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A Note from the Road Warrior

Thursday, May 6th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira
Nighttime in Prague

Prague at night

There’s nothing like staying in six hotels over nine nights to find out the state of technology in European hotels.  My trip looked like this: New York, Munich, Prague, Munich, Bozen (Bolzano), Munich, New York (I am on the plane flying to New York as you read this, most likely).

I stayed in brand new hotels (one that opened a mere two days prior to my arrival), and some with over a century of tradition.

Technology was in evidence everywhere:  New contactless key card systems for hotel rooms (the one-year-old Kempinski Hybernská in Prague, Czech Republic), a buzzer system to let guests into your room (the 100-year-old Parkhotel Laurin in Bolzano, Italy), and of course Internet access.

The surprising thing is that, while the speed was never blazingly fast, it all seemed to work.  In addition, several hotels had very reasonably priced or free access, namely the Kempinski Hybernská, where Wi-Fi was free but using the wired access was not, and the Parkhotel Laurin, where one day Internet cost only €8.

The only slight difficulty came about when I tried to access the Wi-Fi in the lobby of the Parkhotel Laurin.  No matter what I did, my trusty ThinkPad X300 couldn’t see the access point (although apparently everyone else’s laptop could).

No problem, thanks to the super staff.  I was invited into one of the hotel’s offices and connected via cable.

There was a significant low-tech failure, at the brand new Novotel at the Munich Airport (Flughafen München-Franz Josef Strauß).  Several of the foam mattresses were placed upside down on the bed platform (I was travelling with a colleague and my room the first time we stayed there and his room the second time had this problem).  At first I thought it was a high-tech design but ultimately, it was simply overlooked.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Christmas Day Terrorism Plot: How Information Overload Prevailed and Counterterrorism Knowledge Sharing Failed

Monday, January 4th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

There is no question that analyzing mountains of information and determining what is important, urgent, and worthy of follow-up (three separate and distinct categories) is a daunting task in any organization.

Are we sharing all of our knowledge yet?

Are we sharing all of our knowledge yet?

When the organization is the United States Federal Government and the amount of information that has to be addressed daily dwarfs what most people can conceptualize, lives may be at stake when an individual or system fails to connect the dots.

Such a failure occurred on December 25, 2009, but it need not have.

The tools to manage information on a massive scale do indeed exist and it is clear that the U.S. government is either not deploying the right ones or not using them correctly.

The National Counterterrorism Center, created in 2004 following recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, has a mission to break “the older mold of national government organizations” and serve as a center for joint operational planning and joint intelligence.  In other words, various intelligence agencies were ordered to put aside decades-long rivalries and share what they know and whom they suspect.  Unfortunately, while this sounds good in theory, in practice this mission may not yet be close to be being fully carried out.

In addition to the fact that old habits die hard (such as a disdain for inter-agency information sharing), it appears that the folks at the NCTC failed to grasp basic tenets of knowledge sharing, namely that search, in order to be effective, needs to be federated and contextual, that is to say it needs to simultaneously search multiple data stores and present results in a coherent manner.

Discrete searches in separate databases will yield far different results compared to a federated search that spans across multiple databases.  All reports indicate that intelligence agencies were still looking at discrete pieces of information from separate and distinct databases plus the agencies themselves were not sharing all that they knew.

In this case, much was known about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253.  In May, Britain put him on a watch list and refused to renew his visa.  In August, the National Security Agency overheard Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen discussing a plot involving a Nigerian man.  In November, the accused’s father warned the American Embassy (and a CIA official) in Abuja that his son was a potential threat.  As a result, the son was put on a watch list that flagged him for future investigation.  He bought his plane ticket to Detroit with cash and boarded the flight with no luggage.  Yet, almost unbelievably, no one saw a pattern emerge here.

Shouldn’t a system somewhere have put the pieces of this puzzle together and spit out “Nigerian, Abdulmutallab, Yemen, visa, plot, cash ticket purchase, no luggage = DANGER!”?

Information Overload is partially to blame as well.  Given the vast amount of intelligence that the government receives every day on suspected terrorists and plots, it could very well be that analysts were simply overwhelmed and did not notice the pattern.  Rather than being immune from the problem, given the sheer quantity of the information it deals with, the government is more of a poster child for it.

