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November 13, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Searching for Ultrasonic Beacons

Update 19 November 2015: There is increasing evidence that the frequency excursions I saw aren’t actual beacons. See bottom of article for details.


Yesterday afternoon, a series of tweets alerted me to a user tracking technique I hadn’t run into before: a company, SilverPush, has been selling technology that embeds “ultrasonic beacons” in TV shows that can be detected by mobile phone apps. The technology would allow the app to determine what TV shows (or perhaps what advertisements) you have been watching, providing additional, perhaps personally-identifiable, information about you to the advertising ecosystem.

Spectrogram during series of ads

Spectrogram during series of ads

After a bit of speculation about whether the ultrasonic beacons might annoy dogs  (nobody thought it would), I thought it might be worth looking for them. I recorded just over an hour of audio from Cartoon Network; I chose CN because it was the one network featured on the SilverPush website. I did my recording with Audacity, and then exported the audio to Sonic Visualiser for spectral analysis.

My initial surprise was the uniformity of the high-frequency cutoff of the audio: almost always, there was a consistent rapid rolloff at 18 kHz (the upper limit of human hearing varies by age, but is in the 15-20 kHz range). But the upper limit during commercial breaks was not consistent: some advertisements had a high frequency cutoff as low as 14.2 kHz; many others were at 15 kHz and others were at 18 kHz like the program itself. This might be accounted for by different source material in some of the ads.

Spectrogram of "party, party, party". Note high frequency excursions on the first instance.

Spectrogram of “party, party, party”. Note high frequency excursions on the first instance.

The bigger surprise was the presence of some high frequency content above the usual cutoff frequency. In one particular example, a promo for CN’s Regular Show included a clip where some characters are chanting “party, party, party”. As the spectrogram (see second picture) indicates, the first instance of “party” includes some content above 18 kHz that isn’t there for the other two, although they sound remarkably similar.

I haven’t managed to analyze the high frequency content, but this looks like it might be the way the beacons work. This is pretty stealthy for a company that claims to “Increase TV advertising transparency with real-time TV analytics”.

And no, the beacons wouldn’t bother your dog.

Update (11:40 AM): Katie McInnis of the Center for Democracy and Technology pointed out the patent application for this technology which was listed under another company. It refers to the insertion of frequency-shift keying modulated data at 17.5 and 18.5 kHz. This is close to the right frequency range (except that 17.5 kHz would collide with a lot of the program information), but doesn’t appear to be the encoding used in this sample.

Update (19 November 2015): Analysis by several researchers is providing increasing evidence that the nature of the beacons is considerably different from the above, taking the form of much slower (1-2 second) tones in the 18-20 kHz range. This makes a lot of sense; I was having some doubts about the reliability of detection of the short and complex frequency excursions described above. I am not aware of any captures of the beacons on live content, however.

October 25, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Estonian e-Residency

Estonian Embassy, Washington, DC

Estonian Embassy, Washington, DC

In late 2014, the country of Estonia established what they refer to as their “e-Residency” program: the Estonian Government offers a digital identity card, similar to those given to their citizens and permanent residents, to foreigners. One of the benefits of the e-Residency program is to make it easier for non-residents to do business in Estonia. Digital identity cards can be used for secure authentication (at Estonian banks, for example), and make it much easier to set up a corporation there. Electronic signatures made with the cards are considered to be legal signatures in Estonia.

Initially, during the program’s pilot phase, one had to travel to Estonia to be issued a card. But recently it became possible to apply online and pick up one’s card at an Estonian embassy or consulate. Since my consulting work deals with online authentication and credential issuance, and I travel to Washington, DC from time to time, I decided to apply for one.

The application process was straightforward: you fill out an online form and attach a scan of your passport and a recent photograph. The form also asks why the applicant wants an Estonian ID card; I explained that I am a computer authentication researcher. There was a 50 Euro fee that I paid by credit card.

I received an email acknowledgement, and about two weeks later a message indicating that my application has been approved. About 10 days after that, another message told me that my card was available to be picked up at the Estonian Embassy in Washington. About 10 days ago, I made an appointment and visited the embassy, located a couple of blocks from Dupont Circle.

Digital Identity Card

Digital Identity Card

When I arrived, I was met by Christian, an embassy staff member who completed the issuance process. He verified my physical passport against the scan I had provided, and obtained images of fingerprints from my two index fingers. I also signed a form acknowledging the terms and conditions. I asked about the various numbers on the card and Christian explained them. There is a document number, effectively a serial number for the card, and a “personal code” which is an Estonian national ID number that I had been issued. The personal code is discussed in more detail below. The entire issuance process took about 15 minutes.

Included in the package were the digital identity card itself, a small USB smartcard reader, and a sealed envelope with the initial PIN for authentication, PIN2 for signing documents, and PUK for unlocking the card in the event that I enter the PIN wrong too many times.

