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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Feb 232018

Inflatable hotels in space? Never mind the room rate per night, how much will it cost to get there!

Good morning

First of all, a word about our touring schedule for the year.  We are starting to get down to the wire for the Triple K tour to Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan this May, so if you’re thinking of coming, please let me know.

Also, strangely, this year there’s not yet a lot of interest in our NZ Tour in late October/early November.  Maybe you’ve thought there’s plenty of time to deliberate over coming on this tour or not, and while in theory there is, it would be helpful to get a sense for the growing level of interest for this tour.

And one more announcement.  I’m presenting at the Frequent Traveler University event in Seattle this weekend, from 5pm – 6pm on Saturday at the Crowne Plaza by the Airport.  I’ve a hopefully interesting and typically wide-ranging presentation on ‘The Future of Travel’, if you’d like to come and see me ‘in action’; the event conveners have kindly agreed you can join for this session.  Let me know if you’d like to come along.

And so, please now continue reading for :

  • Two Words that Will Help Get an Airline Upgrade Over the Phone?
  • Whatever Happened to United’s Polaris Service
  • Snow Selectively Strikes Delta at KCI
  • Southwest’s New Way of Describing Dog Bites
  • Another Olympics; Another Disappointment
  • US Travel Press Snubbing Russia?
  • The Happiest Place at an Airport?
  • An Inflatable Hotel in Space
  • Self-Driving Cars Now a Reality in Phoenix
  • Emirates’ Unwanted Concern Over Feminine Health Issues
  • And Lastly This Week….

Two Words that Will Help Get an Airline Upgrade Over the Phone?

Really?  You just mention a two-word phrase, over the phone, to an airline res agent and you get magically upgraded?  That’s what an article, and on the Bloomberg website no less, promises.  “We’ve had pretty much 100 percent success rate” the writer assures us.

I’ve got to say that if I had a two-word phrase that 100% would get me upgraded, I’d not be sharing it on an open free page published through Bloomberg.  But I guess we should all be very thankful that Bloomberg is apparently more altruistic than me.

What are the two words?  “Revenue Management”.  Yes, it helps to put them in an appropriate sentence, and there are helpful suggestions in the article.

Let me know if it works for you.

And be careful if you click any of the other links – other featured travel ‘experts’ suggest an ideal cure for jetlag is to never sleep on long flights and drink lots of caffeine (medical experts suggest this to be dead wrong) and to always wear a Rolex when visiting poor countries, in case of emergencies (words fail me, but suffice it to say that you’d get less than 10c of value per $1 you spent buying the Rolex if bartering it for services in an emergency – assuming it not to be simply stolen, whereas if you have cash in your pocket, you’ll get 100c of value for every $1 you pass over).

Fake news?

Whatever Happened to United’s Polaris Service

Part of the process to ‘Make UAL Great Again’ was their CEO’s promise of a complete rethinking of their business class experience in June 2016, termed Polaris.

New seats on planes, new lounges in airports, and new amenities and services everywhere featured in United’s grandiose plan to make flying in the expensive part of the plane more pleasant.  We had been encouraged at the time, and while we’re sadly seldom to be seen in the front of flights, it would have persuaded us to cautiously get onto a United plane again for the first time in decades.

So, almost two years since then, how are things progressing?  Not so well, according to a report this week.

In a classic example of airline meanness, the ‘luxury’ of two Saks Fifth Avenue pillows at every seat is being pared back to one.  And some of the more distinctive of their food and wine service is also being eliminated.

Meanwhile, the new seats have made it to less than 20 of the 150 wide-body jets slated to receive them, and there are now thoughts that rather than being deployed fleet-wide, this will no longer happen.  Only one of the new enhanced airport lounges have opened, in Chicago.

Apparently one of the airline’s problems is push-back from their flight attendants, who doubtless were quick to remind the airline that they are primarily (and almost solely) there for passenger safety purposes, not for passenger comfort or convenience.  The poor flight attendants objected to the extra work of offering cocktails to business class passengers who, according to the FAs, sometimes probably would not have asked for such drinks if they weren’t offered them!  What an appalling thought, indeed – after all, don’t we all hate it when servers offer us free food and free drinks!  Definitely nothing to do with safety.

This article has more details.

Snow Selectively Strikes Delta at KCI

This week’s biggest non-news has to be that there was some snow in the mid-west.  That is not exactly astonishing, is it.  Kansas City itself averages 12 – 13 inches of snow a year, including typically 3″ in February.

The region, including KCI (Kansas City International Airport) was hit with an ‘ice storm’ in the early part of the week, and that lead to some flight disruptions.  Again, nothing too astonishing there.

But how about this tale of a woman who spent 12 hours sitting on a plane while it repeatedly tried to take off before returning back to the terminal one day, requiring an extra overnight and a total delay of 34 hours, meaning she lost two days of work.  But – hey – Delta did give her a $100 voucher.  Lucky her.

The article mentions other people on other Delta flights also suffering extended delays.

The most significant part of the article however is a comment from an airport spokesman who pointed out that de-icing is an airline, not an airport responsibility, and that Delta was the only airline experiencing significant delays.

Apparently, this dog isn’t about to bite you. But I’d say there’s a measurable risk that it might wish its teeth to ‘scrape’ you.

Southwest’s New Way of Describing Dog Bites

No, a comfort dog didn’t bite a 6 or 7 year old girl as she boarded a Southwest flight.

Instead, the airline tells us that the dog’s teeth “scraped a child’s forehead”.  Apparently that is okay.

Paramedics (and police) were, nonetheless, called.  Should young children have to accept the discomfort of dog teeth scraping their foreheads, so adult passengers can have their pets, masquerading as ‘comfort animals’, fly uncaged and for free?

This latest example is yet another reason why we need to restore reality to the explosion of people abusing the concept of ‘comfort animals’ on flights.

Details here.

Another Olympics; Another Disappointment

For sure, the Winter Olympics are very definitely the poor cousin to the Summer Olympics, but even so, it is surprising to see the inevitable disappointment as between the nonsensical promises and tragically unrealistic hopes of the host region and the reality start to descend so quickly, with the final closing ceremonies not even yet held.

It would have been an astonishing accomplishment – worthy of some sort of Gold Medal – for the outcome not to be a disappointment of course, because without fail, for the last many Olympics, none of the starry-eyed promises and projections have ever come true.  The ‘legacies’ of new sports facilities, low-income housing, or whatever else have all failed.  The tourism booms, either during the Olympics or subsequently, have totally not happened; indeed the last time I closely drilled down into the numbers, in Beijing fewer tourists came to the city during the Olympics than normally would have visited anyway!

And now that the oddity of the North Korean cheerleaders has faded, so too are the hopes of the impoverished, backwater town of Pyeongchang, site of this year’s winter Olympics.  This article explains.

When will host cities/regions/countries learn that no good ever comes of drinking the Olympic koolaid?

US Travel Press Snubbing Russia?

On an interesting related note, here’s an article suggesting that the US press is deliberately avoiding writing positive articles about travel to Russia.

This is not just a subjective perception.  The article makes a couple of compelling points.  First, it contrasts the comparative silence of articles about travel to Russia with the extraordinary eagerness to recommend such unlikely places such as the Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Azerbaijan.

Second, it looks at the comparative coverage given to four different Olympic games, with Russia’s Sochi games in 2014 struggling to get one-third the coverage of this year’s South Korean games, or the two most recent summer games in Rio and London.  It also compares coverage given to Russia hosting the Soccer World Cup this year with Brazil’s hosting in 2014.

It is another small and subtle way in which our perceptions of the world are shaped by the media we invite into our lives.

The Happiest Place at an Airport?

It is not always easy to connect the words ‘happy place’ and ‘airport’, but here’s an article that tries to do so.

Have you ever noticed, in some airports, little kiosk things where you can push one of four different buttons to report on your travel experience, with choices ‘Very Happy’, ‘Happy’, ‘Sad’ and ‘Very Sad’?  If you have, you’ve probably also noticed that there’s no ‘normal/ordinary/average’ middle response, which makes sampling slightly less accurate.

The company that places these devices in airports now has them in 160 airports in 36 countries, and has tabulated 180 million responses.

Its findings – the happiest place at an airport is at the Security Screening (presumably the buttons are just after not just before security).  I guess I’m always happy that I’ve not had the rubber gloves treatment going through security, but that’s not to say I’d go through a second time so as to get a double dose of happiness.

Most people are always very happy – 62% of responses are for the ‘Very Happy’ option.

People are happiest at the airports in Exeter (UK), Cork (Ireland), Rome (Italy), DFW and Newcastle (UK).

Your deluxe hotel room in space.  Careful not to push any of the wrong buttons on your ‘tv remote’.

An Inflatable Hotel in Space

Space tourism has been a thing for a while now.  Pretty much anyone with about $40 million who is willing to spend some time training can persuade the Russians to give them a ride up to the International Space Station; seven people have done so (including one person twice), typically spending a week or two at the space station before returning home.

The founder of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain believes his experience in low-priced hotel accommodation gives him a good perspective and appreciation for the opportunities for further space tourism, and has founded a company that is developing inflatable hotel rooms to be deployed in space.  They can be daisy-chained together to make a larger hotel complex, and one is currently connected to the ISS for testing purposes.  (See image at the top of today’s newsletter.)

The cost is described as maybe seven figures, possibly in the low eight figures, but of course, those interested in this experience probably aren’t too stressed with the exact count of zeroes.  They might be interested though in exactly how they would get to and from their ‘room with a view’, and this article is not very clear on that particular point.

Self-Driving Cars Now a Reality in Phoenix

I’ve been having an interesting discussion with a reader about when fully self-driving cars will finally become a reality.  We agreed to disagree and to circle back to the topic in five years, but I felt a bit disappointed by that, because my point is that while not yet everywhere and in common usage, they are already a reality and out there in more places than we might think.

In California, more than 60 different companies are currently testing self-driving cars in the state.  But that is testing, and I mention it only to indicate the extent of the amount of development that is going on at present.

In Phoenix, Google subsidiary Waymo has now been given a transportation license to offer open regular commercial taxi type services (think Uber or Lyft, but without the driver) to the general public.  It has been doing this, since last April with a ‘just in case’ driver standing by in the driver’s seat, and then since November with no driver, but for free.  Now they can start charging for it.

More excitingly, Waymo has ordered thousands more of the Chrysler minivans it uses (in addition to the 600 it already has) and has plans to expand to five states, probably late this year.

Uber has ordered 24,000 Volvo SUVs for its own self-driving program, with deliveries to start next year.

More details here.  Suffice it to say I’m fairly sure I’ll win my wager in five years time, and wonder if I haven’t already.

In related futuristic news, one of the many hyperloop companies says it has reached an agreement with Ohio and Illinois agencies to conduct a feasibility study with a view to developing a hyperloop that would run between Cleveland and Chicago.

The approximate distance for the line is 313 miles.  The approximate travel time would be 28 minutes.  You could live in one city and commute to work each day in the other.

And in further somewhat related news, the rush to develop electric cars continues, with more and more individuals and companies saying “If Elon Musk – a guy who knows nothing about cars – can do it, why can’t we?”.  This of course is a question with a perhaps not entirely deserved assumed answer, and we’re still awaiting Tesla’s transition from black hole money pit to viable profitable company.  But such thoughts are seldom an impediment to an assortment of eager startups, and now we see that a man with skills in developing very expensive vacuum cleaners and restroom hand driers believes he too can develop electric cars.

We wish Sir James Dyson the best of good fortune.  The more the merrier.  Details here.  Earlier reports suggested the first of his three models might start appearing in 2020.

Emirates’ Unwanted Concern Over Feminine Health Issues

As a man, I’m blessedly ignorant of much to do with “a woman’s time of month”, but I do understand that it is not uncommon for a measure of discomfort to be experienced at such times.  However, such regular and minor discomfort, while unfortunate, unwanted, and inconvenient, is seldom life-threatening.

Perhaps someone should explain these facts of life to Emirates.

A woman mentioned to her boyfriend, when boarding an Emirates flight, that she was so afflicted, and described her pain as one on a scale of one to ten.  An Emirates female (!) flight attendant overhead this private comment and panicked.  With no doctor on board the flight, the Emirates crew accordingly did the only obvious, sensible, and logical thing, and refused to fly the woman and her boyfriend, out of fear for the woman’s health.

When asked, Emirates explained they refused to transport the couple out of concern for the woman.  “We would not have wanted to endanger Ms Evans by delaying medical help had she worsened during the flight”.  What an appallingly glib and nonsense statement that hopes we are all a bunch of fools and as ignorant of period pains as they so obviously are, themselves.

By causing her to miss her flight, the couple not only lost out on some of their vacation, but even had to pay $325 each to Emirates to rebook their flights.  A $650 gratuitous penalty, an inconvenient, an embarrassment, and a delay.  All of which is beyond unnecessary.

Something to keep in mind, ladies, next time you’re choosing which airline to travel on at that time of month.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I know that many Travel Insider readers are middle-aged and older.  Indeed, somewhere in the last few decades, I joined that demographic too.  And I wish you all (us all!) very great good health and extraordinary longevity.

It seems I’m reasonable assured to enjoy this myself – at last I’ve finally found a ‘how to live longer’ article that I can happily comply with.  Drink more alcohol (reduce your odds of dying young by 18%)  and coffee (another 10% boost), enjoy your hobbies (21%), and be overweight (3% more).  If you want to modestly exercise 15 – 45 minutes a day, that’ll get you another 11%, but with so much already in your favor, does it even matter!

Here’s a very nice story of a Frenchman who is doing his bit to save the world, one umbrella at a time.

And here’s one of the stranger reasons for a flight diverting and making an emergency landing.  Perhaps the pilot should have deployed the oxygen masks.

I’ve an exciting couple of weeks ahead.  The Frequent Traveler University presentation on Saturday, then the annual Travel Goods Association show in Vegas in the first part of the week, then the Travel Insider Firearms Group Training event over the next weekend.  I don’t expect to send out a newsletter next Friday, but definitely one the week after.

Until then, please enjoy safe travels





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Feb 162018

When Disneyland opened in 1955, an adult ticket was $1.00, and a child ticket was 50c.

Good morning

It was another interesting week, some of which is reported for you below.  In addition, I’m adding three stand-alone articles.

One observes how Disney amusement park ticket prices have been going up at a rate averaging three times that of inflation for the last five years, and almost always, going back as far as one can, at some rate above inflation.  But at the same time, the parks are getting more crowded, and the lines longer, making for a visit experience that frankly is getting worse and worse as well as more and more expensive (with last week’s latest price rise, you can now spend up to $200 for a one day pass).

Of course, Disney is under no obligation to reduce its rates, and as long as there’s a crush of people flocking to their parks every day, they’d be foolish to do so.  But I do have some suggestions for them as to how to better manage their income and their guest numbers, plus a few suggestions to you about how to control some elements of the runaway costs of a day at Disney.

The second is in response to a friend asking me why I seem to hate Tesla and Elon Musk so much.  I don’t hate either, I love the cars and admire the man.  But – and it is an important but…… read the article to see why I believe the mainstream media are failing in their job of holding public figures and public companies (ie Musk and Tesla) accountable.  As witness how, after last week’s disastrous financial disclosures, its shares quickly plunged 10%, before turning round and steadily regaining their lost ground, and now are within reach of their high a week ago.  There’s been no new good news to cause the shares to turn around and soar, and indeed, if you searched for it, there’s been more bad news after a precious few analysts drilled down into the numbers and disclosures to see the darker truths within.  But neither the market nor the media seems to care.  This is a total mystery that needs explanation.

