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A Journey Over The Alps

The automated weather station, straddling a rocky point 800 feet below my left window, is at the top of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. My altimeter tells me I’m leaving 11,000 for 11,500 feet.

Seeing something so close when I’m so high, even in D-EHMB, the C-172 I’ve come to love, is a little disconcerting. That nice man at Innsbruck tower had told me earlier in the day that my planned crossing of the Alps ‘shouldn’t be too hair raising’. But that very term, ‘hair-raising’, was one echoed by several people I spoke with in preparation for my flight – my first across any mountains, let alone Alps.

I am not an Alpine pilot. Flying north at 1100 feet over New YorkE’s Hudson River last summer, I found the need to look up to see the building-tops somewhat alarming. Approaching Prague last October I marvelled at the 1500-foot hilltops to the south of the city, and hoped I didn’t terrify local residents – ATC had instructed me to maintain 2000 MSL (my passengers were still boisterously humming Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries) when I touched down.

The highest point I’d encountered in my flight training, back in Florida, was a tower that stuck up to oh, about 3200 feet or so. I remember thinking as I flew by it about those training videos, in which the presenter folksily, whimsically points out that the top number on the chart is what your altimeter would read if you were to strike the top of the pole, the one on the bottom how far you’d fall to the ground.

Now, in Florida, the top number minus the bottom number usually leaves you with about 12 feet or so. This explains Florida’s colourful history, with occupation by the English, French, Spanish, Mexicans and Americans. Like Poland, Florida was historically the flattest piece of land between battling superpowers.

But here in Germany, where I’ve been flying for over a year, it seems that no self-respecting piece of terrain bothers to get out of bed unless it’s at least 1500 feet above MSL. I have visions of visiting Baltic coast beaches near Hamburg and having to take a cable car down to the water’s edge.

I’d approached the Alps several times, usually while giving friends the requisite air tour of the area. We’d pass over the town of Füssen, on our way, I told them, to view Loony Ludwig’s magnificent Neuschwanstein – the very palace on which Disney based Cinderella’s castle. It’s scenically tucked into the side of an Alpine mountain, and each time I’ve gone near the thing, thoughts of mysterious and deadly downdrafts and horrific mountain wind-shear phenomena have ensured that I either stayed very high (‘No, really, it’s down there. There! Just squint a bit more!’) or safely to the northwest (E’Oh stop whining. There are binoculars in my flightbag’).

But I was determined I was going to learn enough to fly the Alps, and that I was going to do it in style. I wanted a big, Germanic breakfast of heavy breads, crusty rolls and strong coffee cut with steamed milk; a crisp, clear day; a fine, reliable plane and jaw-dropping views as I soared above some of GodE’s most beautiful scenery. Then, after landing in one of earth’s most scenic airports – a runway smack in the middle of one of the world’s most dramatic valleys – I’d have a fabulous Sacher Torte and coffee break at Sacher itself, and then lay down my head for the night in a 13th-century castle.

On the morrow, I’d buzz through more breathtaking scenery, and then overfly the Bavarian capital of Munich on my way back to my home base of Augsburg.

Preparing The Mind
Knowing as I did that mountain flying has rather different rules and procedures than I was used to, the first thing I did was contact my local flight instructor, Tom, who told me that he’d be delighted to help me but he was heading that very day to Las Vegas to teach in a new flight school there. But, he confided, flying the Alps is really fun, and ‘not so hair raising’.

My next stop was the internet, where I did a search for “mountain flying”, and after several missteps came up with (, a website run by a US mountain pilot, Sparky Imeson. Sparky’s site very thoughtfully contains, free, the most important aspects of mountain flying, his ‘must-know rules’:

The first of these was pretty common sense, but I’d never heard it stated this way:

‘Rule number one: always remain in a position where you can turn toward lowering terrain’. Well now, that seemed straightforward enough.

Rule number two was rather ominous and yet tantalizingly vague: ‘Never fly beyond the point of no return’.

Point of no return? Oh dear. And this is rule Number two? Did I miss something on Rule Number One?

Imeson defines the point of no return to be the spot from where, if your engine quits, you can turn round 180-degrees without impacting the ground. Always a handy rule of thumb to know.

I liked the website so much that I bought Sparky’s book, Mountain Flying, and his video, and while I can wholeheartedly recommend the first, the video was so unfathomably dull that my colicky infant son, Sebastian, actually stopped his mid-day screamfest and sat, mesmerised, staring at the screen. As did I.

But all things considered, I was considerably better prepared for my voyage than I had been when I bought the thing, so hats off to Sparky.

Making The Trip
I spoke with flight instructors, the towers at both Munich and Innsbruck, and with other pilots who flew the area, and all told me the same thing: don’t worry so much, but with a caveat: do not under any circumstances attempt the trip if the winds aloft over the Alps were above 25 knots. And oh, yeah, stay at least 1000 feet above the highest point along the way at all times.

Innsbruck tower advised me that the best route from Augsburg to Innsbruck was to head directly south to the village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and then to follow the valley as it extended to the south. Along this route I would be assured that with the exception of the Zugspitze – which I could stay left or right of – everything else would be under 8000 feet MSL, or well within my limits if I maintained the maximum 9500 feet required by German VFR rules.

Innsbruck tower advised me of their rigid and somewhat disorganised approach pattern, which requires (when approaching from the west) leaving the Alps, descending to 5000 feet MSL, and turning east but ensuring that you stay to the west of the city of Telfs before getting cleared for final.

It gets confusing, we were to find on the actual approach, because once they clear you into the main control zone, the tower can say … well, the darndest things (“…and if you appreciate, on your way to [checkpoint] Whisky, you may continue with climb, and until passing with three thousand.” Huh? AH: Don’t turn left towards Oscar till you reach 3000 feet. I appreciate!). I went out and bought the latest Jeppesen and Deutsche Flugsicherung charts to the region, and I was ready.

Well, not quite.

Alps Under My WingI had to wait for the infamous German weather to cooperate. I’d been grounded for much of the winter by miserable rainstorm after lamentable cold front after wretched sleet and snow, and my trip kept getting pushed back. Add to this the fact that on my first foray into the mountains I was determined to take an experienced pilot along with me, if not a flight instructor, and scheduling became a problem.

Then, serendipitously, there was a break in the weather on the same day that my friend Kees, a CFI, was visiting from Holland. I told him that instead of coming to the house, I’d pick him up at Munich airport and drive directly to our plane at Augsburg, and we’d be off.

All was going perfectly, and even the weather was cooperating. Kees and I approached the south. There was Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and that extra large thing right there would be the Zugspitze! We came in as planned, and despite the assurances of the tower – and despite Kees telling me I was being, shall we say, less than stoic – I didn’t like my proximity to the peaks, and I called in to Innsbruck.

I’d been cleared to 9,500 feet by Innsbruck Approach, but I got a bit nervous. I thought of getting a bit higher…

‘Innsbruck Tower, Cessna Delta Echo Hotel Mike Bravo with a request’

“Mike Bravo, go ahead’

‘Uh, I’d like to have permission to take it up to 11,500 to put a bit of distance between myself and these very large things beneath me…I’m a low-time mountain pilot.’

‘Mike Bravo, you’re cleared to climb to 11,500 feet’.