Upon returning to my hotel, I tried using the card (I had previously downloaded the necessary software and installed it on my Mac). At the “welcome” website, I entered my document number and was told that the card had not yet been handed to me. Probably due to time zone issues, I had to wait until the next day for the issuance of my card to be recorded, probably by an OCSP server in Estonia.

The following day, I made my first successful authentication to their website. The login process consists of attaching the reader to my Mac and inserting my identity card, then pressing a Sign In button on a website that accepts it, such as A pop-up prompts for me to enter my PIN, and I’m signed in.

I initially had problems signing in with the Firefox browser on my Mac, although Chrome worked fine. After a couple of interactions with Customer Support (who were very responsive, by the way) we determined that disabling and re-enabling the Firefox extension cleared the problem.

Here are my initial impressions from using the card:

Things I like

  • Logging into a website using the digital identity card is convenient and secure, and does not involve sharing a password, or my PIN, with the site.
  • The software used by the digital identity card is open source, on GitHub.
  • The issuance process was well thought out. They understand the importance of in-person identity proofing for a secure credential. Their collection of a couple of fingerprints provided non-repudiation for my registration, which is especially important when it is being used to generate legally binding signatures.

Things that could use improvement

  • Estonian ID numbers (the iskukood, or personal code) reveal too much about the user. The first digit gives the user’s gender, and the second through seventh digits give the date of birth. A good identifier should be fully opaque, not revealing anything about the user. This is really an issue about Estonian ID numbers and not specifically about the identity card.
  • The user’s full legal name and ID number are always revealed to sites when you log in. This allows the sites to correlate your behavior with other sites and perhaps with offline activities as well. A better approach would be to generate an identifier that would be unique for each site, and release the name and personal code only when required for the transaction and authorized by the user. However, they are very transparent that this is taking place.
  • After logging out of a website, it’s necessary to exit and restart the browser. This is inconvenient, and from what I can tell has no security benefit.
  • After restarting the browser, I was surprised to find that it is possible to log in again without entering the PIN. Apparently it is cached somewhere. I haven’t been able to find any place that this caching is described, and being surprised is not a good thing for a security product such as this.
  • It is possible to sign out and back in while leaving the card and reader physically connected. This means that it might be possible for malware on my computer to log me in by proxy on an attacker’s computer. It would be better to require some local physical action to ensure that the card isn’t being used without my knowledge.
  • There isn’t any way to be absolutely certain that the pop-up window prompting for my PIN came from the identity card software and not from some other malware running on the computer, in the browser, or even on the website I’m currently on.

These are first impressions; I plan on updating this blog post if I discover anything in conflict with the above. The Estonian identity card is a fine experiment, and further demonstrates Estonia’s sophistication in use of the Internet to do business. I’m looking forward to doing more with this identity credential.



July 31, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Blog comment spam

For those of us that have blogs, comment spam is a constant thing. Even for small blogs like mine, it’s essential to have a spam filtering service to triage the comments so I don’t get alerted every time a likely spam comment comes in.  WordPress provides a filter called Akismet for that purpose, and it works well.

Spam comments, for those not familiar with them, are comments intended to drive traffic to some site, often a URL given as the purported author of the post. If they’re successful in getting links to their content added in a number of places, it may raise their rankings in the search engines. But the comments themselves are usually nonsense, general comments like “I like your blog”, or off-topic for the post they’re commenting on.

This afternoon I received a spam comment that seems to be a template used by one of these spammers to generate their vaguely nonsensical comments.  It’s sort of interesting to look at and gives some insight on how these comments are generated, so I thought I’d post it here.

{I have|I’ve} been {surfing|browsing} online more than {three|3|2|4} hours today,
yet I never found any interesting article like yours. {It’s|It is} pretty worth enough for me.
{In my opinion|Personally|In my view}, if all {webmasters|site owners|website owners|web owners} and
bloggers made good content as you did, the {internet|net|web} will be {much
more|a lot more} useful than ever before.|
I {couldn’t|could not} {resist|refrain from} commenting.
{Very well|Perfectly|Well|Exceptionally well} written!|
{I will|I’ll} {right away|immediately} {take hold of|grab|clutch|grasp|seize|snatch} your
{rss|rss feed} as I {can not|can’t} {in finding|find|to find} your {email|e-mail} subscription {link|hyperlink} or {newsletter|e-newsletter}
service. Do {you have|you’ve} any? {Please|Kindly} {allow|permit|let} me {realize|recognize|understand|recognise|know} {so that|in order that} I {may just|may|could} subscribe.
{It is|It’s} {appropriate|perfect|the best} time
to make some plans for the future and {it is|it’s} time to be happy.
{I have|I’ve} read this post and if I could I {want to|wish to|desire to} suggest you {few|some} interesting things or {advice|suggestions|tips}.
{Perhaps|Maybe} you {could|can} write next articles referring to this article.
I {want to|wish to|desire to} read {more|even more} things
about it!|
{It is|It’s} {appropriate|perfect|the best} time to make {a few|some}
plans for {the future|the longer term|the long run} and {it is|it’s} time to be happy.

