Mobile Unified Communications – Part 4: Cultural Notes

This is the part where it usually says, “trust me; there’s wireless in here somewhere”. This time there isn’t. The following is a bit of a self-indulgent travelogue, but I think you will enjoy it regardless.

So, again, I undertook the mobile unified communications tour (start with Part 1 here) in an effort to see if truly global Wi-Fi-based communications could substitute for expensive cellular roaming or the other alternatives I discussed in Part 1 of this series. The answer is decidedly mixed, giving the final grade a distinct "maybe"; more on this in the next and final entry in this series.

What follows here, though, is a bit on the cultural elements experienced during this project. I often travel, although less on an extensive international scale than in the past, but I'm always regardless impressed how great a role culture plays in human relationships, culture being the at-least-partially unwritten rules on how we relate to one another. We have more in common than not; during my days in politics I summed this up as we all want the same things, but we differ (sadly, often violently) on the methodology required. Culture has clearly shaped and even defined the world we live in today. So, even as an engineer who is often culturally-challenged, I always enjoy seeing new things and meeting new people, which was a valuable side benefit of the MUC project.

After changing planes in Munich, we started this adventure in Oslo, Norway - a very nice city, although I doubt I'd enjoy it in the winter. I don't like Boston in the winter much either, and Oslo is way farther north. That being said, Oslo is amazingly clean - nary a tiny bit of litter on the streets, apart from what appeared to be inadvertently-discarded personal notes and the occasional and yet globally-ubiquitous cigarette butt. It's easy to get around the city, even on foot. Not to be missed is the Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park, which is at once amazingly beautiful and soothing, and yet impactful and powerful - I was moved to tears by the many depictions of humanity in all of our many emotions and phases of life. If this space doesn't grab you, you truly have no soul.

Oslo, however, like most of the venues visited on this sojourn, ain't cheap. Expect to pay astonishingly high prices for dining out and hotel rooms. I like to eat where the locals go, and how they afford this simple pleasure I'll never know. But all of the Norwegians I met seemed happy and content, so the question here seems to be largely moot.

Berlin, Germany, perhaps more than any city in the world has defined the history of Western civilization since World War I. And, while the path to modern Berlin has been nothing short of horrific, the city today is modern and engaging. It's basically all new, after all - there have been two major reconstructions, after the war and post-re-unification, the latter of which begun only two decades ago. Despite a relatively low population density, getting around is tough. By the way, if you want to see all of the great museums in the city, I estimate it would take a solid year, full time, to do so.

It's interesting that there are many monuments and exhibits that review the very dark Nazi past, and I was concerned that such might negatively affect the self-esteem of modern Berliners. No worries here, either. Perhaps because they've been so busy with reunification, Berlin appears to be a modern city looking ahead rather than back. Still, I would have expected a greater emphasis on the east/west issue that Nazism, which is, after all now almost 70 years in the past. Berlin personified the cold war, and thus the era that I grew up in. A benefit, though, is the blending of cultures and resulting diversity that one finds in only a few cities around the planet - New York, Istanbul, and Singapore also come to mind here.

Not to be missed in the former East Berlin is one stark, moving, powerful sculpture, at Neue Wache. This was described by our tour guide as a German Pietà, but that doesn't begin to hit the mark. The museum is a large, empty, almost dreary space, with an open skylight above. The statue appears tiny in its surroundings, but it jumps out at you like a lightning bolt. It must be magnificent in the snow or rain. Anyway, more tears - lots of them. Art is so vital to civilization, and I almost always enjoy it in its many forms, and yet it is so rare that I'm grabbed like this - an absolute highlight of this project.

Tallinn, Estonia, looks like what Disney would showcase if they had "Medieval Land" at Disney Land/World. Lots of very old buildings with great historical and cultural significance, but also lots of touristy shops selling mostly crap no one really needs - but, to be fair, I saw some real artisans at work here as well. Big challenge: the place was positively claustrophobic, jammed with tour groups and tons of people getting irritated when the shot they've spent 30 seconds lining up is blocked by someone else doing the same. Digital photography encourages the photographer to capture absolutely everything. Of course, these pictures will be viewed at most once in the future, but the collective weight of the disk drives and solid-stated storage used to hold them all will eventually imperil the very rotation of the Earth, thus dooming the planet. Remember, you heard this first from me. On the plus side, our tour guide reported that Estonia is now a hub of IT innovation (they call it "E-Stonia"), and, remember, Skype was born here and prospered before Microsoft sunk their incompetent fangs into it. Despite a problem with over-education, an issue not exactly alien in the States, I expect great things from this nation in the future. They positively relish the freedom they regained in 1991, and are clearly and very enthusiastically looking ahead.