Once we started climbing I realised that up till then I hadn’t even taken the time to look out the window at anything non-safety related, so I took a moment to see what it was I was climbing over.

What it was was Heaven on earth.

As far as I could see were snow-capped mountains, rising dramatically, almost tumultuously from the ground, separated by lusciously green and fertile valleys; if they’d put this scene in Gone With The Wind audiences would have thought it too perfect not to be a painted backdrop; mountainsides dotted with houses and hidden valleys peppered with tiny, sparkling clear Alpine lakes.

The view was so enchantingly everything I had hoped it would be that I almost forgot to start taking photographs, and cursing the perspective of the camera for not being able to do this magnificent canvas anything close to justice. We circled a bit to the east for some pictures, and then entered the Valley of the River Inn and made the left turn towards Innsbruck.

The approach to Innsbruck from the west is a little, shall we say, democratic: controllers seem to point everyone towards the field and then ask people to circle just west of it until cleared for final. It was such a magnificent day that I didn’t mind at all staying up for a bit, but I hadn’t had much experience in pulling 360s in the middle of a canyon – nor ever really given much thought to my turning radius in a Cessna!

“Can we make a 360?” I asked Kees, who looked at me with total disbelief in his eyes.

“Yeah, you’ve got room. I was just noticing that little Piper back there below us!”

But Innsbruck had us stacked perfectly, and everyone was safe. Their idea of ‘separation’ might be slightly different from what I’m used to, but it works pretty well.

Nick By The Plane
I was cleared for landing on runway 08 with wind 010 at 8 kts, about as perfect a welcome as I could have wanted. Here’s when I learned one of the perks of being PIC – you can demand you be the one to land, even if the guy next to you has a commercial ticket!

Heart of the Tirol
Innsbruck sits in the heart of the Tirol region, which is known far and wide as having an abundance of outdoor activities. There are possibilities for all levels and ranges of hiking, climbing, skiing, swimming, trekking, tramping, snowshoeing and snowboarding, as well as fishing in the multitudinous rivers and streams. And as kayakers and white water rafters whizz by on the rivers, paragliders, hang gliders, and hot air balloons float through the sky.

Don’t worry, more traditional, less bone-crunching attractions will keep you cheerfully occupied: stunningly opulent Rococo architecture, the dramatic views from atop the Hungerburg, which you ascend by cable-car in stomach-tingling delight. Innsbruck’s royal Kaiserliche Hofburg and jaw-dropping Goldenes Dachl are must sees. The early 18th century saw what amounted to a Baroquing contest, drawing artisans from across Europe, including the brothers Asam, to bedazzle the region’s churches.

The stunning views stem from Innsbruck’s fortuitous location in the valley of the Inn River (the town grew originally around the “bruck” that crossed it), nestled perfectly between the Karwendel and the Tuxer Vorberge. This location means that only a fool will escape without beautiful photographs of dramatic cliffs of the nearby mountains.

Our first stop, after speaking with the preternaturally friendly staff at the airport about fees (quite reasonable actually) and tie down, was the Innsbruck branch of Vienna’s Cafe Sacher, where we sampled the famous Torte (as good as rumored) with a steaming milchkaffee in suitably decadent surroundings. Then we had a look around.

Right near Sacher, the tourists were all cricking their necks back to see the shining Goldenes Dachl, or ‘Little Golden Roof’: once a royal residence, the building’s balustrade is swarming with reliefs and busts of royalty, including Maximillian, and coats of arms of Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria and Hungary. The top of this is smothered with more than 3000 golden-colored tiles.

Just behind the Goldenes Dachl is the fabulous, newly renovated and almost hysterically Baroque Dom St Jakob, constructed by Johann Jakob Herkommer and decorated, it’s said, by the brothers Asam. Note the portrait of the Madonna on the high altar, the Mariahilfbild, by Lukas Chranach the Elder, painted in 1530.

Another must-see attraction just southeast of the city center is the looming Schloss Ambras, which Archduke Ferdinand II began expanding in the late 1500s. The Renaissance palace holds the Ambras Collection – art, armor, portraits, medieval sculpture and, not as uncommon as you’d expect in these parts, the royal collection of bizarre curiosities. The grand Spanischer Saal ballroom is another highlight.

Sleep In A Castle
Using Innsbruck as a base to explore the surrounding region has its advantages, but using the surrounding region to explore Innsbruck might have more. And, when you have the opportunity to spend a couple of nights in a 12th century castle for about €125 a double, you should snag it.

Schloss Matzen, now owned by an American couple (Margaret and Chris Kump), is about a half hour drive east of Innsbruck, nestled in the heart of the Tirolean Alps, near Wurgl.

Margaret and Chris, who inherited the castle in 1995 (it had been in the family since 1957), have renovated up a storm over the last several years (the New York Times profiled them as having a money pit) and the cheerful castle now has 11 rooms open to visitors, all with private bathrooms and central heating.

Right nearby are heaps of activities, like walking, cross-country and downhill skiing, rock climbing, biking and, in summer, river rafting and swimming.

The guests tend to be expatriates or the well-traveled, including lots of visitors returning to the region for further exploration, and the B&B is open May to October and from Christmas to mid-February. There’s an Austrian Wine hour daily, when they bring out tonnes of the stuff, and breakfast is made of fabulous fresh-baked goods, assorted cheeses, yogurt, quark, fruit, and hot entrees like french toast and scrambled eggs.

Then Do it All Again!
We had been planning a return flight that would take us around the eastern end of the Alps, flying due east along the Inn River Valley to Salzburg, where I thought I’d shop for a bit, then over the shockingly picturesque eastern Bavarian area of the Berchtesgaden National Forest (and incidentally, at Kehlsstein, Hitler’s former mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest) on the way back to Augsburg. But a weather front swooping in from the east threatened our route, and when we checked at 6 am the next day, that way to go was looking ominous indeed.

But at least halfway to Salzburg it was still clear and beautiful, so Kees and I decided we’d take what we could, and flew east as far as we could.

That brought us right back over tiny St Johann airport, the closest to Schloss Matzen, and we were able to wave from 3000 feet at Margaret and Chris, who heard us circling above their castle.

Kees and I flew east until we saw a spectacular break in the mountains just to our north. There on the other side of the range was Chiemsee, a treasured favorite lake for Muncheners. On Herreninsel in the center of Chiemsee in the 1870s, Ludwig began but never finished the Neues Königschloss, an attempt to top the splendour of Versailles.

Kees and I crossed through the gap in the mountains, and then cut west, just to the south of Munich, and then northwest across the Starnberg Lake and Ammer Lake, and finally a beeline straight back into the traffic pattern at Augsburg.

Augsburg’s traffic pattern is rather strict; from our approach from the east, we needed to call in five minutes before our arrival at checkpoint Sierra, about 10 miles east of the field, and enter the checkpoint at 3000. We had decided that because I’d landed at Innsbruck Kees would land at Augsburg, and at this point Kees decided to demonstrate to me one of his little flight instructor tricks.

We’d been told to maintain 3000 and stay on the north side of the Munich-Stuttgart Autobahn, and I reported that we would. The second my finger left the mike key, I was able to verify quite comfortably and certainly that we were indeed just to the north of the road: Kees treated me to a straight-down view of the road by flipping our little Skyhawk 90 degrees on its left side while maintaining course, heading and altitude for about 10 seconds, before gently rolling back to a normal position.