{I have|I’ve} {read|learn} this {post|submit|publish|put up} and if
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{Perhaps|Maybe} you {could|can} write {next|subsequent} articles {relating
to|referring to|regarding} this article. I {want to|wish to|desire to} {read|learn} {more|even more} {things|issues}
{approximately|about} it!|
{I have|I’ve} been {surfing|browsing} {online|on-line} {more
than|greater than} {three|3} hours {these
days|nowadays|today|lately|as of late}, {yet|but} I {never|by no means} {found|discovered} any {interesting|fascinating|attention-grabbing}
article like yours. {It’s|It is} {lovely|pretty|beautiful} {worth|value|price} {enough|sufficient} for me.

{In my opinion|Personally|In my view}, if
all {webmasters|site owners|website owners|web owners}
and bloggers made {just right|good|excellent} {content|content material} as
{you did|you probably did}, the {internet|net|web} {will be|shall be|might
be|will probably be|can be|will likely be} {much more|a lot
more} {useful|helpful} than ever before.|
Ahaa, its {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious} {discussion|conversation|dialogue}
{regarding|concerning|about|on the topic of} this {article|post|piece of writing|paragraph} {here|at this place} at this {blog|weblog|webpage|website|web site}, I have
read all that, so {now|at this time} me also
commenting {here|at this place}.|
I am sure this {article|post|piece of writing|paragraph} has touched all the internet {users|people|viewers|visitors},
its really really {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious} {article|post|piece of writing|paragraph} on building up new {blog|weblog|webpage|website|web site}.|
Wow, this {article|post|piece of writing|paragraph} is {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious}, my {sister|younger sister}
is analyzing {such|these|these kinds of} things, {so|thus|therefore} I am going
to {tell|inform|let know|convey} her.|
{Saved as a favorite|bookmarked!!}, {I really like|I like|I love} {your blog|your site|your web site|your website}!|
Way cool! Some {very|extremely} valid points!
I appreciate you {writing this|penning this} {article|post|write-up} {and the|and also the|plus the} rest
of the {site is|website is} {also very|extremely|very|also really|really} good.|
Hi, {I do believe|I do think} {this is an excellent|this is a great} {blog|website|web site|site}.
I stumbledupon it ;) {I will|I am going to|I’m going to|I may} {come back|return|revisit} {once again|yet again} {since I|since i have} {bookmarked|book marked|book-marked|saved as a favorite} it.
Money and freedom {is the best|is the greatest} way to change,
may you be rich and continue to {help|guide} {other people|others}.|
Woah! I’m really {loving|enjoying|digging} the template/theme of this {site|website|blog}.
It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s {very hard|very difficult|challenging|tough|difficult|hard} to get that “perfect balance” between {superb usability|user friendliness|usability} and {visual appearance|visual appeal|appearance}.
I must say {that you’ve|you have|you’ve} done
a {awesome|amazing|very good|superb|fantastic|excellent|great} job
with this. {In addition|Additionally|Also},
the blog loads {very|extremely|super} {fast|quick} for me
on {Safari|Internet explorer|Chrome|Opera|Firefox}.
{Superb|Exceptional|Outstanding|Excellent} Blog!|
These are {really|actually|in fact|truly|genuinely} {great|enormous|impressive|wonderful|fantastic} ideas in {regarding|concerning|about|on the
topic of} blogging. You have touched some {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious} {points|factors|things} here.
Any way keep up wrinting.|
{I love|I really like|I enjoy|I like|Everyone loves} what you guys {are|are
usually|tend to be} up too. {This sort of|This type of|Such|This kind of} clever work and {exposure|coverage|reporting}!
Keep up the {superb|terrific|very good|great|good|awesome|fantastic|excellent|amazing|wonderful} works
guys I’ve {incorporated||added|included} you guys to {|my|our||my personal|my own} blogroll.|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Hey}! Someone in my {Myspace|Facebook} group shared this {site|website} with us so I came
to {give it a look|look it over|take a look|check it out}.

I’m definitely {enjoying|loving} the information. I’m {book-marking|bookmarking} and will
be tweeting this to my followers! {Terrific|Wonderful|Great|Fantastic|Outstanding|Exceptional|Superb|Excellent} blog and {wonderful|terrific|brilliant|amazing|great|excellent|fantastic|outstanding|superb} {style and design|design and style|design}.|
{I love|I really like|I enjoy|I like|Everyone loves}
what you guys {are|are usually|tend to be} up too.