The third article reports on Amtrak’s dangerous gamble.  Imagine if your child said to you “If you don’t let me go to bed early, I won’t do my homework”.  You’d probably agree to that, wouldn’t you!  In a not dissimilar manner, Amtrak is threatening to stop operating its long distance trains if the freight railroads don’t install PTC.  The freight railroads don’t want to install PTC and wish Amtrak would go away, and the federal government is keen for any excuse to cut back on Amtrak’s subsidies.  So exactly who is Amtrak pressuring?

What else this week?  Last call for the $500 discount due to a cancellation on the Grand Tour of Great Britain this JuneAnd a gentle request to please now send in your intentions to join us on the Triple K tour in May.

Plus, a few more items, on :

  • Mr Trump’s Strange Approach to Big Government
  • Is This Why Airlines are Starting to Push Back Against Comfort Animals?
  • Bad News, More Bad News, and Even More Bad News About Our Phones
  • If an Animal or Adult Did This, They’d Be Strapped to Their Seat and Gagged.  But……
  • Is Orlando Intl Airport Unfairly Blaming the TSA?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Mr Trump’s Strange Approach to Big Government

Cut government spending, reduce government regulation – these are two of the phrases that got Mr Trump into the Oval Office.  True, he has certainly had his flashes of brilliance subsequently, and his current budget proposals include a suggestion to privatize/sell off Washington National/Reagan Airport and Dulles, while making it easier for other airports to privatize as well.

He is also keen to see the FAA privatized, and believes that might see a lessening in the extraordinary delays in modernizing our air traffic control system.  While I agree that generally private industry can manage most assets and resources more efficiently than government bodies, and I note the success of private air traffic control services in other countries; to be fair to the FAA, it has been handicapped to date by government oversight and insufficient funding.  The problem is not so much with the people in the FAA itself, as it is with their political lords and masters.

But, after supporting those concepts (which are perhaps unlikely to come to pass any time soon) Mr Trump then turns around and advocates increasing the fees we pay to the government for airport security and for customs/immigration services when we fly back from out of the country.

This article reports that the $5.60 security fee per segment we fly would increase to $6.60, the customs fee from $5.64 to $7.75, and the immigration fee from $7 to $9.

I’ve regularly analyzed these fees and every time come to a similar conclusion, that the fees are extraordinarily high and way in excess of the costs incurred to provide the services.  My analysis has been conceded as being correct, with the government admitting that one third of the security fee gets siphoned off the top and used for things unrelated to security at all.  It is simply government ‘profit’, on top of government inefficiency.  So there’s no possible way to justify increasing the security fee at all, because we are already paying 50% over the actual cost of the security that is provided.

Similar analysis applies to the other fees, too.

The philosophical surprise here is that surely Mr Trump would be the first to demand that government provide better services more efficiently and at lower cost, rather than rubber stamping every travel related fee increase that crosses his desk and allowing the further growth of big/inefficient/unaccountable government.

Is This Why Airlines are Starting to Push Back Against Comfort Animals?

Reader Paul wrote in wondering if there was an ulterior motive behind the airlines’ mild reluctance to now allow most farmyard animals onto planes as comfort pets.  He says

Just wondering if anyone else has grumbled about this latest airline revenue grab?

If one does can not take a pet as a “comfort pet” you instead must pay $200 (Delta) and it then becomes your designated one free carryon item.  If one is paying special for an item shouldn’t we still get the basics?

This practice has been in place for at least a year and a half, when I had to pay for our trip last February.  I had thought nothing of it until one of my clients did the same and complained to me.  She had a small dog to take and they made her check what she wanted as her carryon.  So she paid $200 for the dog as her carryon, and $40 for her second piece of checked luggage.  They would not let her take the dog (in a bag, for an extra $200), plus her purse, and regular carryon.

My recollection is when I was arranging for flights last year United was charging the same.

It certainly does seem like double-dipping – ‘you can bring a pet on board, but only if you pay an extra $200 AND you lose your ability to bring a carry-on with you also’.

There are many flights where the each-way fare is less than $200, I wonder if one can simply buy a second ticket for the pet, save money, and then be able to bring carry-on items for both yourself and the pet?

Can pets have frequent flier accounts in their name, too?

Bad News, More Bad News, and Even More Bad News About Our Phones

When Verizon was allowed to bid on some extra radio frequencies, part of the deal with the FCC was that it would unlock the phones it sold, allowing the phones’ owners the not unfair ability to use them with other networks if they wished.

But now, using the most specious of excuses, Verizon says it will start locking its phones again, something which it says is still observing the spirit of the agreement that requires it to unlock all phones.  That’s a strained interpretation for sure, and Verizon is hiding behind the concept that by locking its phones to only work on its network, it will make them less desirable to thieves.

This is a nonsense concept.  The ugly truth is that the mobile telcos love it when our phones are stolen.  Why?  Because they get to sell us a new phone, and make more money from doing so, and possibly also extend a contractual obligation for us to stay on their network even longer.

There has always been an easy way to respond to stolen phones, by creating a central shared database of all phone serial numbers (ESN or IMEI numbers).  If a phone is stolen, its serial number is flagged in the central database and none of the US carriers would then allow it to work on their network.

This is exactly the way it is done in Britain and elsewhere.  But the US carriers refuse to do this.  And now, Verizon says it is locking our phones, ‘for our protection’.

If you believe that, I’ve some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you….  Details (of Verizon’s perfidy, not my oceanfront AZ property) here.

In more bad phone news, some of the best and best value new Android phones in the market today come from Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE.

There’s only one problem with them – six different US intelligence agencies, in a rare display of consensus, are urging the US government to warn us not to buy such phones, due to concerns they might contain spyware enabling the Chinese government to directly access our phones and the information on them.

So, okay, you might think that you have nothing to hide.  Maybe you are nothing more than a Walmart greeter, never do anything illegal, and never travel out of your local county.  But your phone might still be helpful to an enemy – because it might be used to detect other phones around it, enabling the enemy to trace the movements of people of interest to it.  Maybe you are not of interest, but the guy next door to you is of interest, and so your phone can spy on your neighbor.  It might be able to use your phone’s camera to see other people walking past you.  It might create a ‘mesh network’ of your phone and thousands of others, allowing for a totally invisible phone network for its spies to communicate on.

The possibilities are endless.  And the concern is credible.  Details here.

But, one has to wonder – why only these two Chinese companies?  Is there a single enterprise in China that isn’t ultimately beholden to the Chinese government?  Not that I’m aware of.  And who exactly is it that makes your Apple phone?  A Chinese company, in China.

So how about that ultimate American icon, Motorola?  Nope, they’re owned by Lenovo these days.  Or that ultimate Finnish icon, Nokia?  Well, they were for a while owned by Microsoft, but now the Nokia brand is owned by another company, and they will get new Nokia phones made for them by…. the Chinese.

And (our third piece of bad news) why are we only concerned about China as a threat vector?  How about the Russians?  Or, perhaps, as this article suggests, the Iranians?

They say it is either a wise man or a fool who claims to know who his father is.  Well, it is a far wiser man, or a far more foolish one, who claims to be comfortable about the integrity, security and privacy of his cell phone.  Because, let’s not forget, along with the Chinese, Iranians, and who only knows what other major powers, our own NSA and CIA have both been at the forefront of developing phone ‘exploits’ too.

Question to Verizon :  Never mind locking our phones to reduce their value to thieves.  Could you lock them away from all these national actors, too, please.

If an Animal or Adult Did This, They’d Be Strapped to Their Seat and Gagged.  But……

How many times do we read of a passenger and crew member having a minor disagreement, whereupon the crew member announces they won’t fly with the passenger, who is then summarily offloaded.  Sometimes planes will divert and make emergency landings, and on other occasions, passengers will be forcibly restrained and tied to their seat, even apparently gagged on one recent occasion.

As for animals, the airlines are now starting to toughen up on what they will accept with animals.

But what about misbehaving children?  Why does everyone turn the other way and allow children to behave in a totally unacceptable fashion, ruining the travel experience for countless other passengers, all around them?  I was once subjected to a screaming infant in the seat a row ahead of me for most of a 15 hour flight between Los Angeles and Sydney, an event that was all the more significant for two reasons.  It was in first class.  And, oh yes, the mother was an airline staff member, flying free (something the airline subsequently told me was impossible, but which I clearly saw on a printout of the passenger manifest).

The reason for raising it this morning is due to this video and associated story – a child (not infant, but child of perhaps 8 or so) who screamed ‘demonically’ for most of an eight-hour flight between Germany and New York.  Why should a plane with 250+ passengers on board all be cowed into submission and forced to endure eight hours of an out-of-control child?

To put it bluntly, if the child has a behavioral problem, isn’t it reasonable to expect him to be sedated?  If the problem is a permissive parent with not the slightest idea of how to manage her child, why should it be us who suffer the consequences?

Is Orlando Intl Airport Unfairly Blaming the TSA?

Orlando Airport (MCO) is considering dumping the TSA and replacing them with private contractors.  The very much smaller Orlando Sanford Airport switched to using private contractors in 2015, and MCO has been publicly talking about doing the same for several years, with it now scheduling a board meeting to consider the subject next week.

It is true that sometimes there are very long lines to go through security at MCO.  But what is not clear is who is to blame for this.

The TSA is of course very concerned that if a major airport such as MCO (the nation’s 13th largest airport) were to switch to private contractors, and especially if the switch were to prove successful, then maybe a domino effect would sweep through the country and see most other major airports do the same.  And so it has been unusually strident in defending itself, saying that the problem is the airport won’t give them the space to set up 19 additional screening lanes, which they’ve asked for, and which they need to handle the ever larger volumes of people using the airport.

Could it be the TSA actually are in the right on this occasion?  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

We sometimes read about mysterious blocks of ice falling from the sky, generally believed to be from planes flying overhead.  In London, where security cameras seem to nowadays film just about every inch of every street, and often from multiple locations, one such block of ice was caught on a security camera.  It is amusing to see the reaction of the workman nearby.  Video here.

Did you find yourself wondering, last week, when Elon Musk’s Mars-bound car was successfully launched by his Space-X rocket, why it was that he could achieve something in little time and little cost, while NASA seems unable to do anything comparable, even with ten times the budget and ten times as much time?

The answer isn’t as obvious as you might think, and this Quora entry makes for excellent reading.

I shared a lovely short video of a Land Rover ‘crossing the Atlantic’ a few weeks back.  So it seems fitting to now share this video of a hybrid Range Rover ascending the 45° 999 step staircase to Heaven’s Gate.

When I used to fly a lot on United Airlines, many decades ago, I loved the ability to listen in on their radio channel as one of the audio choices.  Maybe they still feature that, it is happily many years since I last had to fly UA.  It always impressed me the way the pilots and air traffic controllers interacted so crisply and clearly and professionally.

So imagine my disillusionment upon hearing this compilation of overheard exchanges between pilots and air traffic controllers.  I’m shocked, simply shocked, to discover that some pilots are actually prissy prima donnas, spoiling for a fight.

And lastly this week, if you’re traveling with a friend this coming 1 April, here’s a great idea for a practical joke.  Well, sort of.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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Feb 152018

Four people died in this Amtrak crash in December. PTC would probably have prevented the crash.

Something that distinguishes much of the United States from most other countries is that whenever a problem presents itself, there’s a rush to solve it either with money or technology, even when the underlying problem has little to do with the lack of either.

A good current example of this is how Amtrak and rail commentators in general have decided to make the lack of “Positive Train Control” (PTC) technology the scapegoat for the rush of recent Amtrak accidents.

Some people might wonder how it is that after 150+ years of generally satisfactory railroad operations, we can no longer rely on well-trained engineers and instead now need technology.  Others might observe that although PTC reduces risks, it doesn’t eliminate them, and so while beneficial, needs to be considered as part of a broader approach to optimizing operational safety.

Positive Train Control basically does much of the engineer’s job for him, automatically, but does not make accidents impossible.  While it will ensure that trains don’t speed, and that they always brake in time for speed restrictions and tight corners, it won’t stop derailments caused by track defects, grade crossing collisions, or a number of other problems.  Indeed, Federal Railroad Administration studies have twice suggested that the cost of operating a PTC system will be greater than the value of accidents prevented.

PTC also tends to automatically assume a ‘worst case scenario’ which means that fewer trains can operate on a given line, and will operate at slower speeds – both issues of concern to the increasingly congested rail lines in the US, and the time-sensitive nature of freight operations.  There have been other systems deployed to a greater or lesser extent already that address many of the vulnerabilities that PTC can also help with, but which do so at considerably lower cost and operational inconvenience.

We say this not to argue against PTC, but merely to point out that it is not a universal panacea, and not without tradeoffs.  It doesn’t solve all risks, and it has a very high cost which reduces its benefits to a point where they become insignificant.  More safety is always good, but there comes a point where the smallest remaining risks become impossible to resolve, and other risks in totally different parts of our lives deserve higher priority focus.

Nevertheless, in 1990 the NTSB called for the implementation of PTC, citing it among its “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements”.  Congress acted with its usual alacrity, and a mere 18 years later, in 2008, mandated the deployment of PTC, with the deadline for its operation being generously delayed until the end of 2015.

Seven years later, as the 2015 deadline approached, most railroads had yet to have fully PTC enabled operations, and it does seem that some of the railroads were not giving this the priority needed to ensure its timely implementation.  You’d think the appropriate thing to do then would be to halt all non-compliant railroad operations until PTC was enabled, but instead Congress gave another three years to the railroads, now allowing them until the end of this year (2018) to get PTC operational.

The railroads continue to complain that even this extension will not be sufficient and are asking for another extension until 2020.  They seek to avoid the cost of establishing their PTC systems, and the reduced productivity of their railroads that would then follow.  Congress is considering this request, and is also proposing to offer a sweetener to the railroads in the form of a $2.5 billion cash grant to help cover the costs of establishing the PTC system.

And what of Amtrak?  It has been suggested that over the 50 years of Amtrak’s existence, some 150 crashes could have been prevented, and 300 lives saved.  That is a tangible benefit, albeit one with a cost in the order of $10 billion to establish and many more billions to have operated.  Is it really appropriate to spend $50 million or thereabouts to save each life on trains, when there are other measures in other parts of our lives where lives could be saved for $5 million each?  When we lose 37,000 people to car crashes every year, should we really be obsessing over an average of 6 lives lost in train crashes each year?

Amtrak doesn’t own much of the track that its trains run on, and so it is keen to see the freight railroads install PTC because it perhaps (somewhat unrealistically) hopes that such installation would result in little or no extra cost to itself.  Definitely, if PTC is provided for free, it is a very positive enhancement.

And so, here comes Amtrak’s dangerous threat.  It has threatened to stop operating trains on tracks that don’t have PTC operating by the end of this year.

The danger in this threat is that it threatens to gut Amtrak’s route network.  The freight railroads generally dislike allowing Amtrak trains to run over their rails, because it disrupts their freight movements and complicates their lives.  They would love to see Amtrak go away.

