NYC – A Post-Mortem

A writeup on my trip to New York in July 2012. I’ve separated it into a few topics, so you can read what you want, or all of it if you are bored.

Travel, Security & Airports

Finnair gets a slap

First of all, i’d like to slap Finnair with a huge wet fish. I had some .. curious issues trying to fill in my data for the flight. By data, I mean the supplementary data that is required to travel to the US. I did my ESTA-thing, and was approved for travel. That system, even thought it costs actual big-people money, works fairly well. Finnair on the other hand, which took 742 euros of my money for a roundtrip, did not work too well. I got an e-mail a 2 weeks before my trip telling me that I need to add some information. I was provided with a link to do so. I edit my information and hit save. Nothing happens, though it did submit something. Close the little window, and hit confirm on the main page: “Your reservation number 123456 could not be found”. Yes, literally that message. Tried IE. Tried Chrome. Tried Firefox. Same result.

So I decide to call Finnair. The phone-call costs 3.15€ per call, plus local per-minute fees. Not exactly cheap, considering that Finnair isn’t usually the cheapest choice in tickets either…

A peppy-sounding woman answers, and I describe the issue to her. She offers to take my information and feed it to the system over the phone. I tell her every single item, and spell any names and such. I didn’t spell New York to her, but more on that later. So i ask her whether the information is on time, and she tells me she doesn’t know, but that she thinks it’s 72 hours prior to travel. This actually applies to the ESTA-form, afaik, and not this supplementary information that the airlines send to the relevant US authorities.

At the end of the call, she tells me to check the website again to see if the information is there and correct.

Rest assured, it was not. Let me itemize some of the things that were either missing or incorrectly typed:

  1. My middle name was missing, even though i gave it
  2. My passport number was missing two characters
  3. My passport expiry date was incorrect (i even got an error saying that my passport is now expired and that i should contact Finnair!!). She typed 2012 when she was supposed to type 2013, making my passport expired
  4. The destination city was typed incorrectly. Now, i may be anal about this, but if you work for an airline, or in the travel industry, even as a temp, you should know how to spell New York.Hell, if you are a human being in the western hemisphere, you should know! But no. She spelled it New Yourk. In my mind, this was the stupidest, though perhaps the smallest, of all the faults she had made.

So after a short moment of perplexion, i redial the Finnair customer support number. I think I got the same Woman, because she neither confirmed or denied when I inquired about whether she was the one I talked to earlier. I tell her the information is incorrect, and start out with the ‘New Yourk’-issue, because that stumped me the most. She started out by telling me: “Oh that’s a small mistake..but I’ll go ahead and correct it anyway”. I then described the other three issues (perhaps not so minor, eh Finnair?) which I asked her to read back to me once she’d typed them in. She then tried to cover her ass by saying “Some of the information we type into our systems don’t show up on the website, so don’t worry”. I could understand if it was my choice of meals on the plane, or what color luggage I was planning on checking in, but what would be the point of having two separate systems that integrate partially? I  mean you could do it that way, but it just sounds weird to me. Then, I’ll disclaim that I’m not a code monkey so i don’t know how they (don’t?) think.

I still didn’t trust her, but decided not to check the information online anyway. I had this theory where, if i open the thing online, it wipes out some of the fields she’s typed in on their end. Sounded plausible at the time..

Now, I am a cautious person by nature. Some might call me neurotic (and be correct in their statement), or even paranoid. But when it comes to dealing with US three-letter-agencies, I tend to want to err on the side of caution. They’ve turned away people at the border for tweeting jokes, so what would happen if my passport number was incorrect? I also bet that Finnair is completely void of any responsibility for any missing or mis-typed information, through some EULA or other agreement I must have mentally signed when I woke up that morning and thought of Finnair. And the amount of .. emotion I would have felt should I have been turned back at the border after paying for everything.. would have been substantial.

I also sent in a complaint to Finnair through their webform (yeah yeah, the irony). I checked the box saying “Yes, I want to be contacted on this issue”. After a while, i got an e-mail saying (or maybe it was on the website after i submitted the form?) that their complaints department is very busy right now, and that someone would get back to me within 28 days. Two weeks after I have returned from my flight. OK, fine, I’ll wait. I’ll also blog about what they say.

The funny did not stop here. A short while later, i get an SMS from Finnair, saying, roughly: “Hello! You’ve recently sent some feedback to us. Would you like to fill in a questionaire on your experience? You could win Finnair Plus gift-cards (or some such trinkets /note) for your troubles!”. Needless to say, I filled in the questionaire, vitriolic content flowing through my literary veins.

I don’t think I’ll win any gift-cards.