{This sort of|This type of|Such|This kind of} clever work and {exposure|coverage|reporting}!
Keep up the {superb|terrific|very good|great|good|awesome|fantastic|excellent|amazing|wonderful} works guys
I’ve {incorporated|added|included} you guys to {|my|our|my personal|my own} blogroll.|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Hey} would
you mind {stating|sharing} which blog platform you’re {working with|using}?
I’m {looking|planning|going} to start my own blog {in the near
future|soon} but I’m having a {tough|difficult|hard} time {making a decision|selecting|choosing|deciding} between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
The reason I ask is because your {design and style|design|layout} seems different then most blogs and
I’m looking for something {completely unique|unique}.
P.S {My apologies|Apologies|Sorry} for {getting|being} off-topic but
I had to ask!|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hi|Hey there|Hello|Hey} would you mind letting me know which {webhost|hosting company|web host} you’re {utilizing|working with|using}?
I’ve loaded your blog in 3 {completely different|different} {internet browsers|web browsers|browsers}
and I must say this blog loads a lot {quicker|faster} then most.

Can you {suggest|recommend} a good {internet hosting|web hosting|hosting} provider at a {honest|reasonable|fair} price?

{Thanks a lot|Kudos|Cheers|Thank you|Many thanks|Thanks},
I appreciate it!|
{I love|I really like|I like|Everyone loves} it {when people|when individuals|when folks|whenever people} {come together|get together} and share {opinions|thoughts|views|ideas}.
Great {blog|website|site}, {keep it up|continue
the good work|stick with it}!|
Thank you for the {auspicious|good} writeup. It in fact was a amusement account
it. Look advanced to {far|more} added agreeable from you! {By
the way|However}, how {can|could} we communicate?|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hey there|Hello|Hey} just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
The {text|words} in your {content|post|article} seem to be running
off the screen in {Ie|Internet explorer|Chrome|Firefox|Safari|Opera}.
I’m not sure if this is a {format|formatting} issue or something to do with {web browser|internet browser|browser} compatibility
but I {thought|figured} I’d post to let you know. The {style and design|design and
style|layout|design} look great though! Hope you get the {problem|issue} {solved|resolved|fixed} soon. {Kudos|Cheers|Many thanks|Thanks}|
This is a topic {that is|that’s|which is} {close to|near to} my heart…
{Cheers|Many thanks|Best wishes|Take care|Thank you}!
{Where|Exactly where} are your contact details though?|
It’s very {easy|simple|trouble-free|straightforward|effortless} to find out any {topic|matter} on {net|web}
as compared to {books|textbooks}, as I found this {article|post|piece of
writing|paragraph} at this {website|web site|site|web page}.|
Does your {site|website|blog} have a contact page?
I’m having {a tough time|problems|trouble} locating it but,
I’d like to {send|shoot} you an {e-mail|email}. I’ve got some {creative
ideas|recommendations|suggestions|ideas} for your blog you might be interested in hearing.
Either way, great {site|website|blog} and I look forward to seeing it {develop|improve|expand|grow}
over time.|
{Hola|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Greetings}! I’ve been {following|reading} your {site|web site|website|weblog|blog} for {a long time|a while|some time} now and finally got the {bravery|courage} to go ahead and give
you a shout out from {New Caney|Kingwood|Huffman|Porter|Houston|Dallas|Austin|Lubbock|Humble|Atascocita} {Tx|Texas}!
Just wanted to {tell you|mention|say} keep up the {fantastic|excellent|great|good} {job|work}!|
Greetings from {Idaho|Carolina|Ohio|Colorado|Florida|Los angeles|California}!
I’m {bored to tears|bored to death|bored} at work so
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{quick|fast} your blog loaded on my {mobile|cell phone|phone} ..
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{awesome|amazing|very good|superb|good|wonderful|fantastic|excellent|great} {site|blog}!|
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{approximately|about} this, {like you|such as you} wrote the {book|e-book|guide|ebook|e book} in it or something.
{I think|I feel|I believe} {that you|that you simply|that you just} {could|can} do with {some|a few}
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{A great|An excellent|A fantastic} read. {I’ll|I will} {definitely|certainly} be back.|
I visited {multiple|many|several|various} {websites|sites|web sites|web
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{Howdy|Hi there|Hi|Hello}, i read your blog {occasionally|from time to
time} and i own a similar one and i was just {wondering|curious} if you get a lot of
spam {comments|responses|feedback|remarks}?

