in order to be able to carry the bike up and down BART stairs, through fare gates, being able to maneuver on trains without rolling over packages, paws, or feet, and being able to load the bike on and off the rack on the outside front of the Transbay Bus. Fellow public transit takers are not appreciative of cyclists who are slow or clumsy at doing any of this.

After trying out many commuter bags, some too big and some too small, I think I have found one that is just right. The Ballard Market Pannier ($80) by Detours converts in a flash from a pannier to a backpack, so that you can quickly secure it on your back and carry your bike. It also converts to a long-handled tote bag so you can travel as an incognito bike commuter as needed. The pack is rugged, the base is waterproof, there are internal straps and clips to secure a laptop and keys, and there is a cover you can whip out in wet weather to keep everything inside clean and dry. It fits on both my standard hybrid commute bike, as well as my folding Dahon Vitesse bike ($530-$750) shown here.

[Click images to embiggen]

And now for what is inside. One basic challenge that most bike commuters have is the need to be able to transition from casual bike commuter wear (which San Francisco workplaces are generally tolerant of), to “event-wear” for special activities or meetings at work, where one attempts to banish the sweat and bike helmet-hair for a look that is a bit more polished and put-together. I am no exception to this.

Besides carrying a change of clothing, my secret weapon is this small mesh bag with all of the essential elements to produce the transformation. They allow it to be accomplished anywhere from a seat in the back of the bus, to a work desktop, to the least equipped of public bathrooms. Also stashed in this bag are a variety of necessities including basic tools, toiletries, and first aid to handle most minor commute and workday emergencies.

This bag also includes a small Altoids tin that neatly packs in the smallest (and somewhat sensitive) health and beauty items. I keep it closed with a hair elastic.

Another challenge that I have to deal with is the need to take a shot. I’m supposed to take it every day, ideally at the same time each day. The only time I can manage to be consistent about it is around 10 am, so I usually carry the shot bag with me. Afterwards the shot site can hurt like heck so it is really better to do after the bike ride when it can be iced for a bit. I wanted to show this picture because I figure a lot of people have to deal with something like it, and to show that it can be dealt with. (My shot is for M.S. but it is more common challenge for diabetics.) Not fun and not fair, but having to take a shot doesn’t need to keep you off your bike if that’s what you want to do. And, managing it well within my larger bike commute system adds a touch of elegance to my solution, imho.

  • BD Safe-Clip ($3) needle-nipper. A fantastic and inexpensive device — it safely removes and stores hundreds of needles as biohazard waste; the rest of the syringe materials can go into regular recycling. Disposing of used syringes was a huge pain until I figured this out.
  • Copaxone — a treatment for M.S. and quite possibly the reason I can still bike (and work and walk and run) today. I usually keep several syringes in the bag so I don’t have to restock every day.
  • Autoject ($34) — mechanical injection tool that hides the needle (a big help for the needle-phobic) and for those hard-to-reach injection sites.
  • Prescription and doctor contact info, 1-800 number for advice.
  • Individual alcohol prep pads ($5/200) — turns out these are also incredibly useful for cleaning all kinds of things, but especially grungy mobile phones and computer keyboards.

The next system of gear I carry in my bag is part fun, part communications experiment (nerdy linguist fun), and part civic service in a location where a major earthquake could happen at any moment. This set of stuff is my portable amateur radio gear. Using this radio, I can talk point-to-point with other radio users, hop on one of the several local volunteer-maintained repeaters, and in an emergency (when cell networks often go down), join or run an alternate communications network and pass emergency messages using established and well-known protocols. I often practice on Tuesdays with a radio net that convenes on a local repeater after the San Francisco emergency sirens are tested.