I was glad that large Germanic breakfast had been 24 hours earlier! “North side of the road, confirmed” I said to Kees as we rolled back to normal.

That got me thinking. For all the planning, the anticipation and my personal nervousness about this flight, that little stomach-twirler of a maneuver was the most, yes, hair raising part of the entire trip.

I’d addressed my fears, gotten the information I needed to make good, safe decisions, spoken with the towers and local pilots, and taken along a more experienced pilot on an exciting and challenging adventure. My preparation all paid off, and I safely and thrillingly conquered my fears of the unknown, by using the resources easily at my disposal to improve my skills and become a better pilot.

And along the way, I took a trip that will always be one of my most vividly memorable journeys.

A Day With Russia’s Most Hated Public Servant

GAIguyIn the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI.
GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.

And they do.

But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.

On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.

In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.

7 AM: Roll Call

No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.

9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)

“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him.

“Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”


10 AM: Parking Lot

Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes – which is all of them.

10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway

There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.

11.15 AM: Racing Through The City

Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals – they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service.

We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…” He can tell all that by passing them at speed.


Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally. Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.

Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway

This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk.

The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.

Sergei says that radar detectors are E’unfortunately not prohibited here’.

That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’

12.15 PM: Racing Home

As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away. As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly,

‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.

And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.

…And Scattered Jehova’s Witnesses

A late-night Australian nationwide television program has broadcast a “weather report” showing the five-day movements of door-knocking missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [LDS], entitled “The Mormon Report.”

LDS missionaries, in Australia since 1850, are a common sight here, riding bicycles and travelling door-to-door to hand out literature and discuss their religion.

The satirical report on NBC sister station Channel 7 placed cut-out symbols representing Mormons, including black-suited figures riding bicycles and rowing boats as well as knocking on doors, over a weather-style map of the country. “High” and “Low Pressure” area symbols were also used, with “predictions” such as “Mormon Norman is predicted to reach the north coast today, causing extreme depression; the state Early Mormon Warning Center expects Norman to cross the coast early this morning and residents are advised to lock their doors and pretend that no one is home.”

A portion late in the report offered a five day extended forecast of Mormon activities, which included statements such as “Scattered one to two meter Mormons” and “[good weather], with a chance of Jehova’s Witnesses towards evening”. It also spoke of “Amway ladies”, who are travelling salespeople.

A spokesman for the LDS, Alan Wakeley, said that in Australia, the LDS can’t afford to take itself so seriously that it would get upset over a good-natured spoof on a well-known satirical program. “We don’t mind the organization being sent up every now and then,” he said. “It would be “over the top” to react in any other way.”

While the LDS admits that its missionaries are a unique phenomenon, Mormons are generally well-tolerated and there are very few complaints about their methods here.

Mr. Wakeley went on to say that had the incident been a serious comparison of the group’s strategy to a sales organization, the LDS would have taken offense, but that satire is satire.

Both Mr. Wakeley and a spokesman for Channel 7 have stated that there have been no complaints received as yet.

48 Hours In Helsinki

Helsinki swings in summer, when its northern locale gives it 23 hours of daylight, and Helsinkians stay out for most of it. And celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s stone fortress on an idyllic little green island at the city’s south, are in full heat this summer. Both Suomenlinna and the city’s breathtakingly charming portside market are chock-a-block with festivals, open air concerts, tall ship celebrations and wonderful food stalls.

Get Your Bearings
Helsinki, with its delightful mix of Scandinavian, European and Russian architecture, was established in 1550 as a market to compete with Tallinn, across the Baltic Sea. Held by many to be the real gateway between east an d west, Helsinki offers the best of European, Baltic and Russian cultures.

Because the compact centre grew up round the port and market area, Helsinki’s easily walkable; 15-minutes walk from the central train station brings you to the port, where ferries and charter boats await to bring you round the city’s more than 300 small islands. From the port, too, are ferries and cruise ships leaving for Tallinn, St Petersburg and destinations in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Finnair coaches connect the central train station with the airport every half hour; the journey takes 35 minutes.

Check In
One lovely surprise is that all hotels – and even most hostels – in Helsinki have free saunas for guests’ use. The city’s Hotel Booking Centre is a terrific source of help, especially when large events book out the city’s somewhat limited hotel space. They’re in the west wing of the central railway station (tel from the UK 00-358-9-171-133, fax 00-358-9-175-524), and book rooms for Helsinki and all of Finland. They’ll also fax you a price list, or do on the spot bookings.

The Arctia Grand Marina Hotel is one of the city’s finest secrets and a personal favourite. A four star hotel in a renovated former port warehouse, rooms are large, staff attentive and friendly, and weekend deals can get you snuggled up with a view of the harbour for under GBP55 (tel 16-661), Katajamokanlaituri 7.

Another pleasant place near the water is the Seaside Hotel (tel 69-360), Ruoholadenranta 3, with weekend double room rates of GBP66 for singles and doubles.

The best tip for a cheap room – if you are prepared to forego an en-suite bath – is the friendly and spotless Eurohostel, right near the port, which has private single and double rooms for GBP22/28.

Night on the Tiles
Helsinki starts hopping early, and people head for discos around 11 pm. Happy Days, Pohjoisesplanadi 2, is a yuppie hangout with mainstream hits and a fun crowd, and Nylon, Kaivokatu 10, is a small but jamming dance and hip hop club with a younger and much wilder crowd. Opposite Nylon, 10th Floor, Kaivokatu 3, is an upmarket flashy late night club. Too wild? Throw on some nicer duds and take a friend over to Vanha Maestro, Fredrikinkatu 51, for some wildly popular Finnish Tango (you read that right).

Take a Ride
The TourExpert desk at the excellent Helsinki City Tourist Office (tel 169-3757), Pohjoiseplanadi 19 near the port, sells tickets to sightseeing tours throughout the city and surrounding islands. The cheapest way to get your bearings is by hopping on a tr am No 3T, which makes a 45-minute figure-8 orientation loop through the heart of the city. Too pedestrian? In the evening hop on the Bar Tram which offers much the same plus beer!

The greenest way to take a tour is through TandemTaxi (tel 040-540-0400), which guide you round on tandem bicycles. And if money’s no object, charter one of the tall wooden sailing ships that gather in port for a lunch or dinner cruise (from GBP200).

Take a Hike
The most popular place to get away from it all is Suomenlinna, the fortress-village on an island off the centre where celebrations and special events continue throughout the summer. Walk through the villages streets or in the outskirts for nice walks along the shore. Helsinki residents – especially lovers – hold Kairopuisto, another island at the city’s southeast corner, dear to their hearts. It’s great for summer outdoor concerts and picnics in the park.

Lunch on the Run
Tops for a delicious and quick lunch are the food stalls around the city’s excellent covered market. Inside are dozens of options from smoked raindeer meat to excellent vegetarian; from authentic Italian and superb Vietnamese to the more pedestrian doner kebab. Outside, along the waterfront, do sample some of the heavenly smoked fish sold from small boats.