Also, the routes that Amtrak would likely close are its long-distance loss-making routes, the very routes that President Trump’s administration is now observing pointedly cause Amtrak so much financial grief, while providing so little benefit to the nation in return.

President Trump has called for a reduction in Amtrak’s subsidy for 2019, reducing it from $1.2 billion in this year to $538 million, and reducing the separate grant to the Northeast Corridor from $328 million to $200 million.  Trump had called for cuts for this year too, but Congress did not agree.

Most of these cuts would be to the subsidies for Amtrak’s long distance routes.  These routes carry only 4.7 million of Amtrak’s nearly 32 million total passengers each year, but incur operating losses of over $500 million – a loss of over $106 per passenger carried.

To put that figure of 4.7 million passengers a year into perspective, each day, almost 2.7 million passengers take airplane flights in the US.  That is almost one billion a year.  Amtrak’s long distance traffic is less than half of one percent of the air traffic.

So, the freight railroads want to be rid of Amtrak, the administration wishes to halve its Amtrak subsidy, the freight railroads want more time to implement PTC, and Amtrak threatens to suspend operations on non-PTC managed track.  It would seem that the win-win solution for both the administration and the freight railroads is to extend the PTC implementation deadline and watch Amtrak self-immolate.

A dangerous strategy on Amtrak’s part indeed.

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Feb 152018

The excitement and optimism of the Model 3 launch is slowly giving way to a much less inspiring reality.

A friend and reader asked me last week why I seem to hate Elon Musk and Tesla so much.  I don’t.

I respect Musk as a far-sighted visionary with an abundance of excellent ideas that have the potential to transform significant elements of our society.  Sure, when it comes to implementing those ideas, he has some challenges, but the ideas are impressive.

There is also no denying the impact of Tesla and the cars it makes – an impact many times larger than the actual number of cars produced or their penetration into US and global markets.  Under Musk’s direction, and as a result of his inspiration, they have almost singlehandedly brought battery electric vehicles into the mainstream of the auto industry, and have caused every other vehicle manufacturer, pretty much without exception, to now be scrambling to come up with their own ranges of similar vehicles.

Furthermore, at present, the Tesla trio – the Models, S, X and 3 – remain close to ‘best of breed’ in their respective market segments.

What’s not to like and what’s not to admire about any of this.  And, as I often comment, if only I could afford the $50,000+ that a Model 3 costs, or the $100,000 that a Model S/X costs, I’d be an eager owner, myself.

Moving Beyond the PR Gloss

But this is the gloss, this is the PR veneer that we are told, and which the mainstream media eagerly recycles.  What of their refusal to hold either Elon Musk or Tesla to account for their myriad of spectacularly broken promises?  How to explain the puzzlement of a company with a steady string of losses matched only by a steady string of financial targets not met (and delivery targets also not met) but with a valuation approaching that of General Motors?  The mainstream media’s careful silence on the huge shortfall between the public persona and the underlying reality demands comment and ‘equal time’ given to exposing the rest of the Tesla story.

For example, consider just one aspect of the promises of the $35,000 Tesla Model 3.  Not only is Tesla way behind on its delivery promises for the Model 3, but none of the cars delivered to date, and none of the ones expected to be delivered in the foreseeable future, will be priced at $35,000.  The lucky few who are getting the trickle of Model 3s now being shipped are people who have ordered extended range batteries, autopilot, upgraded options and finishes, and who are paying more like $50,000 rather than $35,000 (and, if fully loaded, more like $60,000).  Close on twice as much.  Future as yet unreleased performance upgrades will increase the cost of a fully loaded Model 3 still further.  The headline grabbing promise of a $35,000 high quality electric car offering 200+ miles of realistic range on a single charge remains unfulfilled (unless you choose to buy a Chevy Bolt or a Nissan Leaf).

There’s another obscured implication there as well.  Price-sensitive people who rushed to order a $35,000 battery-electric vehicle were also very much motivated by the federal $7,500 rebate that would bring the vehicle’s cost down to $27,500.  But that rebate (a tax credit) only applies to the first 200,000 vehicles sold by a manufacturer before then rapidly reducing and disappearing entirely.  With each passing month, Tesla is getting closer and closer to 200,000 total vehicle sales, and so if/when the headlined promise of a $35,000 Model 3 ever arrives, there is an increasing chance that the $7,500 rebate may have expired.

The concept of a Tesla for less than $30,000 is currently totally non-existent, and may never happen.  Where are the mainstream media stories about this?

While the mainstream media have quietly conceded the impossible to obscure reality that Model 3 deliveries are woefully behind schedule, how many articles have pointed out that, to date, the total number of delivered $35,000 Model 3 cars is zero?  The current best guess for when the bare-bones and only available in black model might start being delivered is the first quarter of 2019.

Talking about the delays, while the media have happily reported on Tesla’s latest promise to get production up to a rate of 5,000 cars a week by the end of the second quarter, how many have pointed out that Tesla’s earlier target was not to reach 5,000 vehicles a week, but rather to reach 10,000 vehicles a week.  When is Tesla saying it will reach that ultimate target – or has Tesla quietly dropped what was always a ludicrous fantasy entirely?

While we regularly get new excuses for why Tesla isn’t selling more Model S and X vehicles, why hasn’t the press reported that Tesla has now decided to accept a self-created production cap of approximately 100,000 total Model S/X cars per year (this being due to a limit on the number of batteries their so-called “Gigafactory” is capable of producing, and their decision neither to expand battery production nor to convert the cars to a more modern type of battery).

The curious contradiction of the Gigafactory’s promise – it was supposed to springboard Tesla’s ability to produce many more vehicles, at much lower cost; and the reality that apparently it is now constraining and limiting Tesla’s ability to expand production of Model S and X vehicles – where are the stories about that?

The Increasing Challenges

All those investors, who presumably have accepted Tesla’s sky-high stock valuation in the expectation that the company would grow its way to profitability – are they being told that there’ll be no further growth in the Models S and X, and that it seems the max production rate for the Model 3 is now being halved?  What should that mean to the share valuation?

And, isn’t Tesla under enormous time pressures?  Isn’t its first-mover advantage being eroded every day as mainstream vehicle manufacturers get closer and closer to deploying comparable vehicles?  Sure, many people have been willing to believe the narrative that the Detroit dinosaurs are slow and stupid to respond to the new concept of battery-powered vehicles, but are we to also believe that the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Japanese auto manufacturers are similarly inept?  An interesting outcome of the European ‘diesel-gate’ revelations is that diesel is no longer considered a viable eco-alternative in Europe, adding still more pressure to the European auto companies to develop electric alternatives.

Are we to ignore the steady stream of announced new model battery-electric vehicles from all leading auto manufacturers (and from other Tesla-like startups) and pretend they’ll have no impact on Tesla’s future?

Is it possible that Tesla is spectacularly losing its ‘race against the clock’?  Hasn’t it already, and equally spectacularly, demonstrated that its attempts to throw out the rule book that applies to auto manufacturing processes has been a total disaster.  Why has the main-stream media repeated Elon Musk’s comments about going through ‘production hell’ uncritically?  Isn’t Musk’s self-confessed utter failure at getting his production lines running smoothly something to ponder, rather than view as a strange sort of validation and excuse as an inevitable outcome of being futuristic?

The traditional auto-makers that Musk lambasts seem able to establish and operate production lines with no problems at all, for example, this Ford plant in Kentucky.  With its no-dealership model of distribution and servicing, how will Tesla scale up to selling and servicing half a million cars a year, and as it becomes increasingly and inevitably subject to the same production considerations and constraints as every other auto manufacturer, won’t its P/E ratio return to something similar to that of other auto companies?

Aren’t these all questions and concerns that need to be considered and answered?

Here are some recent articles that actually do so.  This article suggests that Tesla’s broken promises are about to start to have consequences, this article lists many of the company’s history of broken promises, and this article dissects the fluff of its investor conference call last week.

In a hopeful sign that maybe some of the mainstream media are starting to wake up to the reality, here’s an interesting page on Bloomberg that lists goals for some of Elon Musk’s headline ventures and tracks which goals are on target and which are not.  The lists are far from complete, but it is at least a start.

So, I love Musk’s vision.  Whether Hyperloop, the Boring Company, Space-X and Mars, SolarCity, or Tesla, it is all incredibly exciting and transformational.  But that love shouldn’t blind us to the reality of how his vision is being poorly implemented.

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Feb 142018

Anna and I on a Disney ride, back in 2011.

An annual event is Disney’s price increases for its amusement parks, and the howls of outrage they evoke, all the more so because their price rises, for the last five years, have been averaging three times the underlying rate of inflation.

Prices broke through the watershed $100/day cost back in 2015, and have continued skyrocketing since then, with one day tickets now costing up to $185 at Disneyland and $196 at Walt Disney World.

Tickets for children (narrowly defined as 3 – 9 yrs old) are imperceptibly less, $177 in Anaheim and $131 in Orlando.  Oh yes – add another $10 per person per day for an optional ‘Maxpass’, to get more convenient access to Fastpass tickets (less waiting in line) and free digital copies of pictures taken at the various attractions.

Of course, some of us can remember back to happier times when Disney was neither so crowded nor so expensive, and perhaps as part of our receding youth in general, it is hard to feel good about the changes that time hath wrought.  When Disneyland opened in 1955, admission was $1.00 for adults and 50c for children.

It is not entirely easy to track the soaring cost of a visit to a Disney theme park because prior to 1982, you purchased an admission ticket and then had to pay for rides separately, often in combo deals with a collection of ride tickets and an admission ticket bundled together.  And in the years since 1982, they have come up with many different types of tickets, with varying changes in pricing and inclusions per ticket each year.  Sometimes some ticket types go up much more than others, but – with apparently only one exception – every year has seen an increase in general ticket pricing.

In Disney’s defense, they will fairly point out that they are adding new rides and features all the time, so the increased cost of admission is being matched, to some degree, by more ‘value’ inside the parks.

That is both a true and untrue statement.  Yes, there is sort of more to do, but when you stop and actually look at it, how many new things have been opened in the last however many years you wish to track?  Sure, there are new attractions and updated attractions, but usually they are displacing older attractions that have been closed down and the space repurposed for the new attraction.

Additionally, who cares if there are lots more things to see and do if you can’t do half of everything that is already there in a day, due to waiting in ever longer lines.  The ‘more things to do’ directly flows through to a need to stay more days to see/do it all, and a further increase in our total visit costs.

Ticket Prices Compared to Inflation

Whether offset by any actual tangible increase in guest experience or not, Disney prices have pretty much always been rising at massively more than the rate of inflation.  Here’s an interesting chart that compares the inflation-adjusted cost of a one day Disneyworld ticket with the price per gallon of gas (sourced from this excellent article).


Disney park admission cost compared to the price of a gallon of gas.


Here’s a stunning chart that shows a five-year rolling average of how many times more than the rate of inflation Disney ticket prices have increased.  Currently, for the five years through 2017, Disney prices have increased at a rate three times greater than the rate of inflation (the brown line – see the related article which has plenty of other statistics and charts too).


How many times more than the rate of inflation Disney ticket prices increase each year.


It is also an interesting issue to wonder if Disney ticket prices should be increasing at, above, or below the rate of inflation.  With growing numbers of visitors each year, the fixed costs of park operation are being split between more and more visitors – it might seem fair to expect their ticket price rises to be no more than the rate of inflation and possibly even slightly less.

Park Visitor Counts

Both the two Disney parks in Anaheim and the collection of parks in Orlando sometimes reach maximum capacity (thought to be 80,000 people in the park at once for Disneyland, and 100,000 at The Magic Kingdom) and so have to introduce closures of various types to restrict the number of people still allowed to enter the park.

Imagine if you’ve flown to Orlando/Anaheim for a Disney themed vacation, only to find you can’t then enter the parks.  Ugh.

In addition to a few hours of a few days each year when the parks are now having to restrict admissions, the overall number of people visiting the parks continues to increase, even with the increasing costs of admission.  The result is a matching increase in misery in the park.  Longer lines for everything – not just the attractions and rides, but to get food or anything else as well, and more crowds of people, creating the equivalent of traffic jams and making it very difficult to find anywhere to sit when you feel like a break.

Here’s an interesting chart of average attraction wait times, comparing 2015 to 2017, in Anaheim (sourced from this article).


Change in average wait times between 2015 and 2017


Note that these are averages, including busy and slow days, first thing in the morning and late at night as well as peak times.  For most of us, and most of the time, the reality of the waits we’ll experience are probably appreciably longer – more like 60 – 90 minutes rather than the 40 – 60 minutes in the article.

Total Costs Per Visit

Let’s not forget that the price of your ‘all inclusive’ ticket is not the totality of the cost of a day at a Disney theme park.  Chances are you’ve already paid for parking ($22 for regular or $45 for preferred parking in Orlando, $20/$35 in Anaheim).

And then you walk in the gates, and immediately are barraged by opportunities to buy overpriced food, drink, photos, souvenirs, and just about anything/everything else.  Even timeshares.

The emphasis in that last paragraph really needs to be on the word ‘overpriced’.  Sure, it isn’t a total surprise or shock to learn that a bottle of water is two to ten times the price it costs at nearby convenience stores outside the park, and that a very ordinary hamburger is more expensive than a decent quality one at a nearby McDonald’s.  But it is still unfortunate.

The cost of food depends on whether you’ll just lightly snack your way around the park or if you want some ‘white tablecloth’ dining experiences.  It is hinted at by Disney’s dining packages, offered to people who stay in their hotels.  A one day package for one person, including a standard table-service meal, a quick-service meal (something like a burger and fries from a window at a fast-food place) and two snacks, plus a refillable drink mug, is $75.  You can downgrade to two quick-service meals ($53) or upgrade to any three meals you wish for $116.

But what about the official licensed Disney souvenirs?  Disney of course doesn’t need to pay itself a license fee, but everyone else does any time they create anything with a Disney image or character.  Plus, Disney buys direct from the doubtless Chinese manufacturers, other retailers have to go through middlemen (probably even Disney itself).  So, the nearby stores outside the park might be paying two or three times Disney’s cost per souvenir – but they sell them to you for much less than you’d pay buying direct from Disney, inside the theme park (sometimes the identical items for less than half-price).

This article suggests that in 2017 t-shirts sold for $30, and a monogrammed set of mouse ears was $20.  Clearly, there’s no limit to how much money you can lose in the souvenir and gift stores, and while there’s no compulsion to buy anything at all, you’ll be in a very small minority if you and your child(ren) make it out of the theme park without at least something purchased.

Disney is now aggressively promoting the sales of ‘collectible’ items – pins and suchlike; creating new designs, artificially making some scarce and therefore ‘valuable’, and so on, as yet another dimension to get your children pleading with you to spend more money on utter junk that they’ll probably never look at again once getting home.

This is one of the most impactful negatives of a Disney experience, at least to me as designated money-source for our visits there.  Everything you purchase embodies a nasty feeling of being ripped off, of being exploited as a captive audience complete with children One Must Not Disappoint.

There are some strategies to soften these extra costs.  Bring some bottles of water with you, and maybe some snacks as well.  Consider also refilling water bottles at the water fountains around the parks rather than buying new bottles.  Our sense is that Disney currently charges $3.00 – $4.00 for a bottle of water, something you can buy for 25c – $1.00 outside the park.

