My European Awakening

I just returned from 7 days in Europe. Thanks to LinkedIn Answers, I probably saved $1,000 on airfare on this trip by taking the advice of some of my connections who are more experienced last-minute travellers. (I’ve joked that with all this great advice, I could publish an ebook on last minute European travel and probably sell it for $10 on our ebook site.)

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said in his excellent podcast from Stanford University last month that he hopes LinkedIn Answers becomes the first truly useful Answers service online. He told about asking a question (took him 2 minutes) and getting 26 answers, 18 of which were very helpful.

My experience was similarly helpful. I asked about 200 of my 600 LinkedIn connections how to get a cheap last-minute flight to Europe. I got 37 responses, most of them were very helpful. (One told me jokingly to pretend there was a funeral in the family and get the bereaved family discount. Another said I could be a courier and fly for free.)

From these answers, I learned of about 10 online travel sites that I had previously not used. SideStep.com was the most useful on my trip. (Venere.com, an Italian site, turned out to be the most useful for booking last minute hotels in Paris and London.)

I booked a flight on Air France two days before leaving for Europe, for $980 round trip from LAX to Rome, with a stop in Paris at CDG (Charles De Gaulle) airport. (Air France serves great food, by the way.) After Rome, I fly one-way to London, got a hotel downtown for 69 pounds per night, then on Saturday morning flew round trip to Dublin on British Airways for under US$200. Rather than fly back to Rome, I took the Eurostar train from London to Paris, and arrived in Paris Sunday night. I think it was US$229. My hotel was across the street from the Gare du Nord station and cost only 60 Euros.

So all in all, the travel costs weren’t so bad, considering the last-minute planning. What adds up was the cost of transportation within each city (taxis, metro) and the cost of food, which was surprisingly high.

But the trip itself gave me a sweet taste for world travel. I grew up with a very tiny reality map (see my Connect magazine article titled “Expanding Your Reality Map” in March 2006.) But it has been expanding every year. And especially now.

Reading Russian literature in high school, I dreamed of travelling, and meeting with the kinds of fascinating souls that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky described in 19th century Russia. Their characters had great depth, education, and were master conversationalists. My favorite novel of all time, Brothers Karamazov, explains human nature better than any other book I have ever read. I wanted to be Alyosha.

So in college, I studied International Relations, which soon led to my talking a Russian class and then switching my major to Russian. I loved the language and the culture and the history of Russia. After graduation I went to DC looking for a job. I applied with the NSA and started undergoing their 6-8 month long background check process. But I never ended up interviewing with them. Instead, I started working at Folio, my brother’s search engine company.

For the last 19 years I’ve been in various high tech startups. But I’ve had a latent interest in world history, international affairs, foreign languages, and cultures and religions of the world. That interest has grown lately as my reading list has started including more books about the flat world we live in, and the economic booms in China and India.

But nothing has opened my eyes and piqued my interest in world affairs like my recent trip to Europe. Though my entire trip was business focused, I was able to visit several historic sites in Rome, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican Museums which includes the famous Sistine Chapel, and in London, and in Dublin I saw the Book of Kells, created by Irish monks in 800 AD, and walked through the library at Trinity College, the largest library in Ireland, with more than 4 million volumes, including 200,000 very old tomes in one great hall. (Wikipedia says that the Jedi library in Star Wars may have been modeled after this great library.) Years ago I read “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” Now I must re-read it, after having seen these historic artifacts.

I had some excellent ideas for a mobile application for history travellers, which would be built for worldhistory.com, which is likely to become part of World Vital Records in the future. (History and genealogy are really inseparably connected.)

I couldn’t stop considering that Utah, where I was born and raised, was settled by the Mormon pioneers (including my ancestors and my wife’s) started in 1847–just 160 years ago. While most of the places I visited have recorded history going back at least 10-15 times that far back.

More importantly, on this trip I met many wonderful people. Genealogy is a great subject to start any conversation with, because everyone has some knowledge of where there family came from, and how they fit into the world. My discussions with people from England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and France were very enlightening, albeit sometimes rather depressing. Life is hard in many countries. Many people aren’t having children because they can’t afford to. They have to live in big cities where costs of living are so high, that they don’t know how they can possibly have a family. And it is important to face the realities of what people around the world actually think of the U.S. More than one European told me that the US was exporting materialism to all the world through its media, and causing people to be disatisfied with anything except a fast-paced materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle. (Coming home to a ton of billboards, radio and TV commercials, and seeing how everything in the US centers around selling stuff, I see their point.) And of course, most people strongly oppose the war in Iraq.