  • Yaesu VX-8DR HT Radio ($492)
  • AC charger, earphone mic, charged extra LI-ON battery. Another good practice is to carry an alkaline battery case and spare batteries and / or a cigarette lighter plug ($28). These aren’t in my current kit but probably should be, because they extend use of the radio in an emergency. Without recharging, I can currently get about 8 continuous hours of use in receive mode, but considerably less if I need to a lot of transmitting.
  • Nifty Mini-Manual — laminated quick guide to the VX-8DR for reading on the BART / bus or looking up a function (this particular radio has lots of functions, and many involve multiple key-push combinations).
  • Diamond SRH519 ($23) flexible antenna which so far has held up to a lot of abuse in my bag and allows the radio to be comfortably carried, either clipped on the bag or on the belt / waistline. I’ve also used the Diamond SRHF40 flexible antenna with good results.

A more recent gear / bag challenge I had involved maintaining a training schedule this past spring to complete my first marathon. On an event day at work, this could mean biking to work in the morning, working a regular day, heading out from work to complete a 5 – 8 mile run, returning to work to get ready for an event (and cleaning up sans shower), working the event, getting back into commute gear, and then biking home. Now that the marathon is done, I want to keep up my endurance and training level to run more of them. So, the stuff I carry with me needs to support days like this.

The workday essentials (ok, I admit the wallet and key ring need a bit of editing)…

And last, but not least — the gear to support the commute itself. I keep the SF Bike map because of its paper charm, also because I like to look at it while riding BART or the bus (such a pretty system!). It folds down to wallet size. I show the various cards here (some are normally in my wallet) because they demonstrate whole other systems of infrastructure that operate in the background to efficiently maintain my ability to bike commute — Clipper Card to quickly pay transit fares, Commuter Check card to quickly restock the Clipper Card with pre-tax dollars, BikeLink card to lock my bike in safe locker storage at most transit stations, and a ZipCar membership to rent a ride share during the workday if need be (for example, to pick someone up or haul stuff). And of course, my card to show I’m a proud member of the San Francisco Bike Coalition!

Btw, this is my summer bike kit; the winter kit is much more involved because of the rain gear. I consider one of the greatest and most delightful challenges to my system to be the ability to maintain comfort, safety and visibility as well as dryness for self and gear during a San Francisco downpour!


Kuhn Rikon Auto Safety Master Opener

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I’ve used this tool for the last few months, and it far surpasses any other standard can opener I’ve tried. This style of opener, where the lid is removed from the side of the can rather than from the top, was first evangelized via fast-talking TV ads (“but wait, there’s more”), but is now commonly available.

The benefits to this particular model make it best-of-breed compared to its lookalikes. In their attempt to make the device the Swiss Army Knife of openers, they’ve incorporated a beer bottle opener and a few pry-levers into the casing. More importantly, the side of the opener has a tiny set of pliers. These solve the problem that most people have with these style of can-openers. While the lid is separated from the can, it is not totally severed. Manually removing the lid could make a mess, since squeezing the can creates ooze. The pliers make it really easy to pry the lid off without spilling a drop of the can’s contents. The opener doesn’t even get dirty, since it never contacts the contents of the can.

After working through a number of traditional openers, this is the one that I’m going to have forever. Where the legacy technology wears as it rusts and dulls, I’m confident that the Kuhn Rikon will never wear down.

-- James Roche  

[Note: This is an updated review of the previously reviewed Kuhn Rikon can opener. -- Oliver]

Kuhn Rikon Auto Safety Master Opener

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Kuhn Rikon

The Handmade Marketplace

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The giant crafts website Etsy makes it easy list homemade stuff to a potential audience of millions. But the hard part is getting anyone to pay attention and it actually buy it. That requires some basic business and online marketing skills, which are reviewed here, with the home crafter in mind.

-- KK  

The Handmade Marketplace
Kari Chapin
2010, 224 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

What best advice would you offer a crafter who is looking to gain national attention for their work?

Invest in great product photography. Great work sells itself, so you need to do everything possible to make sure the beauty of your work comes through in a way that’s apparent to people reading about you online or in print because most people won’t see your work in person.