If so how do you {prevent|reduce|stop|protect against} it, any plugin or anything you can {advise|suggest|recommend}?
I get so much lately it’s driving me {mad|insane|crazy} so
any {assistance|help|support} is very much appreciated.|
Greetings! {Very helpful|Very useful} advice {within this|in this particular} {article|post}!
{It is the|It’s the} little changes {that make|which will make|that produce|that will make} {the biggest|the largest|the greatest|the
most important|the most significant} changes. {Thanks a lot|Thanks|Many thanks} for sharing!|
{I really|I truly|I seriously|I absolutely} love {your blog|your
site|your website}.. {Very nice|Excellent|Pleasant|Great} colors
& theme. Did you {create|develop|make|build} {this website|this
site|this web site|this amazing site} yourself? Please reply
back as I’m {looking to|trying to|planning to|wanting to|hoping to|attempting to}
create {my own|my very own|my own personal} {blog|website|site} and {would like to|want to|would love to} {know|learn|find out} where
you got this from or {what the|exactly what the|just what the}
theme {is called|is named}. {Thanks|Many thanks|Thank you|Cheers|Appreciate it|Kudos}!|
{Hi there|Hello there|Howdy}! This {post|article|blog post} {couldn’t|could not} be written {any better|much better}!
{Reading through|Looking at|Going through|Looking through} this {post|article} reminds me of my previous roommate!
He {always|constantly|continually} kept {talking about|preaching
about} this. {I will|I’ll|I am going to|I most certainly will} {forward|send} {this
article|this information|this post} to him.
{Pretty sure|Fairly certain} {he will|he’ll|he’s going to} {have a
good|have a very good|have a great} read. {Thank you for|Thanks for|Many thanks for|I appreciate you for} sharing!|
{Wow|Whoa|Incredible|Amazing}! This blog looks {exactly|just} like my old
one! It’s on a {completely|entirely|totally} different {topic|subject} but it has pretty much the
same {layout|page layout} and design. {Excellent|Wonderful|Great|Outstanding|Superb}
choice of colors!|
{There is|There’s} {definately|certainly} {a lot to|a great deal to} {know
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{I like|I love|I really like} {all the|all of the} points {you made|you’ve made|you have made}.|
{You made|You’ve made|You have made} some {decent|good|really good} points there.
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information|to find out more|to learn more|for additional information} about the issue and found {most individuals|most people} will
go along with your views on {this website|this site|this web site}.|
{Hi|Hello|Hi there|What’s up}, I {log on to|check|read} your {new stuff|blogs|blog} {regularly|like every week|daily|on a regular basis}.
Your {story-telling|writing|humoristic} style is {awesome|witty}, keep {doing
what you’re doing|up the good work|it up}!|
I {simply|just} {could not|couldn’t} {leave|depart|go away} your
{site|web site|website} {prior to|before} suggesting that I
{really|extremely|actually} {enjoyed|loved} {the standard|the usual} {information|info} {a person|an individual} {supply|provide}
{for your|on your|in your|to your} {visitors|guests}?

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{I wanted|I needed|I want to|I need to} to thank
you for this {great|excellent|fantastic|wonderful|good|very
good} read!! I {definitely|certainly|absolutely} {enjoyed|loved} every {little bit of|bit of} it.
{I have|I’ve got|I have got} you {bookmarked|book marked|book-marked|saved as a favorite} {to check out|to look at} new {stuff you|things you} post…|
{Hi|Hello|Hi there|What’s up}, just wanted to {mention|say|tell you},
I {enjoyed|liked|loved} this {article|post|blog post}.
It was {inspiring|funny|practical|helpful}. Keep on posting!|
{Hi there|Hello}, I enjoy reading {all of|through} your {article|post|article post}.
I {like|wanted} to write a little comment to support you.|
I {always|constantly|every time} spent my half an hour to read this {blog|weblog|webpage|website|web site}’s {articles|posts|articles
or reviews|content} {everyday|daily|every day|all the time} along with a {cup|mug} of coffee.|
I {always|for all time|all the time|constantly|every time} emailed this {blog|weblog|webpage|website|web site} post page to all my {friends|associates|contacts}, {because|since|as|for the reason that} if like to read it
{then|after that|next|afterward} my {friends|links|contacts} will too.|
My {coder|programmer|developer} is trying to {persuade|convince} me to move to .net from PHP.
I have always disliked the idea because of the {expenses|costs}.
But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using {Movable-type|WordPress} on {a number of|a variety of|numerous|several|various} websites for
about a year and am {nervous|anxious|worried|concerned} about switching to another platform.
I have heard {fantastic|very good|excellent|great|good}
things about Is there a way I can {transfer|import} all my wordpress {content|posts} into it?

{Any kind of|Any} help would be {really|greatly} appreciated!|
{Hello|Hi|Hello there|Hi there|Howdy|Good day}!
I could have sworn I’ve {been to|visited} {this blog|this
web site|this website|this site|your blog} before but after {browsing through|going
through|looking at} {some of the|a few of the|many of the} {posts|articles} I realized it’s new to me.
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{with your|together with your|along with your} {site|web site|website} in {internet|web} explorer, {may|might|could|would} {check|test} this?
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this {information|info} for my mission.|
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came to “return the favor”.{I am|I’m} {trying to|attempting to} find things to {improve|enhance} my {website|site|web site}!I suppose its ok to use {some
of|a few of} your ideas!\


July 29, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 22: London to Home

Wednesday, June 24, 2014

Today is a long day for us: 32 hours long, with the time change.

The (same) plane home

The (same) plane home

After a last hearty English breakfast, we caught the shuttle bus back to Heathrow and checked in. Everything went smoothly, and we passed the gauntlet of duty-free stores, while remarking about how little interest we have in the sort of things they sell.

Our flight was called a little late, and sure enough it was delayed by an hour or so, but we have no connections to make since we’re going straight to San Francisco. On arrival, we had a new experience: an automated kiosk that we had to check in at prior to going through immigration. Unfortunately the new process didn’t seem to speed the line at all.