Regardless of what comes out of the numerous investigations of the Christmas Day terrorism plot and the information-sharing failures of the various intelligence agencies, one thing was abundantly clear by Boxing Day: the Federal Government needs to greatly improve its ability to leverage the intelligence it gathers and connect the dots.

Clearly, there are many changes that need to occur in order to improve security but one relatively simple way for the government to proceed is to take the first steps to lower the amount of Information Overload and raise the signal-to-noise ratio so that critical information can rise to the top.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Notes from the Road Warrior: Happiness is a Room with Free Wi-fi

Thursday, September 10th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

This past week, I’ve been travelling in Central Europe, mixing business and pleasure. I’ve stayed at three hotels, the Loisium in Langenlois, Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), the Hotel Herrenhof in Vienna (which opened at the end of last year), and the Hotel Sifkovits in Rust, in Austria’s Burgenland province.DSC_2445 (Large)

Both the Loisium and Herrenhof are very modern, up-to-date hotels while the Hotel Sifkovits is older and more traditional. All three not only offered Internet access but it was free – and working.

The Loisium provided Wi-Fi access in common areas and wired access in guestrooms. The others were Wi-Fi throughout. I have only just arrived at the Sifkovits so I haven’t yet tested it fully but the connection at the Loisium was fast and simply requiring only a cable (available from the front desk if you don’t travel with one); the Herrenhof’s system required the entry of a user name and password every 24 hours (the front desk provides you with a card and you have to scratch off a strip to see the password).  My computer lost its connection several times and one card lasted only three hours but the front desk happily provided another card (reading me the login information over the phone to save time) and that did the trick.

The first part of the trip focused on Austrian Wine Country. You can read my journal and view photographs from the trip here. Then it was on to Vienna for my business meetings.

The slide show takes you through one day of the trip.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In-flight Internet Access: The Return Flight

Thursday, May 14th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

After a pleasant drive from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and a few days of meetings there, I returned to New York via American Airlines Flight 22.  Similar to the outbound flight to San Francisco, once we hit 10,000 feet, I was able to turn on my Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and find several Gogo hotspots.

Gogo became inaccessible 75 minutes prior to landing

Gogo became inaccessible 75 minutes prior to landing

For most of the flight, I was able to surf the Web, watch videos, read news, send and receive e-mail, and even check the flight’s exact position.  I was also able to use my BlackBerry Bold smartphone, including the BlackBerry Instant Messenger (BBM) feature.  Everything worked until 75 minutes prior to landing.  At that moment, the Internet became inaccessible.  The Gogo hotspots were replaced by locked access points labeled “Unknown.”  The purser on the flight said that the service goes down from time to time but it usually comes back on its own.  This time it didn’t.  Aircell, which runs the Gogo network, was unable as of the time of publication to advise what had gone wrong.

American was the first airline to install Aircell’s Gogo in-flight access on its aircraft and it reportedly costs $100,000 per plane to deploy the system.  The airlines clearly see this as an investment in both attracting and maintaining business customers and garnering incremental revenue.  Other airlines offering the service include Alaska Air, Delta, Southwest, and Virgin America. The rollout is in its early stages so, with the exception of cases such as American’s 767-200 fleet, where all of this type aircraft have the service installed and the routes (e.g. JFK-SFO and JFK-LAX) are predictable, it is difficult to predict on which flights the service will be available.

Despite the hiccup, in-flight Net access is useful to business and leisure traveler alike.  If only a tech support plane could have flown over to help us out….

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Last Frontier: In-flight Internet Access, Take 2

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

ON BOARD AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 15, 11:45 A.M. EDT

American Airlines was the first U.S. airline to announce in-flight IntLogging in to American Airlines Gogoernet service for domestic flights.  The first (test) phase of the American Airlines Gogo Internet service started in the middle of last year on the company’s fleet of 15 767-200 aircraft, which fly its transcontinental routes.

Recently, the company announced it will expand the service to over 300 domestic aircraft (the service doesn’t work over the Atlantic or Pacific oceans).