Unsatisfied Customers

In a perfect world, everyone would be happy with you and your products all the time. You would always be paid promptly and always get rave reviews. Sometimes, though, things just don’t work out. In this case you should:

Try to remain upbeat. Use positive-sounding words when communicating with customers.

Say, “What can I do to resolve this for you?” rather than “What do you want from me?”

Try to find value in what your unhappy customer is saying to you. It could be that their complaint has some truth to it, which you may find helpful in the long run.


Are you getting some really great feedback about something in particular that you’ve made? Consider posting these compliments in the description of your item.


Keep these customer service practices in mind at all times:

  • The customers may not always be right, but they do deserve your full attention and respect regarding the matter at hand.
  • Apologize first. What if you didn’t do anything wrong? you may ask. Well, while that may be the case, that’s not really the point. You can, in fact, regret that your customer is upset in any regard. Simply recognizing that your buyer has a problem and has had to take the time out of a busy day to alert you to it is reason enough to apologize.
  • Ask what will make the situation right. If what the customer wants is reasonable and you can do it, you should consider it.
  • Taking a hit on a sale is a small price to pay when it comes to your overall reputation and the trust you are trying to build with your market.


Square Register

This is an unevaluated tool because no one has used it yet. It was just released today. It is an iPad app with a Square credit card reader and it has the potential to simplify retail stores Point-of-Sales, and eliminate “cash registers.” A store owner would get to customize the touch screen to their store, making it dead simple to operate. Restaurants might even put one on each table allowing customers to order their own food. It’s a ingenious and elegant hack. I’d love to hear from anyone who actually uses one.

– KK

Square Register

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Patagonia Rock Guide Pants

Rock Guides.jpg

On my recent trip to Bangladesh I wore a single pair of Patagonia Rock Guide Pants for nearly four weeks while in country. Every few days I would wash them in a sink in the evening, hang them up to dry, and in a few hours they would be as dry as anything gets in Bangladesh. After a month of hard traveling and three months of subsequent wear at home I feel confident saying that they are the best travel pants I have ever worn.

One of the reasons why they work so well is their simplicity. They are not overwhelmed with pockets. They have one zippered back pocket, two traditional side pockets, and a single low-profile zippered cargo pocket on the right thigh. The result is a minimalist but perfectly functional pair of travel pants with just enough pocket space. The zippered pockets mean that your belongings are kept secure (especially in pickpocket prone areas, or during bumpy epic bus rides), and the thigh pocket has the perfect amount of space for a passport, a wallet, and a few smaller items (memory cards, coinage, maps, etc). Unlike other travel pants I’ve tried, the Rock Guides don’t scream “adventure,” and are inconspicuous enough to be worn in a variety of environments while traveling (and even on a daily basis at home).

The pants are made out of a lightweight nylon and spandex blend that provides the perfect amount of stretchiness and flexibility. My pair weighs around 11-oz, and unlike every other pair of pants I own they don’t take up much space when packed. Despite being light, they also resist scrapes and scratches. I recently wore them during a long backwoods hike through thick thorns and brambles and they emerged unscathed (thorns are normally a critical weakness in pants I’ve tried in the past). I’ve had my current pair for five months, and they have withstood a lot of punishment while being no worse for wear.

In the past, I’ve tried zip-off convertible pants but always found them cumbersome and uncomfortable. A good idea on paper, but one that has never worked for me in the field. I was initially worried about the lack of flexibility the Rock Guide pants would provide, but quickly found that they were designed to be worn comfortably with pant legs rolled up. The lightweight stretchy material and wider hem allows the legs to be rolled up without risk of unrolling, and the stretchiness minimizes any uncomfortable binding. A recent testament to this came last week when I forgot my running shorts at home and I ended up wearing my Rock Guides on a five mile run. They performed great.