Our ride home from the airport was comfortable; no Tesla this time but we didn’t expect one. It’s good to be home. Fortunately the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission meeting that was on my schedule for this evening was canceled; it would have been hard to stay alert.

This article concludes a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

July 28, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 21: Berlin to London

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Today we only got to visit Berlin for part of the day, before beginning our trip home. It rained part of the day yesterday, but today was the first really rainy day of the trip. We have had really amazing weather.

Suit of armor in the German Historical Museum

Suit of armor in the German Historical Museum

We had planned to take another bus tour (we had paid for it yesterday), but didn’t think we’d see much on a rainy day. Instead, we went to the German Historical Museum. Located in a beautifully appointed building, the museum gives thorough coverage of German history from the early Middle Ages to the present. Given the destruction in Germany at many points in history, we were amazed by the number and quality of artifacts displayed. We had to leave after about two hours, but all agreed that we could have spent much, much more time there. Of the many museums we visited on this trip, we agreed that this was perhaps the favorite.

We caught public transit to Berlin Tegel airport for the flight to London. We sat in Starbucks for a while until our flight was called, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t send or receive email from there. A little investigation revealed that the network was blocking all TCP ports except 80 (http) and 443 (https). So my email, which uses IMAP and authenticated SMTP, wouldn’t go through. When will they understand that the Internet is much more than just the Web?

When we got to Heathrow Terminal 2 “The Queen’s Terminal” (but aren’t they all the Queen’s?), we had a long walk, which seems characteristic of Heathrow Terminal design. We the had a long wait to go through immigration, even though we were coming from an EU country and just staying overnight. I guess that’s what everyone runs into at U.S. immigration as well.

Unlike many airports, Heathrow has a commercial service, rather than complimentary shuttles, connecting the airport with nearby hotels. We took one of these and made it to our hotel for a quick dinner where we reviewed our trip.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

July 27, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 20: Touring Berlin

Monday, June 22, 2015

After breakfast, we walked over to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Kurfürstendamm, which was heavily damaged in World War II with a modern successor built next to it. We walked around, but we were there a little before opening time. We continued to Europa Center, a shopping mall built in the 60s that is unremarkable except for a clock that keeps time using water and siphons. I wanted to see if the clock is still running (it is) and show Kenna and Celeste.

We then boarded one of the many hop-on hop-off bus tours like we had taken in England. The commentary, in English and German, was quite good and we ended up riding the entire two-hour tour without hopping off at all.

I had arranged to meet Paul Kallnbach, one of my colleagues from the DAViCal open-source project, for lunch. We went over to his office, a small co-working facility in Kreuzberg, a working-class neighborhood. It was very enjoyable meeting Paul, and he gave us some further tips on things to do and see in Berlin. Lunch was at a nearby restaurant that specialized in Spätzle dishes, which we all enjoyed.

After lunch, we went to the vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie, the famed cold-war border crossing. We first went one block east, to the corner of Charlottenstraße and Zimmerstraße, where I had a picture I had taken of a colleague in 1987. Now, instead of a graffiti-covered wall and a You Are Leaving The American Sector sign, there is a busy intersection. Very different.

My colleague Perry Tomboc at Charlottenstraße and Zimmerstraße, 1988

My colleague Perry Tomboc at Charlottenstraße and Zimmerstraße, 1988

Jim at Charlottenstraße and Zimmerstraße, 2015

Jim at Charlottenstraße and Zimmerstraße, 2015

We next went to the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which was much as I had seen it but updated with newer information. It also has quite a bit about things and people, such as Raoul Wallenberg, not directly related to the Wall. There is a huge amount of information to read in the exhibits, and it took somewhat longer than we expected.

Checkpoint Charlie, 1988

Checkpoint Charlie, 1988

Former Checkpoint Charlie, 2015

Former Checkpoint Charlie, 2015

We took the U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz and walked to the DDR Museum. The DDR Museum gave a good overview of life in East Germany (the DDR). I got to sit in one of the notoriously poor cars, the Trabant, that East Germans often had to wait 16 years to get. I’ll keep my Mini, thanks. It also showed examples of lifestyle, clothing, vacations (often clothing optional), and surveillance devices used by the Stasi. Speaking of surveillance, it seemed ironic that the museum’s free WiFi network required users to first check in on Facebook. I, of course, didn’t do that for the same reasons that I publish my vacation blog after returning home.

We then walked into the Mitte district of Berlin and to a very good Bavarian-themed restaurant for dinner, before returning to our hotel.