Another small way to escape this part of the ripoff is to buy your souvenirs on Amazon or eBay or anywhere else.  They’re still not cheap, but here’s a page of Disney t-shirts at prices as low as $12.39.  You can tell your children to make note of things they like – even take photos of them – and to save on the hassle of carrying your purchases (and probably flying back home with them) you’ll give them an allowance to spend on souvenirs once you get back home.

Depending on what you spend on food, drinks, souvenirs, photos, and other optional extras, it is very easy to spend another $100 per person per day.

Are the High Prices Disney’s Fault?

Well, yes, of course.  No-one is forcing Disney to raise their prices every year.  Or, perhaps, there is a reason why Disney’s price rises are designed to help us.

Put yourself in Disney’s shoes.  You’ve a product where demand is outstripping your ability to supply.  Even if your park is ‘only’ at 90% of capacity, the experience of everyone in the park is massively impacted with long lines and crushing crowds.  You’ve got no more land to develop (in the case of Anaheim).

It is basic economics that when any product or service is scarce and demand is plentiful, you raise prices to create a balance.  Indeed, it does seem there is a slowing in park visitor number rises, perhaps encouraged by the sizeable annual admission rises.

As long as Disney can fill its parks with costly admissions, why should it reduce the prices?  Shouldn’t it in fact raise prices higher so as to create a better balance between its ability to supply a quality guest experience and the demand from people wishing exactly that?

What Should Disney Do?

We have two suggestions.

First, not all guests are the same in Disney’s eyes when it comes to generating income.  Sure, if you’re an infrequent visitor on a one day pass, then you’re going to earn Disney the most money of any visitor type at all.  You’ve bought the most expensive ticket, and you’re more likely to fill up on Disney food, and to weigh yourself down with Disney souvenirs.

But did you know that in addition to the one/two/three/four/etc day passes, Disney also sells annual passes.  And, more than that, it also sells discounted annual passes to local residents.  If the infrequent visitor on a one day pass is Disney’s dream visitor, the regular visitor with an annual pass is Disney’s (self-created) nightmare.

These people, while potentially paying as much as $1000 or even more for their pass, will probably end up earning Disney very much less per hour of time they spend in the park, and per ride they take.

Depending on the type of pass they have, they might only need to visit three or four times to get their investment returned, and particularly for the very local pass holders, they might visit many dozens of times each year.  Imagine if you had a Disney park 30 minutes from your home (like millions of people do in Southern California) and an unlimited free entry pass.  It would be something you’d think nothing of doing for half a day during a weekend, or for an occasional evening out – going to see the lasers and fireworks.

These annual pass holders are least likely to spend more money on ‘stuff’.  If they’re only going for half a day, maybe they’ll not even spend anything on food or drink.  And because they know how the parks work, they know how to most efficiently get to and enjoy the best rides – they’re less likely to be walking in slack-jawed amazement up and down ‘Main Street’ but will be hot-footing it to the latest and greatest rides.

So they are more impactful, consume more of the available ride slots, and earn Disney the least money.

Our suggestion – restrict further the validity of annual passes, and increase their prices still further.

In the middle – not as profitable as single day visitors, but more profitable than annual passholders, are people with multiday passes allowing for generally 2 – 6 days of admission.  But they too represent less income with each successive day.  They’ll quickly learn to bring their own water and their own snacks.  They’re not going to buy the same souvenirs repeatedly, every day.  Not only do they represent less additional in-park income each day, but Disney charges less per day for each extra day on a pass.

Disney should reduce the discount on the extra days of multi-day passes.  Overall, Disney needs to get closer to matching the impact/cost of each admitted visitor to the return they get from that visitor.  Currently, they have things totally reversed – the most impactful visitors pay the least, and the least impactful visitors pay the most.

Now for the second thing Disney could do.  Start optionally charging per ride, rather than allowing for unlimited rides at no extra cost.  It is the rides that are the true and most significant resource constraint.  With modern computerized billing systems, charging for rides can be as quick and easy as the present Fastpass and Maxpass systems (both of which are very limited in terms of benefits) – you simply register a credit card when you arrive, and then you can any time go up to any ride and either wait in line for free, or scan your tickets, have a premium automatically charged to your card to skip the line, and go straight on to the ride.

This preserves the concept of unlimited free rides, but allows for people who are willing and even keen to pay a premium to avoid one hour waits for each ride to do so.  Wouldn’t you pay a few dollars to skip an hour of endless shuffling through a zig-zag queue of people?

If Disney reduces the discounts for multi-day and annual pass holders, it might then be able to juggle the pricing a bit in our favor for one and two days passes, and still net as much revenue itself, while having a slightly less full park and happier visitors.  And if it offers a queue-beating ride fee option, it might choose to again reduce the entry price per person, while getting more total revenue and giving a better experience to its guests.

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Feb 092018

Why this photo? Read the article below about my bad advice.

Good morning

It has been another ‘interesting’ week; more of that below, of course.  And after writing a very lengthy piece about a nice program to improve headphone sound last week, I’m now offering you a lengthy piece about a subject that seemed even harder to grow into a 3,000+ word article – USB connecting cables.  It turned out to be a surprisingly interesting topic (I hope you might agree!) and it was fun to resurrect some of my years-ago learning about electrical circuitry.

The impact caused by our cables on charging our portable devices is much greater than I’d expected.  The article follows today’s roundup.

We still have a $500 discount up for grabs if you wish to join this year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain.  Several people have expressed interest, but no-one has taken it yet.  Available due to a cancellation, it can be used either by a single person or a couple, but will only remain open for another week before I have to start giving back hotel rooms, etc.

I’ll not repeat the full screed about our current impressive line-up of tours – you can see the current status of them on our master tour page here.  Suffice it simply to note we’ve a varied range of experiences, in March, May, October and December of this year, plus more being developed for 2019.

And also, a reminder – I’m a featured speaker at the Frequent Traveler University event in Seattle on Saturday afternoon, 24 February.    If you’d like to come along to hear my speech, from 4pm – 5pm, let me know.  The event organizers have agreed to welcome Travel Insiders, free of charge, to that part of the two-day event.

And so, here now is :

  • Is it 1 April Already?  Ridiculous Hype for Unannounced Boeing Plane
  • A Very Drunk Pilot
  • Do Airlines Deliberately Seat Families Apart?
  • Guess Where the World’s Worst Traffic Congestion Is
  • A Good Week – and a Bad Week – For Mr Musk
  • The Travel Insider Gave Bad Advice
  • And Lastly This Week….

Is it 1 April Already?  Ridiculous Hype for Unannounced Boeing Plane

One of the many self-appointed ‘airline rating companies’ published an article headed “Finally, an aircraft – the 797 – that all passengers will love“, and gives a ‘hero shot’ showing a cabin mockup of what was probably a possible business class cabin of a proposed Boeing ‘7J7’ plane in 1990 (a plane that eventually became the 787).  As you can see, it shows a 1-2-1 seating layout with lots of space, although the article then reports on Boeing’s plans to release a new 797 at the Farnborough Air Show with 2-3-2 coach class seating and ‘huge overhead luggage bins’.  I don’t know why they chose the misleading photo they did to headline their article.

But wait, keep reading.  The best is yet to come.  We are told “The economy seat squeeze will finally be over!”.  No explanation or facts are given for this astonishing claim, though.

So let’s pour a bucket of cold water over this starry-eyed nonsense.  First, there’s no magic in 2-3-2 seating.  The 767 has offered that configuration for 36 years, and while it is a nice enough plane, the seats are the same size and pitch as other coach class seats on other planes.

The problem is not the size of the plane, but the propensity of airlines to fill all the available space with as many seats as possible, and no new plane is going to neutralize the airlines’ universal desire to get the most seats possible into coach class.

Indeed, if the article writer had thought about it enough, he’d have realized he was giving an example of exactly that.  He also shows a picture of a proposed 2-2-2 coach class layout on a McDonnell Douglas plane that became the MD-11.  The final seating layout on the MD-11?  A very much tighter 2-5-2.

We’ve seen airlines operating the 747 and 777 and even the A-380 all discover how they can squeeze extra seats into every coach class row.  If there’s spare space that could be made into seats, it will surely be so made.

You’d think that by now, aviation writers would know better than to again offer up nonsense like this.  We saw it with the 747 and its various bars and lounges, and how long that lasted.  We saw it more recently with fanciful concepts such as shopping malls and exercise gyms on A-380s, none of which ever made it off the drawing board.

And while I’m saying it is the airlines who cram the seats in, most of all it is us who pressure them to do so.  These days many airlines offer Premium Economy which is more akin to the type of seating that people can actually be comfortable in, but a typical long-haul plane has maybe only 10% – 20% of its coach class configured as Premium Economy.  Most people prefer to save money than to pay any extra for comfort, and as long as that remains, seating will continue to shrink.

The article tells us the new 797 should be in the air with passengers by early 2025.  It is true that many observers expect Boeing to announce a new plane this year, currently referred to as a “New Midmarket Aircraft” or NMA, and almost inevitably to be eventually named the 797, and loosely modeled on the 767.  Here’s some recent commentary on the NMA from a source we respect, and a Reuters article from the Singapore Airshow this week.

Neither of these sources anticipates any revolutionary transformation in passenger comfort.  But I guess we can all hope.

A Very Drunk Pilot

We know that occasionally pilots fall off the wagon, and end up being pulled off a flight deck due to being drunk.  Indeed, I’ve not even bothered to feature the last few stories of such happenstances, because they are simultaneously regular (in terms of the number of times a month such things happen) and also rare (in terms of the millions of flights with perfectly sober pilots).

But then there’s this story of a pilot who was randomly breath-tested after flying a 737 from San Diego to Portland and then back to John Wayne.  Although who only knows how many hours it was since he had last had a drink, his blood alcohol level was shown to be between 0.134% and 0.142%.  The limit is 0.04% for pilots.

The notable thing about this is that the pilot confessed that he had been drunk for “at least a substantial portion” of flights over the 20 years he had worked as a pilot.  He has now retired, and is expected to spend a year in federal prison.

Do Airlines Deliberately Seat Families Apart?

These days it is normal to pay extra to get pre-assigned seats on a flight.  Even getting a middle seat at the back costs extra.  Some people decide just to go with the flow, particularly on shorter flights.  Who cares where you sit on a one-hour flight?

Well, people traveling together often care, and in particular, families with younger children want to be seated with their children.  All sorts of strange people are on flights these days.

But many airlines now tell families that if they want to sit together, they’ll either have to take their chances on the day, or pay extra to get pre-assigned seats.

Okay, so far so good.  But there is an emerging suspicion that some airlines might actually go as far as to deliberately split up some family groups, so as to send a message, encouraging them to pay for pre-assigned seats in the future.  Nothing has yet been proven, but Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (a bit like our FAA) has launched a formal investigation.  Interestingly, so far they have ascertained that 35% of Ryanair families are separated but only 18% of Virgin Atlantic.

While I’ve no idea what is a normal incidence of ‘random’ splitting up, it is surprising to see such a huge spread between the two airlines, and while there might be explanations (load factors, family group sizes), it does give one pause for thought.  More details here.

Guess Where the World’s Worst Traffic Congestion Is?

Five of the worst ten cities in the world for traffic are in the US (out of a total of 1,360 cities surveyed by traffic management company, INRIX).

That is slightly surprising, because it seems the combination of a totally anarchical approach to driving (and in particular, blocking intersections) and rapidly exploding car populations in cities that are quickly becoming prosperous, particularly in China, India, and E Europe, would feature prominently.

But, as it turns out, the other five cities were Moscow (2nd equal with New York City), Sao Paulo, Bogota, London and Paris.  The five worst countries, overall, were Thailand (worst of all), then Indonesia, Colombia, Venezuela, Russia, and only then US in fifth position (equal with Russia).  Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and the UK rounded out the top ten list.

As for the ten worst cities in the US, the tenth worst was Dallas, followed by Seattle in ninth place.  Then, becoming successively worse, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York City as second worst.

The worst city in the US, and in the entire world?  Los Angeles.

More details here.

A Good Week – and a Bad Week – For Mr Musk

Talking about traffic, that makes one think of Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk.

His good news this week was the ‘successful’ launch of one of his new Falcon Heavy rockets (as part of his SpaceX venture).  The first stage is essentially three Falcon 9 first stage rockets strapped together.  They generate 5 million pounds of thrust, which is sufficient to take 141,000 lbs of payload to a low earth orbit (LEO).  This is very powerful indeed, but pales in comparison to the mighty Saturn 5 that sent our lunar missions on their way.  The Saturn 5, back in the mid/late 1960s, developed 7.6 million pounds of thrust, sufficient to send 260,000 lbs into LEO.

The Falcon Heavy was fairly praised every which way as a stunning success, so it would be churlish of me to note that one of its key elements – the reusable Falcon 9 first stages, weren’t quite so successful.  Only two of the three successfully made controlled landings, the third failed.  Perhaps the greatest success of all is the rapidity and low-cost associated with developing the Falcon rocket series, and the similarly low-cost per launch.

The most curious thing about this launch is its payload.  The launch is a precursor to Musk’s plans to send a manned mission to Mars, and is sending a payload module to Mars.  The cost of the basic launch itself is $90 million, and the cost of getting the payload the rest of the way to Mars is of course substantially more.  So, with this enormous level of investment, and the great difficulty in sending any sorts of payloads to Mars, what do you think Musk sent Mars-wards?  Perhaps an orbiting satellite for future communications on Mars and between Mars and Earth?  A new batch of test and research sensors?  Maybe some tools and equipment for the manned mission that may eventually follow? Or even just some food, water, and oxygen?

No.  It seems that the mission payload is an old Tesla Roadster, with a crash dummy behind the wheel.  Mr Musk earlier explained that he was trying to think of the silliest thing imaginable.

So if sending an old car to Mars, with 2/3 of the rocket being successful, represented the high point for Mr Musk’s week, what about the low point?

That would be the earnings call on Wednesday afternoon when Tesla’s fourth quarter 2017 results were revealed.  The results were so extraordinarily bad that even the bravest Tesla investors blanched a bit, and the stock lost 8.6% of its value during Thursday’s trading.

Tesla’s fourth quarter recorded the company’s greatest loss ever – $675 million.  To put that into context, the fourth quarter of 2016 saw a loss of only $121 million.

This loss, by itself, is alarming.  But when one looks at how the loss was made up, it becomes even worse.  For example, the company spent $223 million less on capital investments, a cut-back which will surely reflect negatively in the company’s ongoing operational capabilities.  For example, not only did it report terrible gross margins on the very few Model 3 cars sold, but there was also a decline in margin for the Models X and S.  And, despite slashing margins, and a surging overall market for electric cars, total US Model S and X sales were barely 2% up for the quarter, compared to the same quarter a year earlier.

The company went from having $600 million of working capital available at the end of its third quarter, to having a deficit of $1.1 billion of working capital at the end of the fourth quarter.  It will surely need yet another round of financing, particularly if its cash-burn continues.

Ah, yes, the future.  And, of course, Tesla wouldn’t be Tesla without adding some more back-pedaling to their Model 3 production targets.  Look at how these three paragraphs transition from bold statements of confident targets being met, through equivocation, to the vagueness of ‘should result in our production rate significantly increasing’.