So I get to learn history and meet people. I’m in heaven really. I’m a former humanities major now working in a high-tech business (online world genealogy) that requires me to travel to many different countries of the world. In each country, I must learn its history and politics to determine when governments started keeping records, what kinds of records they kept, and where they are preserved now. I must also understand the religious histories and cultures of each country, since so many records of births, deaths and marriages were created and kept for religious reasons. I get to revitalize my knowledge of Spanish and Russian, and start studying bits and pieces of French, Italian, German, and hopefully Mandarin and Arabic as well. I’m planning to buy a mobile translation device soon, probably a high-end Franklin Publisher dictionary that handles 400,000 phrases and also supports audio. I know I’ll never have time to really learn these things, but a little exposure to them is extremely interesting nonetheless.

Besides my Blackberry, which worked nicely in Europe (I called T-Mobile on the way to the airport last week and they took care of it all in a few minutes), the most useful tools I had were LinkedIn.com, which enabled me to set up some last minute meetings, and Wikipedia, which basically enlightened me about every place I went, and all the things I saw. What a marvelous invention for travellers!

My dream is to travel with a Blackberry 8800 (with its GPS and Google Maps integration) and have a fully-functional mobile version of LinkedIn, and a mobile version of Sidestep so that I can plan trips on the fly (I usually procrastinate trip planning, but then while I’m there I want to make the most of it). I also want a business version of Dodgeball, so that I can find out if anyone that I’m connected to is also in the area. I may need to try out Twitter, since it’s getting so much positive buzz. (In fact, the Financial Times had it on the first page last Friday or Saturday as the next big thing from Silicon Valley–they called it miniblogging.) Perhaps it will be a helpful tool to let people contact me when I’m travelling… this would sort of be a pull approach to getting meetings, rather than a push approach. Finally, I need a database of all the LDS Family History Centers on my Blackberry, as well as a Genealogists Address Book, so that wherever I travel I’m seconds away from finding out where any local repositories or societies are. (Oh, and the Blackberry should support all the functionality of the Franklin device I described above. I don’t want to have to carry multiple devices.)

If I were young and without responsibilities, perhaps I’d take off and travel the world for the next year, visiting nearly every country, and just running World Vital Records from wherever I happen to be. As it stands, I’m currently planning a week a month for a multi-country trip. I guess I’ll see if I have the stamina to pull this off, and if it continues to make business sense to do so.

So…if you happen to be highly involved with genealogical records anywhere in the world, and would like to see if partnership makes sense between you and your organization and World Vital Records, please let me know. I don’t mind last minute trips, since my LinkedIn friends have shown me how to pull them off.

Vacation Thoughts

I was in New York last week on vacation, having too much fun to blog. But I did use technology (my Blackberry of course for email, phone and web browsing, and my laptop with high-speed wireless internet from Verizon) and I thought about it a lot. What technology do I wish I had while on vacation?

First, a bit about our vacation.

The first two days, my wife and I visited Niagara Falls (reading the Wikipedia article about it while overlooking the Canadian falls was awesome), the Sacred Grove (where Joseph Smith saw his first vision), the Grandin Press building in Palmyra (where the Book of Mormon was first printed in 1829-1830), and the Hill Cumorah (where Joseph found the gold plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.)

I like visiting religious history sites. In 1998 we visited Jerusalem and many holy sites where Jesus lived and taught, and I have been to many other LDS Church history sites in Utah, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, California, Nevada, and Wyoming, but until this trip I had never visited the Smith Farm in Palmyra where the young Joseph Smith began having religious experiences which has shaped the beliefs and values of millions of people ever since, including about 25 of my ancestors who found “Mormonism” in different lands (England, Norway, Denmark, etc.) and embraced it. I am a 5th or 6th generation Mormon and have many ancestors who converted from different faiths and emigrated to the United States and more specifically, who came to Utah in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s.

So the places where prayers were answered and revelations were given and meetings were held and books were printed all have deep significance for me and my family.

For such a trip as this, I wish I had a device (a next generation blackberry or GPS-enabled iPod) that connected me to a vast historical archive of geocoded text, audio and video content. For example, while on the Smith farm, I would have liked listening to clips from lectures by historians such as Truman Madsen or Susan Black about Joseph Smith’s early life and experiences. While at the Grandin Press building, I would have liked to have been able to choose from dozens of audio or video clips from lectures about printing technology in the early 19th century, or seen excerpts from the journals and letters of some of the first few hundred people to read a copy of the Book of Mormon. Local newspapers at the time started calling it the “Gold Bible” and the Book has been misunderstood every since (even though more than 100 million copies of it have been printed and Doubleday became the first major national publisher to issue a version of it last year.)