I am writing this from American Airlines Flight 15, New York (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO).  Until today, I hadn’t had to take a transcon flight since Gogo was launched so I was excited to try out the new service (most of my flying in the past nine months was transatlantic).

The last flight I took with Internet service was back in 2005, when Lufthansa and several other airlines still offered the Boeing Connexion service.

Once we hit 10,000 feet (we’re now at our cruising altitude of 32,000 feet), I turned on my trusty Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and it immediately found several Gogo hotspots.  It took just a few minutes to log in and and purchase service for today’s flight (a Gogo representative was handing out 25% discount coupons during boarding, I should mention) and I chatted with customer service about how to use my BlackBerry Bold smartphone on the same account (all I have to do is log off from the laptop and then log in from the Bold).

Gogo really goes

Gogo really goes

So far I’ve done a speedtest, which showed a download speed of 1.55 Mbps (double what the Boeing Connexion service was able to offer) and checked e-mail,  and read news from several Web sites including  the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.  The flight attendant has already served warm nuts and drinks so I’m going to relax and enjoy the flight for a little bit and then report again.

ON BOARD AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 15, 1:32 P.M. EDT

We’re still at 32,000 feet, just crossing over Minneapolis.

Purchasing Internet access for one’s laptop entitles you to log into the Gogo system from your smartphone at no additional charge.  Smartphone support was recently introduced by Aircell, the company that runs the Gogo network and it only took a few moments to point the BlackBerry Bold to the Gogo hotspot and log in.  I was surprised – but pleased – to find out that I was able to use BlackBerry Messenger from the Bold although I could not place or receive phone calls or send text messages.  BlackBerry mail worked as well as did multiple applications I use regularly on the device.

Current position at 13:32 EDT

Current position at 13:32 EDT

By the time I had interupted multiple people via BlackBerry messenger, the flight attendants were handing out hot towels and tablecloths and starting to serve lunch (I had the herbed shrimp with couscous).   During lunch, I reconnected to the Net via the ThinkPad and, using Slingbox, watched CNN and channel surfed.  The picture quality was surprising good and audio quality was perfect.

After lunch, I checked in with a few colleagues via Lotus Sametime and read a few e-mail messages.

This is a working flight so I need to prepare a talk I’m giving tomorrow but I will continue this post later.

ON BOARD AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 15, 16:38 P.M. EDT/13:38 P.M. PDT

We just crossed the border from Nevada to California and I have been able to spend most of my time working, although connectivity was really only “required” sporadically.  I did get to finish an important document and e-mail it to where it was needed.  Absent Gogo, I could not have done that until we landed.  I know the recipient was waiting for it so having connectivity proved very beneficial.

In sum: is it an absolute requirement? Of course not, we’ve gotten along without in-flight Internet access since the Wright brothers. It was fun, however.

Avoiding a $5000 Phone Bill on Your Trip

Friday, October 10th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Whether you know it or not, your smartphone may be surfing the Net – and running up your bill – during trips abroad.  Discussion forums are full of reports from business travelers with high phone bills due to unintended data access: comments such as “one day, $768,” “one trip, $4800″ abound.

This can happen even if you don’t think you are using any data services.  For example, users of SimulSays, a clever visual voicemail application that allows the user to scroll through and select voicemails on screen similar to the Apple iPhone, receive voicemail messages in the form of data packets.  When I tested the service on a quick trip to London, I inadvertently ended up with a $200 data roaming charge.

AvantGo, a mobile news and information service, frequently updates itself with the latest news, weather, and feature stories.

Users of such services could unintentionally incur charges of hundreds of dollars in the course of a similar trip.

If you don’t have a BlackBerry device, your options are limited and expensive.  Business travelers can either purchase flat-rate data (AT&T charges $24.99 per month for a 20 Mbyte plan for PDAs and smartphones and $59.99 for a 50 Mbyte iPhone plan;  T-Mobile charges $10.24 per MB in Canada and $15.36 per MB elsewhere) or simply turn data or data roaming off (something not possible on all devices ).