We continue to target weekly Model 3 production rates of 2,500 by the end of Q1 and 5,000 by the end of Q2.

It is important to note that while these are the levels we are focused on hitting and we have plans in place to achieve them, our prior experience on the Model 3 ramp has demonstrated the difficulty of accurately forecasting specific production rates at specific points in time.

What we can say with confidence is that we are taking many actions to systematically address bottlenecks and add capacity in places like the battery module line where we have experienced constraints, and these actions should result in our production rate significantly increasing during the rest of Q1 and through Q2.

But, and again, Tesla being Tesla, the company remains confident, saying in its investor letter that at some point in 2018, it expects to begin generating positive quarterly operating income on a sustained basis.  Musk specified in the accompanying earnings call that he expected the company to be profitable by the more stringent Generally Accepted Accounting Principles this year.  That line may sound familiar: Tesla claimed similar projections in early 2016, but has yet to achieve that earlier promise.

Details here.

I am however again reminded how I so clearly am missing something when it comes to understanding Tesla.  Ark Investment Management’s CEO, Catherine Wood, predicted on Wednesday that Tesla’s stock would continue to rise up to about $4,000 (it was at about $340 when she made that prediction), and said that her worst case scenario still saw it almost doubling to $600.  When I watch the interview of her here, I find myself unable to comprehend any of the arguments she makes to support these claims.  I guess that means I am clearly missing something.

The Travel Insider Gave Bad Advice

Last week, when remarking on a lady attempting (and deservedly failing) to bring a peacock onto a UA flight as a comfort animal, I wondered why people needing comfort animals didn’t get small easily transported pets such as a pet mouse or hamster.  It seemed they would be less impactful on other passengers and easier for an airline to welcome onto a plane.

Well, apparently even a tiny little 2 ounce 4 inch dwarf hamster is not an easy thing to transport.  Maybe there is a minimum size of comfort animal?

News emerged this week about how a 21 yr old college student had tried to take her officially-doctor-certified comfort hamster with her on a Spirit flight from Baltimore to Miami, only to have a Spirit employee refuse to allow the hamster on board, and allegedly offering the ‘helpful advice’ that the girl should either let the hamster free, or flush it down the toilet.

It appears that the girl couldn’t bear the thought of just letting the tiny hamster run free, because it might freeze to death outside or get run over by a car, and so, after ten tearful minutes of indecision in a bathroom stall, decided it was kinder to indeed give it as a sacrificial offering to the great white porcelain god.

She says she called Spirit twice before going to the airport, and both employees told her she could travel with the hamster, and maintains she had all the necessary paperwork attesting to the animal’s status.  Spirit concedes that yes, she was indeed told she could fly with the hamster, but also says that advice was wrong.

This is a terrible story, and one has to feel for the girl (and even more for the hamster).  Apparently, while pet pigs can travel, tiny hamsters can not.  Yes, there is now an attorney involved.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

These days, the science fiction concept of automatic speech translators – you talk into it in one language, and it converts the language and speaks it in a different language – have become a reality.  But I’ve always wondered how they can possibly be reliable.

Alexa, or Siri, or the Google Assistant, or Dragon Naturally Speaking, all make errors when I speak to them in English and they transcribe my words onto a screen, also in English.  At least, in that type of situation, it is possible to see mistakes, and to correct them.  But if I couldn’t see the mistakes, and the mistakes were then passed on to a foreign person in their language, what sort of chaos could then ensue?  The mind boggles.

One possible hint, and with less automation and happily no great consequence, is reported here, when the Norwegian Olympic team found themselves with 15,000 rather than 1,500 eggs in Korea.  I guess someone ended up with egg on their face over that mistake.

Talking about food, it is Valentine’s Day next week, and what better way to celebrate the occasion than to take your special someone out for a meal.  Recognizing this, a well-known restaurant in Britain is promoting a special three course Valentine’s Day meal.  Let’s hope patrons will find their meal to be a happy meal.

I mentioned last week how an airline delighted its passengers by putting on ‘special in-flight entertainment’, courtesy of the scantily clad flight attendants.  The airline has now been fined by the state regulator for daring to make the flight more enjoyable, albeit a somewhat moderate $1761, and the airline’s chief stewardess has also been fined, $175.

Details, and yes, photos too, here.

And now, truly lastly this week, I mentioned the 67% splendid success of the Falcon Heavy rocket launch this week.  You might enjoy this short video compilation of some of the earlier Falcon flights prior to reaching the 67% success rate.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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Feb 082018

The five ft multi-connector Nomad cable that we like.

No, I’ve not sold out to the ‘dark side’ and I’m not about to suggest you pay ten-times more than normal pricing for a/v and speaker cables that offer nothing more than regular cables, other than an overdose of manufacturer’s hype.

But during my recent very detailed testing of portable power packs, I came to realize something that has been lurking, unexplored, in the back of my mind for some time now :  Some USB cables are better than others.  And some are very very bad indeed.

This is simultaneously surprising and perhaps not quite so surprising.  Some hardware companies (hello, Apple) go out of their way to make it ‘difficult’ to connect their devices to other devices, and/or to power supplies.  What is described as ‘quality control’ is more likely to be ‘profit control’, enabling such companies to charge many times more for their cables than after-market accessory suppliers would otherwise charge.

In theory, a USB cable is a tremendously simple thing.  In its simplest form (the USB version 2.0 specification), it has four wires and a shield.  The newer version 3.0 and USB-C cables are slightly more sophisticated, and then additional magic sometimes appears in the form of some type of identifying electronics being added to the cable, basically to tell a connected device that it is speaking to an ‘expensive/official’ cable rather than to a generic cable.  Plus, again in Apple’s case, instead of using the industry standard USB type connector, in any of its several different forms, there is a unique connector shape that Apple can therefore license and make more money from, even if someone else is making/selling the cable that has the connector on it.

It is difficult to test cables for their adequacy in carrying data because there are potentially other variables also impacting on data transfer rates.  In addition, due to the nature of digital signals, often there is a simple yes/no transition where cables change from working to totally failing to work at all with data transfers.

It is easier to test cables for their ability to carry power for the purpose of recharging a portable device.  So that’s what we did.  Note that because the power is transported on separate wires within the complete cable bundle, reporting on power carrying capabilities does not imply any corresponding quality of data transfer abilities.

What Makes a Cable Good or Bad

When it comes to carrying data, the key issues are the amount of shielding on the data wires in the cable, and their twist rate.  The wire size also has an impact, but not in the sense of its ability to carry current, but more to do with how the high frequency signals travel along the wire.

These issues – wire size, twist, and shielding – give rise to varying degrees of capacitance, resistance, and inductance per foot of cable length, all of which degrade the digital signal.  Sooner or later, the degradation of signal gets to the point where the cable ceases to be able to effectively carry data.

There are some rules of thumb about maximum cable length for carrying digital signals that embody huge assumptions about cable quality, and also about the nature of the signal being injected at one end of the cable and the ability of the device at the other end to receive the signal.  In general terms, the USB specification says that a cable should be capable of transporting a signal at least 5 m (16.5 ft) when using the USB 2.0 standard, or at least 3 m (10 ft) to conform to the USB 3.0 standard (the faster data transfer rate of USB 3.0 more quickly degrades, hence it requiring a shorter maximum length).  But how do you know if a cable meets or exceeds this standard, and even if a claim is made, how do you know if you can trust it?  You really can’t and don’t.

There are ‘active cables‘ and repeaters (basically another name for a USB hub) that can be used to extend these nominal ranges further, and depending on the quality of the cable, you might be able to get good data transfer rates even with much longer cables and without repeaters.  Most of the time though, we only need a very few feet for our USB connections, and so the maximum length is not an issue.

When it comes to carrying power, to charge your device, the key issues are wire size and (heat) insulation.  The larger the wire, the less its resistance for a given length, and with less resistance, more power gets transferred to your device, more quickly, and less heating occurs in the wire itself.

There is no such thing as maximum cable length for power transfer, other than to be aware that the longer the cable, the greater its resistance and so the more power loss that you’ll experience.  Shorter is generally better than longer, but as noted below, good cables have such low resistance per foot that it is not a problem to greatly increase their length.

Typically the power wires in a USB cable range in size from about 20AWG to 28AWG.   This, like – alas – so many other non-metric measuring units, is a bit of a confusing measure.  AWG (American Wire Gauge) measures in a logarithmic fashion, and the measured size is opposite to its number.  In other words, the larger the AWG number, the smaller the wire.  A difference of three AWG units means the wire has halved (or doubled) in its cross-sectional area, and a difference of ten AWG units means it has increased or decreased ten-fold.  This is the same sort of measuring system (ie logarithmic) as is used for sound pressure levels (in Decibels).

So there is a huge difference in size between a 20 AWG and a 28 AWG wire.  The smaller the wire, the greater its resistance, and for a 20 AWG solid copper wire, its resistance is 0.01 ohms/foot.  At the other end of the typical range of wire sizes, a 28 AWG wire has a resistance of 0.065 ohms/foot.  A rule of thumb for current carrying is that 20 AWG can carry up to 11 amps of current, 28 AWG can carry up to 1.4 amps of current.  You’re probably never going to want to run 11 amps of current through a USB cable, but modern fast chargers can often reach 2 amps, maybe even 2.5 or more amps, so the smaller cables (26 and 28 AWG) pose problems right from the get-go.

Here’s a helpful table of wire sizes and their resistance and current carrying capacities.

There are other issues in a cable – the quality of the plugs at each end and the connections between the plug terminals and the wires.  This adds additional resistance to the total cable piece, of course.  Remember also that a one foot cable has two feet of wire in it – one foot of the ‘positive’ wire and one foot of the ‘negative’ wire, so you need to double the resistance per foot of wire to get resistance per foot of (double wire) cable.

As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that it is hard to have any sort of cable with much less than maybe 0.1 ohms of internal resistance, and some extra resistance will likely occur where the cable connectors connect with the external devices at each end.

The Harmful Effects of Resistance

What does this resistance mean?  It means that your devices charge slower, and some of the power is lost in the cable, rather than transferred to the device itself.  A slower charging rate is always a disappointment, but the loss of charging power doesn’t matter when you are simply charging from a mains powered charger.  But if you’re using a portable battery recharger, and you’re losing potentially a third of your power to cable resistance, that is a very significant source of power loss.

Say you have a device that is being charged at a rate of 1.5A of power.  If there is a 5V source, Ohm’s Law says that the device is the equivalent of a 3.3 ohm resistor.  Now say that your cable and connections adds another 1 ohm of resistance.  That means that 1/4.3, ie, 23% of your total power is being lost through cable resistance.  It also means that instead of charging at 1.5A, it will instead charge at only 1.16A.  So for each hour of theoretical charging, you now have to take almost an hour and twenty minutes.

This becomes even more impactful if you have a fast charge capable device – let’s say you have a tablet that can accept up to 2.5A of charge.  Adding that bad cable with 1 ohm of resistance will now see 33% of your power lost, and your charging rate drop from 2.5A to 1.67A, in other words, a 50% increase in time to get the same amount of charge into your unit.

Some Real World Cable Tests

We measured a random collection of cables we had in our ‘spare cable box’ to see what amount of resistance they had and to get a sense for if there was much variation between cables or not.  Is this really something to be tuned into, or is it a non-issue?

The very best cable we had – a 12″ Nomad cable with good connectors and 20 AWG wire inside, measured just under 0.1 ohms, a number so low that it strained our testing equipment to accurately measure it (see the section at the bottom on how we tested if you are interested in that).

The cable created a 0.165V drop in our 5V 2A test circuit, which implies a resistance of 0.165/2, or just under 0.1 ohms.

Our Nomad cable came with two additional adapters (see illustration above) that could adapt from the Micro-USB connection to either an Apple Lightning or a USB-C connection.  We expected that adding another connector into the line would increase the resistance and tested this.  It did indeed, but not to any great extent.  The Lightning connector increased the resistance from 0.1 to 0.15 ohms, the USB-C connector made a much smaller increase in resistance, and too small to be significant – somewhere lost in the measurement error tolerances.

We then swapped the 1 ft Nomad cable for a longer 5 ft Nomad cable.  This showed an increase in resistance of 0.06 ohms.  This was not five times greater, although the cable was five times longer, and this is because most of the resistance is in the connectors, not in the lovely thick cable itself.  Our conclusion when testing the two Nomad cables is that there is no appreciable penalty/power loss by choosing the longer cable over the shorter cable.

Now, moving on to other cables, we tested an official Apple cable, notionally 1 m (40″) in length.  It caused an appreciable voltage drop of 0.46 volts, implying a resistance of about 0.23 ohms.  We also had a ‘deluxe’ third party Apple cable, notionally 2 m in length, covered in fancy nylon braid.  It created a 0.82V drop, or about 0.41 ohms.  That was unsurprising because it had never worked well and often did not allow for data connections between an iPhone and computer.  So much for ‘deluxe’ and fancy nylon braid!

We tested a nice ‘flat strip’ USB cable, about 2 ft in length.  Although little more than half the length of the official Apple cable, it had a slightly greater 0.47 volt drop, equating to a resistance of 0.24 ohms.  A shorter 1 ft flat cable had a 0.27 volt drop, 0.14 ohms.

We tested another nine cables, with voltage drops ranging from a low of 0.27 V (and therefore 0.15 ohms) for a one foot cable to a high of 1.1 V (ie 0.55 ohms) for a two different one meter (40″) cables, with different molded connectors and wire thickness.  Plus one ‘ringer’ – a cable that had so much resistance that our test setup failed.  Using our other test equipment suggested a resistance of about 6 ohms (our tester could only measure up to about 2.5 ohms.

One cable showed an astonishing fluctuation in voltage, so much so we ended up taking a short video to illustrate this.  Clearly a bad cable!  All other cables had smooth steady readings, as you’d expect.

We expect this points to either a cable break or a bad connection between the wiring and connectors.  Soldered joints and regular joints can deteriorate over time, and repeated flexing can break a cable.  It is important to appreciate that cables have finite lives.

In total, we tested two Nomad cables and 13 other cables.  The ‘deluxe’ Apple cable was considered a reject, as were two of the regular cables, and a fourth was an outright disaster.  That is a high 31% reject rate, particularly because most of the cables were only a couple of months old, and in ‘as new’ condition.

The three unsatisfactory cables were wasting over 20% of the charging power going through them due to substandard quality.  That means they charge slower, and if you’re using a portable battery recharger, you’ve got less effective power to transfer to your device.

About the Winning Nomad Cables

We really liked the Nomad cables (see illustration at the top of the article).  They had massively less resistance than any of the other cables we tested, and were even better than official Apple cables when used with their Apple adapter.  They also claim to be very strong, able to withstand the typical stresses and strains of being tugged at, twisted, bent, and generally used and abused; a claim they back up with a five-year warranty on every cable.

They are not cheap.  The two most general purpose cables – either one foot (0.3 m) or five foot (1.5 m) long – with a regular USB connector at one end and a choice of micro USB, USB-C and Apple at the other end, cost $29.95 and $34.95, either on Amazon (with Prime shipping) or their own website.  But if you want ultra-reliable cables with lowest resistivity, allowing for fastest charging and the least amount of wasted power, there is no better choice.