Cultural Afternoon
Invest in a Helsinki Card (GBP13), for unlimited use of city public transport (including the Suomenlinna ferry), tours and admission to most of the city’s museums.

Kiasma, the city’s new contemporary arts museum, opened with a bang in May; along with the prerequisite multimedia installations, don’t miss Christian Steel’s immensely popular scent installation, Babylon: a series of intricately-shaped porcelain pots from the Royal Danish Porcelain factory filled with oils scented with everything from birch tar to galbanum (through December). The Cygnaeus Gallery, in a lovely villa, has a great collection of 19th and 20th century Finnish paintings and sculpture. There are fine industrial and fine arts exhibits at the Helsinki City Art Museum, and transport buffs love it here: there’s a good aviation museum at the airport and a fascinating tram museum in the centre.

Window Shopping
The best shopping is right in the centre, around the enormous Stockmann’s department store. While it’s heavily touristed, the market near the port is not a tourist trap, and there’s a fine selection of Finnish handicrafts on offer, with good value for the money.

An Aperitif
Throughout the city you’ll see sidewalk cafes overflowing into the streets at the first sight of good weather: Helsinkians love drinking outdoors. Do try Koskankorva, a vodka-like firewater taken in shots or mixed with fruit juice.

One place not in most guidebooks is Helsinki’s outstanding Garlic Restaurant (tel 651-939), Fredrikinkatu 22, a must stop for any garlic fan, with fine service, sensational homemade bread and herb butter and a very creative menu. Try the stupendous fish-kebob: pike wrapped in fresh salmon, char-broiled then served in a garlic-cream sauce over home-made seafood ravioli. Wash this down with a garlic beer (much, much better than it sounds) and you’re guaranteed a seat alone on the flight home!

For traditional Lappland specialities of salmon, gorgeous fish soups and tender raindeer steaks, head for Lappi Ravintola (tel 645-550), Annankato 22.

There are lots of places to get expensive, stylised Russian food, but when Russians come to town they go for the delicious down-home (and reasonably priced) Russian food at Babushka Ira (tel 680-1405), Uudenmaankatu 28 right in the centre.

Early Hours
A fun place to start a night out is Molly Malone’s Irish Pub (tel 171-272), with good beers and live Irish music on weekends. Then head for the Kallio district, about 1 km from downtown and packed with typical Finnish pubs and beer gardens, or for the flashy and trendy pubs that line flashy and trendy Uudenmaankatu, in the centre.

Sunday Service
The city’s premiere Lutheran church, in Senate Square, is currently closed for renovations, but its main competitor, the Temppeliaukio Church, Lutherinkatu 3, is worth a visit for its unusual architecture: built into rocks, it looks for all the world like a downed UFO. The best bet is to attend Russian services at the largest orthodox cathedral in western Europe: the glorious brick Uspenski Cathedral, Kanavakatu 1.

A Walk in the Park
There are bits of green throughout Helsinki, including Goff park at the southern end of the centre. And to get away from it all – or from what passes for hustle and bustle in Helsinki – head straight for Pihlajasaar, a wild island where you’re immediately immersed in the quiet of the countryside (except on weekends, when you’re immersed in crowds of Finns looking for the quiet of the countryside!).

Seurasaari’s yet another island, a combined historical park, picnic area and swimming spot. Lined with 19th century houses, the island’s also got some small beaches.

In-Q-Tel as Cyber Security Tsar? Weirder Things Have Happened

ed_harris[This is the second of a two-part blogpost that originally appeared in Plausible Deniability, the blog of the enterprise security practice at The 451 Group. I wrote it in August, 2008.]

Last Friday I began to discuss In-Q-Tel and its investment in Veracode, and went a little into IQT’s investment strategy. As we said, IQT exists to determine an answer the question, ‘Is it possible to solve [problem set here]?’. If the answer is, ‘yes’, IQT’s job is to identify fiscally viable, practically capable, innovative private organizations which might be able to solve the problem at hand.

We also said that the political winds in Washington were shifting like Dick Nixon’s eyes during a bad news briefing.

Among the key problems I think IQT is now looking at is the oft-lamented fact that the US has no cogent strategy to deal with cyberwarfare, no leadership on the issue (in fact the issues surrounding this are so complex it’s hard to find anything people don’t want to talk about more. Simultaneously, political winds are blowing funds in the form of budget dollars from many places (including my wallet) towards the white tower that is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

It is said that the CIA under George Tenet somehow recognized that private industry was surpassing government talent in the field of technological innovation. Is it possible that the CIA was prescient enough to recognize over the past few years that its budgetary influence was waning and that to re-increase its stature in the intelligence community it would need to get really geeky about cyber-warfare and get itself some really cool kit?

The CIA? Prescient? It’s become so hip to make the CIA the butt of jokes recently that people forget (this is a technological, not a political, discussion) just how much seriously cool stuff it has done.

In his 2002 review of The Bourne Identity, the New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote that,

The movie … trots out a quaint view of the C.I.A. as not only bottomlessly malevolent, but also endlessly and terrifyingly competent. Shortly after they see Marie’s image on a security camera satellite feed, the folks at Langley are in possession of her entire life history, and they are able to track her movements across Europe with a few clicks of the mouse. This is inadvertently hilarious in light of recent news reports. If Marie had only thought to disguise herself as an international terrorist, she might never have attracted the agency’s notice in the first place.

Well, IQT itself has been a monster success. Its investments are absolutely classic examples of how to do it right: tons of due diligence, heaps of knowledgeable people asking sensible questions about the technology, the leadership of the innovative company-prospect. That they don’t make large investments (generally they’re capped at $3m) or take an equity position is a question of taste, or style, or, you know, propaganda value. But the investments are made in the form of, essentially, non-recurring engineering fees to make something wicked-cool out of something more pedestrian, and come complete with a promise to buy a bunch of it if it works out right.

But back to cyberwarfare.

If our current policies and the reality of the US’ digital security stance is any indication, policy makers would rather read tax code than infosec material – hell, even I’m reading a book on tax code, and I think this security stuff is a gas.

You take a look at something like H. R. 130, the Smarter Funding for All of America’s Homeland Security Act of 2007, whose dense prose mentions the word ‘cyber’ a total of once, and you wonder. I digress.).

We wrote in this blog back in April about Aaron Turner & Michael Assante’s excellent article in CSO Magazine, in which they compare and contrast the response in the 18th century by the United States to pirates on the high seas with today’s federal response to Internet crime. (read Turner’s prescient testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, Science and technology here).

In that blog post we also mentioned that, back in 2004 MIT Technology Review published a terrific piece by Eric Hellweg, Cyber Security’s Cassandra Syndrome which discussed the stalled and possibly addle-headed Bush administration approach to the problem of leadership of the effort to protect the nation’s computing infrastructure.

The problem, Hellweg argued, was that you couldn’t get the right people to do the job of protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure (which is basically our government’s ability to use computers and the Internet) because, well, it’s impossible. You can’t get anyone to take all the responsibility while having none of the authority to do what’s necessary. The fact of the matter is that it’s not defense against being attacked, it’s long since devolved to the point that our government should be asking itself, to paraphrase Ed Harris playing Gene Kranz in Apollo 13, ‘Whadda we got in this country’s critical infrastructure that’s good?’