Other nylon pants I’ve worn used thicker fabric and bulkier designs which contributed to them feeling hot, heavy, and burdensome in the pack. This includes pants I’ve tried from REI, North Face, EMS, and Columbia. All had some critical flaw. The Rock Guides remain the best pair of pants I’ve owned. I recently ordered a second pair as I’ve started wearing them on a daily basis. As far as sizing goes, they run a tad large due to their stretchiness. Finally, the most significant criticism I’ve seen about them is due to the lack of different pant lengths. However, it seems Patagonia has incorporated extra fabric in the pant cuff for those who don’t mind re-hemming their pants on their own.

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Note: Patagonia has recently changed the name of the Rock Guide Pants to the Rock Craft Pants. They are nearly identical, and made of the same fabric with a slightly slimmer cut. --OH]

Patagonia Rock Craft Pants (the new model)

Available from Patagonia

Patagonia Women’s Rock Guide Pants

Available from Patagonia

Manufactured by Patagonia

3-Inch Widgy Pry Bar


I found this 3″ pry bar at CountyComm and have carried it with me everywhere. It is dead simple, strong, and tremendously useful. I use it for everything from small prying jobs to opening the tape on boxes and getting that little bit of extra leverage you need sometimes.

At 3″ long it rides unnoticed on my keys until I need it, and it is always at the ready. County Comm has multiple versions in different lengths, and some lighter more expensive versions that are made out of titanium, but this 3″ model suits me perfectly. It’s surprising how much utility one can find in such a simple piece of metal.

-- Jim McLaughlin  

3″ Micro Widgy Pry Bar

Available from and manufactured by County Comm

Dillon Precision RL-550B Progressive Reloading Machine


In the early ‘70’s I started shooting more frequently and decided to reload my own ammo. I purchased an RCBS reloading press and a powder measure and a scale and a lot of other stuff that was needed to reload my .45ACP ammo. The major fallback was that each and every round had to be resized and de-primed (using the first of three dies); then they all had to be re-primed (installing new primers); then, after adjusting the powder measure to the correct charge of powder, I had to dump the powder into each individual cartridge. After that, I would take a new bullet and put it on each cartridge and using the press with the third die installed, I would seat the bullet and crimp the case. It took about 3 hours to reload 100 rounds. But, that was the way it was done.

In the early ‘80’s I became aware of a device called a “progressive reloading machine”. There were a few on the market, but with a little research, I found that one was being manufactured by Dillon Precision in Scottsdale, AZ. At that time I lived in Phoenix, so I went over to see this device. As I walked in to the showroom, I must say that I was very impressed both by the overall view and by the attention that I received from the salesperson. I was showed how easy that reloading COULD be, and the saving of major amounts of labor hours. Naturally, I became an owner of a brand new RL-550 Progressive reloading press.

They tell me that a guy can reload 500 rounds an hour with this machine. I have only done about 350 per hour but never broke out into a sweat! The fascinating thing about this reloading press is that once you get started, you drop a loaded round with every pull of the handle. Not 5 pulls and two die changes for every round as before.

After a few years of trouble-free operation, I had a problem with the automatic primer feed. I took the machine over to Scottsdale, and they told me that they had seen this problem before and that there was an upgrade that could be done to my machine. At that point I asked how much it would cost to upgrade to the “next level” (RL-550B). I was told that they [Dillon Precision] have a “NO B.S. Lifetime Warranty” and it would cost me nothing to upgrade my machine to the RL-550B Specs. Mind you, I had been using this press for over 13 years!

You just do not find that kind of commitment from very many companies these days.
I moved to Texas in 2005 and eventually got my shop set up so it was time to do some reloading. When I was changing calibers to reload 9mm, I discovered that I did not have the correct primer feed tube. I e-mailed Dillon Precision and got a phone call from one of their techs. Long story short, they sent me what I needed at no charge!

Dillon Precision has a whole line of terrific products and they have the absolute best warranty in the business. I recommend them to everyone!

-- Matt Davis  

Dillon Precision RL-550B Progressive Reloading Machine

Available from and manufactured by Dillon Precision