Being a bit obsessive (and also having a ridiculous number of devices that always need charging on our travels) we have one of each cable, so no matter where we need to place our charger, we can conveniently have our electronics charged, and we’re wavering on possibly buying some more!

Noting the almost non-existent increase in resistance of the longer 5′ cable, but the much greater flexibility it gives, if you were to only choose one cable, then perhaps the longer cable would be the more universally deployable choice.  It takes up very little more space, and weighs 2 oz rather than 0.7 oz, so from a travelling lightly perspective, the difference is minimal.


Cable quality varies widely from cable to cable.  Some cables can result in your charge time increasing by as much as 50% – why spend money to get a special fast charger, and then waste its fast charge benefit by using it with an inappropriate cable.

Not only is your charge time increasing, but much of the amount of charge stored in portable battery rechargers is being wasted through unnecessarily high resistance in poor quality cables.  Even good cables can go bad over time – they might suffer a partial (or complete) break, or a connection between the wires and plugs at each end can fail.

Spending $30 – $35 to get a highest quality cable will get you the fastest and most efficient charging for your portable devices.  We recommend the Nomad range of high quality cables.

The before and after cable readings on our test instruments.

Supplement :  How We Tested

It is difficult to accurately measure resistances as low as 0.05 ohms.  The smallest unit on the scale of our lovely analog Avometer 8 is 1 ohm.

We also have several digital ohmmeters, and they will show down to 0.1 ohms on their scales.  This is very precise, but misleadingly so – it implies more accuracy than we believe to be present.  (What is the difference between accuracy and precision – two terms that are often interchangeably misused?  Here’s a good explanation.)

If we assume the meter’s accuracy is plus or minus one or two units on the least significant digit displayed, then that means for a cable with a resistance of say 0.2 ohms, we might get a value anywhere between 0.0 to 0.4 ohms.  With a variation in cable resistances less than the probable variation in measurements, this was clearly useless other than as an approximate validator of other methodologies.

So we instead created a test system that had a high current 5V power supply followed by a volt and ammeter, followed by a test cable, then a second volt and ammeter, and then a constant current dummy load device.  We first ‘calibrated’ the test setup by connecting the two sets of measuring devices directly together without a cable, and established the amount of voltage loss that was unavoidably inherent in the connections and circuitry (a fairly consistently displayed drop of 0.08V), and also confirmed that the two devices were showing close to the identical amount of current flowing (of course the amp flow should be identical, and the minor differences observed simply showed the variation in accuracy of the two ammeters).

We then interposed various cables between the two devices, keeping the current at a constant 2A, and reading the voltages before and after the cable.  Ohm’s Law tells us that the resistance of the cable equals the voltage drop divided by the current flow.  A relatively high 2A current enabled the voltage drops to be somewhat significant (typically between 0.25 and 1 V on units that displayed in hundredths of a volt and probably accurate to five hundredths or so) making for acceptable calculations with at least some semblance of accuracy.

This allowed for us to get values down to as little as perhaps 0.1 ohms, plus or minus perhaps 0.1 ohms.  The testing setup had a maximum upper limit of slightly less than 2.5 ohms – any more resistance than that and it would be impossible to maintain a 2A current.  As it happened, while most cables were 0.5 ohms or less, one cable exceeded 2.5 ohms, and when measured with the digital ohmmeter, it appeared to be in the order of 6 ohms.  The cable looked undamaged on the outside, but clearly something was very wrong inside.

We also repeated the testing and noted with approval that we had similar results each time we tested the same cable.  We kept other variables such as the temperature of the test instruments and the cables within reasonably close tolerances.  It might have been possible to have simply measured the voltage across the cable rather than the voltage difference at either end of the cable, but we didn’t have a convenient and very low resistance way of breaking into the circuit before and after the cable to measure across the cable, and we’d have needed to measure both the positive and negative sides separately rather than assume they were the same.  So we’d still have cumulative errors, and a more complex test bed setup compared to measuring across both power lines before and after.

Short of investing a five-figure sum on better equipment, we feel the results are acceptable at least to categorize cables as good, average, or bad.

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Feb 022018

Well done, United, for not allowing this ‘support animal’ onto a flight from Newark. Story below.

Good morning

First, some exciting/good news for one or two lucky Travel Insiders.  We’ve had a cancellation off this year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain, and so we can offer you half their deposit if you’d like to come on the tour and can confirm your interest very quickly (and they will get the other half back).

This is a $500 saving, offered to either an individual or a couple traveling together.  That’s a powerful reason to come on this wonderful tour.  Here are the tour details, and if you’d like to come, please let me know as soon as possible.

A reminder – I’m a featured speaker at the Frequent Traveler University event in Seattle on Saturday afternoon, 24 February.    If you’d like to come along to hear my speech, from 4pm – 5pm that afternoon, let me know.  The event organizers have agreed to welcome Travel Insiders, free of charge, to that part of the two-day event.

2018 Touring Update

We still have space for a few more people to join our March firearms training course in Nevada.  Although a reader wrote in last week to decry what he viewed as ‘supporting chaos’ (you can see our exchange at the bottom of last week’s newsletter, here) I hope you see this as promoting lawful and safe use of firearms, because that is exactly what it is.  Rather than supporting chaos, we are helping to counter and suppress chaos, and will give you both knowledge and skills to know how and when to avoid conflicts and also what to do if such matters can not be avoided.  Why not come and see for yourself – full details here.

Our Triple K Tour of Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in May combines seeing places way off the regular tourist routes with a reasonable degree of comfort.  For example, on the fun overnight sleeper trains we take a couple of times, we leave two empty berths in each compartment for better privacy and more space.

This is a great way to see some remnants of the former Soviet Union, largely unchanged over the decades, and also some extraordinary new creations – the astonishing city of Astana for example, as well as outstanding regions of unspoiled natural beauty.  Do treat yourself to this rare opportunity to experience parts of the world that aren’t conveniently visited by travelers on their own.  Full details here.

We now have our New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza available for joining.  See the best of New Zealand’s North and South Islands, and, optionally, the ‘West Island’ (ie Australia) too, this Oct/Nov.  I show you the secret parts of New Zealand that tourists don’t think to visit, and take you to an annual food festival that is worth the journey, all by itself.  A glorious tour in NZ’s lovely springtime weather.  Full details here.

Northern France (and Belgium) Christmas Markets Land-cruise :  I’ve been having enormous fun this week putting the details of this tour together.  Our ‘ship that doesn’t sail’ that will be our home for a week is a nice Lille hotel, while our coach for daily excursions around the region will be a lovely deluxe coach that has a ‘salon’ as part of it (ie an area with seats facing towards each other rather than all ranged to the front) so as to make the travel a social experience too.

I’m enjoying mimicking some of the elements of a cruise (anyone for a ‘Captain’s Welcome Cocktail’ function, or a ‘Captain’s Farewell Dinner’ – we’ll have both of those) and putting something that combines the best of the cruising concept with the added freedoms and flexibilities only possible when you’re in a regular and much larger hotel room ashore for a full week.

Last week I’d guesstimated $2695 per person.  This week I’m adjusting that guess down to $2595 – and, oh yes.  Those pesky port fees ($168) that get added on top of a regular cruise fare?  There’s none of that.  The envelopes at the end you fill with more cash for the crew and cruise director (€105)?  None of those, either.

I hope to have the tour published and ready for booking next week.  It will start in Lille on Sunday 9 December and end – also, of course, in Lille – on Sunday 16 December.  A two or more night pre-tour in either Paris or London, and a three or more night post tour going to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and even Lichtenstein, will both also be available.

We now have our 2019 Grand Expedition live on the site, and I’m offering a $50 per person discount for people who join prior to the end of February.  Details here.

Also this week, I’m attaching a review of a fascinating new program that runs on PC and Mac devices.  Later this year (probably June) it will be available on Android and iOS devices too.

The program automatically contours and adjusts the sound that is played from your computer into your headphones to make it the best quality possible, automatically compensating for the design weaknesses of about 130 different makes/models of headphones.

So much in the way of high-end audio gear leaves one underwhelmed and wondering if you even heard any difference in return for the hundreds/thousands of dollars being asked.  But this $79 program makes a clearly audible different – improvement – on the quality of sound you’ll hear.  Worth considering if you listen to much music through headphones from your computer.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for a nice assortment :

  • More on the BBB
  • Boeing Loses its Claim Against Bombardier
  • Google Does What the Airlines Claim is Impossible
  • American and Delta Make Nice With Each Other Again
  • Is Sir Richard Branson’s Shtick Starting to Seem Inappropriately Dated?
  • Copyright Office Says AA Logo Uncreative
  • Fascinating Look at Some of United’s Operational Economics and Future Plans
  • Peacock ‘Support Animal’ Not Allowed to Fly
  • Emirates Allegedly Beats a Passenger for Sitting in the Wrong Seat
  • Avoiding Flu in Airports
  • Another Possible Source for a Concorde Successor
  • Amtrak Crash Employees Wish to Have Their Cake – and Eat it, Too
  • Disappointing January 2018 Electric Vehicle Sales
  • Elon Musk’s Latest Fundraising Success – ‘Flamethrowers’
  • How to Unlock Most Hotel Safes Without Knowing the Combination
  • And Lastly This Week….

More on the BBB

A correction and associated apology.  Last week I was wrong when I said the Better Business Bureau only gives positive ratings to members.

They graciously wrote to say that there is no requirement to belong to their organization as a prerequisite to being positively reported on.  They most convincingly proved their point because apparently The Travel Insider has an A+ rating!  Katherine Hutt, their Director of Communications, explained that the A+ rating was earned based on not having received any complaints in three years, not having had any problems with our advertising, and not having heard of any government actions against us.  Nothing to do with membership at all.  Indeed, she says the opposite applies – businesses with less than a B rating are ineligible to be members.

On the other hand, there have been some examples in the past where that policy has been imperfectly applied, most notably that uncovered by ABC News in 2010, and further developed by a Time article in 2013.  But such things are best viewed as exceptions rather than as fairly indicating their standard approach.

Some people might think that in these days of peer review sites such as Yelp and the many other similar sites/services, it is difficult for the BBB to remain relevant.  While some elements of the very different BBB approach to business rating can be criticized, that is doubly true of Yelp, TripAdvisor, and others of that ilk, and while in 2010 the BBB gave an A+ rating to a non-existent organization known as Hamas in Los Angeles, that is nothing compared to TripAdvisor rating a non-existent restaurant as the absolute best restaurant in London (see last week’s newsletter), or the occasional scandals that surface where Yelp bullies companies into advertising with them in return for favorable exposure.

One has to think there’s an interesting opportunity for a service that combines the best of peer reviews alongside dispassionately collecting other matters of record, and it might be an exciting new area of expansion for the BBB, using their positive brand recognition as a stepping stone to a new level of interactive consumer service and business disclosure.

Boeing Loses its Claim Against Bombardier

Although everyone was pretty much in agreement that Boeing’s trade claim against Bombardier was lacking in any foundation or merit whatsoever.  But everyone was also pretty much in universal agreement that the decision of the US International Trade Commission would affirm the finding of the US Commerce Department, declare that Bombardier was guilty of dumping its planes in the US market, and levying penalty duties of perhaps up to 300%.

And so there were gasps of amazement when the ruling was announced this week.  The ITC voted 4-0 against Boeing, and found no case against Bombardier, and no harm suffered by Boeing.  The reasoning for their decision has yet to be released, but a 4-0 total denial of Boeing’s claims almost speaks for itself.

Details here.

So the own goals Boeing has scored by bringing this case continue to mount, with absolutely nothing to offset them.  Boeing has possibly lost other business from other airlines, the Canadian government decided not to buy new fighter planes from Boeing, and Bombardier has now joined forces with Airbus for the ongoing manufacture and sale of the Cseries jets.  The Cseries plane is now looking much more attractive in the marketplace, Bombardier has been strengthened, and Boeing has been shown to be a big, unfair, and ineffectual bully.

Google Does What the Airlines Claim is Impossible

For a long time, there has been pressure on the airlines to reveal their increasingly lengthy laundry list of semi-mandatory fees in an easily understood form, prior to buying a ticket.  The airlines have resisted this, saying variously that it would be impossible, or onerously difficult to arrange.  The Department of Transportation first said that it was going to make full disclosure of these costs mandatory, then reversed itself a short while ago, saying that it no longer mattered, because the public had no interest!

Fortunately, we have Google.  They have arranged to conveniently show key details of airline fees and fare restrictions on their fare displays, and they are also introducing a predictive delay service, that combines historical flight performance data with current data related to flights, airports, weather, and other factors, so as to be able to guess at when a flight might actually depart/arrive.  Google says it will only reveal delay predictions when it is 80% confident their prediction will be correct.

The amusing part of this is that airlines are strongly focused on encouraging people to move away from third-party booking sites and to make bookings directly on their own sites.  That way they can control the passenger and make it easier to keep them focused only on their flights.  But by deliberately not providing convenient access to all the information we want/need, they continue to force us to rely on third-party sites.

American and Delta Make Nice With Each Other Again

In the good old days, if your flight was cancelled, or if you missed a connection, your airline would simply assign your ticket over to whatever other airline would be able to most quickly get you to your destination.  This was enshrined in a former Civil Aeronautics Board rule, the still sometimes referenced but of course now totally defunct (since the dissolution of the CAB in 1978) “Rule 240”.

The spirit of the rule survived for many years after 1978, and was recorded in each airline’s Conditions of Carriage.  The reason it survived was that it was a swings and roundabouts type deal, where sometimes airlines benefitted from being able to solve problem for their passengers, and other times they got to help out.  Most of all, it kept the passengers happy and made air travel in general more positive and less stressful.

Airlines then started charging each other for accepting ‘Rule 240’ passengers, and increasing the rates of charges applied.

Next, two things happened.  First, the number of airlines reduced.  Second, the number of empty seats on planes also reduced, making it much harder for airlines to conveniently accept last-minute passengers from another airline’s flight.  Even worse were scenarios where an airline found itself unable to accept or re-accommodate its own passengers because it had already given (ie sold!) its remaining seats to another airline.

Additionally, the concept of making air travel a positive experience for passengers was totally lost as the accountants took over airlines and became obsessed with short-term profit maximization, rather than longer-term market growth.

And so many airlines cancelled their Rule 240 type agreements and obligations.  Here’s a 2014 article that shows there were, at that time, only three remaining airlines that recognized any degree of Rule 240 obligation – Alaska, Frontier, and United.

In good news this week, American and Delta have announced an agreement to now start transferring passengers between themselves again.  Bravo.

Is Sir Richard Branson becoming uncomfortably like Benny Hill? Or Austin Powers?

Is Sir Richard Branson’s Shtick Starting to Seem Inappropriately Dated?

Is Sir Richard Branson increasingly seeming like a slightly less inspired version of Benny Hill or Austin Powers?

For years, his leering innuendo and being constantly surrounded by scantily clad young ladies has seemed to ‘prove’ the counter-cultural benefits of Virgin Atlantic; indeed even the airline’s name is slightly risqué and has often been used as a form of school-boy naughtiness – “I’m going to ride a Virgin for eight hours” and so on.  The reality is that Virgin Atlantic, particularly now that it is 49% owned by Delta and a further 31% owned by Air France/KLM, is more alike than different to all the other airlines in the sky, and just because their CEO delights in cross-dressing and showing us what he wears under his kilt does not make much difference at all when flying on his planes (or suffering on one of his trains either).