Samsonite gets a cookie

I bought my single most expensive piece of luggage before the trip. I was getting tired of lending bags, or using crappy supermarket-quality bags. I bought the second best Samsonite they had on display, at roughly 200€. A black, hard-shell stroller with four wheels. 10 year warranty. Absolutely worth the money. Lightweight, tough, easy to move around. And the obligatory TSA-approved lock, so they can open my bag when they want to!

Equipment

The plane both ways was a Finnair-owned Airbus A330-300 (tail number OH-LTO i think?). The planes were clean, looked “right-out-of-the-factory” for the most part. Neatest part for a geek? Every seat, even in economy, had their own entertainment system in the seat in front of you. And best of all? It ran linux. I’ll add some pics later, which I was able to snag when the guy in front of me fell asleep on his screen, causing it to reboot. The screens got fairly hot, but all in all they worked flawlessly. The screens were resistive touchscreens, maybe 8 inches in size? Also included was a small wired remote with a small lcd-screen. The flipside of the remote had a qwerty-keyboard. The features that I looked at and tested were, in no particular order:

  • SMS (send/receive)
  • E-mail (send)
  • Movies and other video-type entertainment

SMS and E-mail cost two dollars a pop, which is highway (uh.. mile high?) robbery. It costs a shit and a nickle for them to send it out, seriously. I’m gonna look at the email headers later to see what i can deduce from that, as to the route it took etc. Sending and receiving was fairly straight forward, and it asked you to swipe a major credit-card before you started. This felt a bit odd, but since it confirmed each charge separately, I felt pretty safe using it. There’s something about sending an SMS at 11 km above Greenland that tickles my geek-buds.

Also offered was a phone-call option, (the remote/keyboard would have functioned as phone). Sure, phones have been on planes since.. the 80’s? But anyway, first flight i’ve been on that has these ammenities in economy class.

Linux on a Finnair Airbus A330-300

Movies had a fair selection (maybe 30 movies in different categories), all worked fine. Earbuds were included and waiting on the seat on both flights. Again an improvement from the rip-off 5 or 10 dollar charge for those shitty 2 cent chinese headphones on most flights.

So all in all,  Finnair gets points for the flight.

Airports

The airport at Helsinki-Vantaa here in Finland is pretty much the same. They’ve added a new security measure, which involves scanning your passport, then walking into a small booth (not a scanner as far as I know), and then facing a camera which takes your picture. It automatically adjusted for height, and when the picture was taken, it opened the other side so you could pass.

JFK was about the same too, though the TSA has changed some of their uh.. policies. I was at Terminal 8, which is the Finnair terminal, both ways. No nudie-scanners that I could see, so I didn’t need to decline any such invasive radiation based scanning of my body. Too bad, I wanted to see how that worked out, declining that is. I mean, a trans-altantic flight gives you enough of a dose as it is. I see no reason why anyone would like to get irradiated a second time at the airport with technology that is possibly unsafe (or at least not extensively tested), and not even effective.

The TSA signs were pretty funny, stuff like: “Good news! If you’re under 12 years old, tighten your shoelaces! You won’t have to take off your shoes at the security checkpoint!” and “If you are born on or before this date  in the year 1937, you will not have to take off your jacket and shoes”. I for one am thrilled. In only fourty some odd years, i’ll be able to travel without taking off my shoes!

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was pretty much the same, though I was processed by a rather humorless TSA “officer” (why do these guys and gals still have badges? I’m pretty sure they are not all law enforcement trained). He took my passport, scanned it, and asked some questions. I’m not sure he looked at me in the eyes once. Would that be a sign of weakness? Was he just not interested? What was the score here. I don’t know, but it felt rather strange. And for some reason, he stamped the “Welcome to the USA” stamp in the middle of two pages. Was he looking away when he did the stamping? Perhaps.

On the way back we experienced a heavy thunderstorm which hit JFK head-on. Eventually, a blue light started flashing outside, and they announced that the airport was now closed. All eight terminals of JFK. In the end our plane was like two hours late.

During the wait, we were sitting in the Mastercard lounge, which didn’t have wifi. That was the first thing they announced when we got to the lounge. Most people turned around after hearing this, but we just came for the comfortable leather seats. The wifi would have been pretty great though, but it appears nobody had internet at the airport, not wirelessly at least.

Back at Helsinki-Vantaa, we went through the same “airlock” with the self-adjusting camera. Fast and easy, though I fail to see how this increases security.

Hackers on planet Earth 9

So 13-15th of July was Hope #9. The theme was surveilance. Oh boy, where to start?

So the layout was the same as most years, with a few minor changes. There were three main tracks, and a fourth un-scheduled track. The tracks ran on the 18th floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. We also had the Penn Pavilion for us, which consisted of a ground floor, and a mezzanine level. The ground floor had signin and security, as well as the music area, and the mezzanine had vendors, hackerspace area, chillout area, art installations and a bunch of other stuff.