On to St. Petersburg, Russia, a city I've always wanted to visit. Growing up during the Cold War, I had little expectation of ever reaching Russia, although I've had a number of possible projects there come up over the years but with none ever contracted. Russia remains a relatively closed, homogenous society - tourist visas are available, but tough and expensive to get, so the best way to get in is via an established tour operator - in my case SPB, who actually arranged my time ashore at all five stops, and who are terrific and an excellent value as well. And, as previously noted, their bus had Wi-Fi, which made parts of this project relatively simple.

As I don't speak or read Russian, it definitely felt as though I were in a foreign country. I recognized the occasional McDonalds logo, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Subway Signs, a Ford dealer, but little else. The Cyrillic alphabet looks enough like Roman to encourage one to pronounce words, but the result is always dead wrong. Anyway, St. Petersburg used to be the capital of Russia before the Bolshevik revolution, and the palaces, churches, and castles are magnificent. The Russian Supreme Court is here, not Moscow. I always wanted to visit the Hermitage, the state museum and former Winter Palace, and the collection there is indeed phenomenal. The real highlight, though, was the park at Peterhof, begun during the time of Peter the Great. This is both a very beautiful spot, right on the Gulf of Finland, and a marvel of 18th-century engineering, with fountains powered to this day by gravity alone. We even rode a hydrofoil back to town from there; such craft are rarely seen in the States and it's hard to understand why. Anyway, by all means, go - St. Petersburg will likely feel a bit strange to you as well, but there's a lot to see. And I believe more than ever today that Russia overall is on it way to becoming a major economic power. BTW - prices here are very reasonable. A ride on the subway system, for example, costs about US$1.00 irrespective of distance. The station we visited (yes, that was a stop on the tour, but without a ride) was a work of art - absolutely magnificent and very clean. The MBTA folks in Boston should schedule a field trip here to see how it's done.

Helsinki, Finland, wasn't as exciting as our other stops, but there is a lot to recommend the city. Finland is a small country, but big on outdoor sports and quality of life. There are a few interesting sites to see, but one is more struck by the gee-I'd-like-to-live-here feel of the place. Keep in mind that taxes are high, and the winters long and very, very cold, but social services are robust and the small-town hominess of the place really is attractive.

Stockholm, Sweden, was a personal favorite of mine. Coming into the port, the surroundings reminded me of Maine, with little summer homes overlooking the water. The dock was very close to the old part of town, so we did get in a good walking tour. Stockholm, like St. Petersburg, is really a bunch of islands connected via waterways, à la Venice. The streets are narrow but still filled with tour busses; there are the usual ticky-tacky souvenir shops, but also some wonderful architecture. The City Hall is not to be missed - it's a work of art and a very nice museum in addition to being a working administrative center. You should also stop by the Vasa Museum to see one of the most colossal engineering failures of all time. This building houses the reconstructed warship Vasa, which sank 20 minutes into her maiden voyage in 1628. The ship was positively ornate, and truly magnificent to behold - but it was also top heavy and under-ballasted, so I'd imagine stiff breeze would have been all that was required to send her to the bottom. Anyway, they found her in 1961, dug her up, put her back together, and she's now the centerpiece of an excellent exhibit on a fascinating moment in (engineering and other) history. Overall, though, I was impressed with Stockholm. While I think, given adequate outerwear, I could live in any of the cities visited during this project, Stockholm would be my first choice. Like Helsinki, I felt right at home almost immediately, something I've experienced only a few times (Boulder, CO; Melbourne, Australia; London, England) in my travels over the years.

Copenhagen, Denmark - well, we were all pretty tired at this point, following day after day of death-march (8-18 KM each day) treks. So we went to the Palace, the Parliament, and the obligatory walk to see the Little Mermaid (nowhere near as interesting as I was promised), but my time was mostly spent looking for APs and an early evening in preparation for a 4:00 AM trip to the airport. BTW, The service on SAS is as bad as most American airlines today, a surprise. They really couldn't care less about their customers.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that the quality of life across many dimensions is really very good in the Baltic region. The individual countries are small in most cases, and emerging in others; only Germany is a real powerhouse and arguably the economic leader of modern Europe today. I am struck, though, with the vibrancy of all of the cities I visited. I grew up during a time when the US was the unquestioned global economic and political power, and I think it's quite clear, especially today, with the astonishingly childish shenanigans going on at present in the capitol, that we need to get our heads out of the sand and start pursuing policies that will help us to regain that leadership, and at least our historic competitiveness. As I saw during this project, there's no necessary connection between being a superpower and quality of life; indeed, there may even be an inverse relationship here. You Europeans have no idea how good you have it - or maybe you do and are just being humble. We'll leave that as an open item for now; there's still much of Europe - and the rest of the world - left to see, and I look forward to more MUC testing in the future. Yes, let's go with that.

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