He has also delighted in promising double bed type sleeper seats for amorous passengers on his planes.

And now, the airline is proudly announcing the provision of ‘love seats’ – designed for dual dining, watching movies together, or catching up on “work”, according to the airline.  Nudge nudge, wink wink.

Note to corporate travelers – whatever you do, don’t book a pair of ‘love seats’ for you and a colleague, no matter what your definition of ‘work’ may be.

And note for everyone – we suspect the airline’s tolerance for ‘work’ might expire long before you started to lustily and loudly join the Mile High Club.

Copyright Office Says AA Logo Uncreative

After releasing a new logo in 2013 as part of its merger with US Airways, American Airlines filed for copyright protection of the logo.

And now, a mere four years after filing, the US Copyright Office has responded, denying AA’s application for copyright.  They said “A mere simplistic arrangement of non-protectable elements does not demonstrate the level of creativity necessary to warrant protection”.  Ooops.

In case AA’s logo has failed to register in your own consciousness, you can see it and some of its previous logos here.

Fascinating Look at Some of United’s Operational Economics and Future Plans

Here’s a great article that looks at some of United’s past operational mistakes, the implications of them, and what the carrier is doing to correct them.

The short story is that United seems about to break the truce that has prevailed for many years between itself, American, and Delta.  This ‘truce’ had all three airlines tacitly agreeing not to get too aggressive at competing or encroaching on each other’s route networks, and to seek to maximize profitability primarily by shrinking rather than growing (or at least, by growing at a rate less than the potential market demand would suggest).

In case you wonder how you can make more money by restricting the size of your operation, that’s another example of the back-to-front nature of airline operations.  If you operate fewer flights, you can charge more per seat, because there’s a shortage of seats and a surplus of people wanting to travel.  But if you add more flights, then you end up with too many seats and have to reduce your prices to encourage more passengers to fly more often.

That’s the most simplistic view of airline pricing/demand economics, and that’s as far as the airlines have taken things for the last few years.  But United was a more sincere believer in the benefits of shrinking than AA or DL, and now has decided to catch up with its colleagues.  In the six years from 2010, United cut back by 8% whereas Delta and American grew by 8% and 3% respectively.  We hope AA and DL were able to refrain from laughing while watching UA quietly strangle itself.

So United is now looking for three years of annual expansion at rates as high as 6%, which would see the equivalent of an entire new airline the size of Spirit added to the US air network.

United’s plans for growth caused a response in its share price.  Its share price dropped 13% last week.  But on the basis of ‘what is bad for United’s share price is probably good for us’, it is possible we might see some welcome increase in low fare availability over the next several years.

Peacock ‘Support Animal’ Not Allowed to Fly

Let me ask you this :  If you can’t conveniently manage in this modern stressful world without the reassuring presence of a ‘support animal’, all the time and everywhere, wouldn’t it be a rational act to choose a small inoffensive easily managed creature?  A pet mouse, or a hamster, or something like that?

Why do people instead insist on ponies, pigs, snakes, and other impactful animals?

We hope the woman who selected a peacock as her preferred emotional support animal is now pondering the wisdom of her decision after United refused to allow her to fly with the creature.  Apparently, United told her on three occasions the animal would not be allowed, but the woman still turned up at Newark, bird perched expectantly on her luggage cart, demanding to be allowed to take the bird on the flight.  Well done, United.

Details here.

Emirates Allegedly Beats a Passenger for Sitting in the Wrong Seat

A 71-year-old man – a retired police officer, no less – who spoke little English was flying from Dubai to Chicago.  He got up and went to use a bathroom, and then returned but sat somewhere other than his assigned seat.

If this story is to be believed, what happens next is rather surprising.  Apparently he didn’t understand he was in the wrong seat (don’t ask me why anyone cared).  And so, because, as Emirates puts it, ‘the safety of our passengers and crew is of the utmost importance and will not be compromised’ it appears the cabin crew, together with some willing passenger accomplices, responded by beating him up such that he was admitted to hospital and stayed there for several day upon arriving in Chicago.  Oh, after beating him, they taped his mouth shut and bound him to a seat with some hemp rope!

There surely has to be more to the story than this.  Do airlines even keep old-fashioned rope on board?  Why weren’t any passengers filming the incident?  Details here and here.

Avoiding Flu in Airports

This year’s flu seems to be particularly virulent and also becoming alarmingly widespread.

Most people will become infected with influenza (and many other things) either via aerosolized droplets that a person coughs out, or by touching a surface on which those droplets have landed.

Sadly, there’s not a lot you can do if the person next to you on your flight is coughing in your face for several hours, nonstop.  How to politely offer them a face mask, one wonders?

But you do need to become much more sensitive to the potential of picking up the germs from all manner of exposed surfaces (the medical term is ‘fomites’).  Can you guess where the most likely to be infected place is at an airport?

According to this article, it is the touch screen you use to check-in for your flight with.  The article talks mainly about bacteria rather than viral infection risks, because they are easier to measure, but the message is the same.  Whether it be the ‘flu or something less virulent, airports are dangerous places to be in.

As the article says, tiny travel bottles of hand sanitizer are a great thing to keep with you and use liberally.  Naturally Amazon has a large variety of different sized travel type bottles of hand sanitizer – just be sure to keep the bottle capacity below 3 ounces so as not to run afoul of TSA.

Another Possible Source for a Concorde Successor

Time for yet another in the endless procession of stories predicting a new supersonic passenger jet ‘real soon now’.  But this one is different from the others, because it reports on possible Russian plans to develop a SST.

No sooner had President Putin remarked that it would be a good idea to use its latest supersonic bomber technology as a springboard to a new supersonic passenger jet, than one of Russia’s aviation conglomerates announced that it was already working on such a design, and indeed based on some elements of the Tupolev 160M2 bomber.  If it came to fruition, and matched the bomber’s speed, the passenger plane could fly between New York and Moscow in as little as 3 hours 20 minutes.

It is brave of Russia to consider a return to supersonic planes.  Their earlier SST, the Tu-144, was widely considered to be based on stolen plans for the Concorde, but not as well-built (there are rumors that the English learned of the Russian industrial espionage and so left out some plans with a few deliberate mistakes on them).  The plane was so loud in the passenger cabin that passengers were given earplugs, and it only made 55 passenger flights in total, over a six-year period, before being withdrawn from service.

Four years prior to entering into service, it suffered a mysterious crash at the Paris Air Show in 1973, killing 14 people.  There was also a less well-publicized second crash, and rumors of a third crash, too (see here, for example).

So – a converted Russian bomber as a supersonic passenger plane?  I’ll probably politely decline an invitation to be on its inaugural flight.  More details here.

Oh – as an interesting unrelated bit of SST trivia.  The few passenger flights that the Tu-144 did operate were between Moscow and Almaty in Kazakhstan.  So come with us to Kazakhstan this May and see where the Tu-144 used to fly to and from!

Amtrak Crash Employees Wish to Have Their Cake – and Eat it, Too

On 18 December an Amtrak train traveling between Seattle and Portland derailed due to taking a corner at more than twice the posted speed (about 78 mph for a 30 mph rated corner).  The derailment was fairly spectacular, as such things usually are, and as well as many injuries, three people died.

Of course, plenty of people with various agendas rushed to play the blame game.  Two comfortable narratives that served the purposes of many groups were that there should have been ‘Positive Train Control’ in operation on the track, and that Amtrak had insufficiently trained its engineers on the new track.

Positive Train Control is an interesting concept.  Basically it is most of an auto-pilot system that essentially replaces the loco driver, and automatically adjusts the train’s speed based on where on the track it is at any time, and is limited in function primarily by train drivers who wish to retain their role alongside the PTC.  The huge other shoe that hasn’t yet been dropped by people calling for positive train control is to ask why we need train drivers at all if their job is being replaced by the ‘auto-pilot’ capability.  So, by all means, introduce PTC, but why not then embrace it fully and save the largely unnecessary cost of a train driver (and often a second person in the cab as well).

It has also suited representatives of the train drivers to claim that the problem wasn’t the fault of the train driver for missing the first early warning sign of the upcoming 30 mph corner, and neither was it his fault for misreading which mile post the train had passed (details here).  Instead, it was the fault of Amtrak for not training him well enough.

But that claim begs the question – what was the engineer doing operating the train if he didn’t feel competent to do so?  A question which the engineer himself answered – he said he was perfectly comfortable driving the train – an understandable statement seeing as how he had apparently undergone 7 – 10 observational trips on the loco plus operated it himself three times in the few weeks prior to the accident.  So – was more training needed?  Or not?  Details here.

The biggest question that should have been asked is ‘What on earth are you doing allowing a 30 mph corner in the middle of a section of 79 mph rated track’ – the answer to that largely unasked question being it was cheaper that way.

It is also fair to note that the training required should not have been all that complicated.  The 180 miles of so of track between Seattle and Portland had only one altered bit, with a 14.5 mile section ‘short cut’ replacing an earlier section of track.  The 14.5 mile section generally permitted running at Amtrak’s max 79 mph speed, with the standout feature being the one relatively tight/slow 30 mph corner.  Not a very complicated concept to master, but the driver apparently failed to notice the first distant warning sign for the pending corner and also lost situational awareness of where he was such that when he came upon the tight corner, he was still going at full speed.

One might wonder if the other person riding in the cab with him was distracting him, but apparently not.  The other person considers himself so blameless that he is himself now suing anyone with money for millions of dollars for the pain and suffering he experienced.

Disappointing January 2018 Electric Vehicle Sales

Tesla again disappointed with the release of January sales data (in the US) for electric vehicles.  Both the Model S and X continued to decline compared to the same months a year ago, even though the total market for electric car sales has grown appreciably.  The Model S sold 800 units, the Model X 700 units (compared to 900 and 750 in January 2017).

The Model 3 sold 1875 units, which is an encouraging improvement on December (1060 units).  But it should be remembered that in early January Tesla was boasting

 In the last seven working days of the quarter, we made 793 Model 3’s, and in the last few days, we hit a production rate on each of our manufacturing lines that extrapolates to over 1,000 Model 3’s per week.

A reasonable person might have therefore expected to have seen 4,500 or more vehicles sold over the four and a half weeks in January, but the result was less than half that number.  Why?  We await the latest excuse and revised production projection from Tesla, and note this comment from ‘The Woz’ about no longer believing anything Tesla or Elon Musk says..

So, Tesla sold less Model S and X vehicles than it did in January 2017, and vastly fewer Model 3s that it was hoping for.  Its share price?  Unchanged.

The Chevy Bolt ended its wonderful run of steady month on month increases, dropping back down to 1177 units sold in January, about which the best that could be said is that at least it is very slightly more than the January 2017 figure (1162).  We hope it will start rising again in February.

And the exciting new model Nissan Leaf is proving slow to ship, with only 150 units delivered in January.

In the background are steadily firming gas prices, including a prediction that prices will go the wrong side of $4 a gallon in California by May.  So we expect to see continued strength in electric vehicle sales.

And, in good news for electric vehicles, the next Tesla vehicle, the Model Y, is rumored to be due to enter production in March 2020.

Elon Musk’s Latest Fundraising Success – ‘Flamethrowers’

After selling 50,000 overpriced baseball caps with his new tunnel drilling ‘Boring Company’ logo on them, Musk has now sold 20,000 so-called ‘flamethrowers’, at a cost of $500 each.  Yes, that’s a nice $10 million in sales, and probably with very little in associated product costs.

It seems the ‘flamethrowers’ are nothing more than garden propane fueled weed-burners/ice-melters, something you can buy on Amazon for $25 upwards.  But he wrapped them up in a plastic rifle sort of shape, and, hey, why not pay ten or twenty times as much for something from Elon Musk, after all.  More details here.

In something that you wouldn’t believe if it weren’t true, the transforming act of taking a regular garden weed burner and surrounding it with a plastic rifle shell was enough to get California legislators demanding that ‘flame throwers’ should be banned in California.  Doesn’t that sound exactly like California’s eager embrace of legislation to ban so-called ‘assault rifles’ – things that are nothing other than regular semi-auto rifles but which look ‘scary’.

The range of Musk’s flamethrower seems to be a foot or two.  California already has a law restricting any flamethrowing device to a flame of no more than ten feet.  The need for new legislation seems, ahem, unclear.

One has to wonder though when Mr Musk will focus on actually boring some real tunnels.   Sure, it is nice raising a quick $10 million, but Musk is estimated to have a net worth of $21 billion.  If he simply invested his money in an index linked fund, then with the way the stock market is soaring, it would take him less than a day to make $10 million on his net worth.  Sure, his funds aren’t that liquid, etc, but the point remains.  If you have $21 billion and are overflowing with revolutionary new ideas to transform the world, are you well advised to distract yourself on a childish stunt such as selling pretend flame-throwers?

How to Unlock Most Hotel Safes Without Knowing the Combination

It goes without saying that of course hotels have a way to open your in-room ‘safe’.  If they didn’t, what would they do when people forgot their combinations, or called after checking out to report they’d left something in the room safe.

But it is perhaps disappointing to learn that, in many hotels and with popular Saflok model safes, the ‘safe’ has a factory default unlock code that has probably never been changed.  Details here.

I’ve seen other Youtube videos that reveal other default codes to access hotel ‘safes’ too.

And Lastly This Week….

We’ve all probably seen them – huge big change collection containers at airports, encouraging us to empty our foreign coins into them, and promising to pass the money on to some deserving charity or another.  But have you ever wondered what happens to the money you might toss into such containers?  Something unexpected happened at Gatwick.  Twice.

A Norwegian 737 flight from Oslo to Munich had to return to Oslo not long after take-off due to a broken toilet on board.  That’s a far from unusual event, of course, but what was notable was the plane had 85 plumbers on board.  Apparently the problem could only be fixed from outside the plane, and none of the plumbers were volunteering for a bit of impromptu wing-walking at 35,000 ft and 550 mph.

What happens if you’re taking your soon-to-be-betrothed partner somewhere by air, with a plan to pop the question and present a ring at the ideal romantic moment while you’re enjoying the vacation?  More to the point, what happens if the ring is discovered in your carry-on bag as you go through security and the surprise of the event is stolen from you?

Well, apparently, at least in some of the more sensitive jurisdictions, there’s a solution to that problem.  Here it is, in case you’re anticipating a need to know.

Here’s an idea the airlines might like to emulate.  Gordon’s Gin, in the UK, is using a complicated formula to determine the amount of delay and unhappiness with delayed commuter rail journeys, and if delays reach a certain threshold, will arrange for a train station bar to serve half priced G&Ts.  If delays get even worse, the G&Ts will become completely free.  Initially being trialed at London’s Waterloo Station, there are hopes for it to be rolled out around the country as a whole.

(As an aside, am I the only one to remember when the captain would regularly come onto the PA system to announce free drinks on a flight due to some delay or inconvenience?  Ah, the good old days….)

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but a surprising number of these supposedly now redundant/obsolete household items are still in use here at Travel Insider World Headquarters.

An airline put on a special show to welcome a team of football players onto their flight.  By all accounts and judging by the video taken on board, it seems the footballers and other passengers all enjoyed the festivities immensely.  So, naturally, the airline is now abjectly apologizing for what critics have been calling ‘a cheap PR stunt’.  (Aren’t inexpensive PR stunts better than expensive ones?)