More specifically, how badly are we already owned by foreign nation-states and commercial entities, and how can we look at ways to fix that? Then we can start talking about ways to have ‘Smarter Funding for All of America’s Homeland Security’.

So: IQT as savior? Are Darby and Geer (who raised some fascinating and common sense points on security metrics in his testimony before the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology last year) and the infosec team at IQT the stand-in Cyber tsars by forfeit?

Well, there’s an argument for it. Geer (and Assante, by the way) sits on The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, which is working to develop recommendations for a comprehensive strategy to improve cybersecurity in federal systems and in critical infrastructure. So do a lot of other really smart people. But as several of them have admitted, the danger is that the need to reach high level consensus will lead to watered-down pablum despite the best intentions of a truly smart group of people.

It’s Washington. It’s almost inevitable. Don’t get me wrong: some great ideas will come out of the CSIS deliberations. Our biggest fear is that politics will pare down the final recommendations to be on par with ‘Don’t-click-on-attachments, wear-mittens, study-hard-caliber advice.

A look at the political climate in Washington, especially that surrounding the intelligence community, shows that the winds are being shifted by a Bush administration miffed at…Well, who knows.

The unclassified Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intelligence from this past February had this to say about Cyber warfare:

The US information infrastructure — including telecommunications and computer networks and systems, and the data that reside on them — is critical to virtually every aspect of modern life. Therefore, threats to our IT infrastructure are an important focus of the Intelligence Community. As government, private sector, and personal activities continue to move to networked operations, as our digital systems add ever more capabilities, as wireless systems become even more ubiquitous, and as the design, manufacture, and service of information technology has moved overseas, our vulnerabilities will continue to grow.

In an Op-Ed piece in The Wall St Journal this past April by DNI Mike McConnell and House Intelligence Committee sub-committee chair Anna G. Eshoo, they talked about responsible domestic surveillance:

If we are going to ask our intelligence agencies to help defend our country, we need to carefully construct policies that give them access to this information when necessary, and protect the rights of Americans. The National Security Agency, for example, is governed by strict rules that protect the information of U.S. citizens. It must apply protections to all of its foreign surveillance activities, regardless of the source. As we add new authorities and programs to secure our country, we must ensure appropriate safeguards and protections to secure our liberties. We must maintain the balance between safety and freedom.

And then pooh-poohed technology…

Too often, our country has invested in dazzling new technology as the solution to our intelligence woes. Technology is vitally important. But a computer is only as good as the person who programs it. No piece of technology can substitute human judgment. A computer — even one that costs millions — cannot recruit a spy.

Meanwhile, Joe Lieberman (IND-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are asking good questions that are worth reading. If you’re up for it, answers to those questions are in a letter (that inadvertently serves to highlight the marvels of redaction.

We, like you, can only speculate about what the CIA will do with Veracode’s technology, but I would be willing to bet it has something to do with finding weaknesses in code. Which is quite useful stuff, if it works. I bet there’s more where it came from, and I bet IQT will be and is looking at other infosec investments.

And with regards to Cyber warfare, we would say that, at the very least, IQT and its staffers are raising the level of discourse about the problems faced by the US – or at least by the CIA.

IQT turns to old school shaking-and-breaking with Veracode investment

Ernie8Salesman(Written August 14th, 2008 as part I of a two-part post for Plausible Deniability, the blog of The 451 Group’s Enterprise Security Practice. Read Part II here)

In late July, binary code analysis-as-a-service provider Veracode announced that it had received an investment from In-Q-Tel, the not-for-profit that serves as the venture arm of the Central Intelligence Agency.

This is a two part blog about IQT, its investment in Veracode (and what I think is IQT’s future), and then how IQT and the CIA intend to compete in an intelligence community atmosphere whose political winds are shifting like Dick Nixon’s eyes at a tough press briefing. To be fair, whether Veracode works or not, in fact the specifics of the Veracode investment are less interesting to us than the apparent shift in investment strategy at IQT.

Many people sort of wink knowingly when they hear about IQT, but don’t really have a sense of what the thing does, or in fact, its successes to date. The interesting thing, which we will go into in a bit, is that for the most part, IQT – which sounds really spooky and security-ish, has invested in hugely successful companies that could not be less directly related to information security.

Like OpGen, which does single molecule DNA analysis technology to identify and analyze microorganisms. The closest it gets to something like IPS is, well, IPS, or Infinite Power Solutions, which makes thin-film energy storage devices for microelectronics. It’s not like it’s a bunch of guys dressed like Lefty skulking around corridors in Silicon Valley saying, “Psssst! Hey Bud…Wanna take some NRE money?”

IQT exists to determine an answer the question, ‘Is it possible to solve [problem set here]?’. If the answer is, ‘yes’, IQTE’s job is to identify fiscally viable, practically capable, innovative private organizations which might be able to solve the problem at hand. By providing availability to these technologies, often by repurposing existing ones to accomplish things outside thre scope of their original design, IQT will increase the capabilities of its main customer, the CIA.

So going out on a long, unsupported limb, we think that the Veracode investment is the first in what will be a string of more traditional infosec investments, especially in the areas of digital identity and access control technologies addressing the concepts of digital persona. And we think that this is being driven in part by a several-years’ long political climate change that has led money and influence away from the CIA.

More on that next week.

By the way, IQT has not spoken to me about this issue other than typically flacky guff about the Veracode investment, to wit:

“…We have relatively recently expanded our internal organization in terms of the technology practice, derived from the specific problems we see; we spend lots of time examining not just the technical capabilities but the company itself. Our selection of Veracode speaks for itself; as a strategic investment firm it’s there to meet a strategy.” Blah, blah, blah [blah, blah, blah added].

IQT is, intriguingly, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, meaning, I suppose, that donations to it are tax deductible. I’ll try to donate fifty bucks and blog about how that works out, and what kind of newsletter I get for it.

Its activities are unclassified, and the company only deals with open source (in the spook sense, not the licensing sense) stuff.

Corona_spysat_camera_systemThere are some fascinating documents available on the CIA’s website about IQT’s history and on IQT’s website about the organization and how it has been operated, especially including a report excoriating the handwringing at the CIA as it tried to get past its, ‘Private sector? Pah! We made CORONA! We can read the gender of a newt from nine miles in space!’ attitude.

In the past, this has often not been a case of information security in a standard sense of the phrase. Still, the perception of IQT as a ‘security’ investor remains.

When the investment in Veracode was announced, many felt that it was par for the course – code analysis, security, CIA… All goes hand in hand.

Except that for most of its nearly ten year history, IQT has been anything but an investor in information security companies. Sure, since its inception it’s made investments in lots of things that seem cloak and dagger. Keyhole, the satellite imagery and 3-D Earth visualization company, was an early investment (in 2003 my accountant, reviewing my expenses, saw a credit card charge to ‘Keyhole’ and asked me if I was trying to write off a visit to a strip club); it ended up becoming Google Earth.

Many other investments are in areas like zoom lens development, chemical analysis tools, entity extraction and semantic analysis stuff. An analysis of the investments that the, uh, firm, has made since its inception under the George Tenet-led CIA of 1998 shows that most of the investments are of the build-a-cooler-mousetrap variety for things that seem decidedly bookish.