There is no question that this book has had a huge impact on the lives of millions of people. So would it be too much to ask to have a location-based service tied into my mobile device that gives me the option of learning about the people who brought the book into existence and the early reactions to it?

Next, we spent 6 days in Manhattan, caught seven Broadway shows, and had the time of our life. While in New York, we learned to take the subway (I like the little refillable Metro cards — no more tokens!) and to get around pretty well.

We love New York City. Just four months after 9/11 my wife and I had to visit Ground Zero and pay our respects to the victims of that attack and the heroes and rescuers whom we had admired so much from a distance. We haven’t been back together since.

This time, the subway took us right to the spot between the twin towers. We spent a few hours walking around, reading the Port Authority panels that tell the story of that fateful day, and looking at hundreds of pieces of art from the children of those who were killed in the World Trade Center attack.

Already it is impossible for us to comprehend what really happened there, only five years ago. Our impression was that as the cleanup and rebuilding proceeds, it will be all too easy for all of us to forget that day, and for visitors to not have any visual concept of the massive scope of the destruction.

At Pearl Harbor you’ve got a permanent memorial built over the sunken USS Arizona, a solemn reminder of the horrors of that day. We need something similar at the World Trade Center site to help us all remember.

On the east side of the site, there is a newly built mall, and on the second floor, large glass windows overlooking the site. We listened as a tour guide pointed out where the towers had been and which direction that planes had come from, and at what speed, and how destruction the building collapses had been. His words really took us back in time so that we could relive the horror of that day. Without a guide, though, it would really be hard to relive history.

As I looked through the huge glass windows, trying to remember what the buildings looked like, I wished that there could be some kind of etching on the glass, or some kind of digital overlay onto the glass, perhaps even animated, so that I could see what the skyline had looked like and so that I could visualize the events of that day.

If we had time, I would have liked to have watched the new Oliver Stone movie World Trade Center at the theater that is next to the World Trade Center site. Watching the film is reportedly a very moving experience. To watch it at the actual location would be even more impactful.

Our vacation included August 6th, which is the anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima, and we watched a documentary film in our hotel room about the great destruction and horror of the first two atomic bombs. We will never forget some of the interviews of the survivors. Again, it is impossible to comprehend something this destructive and awful. When we toured the United Nations, we saw some damaged artifacts from Hiroshima.

I love history, but it scares me too. It scares me so many millions of people, including innocent civilians, have been killed in past wars. It scares me that nations can become so polarized and so hateful. It scares me that leaders of nations can shield their citizens from opposing points of view and that intolerance and hatred can be so easily be fired up among the uninformed masses.

I want to be hopeful about the future. I want to be hopeful that technology and freedom of information will make future generations less likely than past ones to engage in all-out warfare. But I worry that language barriers, cultural differences, foreign policy disagreements, and religious and political polarization will lead to more wars and greater destruction than ever before.

Perhaps one reason I like religious history sites so much is that they are so peaceful and so hopeful, not necessarily because they hold out hope for the world we know, but they remind us of an eternal world to come. They remind me that we are both physical and spiritual beings, and that heaven and earth do sometimes meet–that great religious experiences are possible for those who seek God. They hold out the promise that regardless of what happens in this world, that each of us is a child of God, an immortal being who is on earth to see if we can walk by faith and still show love to our Creator by believing in Him and obeying His will. And if we do, we can hope for a much better world in the life to come.

My ancestors thought so. And I’m sticking with them.

So now, here’s a question for my readers.

What technology have you enjoyed most while vacationing? And what historical sites do you appreciate the most?

The Future of Cell Phones: Point, Click, Learn

Here’s a great NY Times article about how Japanese cell phone users are able to point their specialized phones at buildings and monuments and get information about the location. More than 700,000 locations have information or advertisements associated with them already. or A San Francisco-based company called GeoVector is involved. This is exactly the kind of advance I have been hoping for, so that worldhistory.com, with its growing database of geocoded data, can find a way to deliver it to cell phone users. I’m looking forward to more advances in the U.S., but according to one of GeoVector’s founders, Peter Ellenby, they may be slow in coming here. (Release 1.0 interviewed him late last year.)

While I’m at it, I ought to mention two other interesting location-based services. One is Plazes.com, a German web 2.0 startup with funding, 5 employees, some traffic growth and an API. The other is Socialight, run by New York-based Kamida. It allows people to create StickyShadows, or geotagged notes, which can be viewed by others when they visit the same location later.

My favorite book about society and mobile phones is Smart Mobs. Can anyone recommend any other books about where mobile phones and location based services are heading?