I volunteered again, as I did during the Next Hope (the last hope, in 2010.. yeah, the names are confusing :), though this years experience was, I’m afraid, a bit less exciting. Maybe I’ve changed, or maybe it was really different? I helped out during loadin on thursday, and then did some shifts helping out the AV crew during friday-sunday. This year though, the organizers were either too distracted or there were “too many” volunteers. Work was harder to come by than in 2010, and it was hard to find the people who actually knew what they were doing, and what needed to be done. Also, there was a certain.. clique this year. People who had banded together and gotten special vests (STAFF!), special “all areas access”-cards and such paraphenelia that they paid for themselves. That’s okay, I’m all for that, but it kind of serves as a separator between the have’s and have-not’s. And yeah, I’m probably being too serious, as people always keep telling me, but some of the guys there were clearly above the rest. Man, some of the volunteers were hard to even talk to or get eye-contact, because they were so into their role. Think earbuds and CB-radio. Think walking around like you own the place.

And by no means does this apply to all of the volunteers. Just a select few. Anyway, I felt a little out of my league, and out of place. I didn’t do nearly as much work as last time around. Didn’t really feel like it either.

Okay, but enough whining. On to the talks. There were so many talks that i attended, that it is hard to pick out the best ones. I really liked the Prometheus Radio Project talk, the William Binney keynote (ex NSA dude), and Space Rogue’s Media Hype talk (Great hacks that never happened). There were other great ones as well, but there’s some of them. There were over 100 talks, of which you could see roughly.. a fourth maybe? Unless you were Schrödinger’s Cat or something. The talks were all filmed and recorded, and you can buy them from the 2600 store. Some of the speakers have released their slides, look on twitter for instance. Check the #hope9 tag for some of them.

The tickets this year were not electronic. Instead, we got a purple “Passport”. Inside you could affix stickers, or get stamps from different groups or people. My definite favorite was the one I got from Space Rogue; the L0pht Heavy Industries-stamp. Here are some pics of the passport and stuff:

Hope 9 Passport and plain-jane Volunteer card
First and second page of the passport
Some of the stickers and stamps, including the coveted l0pht stamp
Stamp from a weird “russian” 🙂

In the vendor-area there were some new faces. Hackers for Charity (the Johnny Long-project if i’m not mistaken?), the EFF, the FSF and others were present.

I got a bunch of schwag from the conference, mainly stickers and shirts that i bought or received through donations to the non-profits. I was sad that I couldn’t get some of the EFF shirts without becoming a member. That’d be kind of pointless (and not even possible?), since  I’m already a member of EFFI here in Finland. But we need cooler shirts here too damn it! The “I Fight For The User” shirt was especially nice.

Stickers from Hope 9

New York in general

On the last full day, we went to see the World Trade Center site. The new building, One World Trade Center, was looking mighty fine. It’s now the tallest building in New York, and it’s not even finished yet. Awesome building!

We also visited the Museum of Natural History in the uh.. upper west side of town (i think that’s what it’s called), which was well worth the 19 dollar entry fee. So many exhibits and things to look at you would have needed hours to go through it all.

Wireless was still a pain to find. The hotel apparently had some kind of deal, which was 10 dollars a day. I wish I had seen that when i checked in. Oh well. I resorted mostly to the classic “attwlan” or whatever the Starbucks one is called, and other such places (Burger King was pretty good with Wifi too). Intertubes were slow, and laggy. I don’t have roaming data in my contract, because it’s usually prohibitively expensive. Not that we should complain. The Americans are getting ass-raped by their carriers. They pay some insane sums to get small scraps of data. Sure, they have uh.. “4G”, (not really), but who cares if you have a 1G cap? Even residential DSL connections are capped, which is something I will not stand for, even if I don’t download a lot of stuff…

I set one goal for the trip: Try as many fast-food places as possible. I tried: Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Five Guys burgers and fries. Out of those, Five Guys had perhaps the best burgers, while Taco Bell had the most bang for the buck (cheap as hell, and rather filling). Burger King had good fries at times, and KFC had tasty little Chicken Bits. Pizza Hut had just released the garlic bread pizza, which we of course had to try. It was pretty good too.

TV over there is still insane. Like five or six commercial breaks per  hour of programming. And the ads are so fucking inane. Two seconds of content and the rest is warnings and advisories. Why, I had no idea that Cialis doesn’t prevent me from getting HIV!

All in all we walked a lot, and saw the city. I plotted some of the walks we did, and ended up at nearly 40 kilometers of walking, just inside one city and about four days. Great trip, but I don’t know when I’ll be back. It’s pretty darn expensive to go there, and Hope is now kind of.. I don’t know, been-there-done-that? A 3000 euro trip for the two of us is not something you can just go out and do. It takes saving and planning.

I think I’m going to look at the European conferences next. CCC or some of those events? At least the flights are cheaper.

Ok, this is one monster of apost, best to end it here.

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