Of its 76 investments, IQT has made ten in what I would consider to be classic infosec investments. The other 66 investments have been spread across IQT’s other practice areas: Application Software and Analytics, Bio, Nano, and Chemical Technologies, Communications and Infrastructure and Embedded Systems and Power.

In-Q-Tel’s Digital Identity and Security group invests and seeks technologies in the truly hot if not downright sexy areas of identity management and access control as well as risk analysis capabilities, system design and analysis tools and policy definition and management. The investments have been:

  • 3VR Security (wicked-cool video facial recognition, like, ‘Show me where this guy has been on every camera you have’ kind of recognition – you have to watch the demo);
  • A4Vision (facial biometric and camera tracking systems technology acquired in January 2007 by BioScrypt, which itself was acquired in January, 2008 for $44.3m by L-1 Identity Solutions, Inc;
  • ArcSight (the enterprise security information management vendor which has since, of course, gone public and whose stock has recently recovered from elephant-tranquilizer-territory);
  • PKI and ID infrastructure vendor CoreStreet;
  • Encryption vendor Decru (bought by Network Appliance, Inc for $272.1m in June, 2005);
  • Master data management vendor Initiate Systems (whose $26m series F round takes total funding to about $61m);
  • Awesome-cool ‘where’s-that-RF-device?’ vendor Network Chemistry, which sold its security assets to Aruba in July 2007 and got waaaay pissed off with us when we priced that deal at $3m;
  • SRD Software (if you thought RSA’s Verid is spooky you should talk to these guys; it was acquired in January, 2005 by IBM for $69m);
  • and, of course, Veracode.

But the Veracode investment is interesting. The core technology of Veracode’s on-demand service was developed in 2002 at @stake, the pen testing and assessment firm acquired for $49m by Symantec in April, 2004. Want to know what’s also interesting? IQT President and CEO Chris Darby was Chairman and CEO of @stake. And the Veracode investment comes three months after the appointment by IQT of Dan Geer as its Chief Information Security Officer.

Now, Geer is a plain-spoken star in the security world. He was CTO at @stake (and a gazillion banks) before a much celebrated and reviled paper declaring that Microsoft was a national security threat hastened his departure; to quote another former @Staker, ‘It’s hard not to suck deep, deep down when you are Microsoft Windows’). Geer has also worked at Verdasys and on a host of other projects and organizations (more on him and some of those other projects tomorrow).

Based on what I know of IQT and of Geer (IE’ve never met Darby but I think Geer is a truly honorable guy), I don’t believe that there is much connection that Geer is on the board of Veracode and the IQT investment in Veracode. We understand that IQT has actual conflict-of-interest firewalls that are taken seriously by the firm, so we don’t believe Geer would have been involved in the investment decision on the IQT side). I am much more willing to believe, based on IQT’s investment history and the people involved that these guys simply knew that the stuff was out there to meet the specific requirements that were presented, and that Darby and Geer would naturally have said, ‘Oh yeah, that stuff – you wanna talk to the guys at Veracode.’ As I said, maybe I am being a sucker, but I think not.

For Veracode, the cachet of the investment is PR no one can buy, and the cache of having sold stuff to the CIA will be on its own enough to open doors at other government agencies (especially, one would assume, the three-letter kind). And for reasons I will get into tomorrow, I think that the statement I made earlier – that it is the first in what will prove to be a series of straight-up infosec and ID and Access management-related investments – will prove true.

Part II

Location Based Services Find Their Niche

On Thursday, the Hong Kong mobile phone company Sunday Communications Ltd. started “Loved-Ones Radar,” allowing parents to track, within 150 meters (500 feet), the location of their cellular-toting child.

Last week in Britain, the makers of London’s black taxis began an automated service that locates a cell phone caller, identifies the taxi nearest that person and then puts the caller in direct voice contact with the driver. For this you pay £1.60 ($2.60) on top of the metered fare.

And since last month, Hong Kong residents have been able to dial a number on their mobile phones to get free SARS-related data. The service determines the caller’s location and sends a text message containing addresses of buildings within 1,000 meters that have reported severe acute respiratory syndrome infections.

Three years ago, the hype about such so-called location-based services, or LBS, was overwhelming, with operators openly threatening to beep your phone with coupon offers whenever you passed a Starbucks. Today, the arrival of LBS is relatively unheralded, even as the services are filtering into the mainstream of mobile applications.

Depending on your location, your handset and the services your mobile phone company uses, you can use a cell phone to get buzzed when a friend is nearby, play hide-and-seek-like games with friends or strangers, find apartments to rent near where you are standing or get medical help, all without opening your mouth. Services that locate the nearest towing company, automated teller machine or florist have also been popular, analysts say.

“The applications that make the cut,” said Jed Kolko, lead analyst for consumer devices at Forrester Research Inc. in California, “are simple, quick hits of information that the customer needs here and now and cannot do without a mobile phone.”

Unlike cell phone services like video calling that require new, high-speed data networks still under development, most LBS offerings work on existing networks, allowing operators to provide the services without major investment. For the consumer, the cost can vary widely from about 19 euro cents (21 U.S. cents) to E2 a message.

The simplest technology locates where your phone is – and, presumably, you – by identifying which cellular antenna is picking up and transmitting your phone’s signal. But that antenna can be as much as one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) away.

Better software in the network essentially triangulates among antennas to determine the caller’s position to within 300 to 500 meters. Still more accurate technology uses the satellite-based Global Positioning System to locate a transmitter in the phone. But these phones cost more.

With technology not a barrier, the question in the telecom industry, then, was what services to offer. It turned out that it wasn’t going to be coupons after all.

“We launched ‘push-based’ coupon-messaging in Hong Kong shopping malls in 1997,” said Bruce Hicks, group managing director of Sunday Communications. “Its failure proved that people don’t adjust their social habits just because a technology is available. To succeed, it must be simple and complement the way that they already do things.”

“Changing social behavior takes forever,” said Swen Halling, chief executive of It’s Alive Mobile Games AB, a Stockholm-based LBS developer that makes the location-based games Supafly and BotFighters, a phone-based role-playing offering.

Many operators provide services like TeliaSonera Corp.’s Friend Finder, which allows a subscriber of the Nordic telecom to set up lists of friends and get an alert when one is nearby.

While this kind of buddy-finder service was one of the first to appear in many countries, in France the earlier priority, according to Frederic Jarjat, LBS product manager for France Telecom SA, was LBS-enabled chat – or, more specifically, “flirt,” a service whereby subscribers can exchange text messages with total strangers who are in their vicinity.

TeliaSonera also has a service with a novel twist: You’re walking down a pleasant street in Uppsala and think that it looks like a nice place to live. You send a text message on your phone to the number 4412, and you get a return message listing the nearest three available apartments – and the phone numbers to call about them.

LBS technology also leads naturally to security-based products, such as “panic buttons” for older or ill users, or a Find My Kid service like Sunday’s, which several operators are already testing.

But, in general, LBS offerings rank low on the list of what people do with mobile phones.

Operators do not publicize usage figures for any given service, but industry analysts and applications developers say LBS options make up less than 1 percent of mobile usage.

Michelle de Lussanet, telecommunications analyst at Forrester in Amsterdam, said that in terms of average revenue per user, data services as a whole make up 10 percent to 14 percent of cell phone carriers’ business. Almost 98 percent of that is person-to-person text messages.