Both AT&T and T-Mobile also offer BlackBerry customers a $20 per month “bolt-on” option for international e-mail data roaming in addition to the domestic monthly fee for BlackBerry service (Web browsing is not included in the fee).  Considering the costly alternatives, this option could easily pay for itself.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Safe Computing for Travelers – Part II

Friday, September 12th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Recently, we looked at the problem of “evil twins,” hot spots that seem legitimate but are operated by a hacker that are increasingly popping up in public and semi-public spaces including hotels, airports, and conference venues.

This month we look at other risks.

Hotels are a prime target for laptop thieves; look at any unoccupied meeting room, replete with laptops, and you’ll understand why.  But the loss of a $2000 laptop may pale in comparison with the loss of data and the fact that your data may fall into the wrong hands.

To minimize exposure in the event of theft, make sure that your laptop has both a power-on password as well as a hard disk password.  Laptops that use fingerprint readers, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T61p and X300, only require a fingerprint scan to unlock everything but thieves will be stopped from viewing your data, even if they remove the hard disk and install it in another machine.

Thinking of using your hotel room’s TV for surfing or reading e-mail (via your browser)?  Don’t read any sensitive documents there.  The chances are good that the hotel’s backend systems aren’t secure – and that another guest could read along with you.

Using a hotel’s wired Internet service doesn’t necessarily guarantee security.  Common E-mail protocols such as POP3 and IMAP default to plain text user names and passwords.  Many hotels still use hubs rather than Ethernet switches, and the former are sniffable by those in the know.  If you connect through the hotel’s network, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which can be set up for personal or corporate use.

For greater security and peace of mind, consider using a mobile broadband solution (offered by AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless in the U.S.).  Data-only plans are available starting at $40 per month and offer greater flexibility plus the chance to pass on the hotel’s $10 or $15 per diem Internet charge.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Next Big Thing

Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Headline writers love to proclaim The Next Big Thing, something I talked about in a column here almost eight years ago.

At the time, I commented on TSTBTNBTBNWs (Things Supposed to Be the Next Big Thing but Never Were).  A few items on this list included artificial intelligence and push technology (such as PointCast).

Truly great ideas in business that weren’t proclaimed The Next Big Thing when they arrived on the scene include the telegraph, the telephone, the typewriter, the punch card tabulator, the electronic computer, the photocopier, the personal computer, the laser printer, and the Internet.

These ideas have all had a substantive, long-lasting, and transformational impact on work.  They made their appearance on the scene quietly but carried a big stick.

Possible great ideas that could be TNBT include the mobile phone (and derivative smartphones), the laptop computer, Wi-Fi, SaaS, and social computing.

Things that people perceive to be great ideas, but aren’t, include the smartphone (yes, it is sometimes a great idea from a business perspective, but from a work-life balance perspective the smartphone may yet prove to be quite the opposite), calling anything “Web 2.0,” touchscreen technology, and the paperless office.

Public radio used to have a program called “The Next Big Thing” but it’s no longer on the air.  I wouldn’t worry too much about this, though.  As I promised back in 2001, The Next Big Thing is just around the corner.

CODA:
Here’s an idea that turns out to be a really bad idea: battery backup for alarm clocks in hotel rooms.  To begin with, hotels seem to make really poor choices in choosing in-room clocks.  If one can’t quickly ascertain that the alarm is indeed off and not set by the previous guest for three in the morning, the only choice is to unplug the thing.  Last night, that’s exactly what I did in a brand new hotel in Monterey and, since they are only two months old and don’t have their sea legs, I’ll spare them the embarrassment of being mentioned here by name.  Yet the clock went off at 3 a.m. regardless.  Why?  The darned thing has a battery backup.  Since this is a five-star property, the GM has assured me that housekeeping will check all clocks when preparing rooms for incoming guests.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Wi-Fi Alert for Travelers

Friday, June 27th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

The free Wi-Fi hotspot you just logged into in the hotel lobby to read your e-mail, conduct your banking, or read the news wasn’t necessarily a nice amenity provided by the hotel.  In fact, it might have been operated by the well-dressed gentleman sitting beside the potted palm.  While you sent your confidential proposal, he was collecting people’s credit cards numbers, user names, and passwords, all while enjoying the ambiance and a drink from the lobby bar.