I should mention the construction on public transit. Berlin’s subway system consists of two systems, the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. It is widely used by Berliners, but it can be a little confusing to outsiders. Add to that there is construction going on, causing extra connections to and from the station serving our hotel. We never got lost, but sometimes it took a few minutes to make sure we were doing the right thing.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

July 26, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 19: Paris to Berlin

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Just before we left home, Kenna had a crazy idea: was there some way we could fit in a quick trip to Berlin? I have wanted to go back to Berlin since the Wall fell (my last visit was in 1989), and Kenna and Celeste have also wanted to go there. We have to get back to London for our flight home on Wednesday, and it turns out to be surprisingly economical to fly from Paris to Berlin, and then from Berlin to London a couple of days later.

We took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle Airport, which was very pleasant compared with the stairs and train changes that would be required via public transport. We connected in Frankfurt en route to Berlin.

On a recommendation from Rick Steves‘ travel guide, we began by buying Berlin “Welcome Cards” that gave us free mass transit and discounts on many local attractions for two days. We then took the bus to a stop a short walk from our hotel, which is one in which I stayed in 1989, but under a different name.

When we arrived at the hotel, I was told that they needed a voucher for payment from the company I had booked the reservation with. I had booked the room from Metz using based on the Hipmunk travel app that I use extensively. Apparently EasyToBook had forwarded my booking to another travel agency, which hadn’t sent either me nor the hotel a voucher. And it was Sunday, so the other agency was closed.

I called EasyToBook support, and was told that they would try to resolve the problem but in the meantime that I should continue to contact the hotel. I didn’t have much choice about contacting the hotel because I was standing in their lobby! After an hour or so, the desk clerk got through to her manager who authorized us to check in. Needless to say, I was very displeased with EasyToBook and will be contacting Hipmunk to tell them of the experience.

We decided to start our sightseeing at the Brandenburg Gate, which was in the Berlin Wall no man’s land when I last saw it. It was such a contrast: the area is now full of people and activity, a concert having just finished there, lending a festive atmosphere. The U.S. embassy is now adjacent to the Gate in what was East Berlin. I had expected to see people driving through the gate as in the movie One, Two, Three, but it’s a pedestrian thoroughfare now, probably a good thing since the posts won’t accommodate a very wide car.

Brandenburg Gate, February 1988

Brandenburg Gate, February 1988

Brandenburg Gate, June 2015

Brandenburg Gate, June 2015

We continued to walk past the Reichstag, and saw a large police presence there. I asked one of them what all of the people were doing, and he said that they were lined up to visit the Reichstag which didn’t seem like the full story. Later we learned that there had been a protest regarding the refugees that are currently trying to enter Europe from Africa. The protesters had dug a few mock graves in the lawn in front of the building, which was now fenced off.

Returning to the vicinity of our hotel, we had dinner at Schildkröte, a restaurant that was a favorite from my visits many years ago. It was basically unchanged, and we had a very enjoyable dinner there. It turns out they have been in business since 1936, which is pretty remarkable if you consider what Berlin must have been like then.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

July 25, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 18: Paris Sightseeing

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A few of the Sainte Chapelle windows

A few of the Sainte Chapelle windows

We planned today as a touristy day, and fortunately it didn’t have the drama of yesterday. We began at the venerable Notre Dame cathedral, arriving during a mass that limited our movements but gave us an opportunity to hear the organ and other music. I particularly enjoyed an exhibit showing the stages of construction of the cathedral over hundreds of years. After walking around the inside and part of the outside, we ventures to Sainte Chapelle, about a block away, where we were rewarded with a short line to get into this wonderful chapel that seems like it’s entirely composed of stained glass windows.

We walked to the former location of the Bastille just to take a look at the monument, then back along the Rue du Rivoli to the Louvre, stopping for lunch along the way. We really didn’t have time for the Louvre, so we passed through it and the Tuileries Gardens on the way to the Orsay Museum. We had visited the Orsay several years ago for an IETF social event, and were delighted to return. Right away we found ourselves at the Monet paintings of his garden and water lilies, which had special meaning for us having just been to Giverny.

Celeste admiring the Paris Opera House model

Celeste admiring the Paris Opera House model

With Celeste’s recent work on drama productions, some of the Degas paintings depicting backstage life were her favorites. She also marveled at a detailed model of the Paris Opera House that was on display.

We still hadn’t found an appropriate place for crèpes. While there were some stands around that had sweet (dessert) crèpes, we hadn’t found a place with savory crèpes. We walked into one of the neighborhoods that had been recommended to us and eventually found a restaurant on Rue de Seine that served galettes, which were the buckwheat crèpes we had back in Normandy. It was a small family-run restaurant, and we had a pleasant dinner (although some of us weren’t as keen on the buckwheat as others).

We caught the Métro back over to the Eiffel Tower, ran the gauntlet of street vendors and scams, and encountered a long line. It was getting late, we had packing to do for our departure tomorrow, and we wanted to traverse the neighborhood near our hotel before dark. So we bid au revoir to the Eiffel Tower, took some pictures, and returned via the Métro, sharing a dessert crèpe along the way.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

July 24, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 17: Back to Paris

Friday, June 19, 2015

Last night we made the final decision to include a short trip to Berlin in our itinerary, so we’ll have a limited amount of time in Paris. We got a fairly good start today in an effort to get checked in at the hotel, return the rental car, and still have a significant amount of time to do some sightseeing.