“The remainder is mainly ring tones and operator logos,” she said. “This doesn’t leave a lot of room for other services.”

Zingo, the taxi locater that is a unit of Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC, said that of the 12,000 licensed black taxis that cruise London’s streets on any given day, 500 are outfitted with its equipment. More than 6,300 people have tried it since the beginning of the company’s trial this year.

Sunday said that in the first week of its SARS service, 16,000 of its 650,000 Hong Kong subscribers used it.

Operators and analysts say a large-scale introduction of LBS will take years; Forrester predicts that data applications like LBS will not take off until 2006 or so, when today’s teenagers become the next generation of high-tech adults.

And some services also could suffer if they are too accurate. The director of new technologies at Sunday, Henry Wong, said, “Our focus group of Hong Kong youths showed us that teens overwhelmingly don’t want the kid-finder because it doesn’t let them lie about where they are.”

Location Based Services: A Primer

[This article was jointly written with Rick Mitchell]

One of the hottest buzz terms these days [2000] is “location-based services” – products that can serve up extremely localized content to mobile phone users. Let’s say you are standing on a corner in Amsterdam and punch in a request to your handset or personal digital assistant for directions to the nearest cyber cafe. The request goes to a server that combines it with your position, and sends back useful information via SMS or WAP [Told you it was 2000].

This is not a 3G phenomenon – some mobile operators have already implemented mobile positioning systems. Those operators are offering customers entirely new types of value added services based on the their location and preferences.

There are several techniques to position subscribers, but the most common one today is based on the information of the cell (sector) and a calculated distance between the subscriber and the base station. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that operators be able to locate users to effect emergency services. In Europe, commercial ventures are poised to drive the technology every bit as hard while the EU also pushes legal restraints forward.

Depending on network topology, current operators with the GSM standard can also calculate your position, to within, say, 300 to 400 meters, or even better when combined with intelligent software. Ericsson has, for about a year now, hooked up Tommy’s, a Stockholm-based parcel delivery service, with location services that allow the company to track its trucks throughout the city.

The level of accuracy desired for useful location based services, such as a “turn-left, turn right” set of walking directions, is generally higher in urban areas than in rural ones. Similarly, emergency services like an ambulance would need less accuracy to find a car accident in the countryside (where there are few roads and a position within, say 500 meters would suffice) than in the city (where 500 meters could place an ambulance on the other side of a city block). However, legal restraints by the FCC require better emergency accuracy than 50 meters independent of whereabouts, thereby almost guaranteeing the widespread implementation of network assisted global positioning system (A-GPS), which gives location to within 10 meters.

Getting a signal Positioning techniques can be either “Terminal based” if the positioning system to some extent uses the terminal as a logical entity to calculate positioning data or “network based” where the terminal is not used as a logical node to calculate positioning data.

The network-based system of cell global identity and timing advance, or CGI-TA, is one of the broader location methods, though it has very useful applications running both in test and business systems. In the overall scheme of things, from least accurate to most are the network-based uplink time of arrival (UL-TOA), and network/terminal- fusion based techniques of Enhanced Observed Time difference (E-OTD) and A-GPS.

“Fleet management systems, using a combination of intelligent software and CGI-TA,” says Ericsson’s x Swedberg, the senior market manager for Mobile Positioning, “the application can trace a vehicle with a GSM phone. The “banana shaped’ footprint that would be created by this method is interpreted by the software, which compares movements with a map and can therefore mark very precise locations – it actually works better practically than it would seem to technically.”

A-GPS is perhaps the most reliably accurate system, giving very precise location information. The assistance comes in because GPS signals are rather weak, and the information needs boosting when users are in buildings or in streets surrounded by very tall buildings.

The whole thing is a trade-off: network-based solutions can use current handsets, giving operators 100 percent penetration of devices now. But more accurate terminal-based designs will have to wait until the terminals are actually here, rendering meaningful penetration four years away.

“It’s in the operator’s interest to make sure that they get the value from network-assisted solutions,” said Jeremy Nassau, head of wireless for Netdecisions in London, “But it could still go in several directions – you may find, for example, that GPS is good enough without the network. If the penetration gets up to reasonable levels, you’ll reach the point where you don’t need the operator anymore to provide LBSs.”

A buddy system application developed by the UK-based company iProx would even tell you if there’s a friend or relative in the vicinity that might want to dine with you and if you’ll pass an ATM on the way. A platform developed by the French company Opt[e]way would, among other things, make it possible for a taxi company to convey your location to a driver via a dashboard-mounted screen, allowing him or her to arrive at your corner within minutes, greeting you by name. A nearby department store could notify you of a sale; a bookstore could tell you that your favorite author has a new masterpiece out.

“You’ll have that 3G telephone with lovely color display and high bandwidth, and location-based services are going to enable that device to be really useful,” said Ravi Kanodia, co-founder of iProx.

These scenarios involve several distinct tasks and hardware levels, and companies are taking a multitude of approaches. In fact most LBS companies today are concentrating on B2B applications that will only eventually lead to end-user services.

“There’s a variety of players trying to get a stake in the market, but the battle is well-advanced. Most of the companies already exist,” said Paris-based Thomas Gubler, who manages the 3i Group’s wireless investments in France. He added, “I don’t see any new players getting in at the platform and infrastructure level now. It’s too advanced. Still, there will be many opportunities in this field, based on technological advances.”

Network infrastructure companies like Nortel, Nokia and Ericsson provide the basic telecom equipment. UK-based Cambridge Positioning Systems – which has a cooperation agreement with Nortel and funding from 3i Group – and the American firm SignalSoft – with $2.5 million in funding – uses signals received from operators to determine a user’s geographic position.

Iprox’s Buddy System takes this geo-positioning data, feeding it into a “correlation engine that allows you to track up to millions of users, like an air traffic control system. We can keep track of Maria and her friends all the time, and tell her when she’s close to one of them. A little like instant messaging works on the Internet.” Iprox garnered $1 million in funding through Brainspark at Tornado-Insider’s Upstart Paris conference in April.

Opt[e]way’s star product, opt[e]go TopoServer, is a platform middleware for creating end-user applications and services, aimed at telecom operators, wireless ISPs and corporate mobile intranets, says company spokesman Christophe Lefort. Released in mid-November, opt[e]go uses a patented, vector-based file format to convey location-specific information – traffic, weather, nearby gas-stations, etc. The company recently raised 18 million euros from 3i Group, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Goldman Sachs and Part’Com.

Sweden’s is one of the few companies already offering early LBS services via WAP, SMS and the Web. Its yachtPosition combines GPS and GSM data to give captains information on nearby ports and approaching weather. The service also allows tracking open-ocean yacht races via a position map on the Internet. can, among other things, tell riders of nearby biker friends and locate brand-name part stores. MobilePositon recently got $4.9 million from Kaupthing, an Icelandic investment bank, and the Swiss investment company Qino Flagship. The US investment bank KKR invested $3.5 million.

In addition to higher bandwidth, another factor that will jumpstart LBS, according to Rahim Adatia, CEO of Lokah, is that when the market goes from GSM to 2.5G networks, it will shift from circuit-switched data transmissions to packet-switched, meaning the user will pay only for data received, not connection time, allowing him or her to stay connected indefinitely.