Referred to as “evil twins,” hot spots that seem legitimate but are operated by a hacker are increasingly popping up in public and semi-public spaces (that free Wi-Fi hotspot named FREE WIFI you found in your hotel room doesn’t sound so good anymore, does it?).  These evil twins can even have legitimate-sounding names, such as “Hilton Hotspot” and can also be found in cafés, airports, parks, and even office buildings.

Many laptops are set to connect to any open network and that can lead to trouble.  Travelers can protect themselves by knowing the network they are connecting to.

What you can do to protect yourself:

  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), either through your corporate IT department or services such as JiWire’s HotspotHelper.  VPNs encrypt your online session, making it impenetrable to nearby snoops.
  • If in doubt, don’t log into systems requiring a user name and password that could be exposed.
  • Don’t rely on the lock icon on your browser; illegitimate Web sites can obtain digital signatures as easily as legitimate sites.
  • Watch the Web address.  A hacker could intercept your legitimate request for www.citibank.com and change it to something that might look similar, such as www.cittibank.com, where he collects your user name and password.
  • Turn off peer-to-peer networking.
  • Turn off “automatically connect to non-preferred networks.”
  • Think of public hotspots as shared resources.  If you aren’t using a VPN, restrict your surfing to Web sites and pages that you don’t mind sharing with the gentleman sitting nearby.
  • Disable file sharing (in Windows XP, check the Properties tab of your main folders and look for the Sharing tab).
  • Make sure you are using a firewall, a feature that is included in recent Windows and Mac operating systems.

Even known systems run by hotels and conference venues can be insecure.  More on that in coming weeks.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Information Overload: The 2008 Problem of the Year

Friday, December 21st, 2007 by Jonathan Spira and David Goldes

In December 2003, we named spam e-mail our Product-of-the-Year for 2004, explaining that this was akin to Time magazine’s naming Adolf Hitler Man of the Year in 1938.  Spam, we wrote back then, was “a disruptive force that has had a major impact on almost everyone who uses a computer.”

The Product-of-the-Year designation is meant to recognize technologies that have had a major impact on how we work using information technology – and nothing has had a more profound effect than the disruptive nature of spam.  Until now, that is.

This week we named Information Overload as the 2008 Problem-of-the-Year.

Whether sitting at a desk in the office, in a conference room, in one’s home office, or at a client, the likelihood of being able to complete a task (what many call “work”) without interruption is nil.  Content creation has gone off the charts and new forms of content are being pushed towards us at a rapid pace.  It’s not just e-mail, junk mail, text messages, phone calls, and monthly reports anymore.

Intel, a company with 94,000 employees, sees Information Overload as a serious problem.  “At Intel we estimated the impact of information overload on each knowledge worker at up to eight hours a week,” says Nathan Zeldes, a Principal Engineer focusing on computing productivity issues at Intel.  “We are now looking at applying new work behaviors that can help reduce this impact”.

Shari Lawrence Pfleeger, a senior information scientist at the RAND Corporation, sees Information Overload as an impediment to getting her work done.  “We are more connected than ever, but we must manage not only our connections but also the increasing volumes of information flowing over them.  We continue to sort useful mail from junk mail, but we are additionally stressed by sorting useful phone calls from junk calls, useful email from spam, and in general useful from useless (and even dangerous) information.  To get really important work done, I find it helpful to take a holiday from my connections so that I can focus on the work at hand.”

We believe that 2008 will be the year we begin to solve the problem of information overload in a substantive way.

In conjunction with the Problem-of-the-Year announcement, Basex is announcing a survey on information overload and today’s work environment challenges.  Ironically, the latest office productivity tools designed to increase productivity are often having the opposite effect.

The survey can be found at http://www.basex.com/btwiosurv1 and survey takers are eligible to win a Palm Treo 750 smartphone with Windows Mobile 6.

Please take the survey today (http://www.basex.com/btwiosurv1) and feel free to share this link with colleagues.  The more input we get via the survey, the more we can do to solve the problem of Information Overload together.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  David Goldes is president of Basex.


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