The trip back to Paris was routine. We stopped by the hotel first to check in and leave our luggage so we could go sightseeing right after dropping off the rental car. There was the usual heavy traffic around Paris (I was driving this time) as we made the trip on city streets, first to fill the tank, and then to Gare du Nord station. But we made it, unscathed.

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

After a quick lunch, we made our way to Sacré-Coeur, which none of us had visited previously. The way from the Métro station to the church was mega-touristy: souvenir shops and stands everywhere, lots of scams (“find the ball!”) and street vendors hawking selfie sticks, water, little models of the Eiffel Tower, you name it. When we got there, the church was very nice, but newer than we had realized. The view from Montmartre was wonderful though.

We went through the gauntlet of street vendors, scams, and such back to the Métro station, to go to L’Arc de Triomphe. It was very crowded and we pushed onto a train and others pushed in behind us. I quickly realized that my wallet wasn’t in my pocket; it was dangling from the lanyard to which I had clipped it. I looked and the Euros were gone, but everything else looked intact.

There was an urchin (boy) right behind me wearing a shoulder bag who was the obvious thief. I’ll call him Gauvroche, after the urchin in Les Misérables (I also understand that the French word for urchin is gauvroche). I grabbed Gauvroche by the wrist and pulled him around in front of me, largely to let him (and others nearby on the train) know that I knew he had done it. But of course he denied anything, and I realized that he had been careful not to take anything that was identifiable as mine. So I let him go, and some of the other passengers told him to get off at the next station, which he did. The other passengers nearby were friendly and sympathetic, and asked to make sure I was all right.

What I ended up with was a €150 lesson in pick pocketing. It could have been so much worse, especially in terms of inconvenience, if he had made off with my credit cards, driver’s license, ATM card, etc. I got off easy, but it still took most of the rest of the day to settle down. The lanyard probably gave him something to grab and told him which pocket to target, but without it my wallet would probably have been dropped or handed off to an accomplice, so who knows what would have happened there.

We walked under l’Étoile (huge line to go up in L’Arc de Triomphe, and that wasn’t a priority anyway) and headed for the Eiffel Tower. Again we were in a tourist zone with all sorts of street vendors, but fortunately they were less aggressive than at Sacre Coeur. At the Eiffel Tower there was, as usual, a significant line, and we determined that my Swiss Army Knife that I was carrying didn’t pass security, so we decided to do the Tower tomorrow.

Orsay Museum from the Seine

Orsay Museum from the Seine

Next stop was to take a cruise on the Seine. We walked down a couple of bridges to the tour company recommended by a friend, and just missed one of their departures, so went for dinner and came back. The tour boat had a capacity of 1000 and was maybe about 60% full, largely with people from many tour buses. The ride, about 75 minutes long, was pleasant, but it was almost as much fun watching people take pictures and brandish selfie sticks. The recorded narration was in first in French, followed by English, German, Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese; this limited the amount of information available in each language.

We returned to our hotel at dusk via the Métro, and it was evident what a marginal neighborhood our hotel was in. We hurried the few blocks back from the station. The hotel (Suite Novotel) itself is very nice, but apparently the neighborhood accounts for its low cost.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

July 23, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 16: Luxembourg and Metz

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Last night it rained, the first significant rain we have had on the trip. The weather has been amazingly good, although we were also hoping for some rain as a counterpoint to California’s drought. Getting rain in the night and having it let up in time to load luggage in the car is about as good as it gets.

Interior of the cathedral at Trier

Interior of the cathedral at Trier

Leaving Bacharach, we were surprised to see both our car’s GPS and Google Maps lead us not back to the Rhine, but up a winding road in the hills. It turned out to have a few hairpin turns but wasn’t actually that bad. Following some lingering showers en route, our first stop was at Trier, the site of another prominent cathedral and basilica. It also had a prominent city gate known as the Black Gate that dates from Roman times.

From Trier, we drove to Luxembourg, the first visit to that country by Kenna and Celeste and the first since high school for me. As expected, Luxembourg City had all the trappings of a business center: lots of modern buildings, a convention center, and business people in suits. We walked around a bit, got some lunch, and continued back into France to Metz.

The Moselle River at Metz

The Moselle River at Metz

Kenna and I had visited Metz, the capital of the Lorraine region, in the late 90s and loved it. It is situated along the picturesque Moselle River, has an attractive city center, and few tourists. Oh yes, there’s a great cathedral there, too.

For once, we arrived early enough to explore the city before dinner. We walked through much of the downtown, visited the cathedral, and checked out quite a few potential options for dinner. We settled on La Cloche, a typical small restaurant near the cathedral with a local menu and a very friendly owner. Kenna and Celeste had pasta dishes and I had a Lorraine plate consisting of local sausage and ham, potatoes, and salad. It was a very enjoyable dinner.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.


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