This raises the question of just who profits from this new technology. So far, telecom operators insist they own the positioning data, hence the lion’s share of the profits. “The main thing people are forgetting here, is who’s going to get charged,” said Adatia, a small British developer of B2B wireless software that, like Lokah, is currently making the rounds to acquire VC funding. “Business models are still evolving, both in technology and business. Most importantly, the LBS company’s relationship with operators is still evolving.”

“Some LBS companies make the assumption that they will own their customers,” Adatia says, adding, “I think that will become a big problem for them. We aggregate a billing component into our server, so if the billing arrangement changes, with the operator for instance, we can easily adjust.”

Lost in all the hype over all these nifty services is the question of privacy. What if Maria does not want her telephone company to track her everywhere she goes? “Let’s face it, the police are always going to know where you are with these phones,” said Opt[e]way’s Lefort, adding, “If that also occurred on the mass market, of course that could be a problem. Profiled services will be very important to success. It will all depend on the user’s ability to disable the service. I think the problem will be solved because the service is worth it.”

Cheesy Feet & Ducks: IBM’s Voice Recognition Software

ducksThe idea of speaking into my computer and having it correctly type what I say has intrigued me since I saw the Star Trek episode Assignment: Earth, in which Gary Seven dictates to his IBM Selectric typewriter while plotting to sabotage a NASA launch.

The thought that I can now actually say – and have my computer type – the phrase, “The museum is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 6 pm, Saturday from 9 am to 3 pm, Sunday from noon to 4 pm, closed major holidays,” makes me positively giddy – covering Disney World doesn’t look so daunting anymore.

It was with this light thought that I cheerfully set about installing IBM’s new SimplySpeaking Gold (remember: IBM made the Selectric! No one gets fired for buying IBM!), touted by Big Blue as the software that would change the world. My father was with me, and as I was describing what the software would do (‘yeah, that’s it… I can just talk into it and it will type what I say,’) he was shooting me looks of open dubiousness, if not mild derision.

“Youe’re skeptical,” I said.

“I’m not skeptical,” he said, “I know it won’t work.”

“Why,” I asked, supremely patient with my dottering dad, “would IBM offer a 30 day money back guarantee on it if it didn’t work?”

” I don’t know” said my father,” But it won’t work.”

Chuckling to myself (what does he know?) I set to installing SimplySpeaking Gold. Following the directions to the letter, I donned the little headset that came with the software. The training session lasted about half an hour, after which I started talking and it started typing.

Unfortunately, those two actions were entirely independent. It was as if had installed Tourette’sSyndrome for Windows95. I said,” Hey, look Dad, I’m talking and this thing is typing,” and it typed, “pay stark land vice talking in myths saying it is typing.” (“typing”, I noticed later, was one word it consistently spelled correctly, along with “SimplySpeaking Gold” ) I said, “This system sucks.” It typed, “cheesy feet and ducks.” Okay, it wasn’t really that bad – I am exaggerating a little (just a little) – but it was, in fact, terrible.

I returned it the following day. Later I spoke with a software salesman, who told me that almost everyone who bought the IBM software at his shop (one of New York’s largest) brought it back.

“That’s not to say it’s bad,” he was careful to say, “it’s just that a lot of people bring it back.”


This salesman went on to tell me that a lot of the people who were disappointed with IBM really liked Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but that that software was much more difficult to learn then IBM’s. Since I thought that learning IBM’s was simply a matter of training myself to speak in the manner of one of those VCR manuals that has been translated from the original Korean via Swahili, I was game for anything.

To be fair, IBM’s ViaVoice is said (well, said by IBM) to be better than SimplySpeaking. But in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Einstein reported something hauntingly similar to my experience:

” …when I said, ” This is my first dictation” ViaVoice wrote ” This is mild irritation.” I repeated the sentence and it came out, ” This is missus sophistication’.

Why, that is much better!

My next test was with Dragon’s NaturallySpeaking. With doubt in my heart, I installed the software and went through its training session. One thing that struck me immediately was that while I was reading through the training session’s text (it gives you a choice of three, I chose Dave Barry’s Adventures in Cyberspace) it was recognizing my voice right out of the box.

But I was truly astounded when, after finishing the session, I was able to write a long letter with very few mistakes: this thing actually works! Don’t believe it? Come over to my house and I’ll show you (two of my neighbours are going out to buy it after one demo).

For example, I’m writing the following five paragraphs by speaking into my computer. It’s an absolutely joyous thing: I’m sitting here with my feet on my desk speaking absolutely normally and watching it type everything I say.

And okay, there are some drawbacks (like the fact that it just wrote ” arson” instead of ” all are some’, and I had to go back and correct): I sit at my desk wearing this funky headset and looking for all the world like a Time-Life operator ready to take your phone call (E’Good morning, my name is Nick, are you calling about our Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?’).

But the fact is, I can dictate into this thing at about 100 words per minute after three days of use – and the folks at Dragon say that this will only improve over time.

I have noticed that in the last few days of using this software intensely it has made the same mistakes on a couple of occasions. But it also learns incredibly quickly. I only had to train ” Minas Gerais” and ” São Paulo” once, and never even had to tell it to recognize Rio de Janeiro. Handy, when IE’m working on Brazil (it also recognized, after training, “rodoviária” and “real”, which are pronounced decidedly not as they’re written).

But you’ve got to have patience (it just wrote ” patients’), and realize that it will take about a solid week before you begin to get close to 96% recognition.

The mistakes NaturallySpeaking made while I recited the last five paragraphs were, “good morning, my name is neck”; “… with my field on my desk”; and the aforementioned, “arson” and “patients”. Still, thatE’s not so bad. Earlier OCR scanning devices made far more mistakes, and for most of the friends of mine who can’t type to save their lives, a couple of mistakes in each paragraph is a far happier situation than a blank page.

But Naturally Speaking – or its presence – did cause some problems on my machine. After running it and other programs simultaneously, my computer crashed – but it turned out to be a Microsoft problem, and I had to download a small patch to fix it. You’ll also need a relatively good machine: while Dragon says you need at least a Pentium 133 Mhz, 32MB of RAM and 65MB of hard drive space, I’d say that’s conservative.

Another good question is whether you can dictate into a tape recorder on the road – some smarter authors (and now I) use a tape recorder for mapping (” J&R Music World on the south side of Park row 200 metres south of John St” ) and it would be a hoot to have the machine transcribe it. Well, short of spending upwards of $250 on a mini disk recorder, you’re out of luck: traditional minicassette and other analog recorders just don’t have the quality to work with NaturallySpeaking.

NaturallySpeaking has several models to choose from, but the recognition engine is the same on all – bells and whistles change as you spend more money. But their basic Point & Speak (US$59 RRP in the US) model allows you to do everything I did here. The Personal edition and Preferred Editions (US$99 and US$149 to US$159) have greater customization abilities, and very expensive Deluxe editions are available as well. SimplySpeaking Gold sells for US$139 in the US.

Where are the Nuclear Wessles?

subphotoI’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a “Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t “very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (“Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The “fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

“Hi!” I said, with a smile, “May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, “Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, “Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

“What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

“He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, “You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”