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and if you’re lucky, you too might become the ‘victim’ of a cheap PR stunt.





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Feb 012018

A collection of headphone frequency response graphs, showing how they vary widely and are far from linear.

Here’s a very clever program that digitally compensates for the non-perfect sound coming from your headphones, creating a clearer, smoother, and broader frequency response, with less unwanted sound coloration.

These days, the speakers/headphones are by far the weakest link in any sound reproduction chain.  The storage and playback/amplification is all very close to perfect, it is only when the sound transitions from digital data back to physical sound waveforms that errors creep in.

The problem with any sort of audio speaker is that its attempts to convert an electrical signal to a physical sound pressure wave are never perfect.  There are lots of reasons why this is so, and while speaker designers and manufacturers have steadily improved the quality of their speakers, they still remain imperfect.  Inevitably, after doing the obvious and easy improvements to a speaker, continued improvements start to move far out on the scale of diminishing returns, and while going from poor to good might mean going from $10 to $100, going from good to great means an increase, perhaps from $100 to $1000, and from great to superb probably sees yet another zero added to the price.

Back in analog times, the less ‘treatment’ of the sound being passed through an amplifier, the better.  A bit like photocopying a photocopy of a photocopy of an original, the more analog processing you added to a sound wave as it passes through your analog amplifier, the more you risked harming its quality.

But this all changed when sound storage and reproduction switched from analog to digital.  Nowadays, we get a digital sound source (either a CD or an MP3/FLAC/whatever file), which then goes through a digital amplifier, and it is only at the final stage, before the power amp and output, that the music changes from digital to analog.

The significance of this is that you can do a lot of digital treatments and sound shaping during the digital part of this process, without harming the underlying integrity of the music.  You’re less likely to have non-linear effects, phase shifts, or noise introduced via digital processing than with analog processing.  This, combined with astonishingly powerful but low-priced signal-processing chips, opens up many exciting possibilities and new ways to optimize the music during its amplification.

We see the benefits of these new digital capabilities with many home theatre systems.  You use a calibration microphone that analyses delay times, frequency responses and room coloration as it actually happens in your living room, and then adjusts the digital sound processing to fine tune and compensate so you have something very close to a perfect room and improved speakers.  This has become so simple and commonplace that we seldom pause to even consider the amazing transformation in sound quality this process now gives us.

The $2000 (before accessories) Bruel & Kjaer Artificial Ear is one way of measuring headphone fidelity.

But how to do this with a set of headphones?  The question of how you monitor headphone sound has always been a vexed one, and there are very sophisticated ‘artificial ear’ devices that have been created to try and approximate the sound that actually gets fed into our ears.  It is definitely not a case of ‘try this at home’ – a reference quality artificial ear testing unit costs many thousands of dollars.

I saw a hint of how good sound processing could improve headphone sound with the Solitude XCS2 noise cancelling headphones that I reviewed back in December 2015.  The headphones provided a reasonably decent quality sound with the noise cancelling turned off and no digital sound processing, but when this was turned on, the sound transformed from ordinary to stunningly excellent.  Unfortunately, the extraordinary sound they gave was not matched by high quality noise cancelling.

Venerable Bose also hinted at the potential to improve audio playback with their QC25 noise cancelling headphones.  Their sound quality appreciably approved when the noise cancelling was turned on.  Prior to then, Bose never allowed for ‘pass through’ sound, and it was rumored the reason for it was that the sound quality, unassisted by sound processing, was unsatisfactory and Bose didn’t want to embarrass itself by allowing it to be experienced in its raw unenhanced form.

But, for normal headphones, we all have to make do with whatever the headphones can do, alone, unaided; or try to fine tune them using some sort of multi band equalizer.  For example, if you’re playing digital music on your PC or Android/iOS device with Foobar 2000, you have an equalizer that slices the audio band into 18 chunks, each capable of high-slope narrow-band adjustments.  But in truth, while the enormous versatility of control this gives is tempting, we’re more likely to mess up the sound than improve it when we start subjectively tweaking it!

So, headphones have been an exception to how digital processing can improve audio performance.  Until now.  Enter the exciting True-Fi App from Sonarworks.

True-Fi – the $79 Solution to Improve Your Headphone Sound

Sonarworks is a digital sound correction company based in Riga, Latvia.  They provide tools for audio-engineers to custom-calibrate their studio equipment, and branched out into a consumer type program called True-Fi, released at the end of last year, and which digitally adjusts the playback sound to compensate for the specific weaknesses of various brands of headphones.

The program currently is available for Windows and Mac computers.  Sonarworks anticipate releasing versions for iOS and Android devices late in the second quarter this year (ie probably June).  They plan to bundle the iOS and Android apps with the existing desktop versions of the software (and yes, this will be backdated so you can buy the desktop software now and will qualify for the apps when they are subsequently released).  The future inclusion of the iOS/Android apps removes a lot of the sting from the otherwise slightly high $79 purchase price, and makes it a much fairer value, and also makes the program more generally useful.  These days I am more likely to listen to music through an Android or iOS powered portable music player device or phone or tablet than I am through my laptop, and the chances the same applies to you, too.

The program comes with pre-loaded profiles for about 130 different reasonably common models of headphones.  I had two of the headphone models supported – the deservedly popular Sony MDR7506 (about the best quality/value you can get in a set of under-$100 headphones) and the Bose QC25 headphones.  Inevitably, other models were not supported, most regrettably any in the Sennheiser HD 500 series of mid-priced headphones that generally are the best choices in the $100 – $200 range, except for the no longer current HD 598 model.

Overall it seems Sonarworks have focused more on supporting mid and high end headphones.  Perhaps their reasoning is that people who spend $200 and up on a set of headphones are more willing to spend another $80 to improve their sound still further, whereas people who spend less than $100 on headphones are probably not going to double their total cost to improve the sound.

That sort of makes sense, although the other part of that consideration might be that if you have high-end $500+ headphones to start with, you’ll get less value from the small remaining tweak with the True-Fi program than you would if you had middling grade headphones with much more potential to be digitally improved.  To put it another way, perhaps the way to get the best sound quality per money spent is to get a moderately good set of headphones and then super-power them with the True-Fi app.

This shows the enormous improvement in the raw frequency responses in the top chart after applying the True-Fi corrections

How True-Fi Works

The audio engineers at True-Fi created frequency response profiles for each make/model of headphones supported, noting where the peaks and troughs of the frequency response curve existed.  They did this with multiple sets of each headphone model, so as to average out the random variations between one set of headphones and a second set, seemingly identical, but actually with small variations in performance (they say that there can be up to a 3dB variation in curves as between two seemingly identical sets of the same headphone model).

They then added a correction curve that matches each dip in the headphones’ response with a boost in volume, and of course, matches each rise in the response curve with a cut in volume, so as to end up with an almost completely flat frequency response all the way through the audio spectrum.  Indeed, because any speaker or headphones tends to have their sound response fall away at their upper and lower limits (they don’t just ‘switch off’, they merely work less efficiently) this means the boosting of sounds at the outer limits of the headphone’s rated response capabilities will extend their frequency response still further, as well as making the response more flat, linear, and without interfering ‘coloration’.

All of this sound processing is done on the digital soundfile data inside your computer, before it is converted to analog output, so as to be most protective of the underlying sound quality.

Installing and Using True-Fi

It is easy to download the program from the Sonarworks website.  It is a large-sized file (101MB) and it is far from clear why it is so enormous in size, because it doesn’t seem to include high-resolution graphics or high-quality sound files.  To have 101MB of code alone is surprising.

They offer a free ten-day trial, during which the program works perfectly and without restrictions, but at the end of which the program stops working unless you then purchase an activation key and enter it.  It appears that the program can be installed on three computers.

Having installed the software – an easy straightforward process – you simply select the headphones you’ll be using from a drop down menu of all the supported makes/models.  If you have two or more different headphones you’ll be using, you can preselect them and have them on a hot list for easier switching.

That is basically all you need to do.  The program fits into the ‘middle’ of the sound management chain in your computer, intercepting the signal between where it was stored and when it emerges from your sound output jack.  You can switch it on or off, and you can also set a couple of options (bass boost, age loss compensation – see discussion below), and otherwise, you simply forget about it entirely.  It is set to auto-start when you boot the computer each time.

The program is surprisingly CPU intensive.  With my reasonably powerful CPU (an Intel quad-core/eight-thread i7-4810MQ) it tended to be using around 2% of the total CPU resource, all the time, even when not playing sounds, and even when disabled.  On occasion, it went up to 4%, sometimes 6%.  Sure, that still leaves a lot of CPU for everything else, but the downside is that it uses more battery power on my laptop, meaning shorter battery life, plus it gets everything closer to the point where the fans have to start up to cool things down, meaning even less battery life.

To put this in context, currently my computer is using 6% of its total CPU power, sometimes peaking higher.  I have more than ten programs all open, including 20 Chrome browser windows.  Of that 6% CPU, 3% comes from True-Fi, which is doing nothing.  The other 3% is powering everything else.

Testing True-Fi

I tested the True-Fi app two different ways.

Firstly, I simply listened to various music sources and turned the True-Fi on and off.  Did it make the sound better or worse?

While it was possible to hear a change in sound coloration, it is very hard to truly evaluate if the change is for the better or for the worse.  Such things of course are subjective, and even a skeptic like myself has a certain tendency to automatically think the True-Fi sound is ‘better’.  To avoid any type of unconscious bias, I randomized the clicks as between when I was turning True-Fi on and off, so I didn’t know if I was turning it on or off with each click, in the hope that while I’d of course hear a sound difference in the two states, I’d not know which state was ‘on’ and which was ‘off’.

I did this in three scenarios – Sony headphones, Bose headphones with noise cancelling on and Bose with noise cancelling off.  (True-Fi has very different correction profiles for the Bose headphone depending on if the noise cancelling is on or off.)

By the end of many clicks, I am fairly certain I ended up with a preference for True-Fi on.  So, using this methodology, it does seem to add value to the sound quality.

The second test took a different approach.  If True-Fi truly does improve any set of headphones to an almost perfect frequency response, doesn’t that mean, then, that the Sony and Bose headphones should end up sounding almost identical with True-Fi enabled on both sets of headphones?

The first part of this test involved carefully setting identical volume levels for both sets of headphones, using a lovely little $25 comparator device (I review it here).  This is necessary because we perceive sound quality differently based on its loudness.

Having got the two headphones balanced, I then tried swapping between them.  First – a reality check.  There were clear differences heard without the True-Fi enabled.

And then, with True-Fi activated, the two units did sound very similar.  Not completely identical, but very similar indeed.  Clearly True-Fi was working its magic.

The manufacturer, Sonarworks, partially explained the remaining difference as due to individual sets of headphones always have some slight individual variation in their sound profile.  In addition, I suspect there are other factors at play – transient performance and damping (ie inertia) for example, and distortion, none of which shows up in a frequency response chart, but definitely do exist and contribute to overall sound quality.  Plus other things such as even the headphone connector cables, all making additional minor impacts.

My conclusion – you truly can hear a difference when you activate the True-Fi sound correction service.  It makes the sound ‘better’, but not perfect.  Which is perhaps why I’ve headed this ‘make your $80 headphones sound almost like $800 headphones’ rather than ‘make them sound perfectly like the real thing’.  That would require a $10,000+ set of headphones.

In case you wondered, the Sennheiser Orpheus headphones, at $55,000, are generally considered the best there are (and, no, True-Fi doesn’t presume to offer any sound correction profile for them!).  You can spend more than that to get diamond encrusting on a fairly ordinary set of Onkyo headphones (costing up to $200,000) but you’re paying for the diamonds, not the sound, in such cases.

The main screen of the True-Fi program, with the age-related hearing loss adjustment enabled.

Bonus Feature – Age Compensation Curves

You probably know that as you age, your hearing deteriorates.  Not only do we become progressively more deaf, but our hearing loss is more marked at higher frequencies.

Women have a slightly different hearing loss profile than men, and each individual person also has their own unique degree of hearing loss (depending on how many rock concerts they attended in their youth, I guess!).

True-Fi offers an interesting extra feature which, if nothing else, offers the potential for lengthy debate with your audiophile friends.  Is it a good or bad thing to shape the sound you hear to compensate for the frequency-selective nature of hearing loss?

On the face of it, you might say ‘of course it is a good thing to compensate for hearing loss’.  But the thing is, for most of us (assuming we have no hearing aids) inevitably all the sounds we hear directly from the outside world and into our ears with nothing inbetween, are experienced through the filtering effect of our hearing loss.  We become used to it, because the loss is so slow and gradual.

Does it actually make sense to then create a sound which is unlike what we’d hear if we were attending a performance, live?  Sure, perhaps it will be more like what we heard at age 20, but if we are now 40, 60, or even 80, is it now realistic to selectively recreate a sound that is different to what we’d hear directly, unassisted.  Isn’t the purpose of highest quality sound recording and reproduction to give us something identical to the sound we’d hear where the sound was originally recorded?

Well, happily, the lengthy debate is optional, because the feature is optional.  You can tell the program your age and gender, and then you can set the recommended profile to be added to the sound stream at any extent from 0% compensation up to 100% compensation.

I suggest you either leave it off, or use a mild level of adjustment.  The other side of the issue is that with this adjustment enabled, you’re going to be stressing your headphones by driving their high frequencies at a much greater level than they normally expect (easily by 10dB at higher frequencies, maybe even by more – in other words, the higher frequencies are being driven at ten times the power they otherwise normally would be driven at).  But even though the higher frequencies are being played very much louder, the sound you will hear will not sound greatly louder.  There is a danger in such cases that you’ll either overload the sound amp board in your computer, or possibly the headphones, causing an overall deterioration in sound.

But, such philosophical misgivings aside, I decided to ‘hear what I was missing’ and took what I thought to be a good recording of some piano music from the 1970s (it would have been recorded in an AAD system) and listened to it for a bit, then switched on the age hearing-loss compensation.

What an extraordinary difference!

I suddenly realized that the reason I no longer hear tape hiss in older recordings isn’t because it has been somehow digitally filtered out, but because, ahem, my hearing no longer reaches that high.  All of a sudden, the sound stage came alive with glorious tape hiss in the silences!

Well, okay, you can debate just how glorious tape hiss is, but it very definitely showed me that my hearing – which I’d always thought was still excellent – is alas as much a victim of the vicissitudes of increasing decrepitude as is that of anyone (everyone!) else.

The program also allows you to add extra bass to the playback.  For us, while we love to truly feel a solid bass line in our stomachs, particularly in explosions and other special effects in movies (we have a stunning Carver subwoofer which rattles the shelves and just about everything else in the house when it is being used at high power levels – we have to be careful because at max power, we blow the mains power circuit breakers) we never add bass to headphones, because it doesn’t give the same ‘full body effect’ as it does when played over regular speakers.  We’d rather preserve the clarity and musicality in such cases, with a flat bass line.

A Bit Rough Around the Edges

We really like the concept of this app, and the basic core functionality is excellent.  But there are some small annoyances present.

When we first tried installing the app, it refused to accept any email addresses that had a four letter top-level-domain (ie .info) so I couldn’t use my TravelInsider.info email address.  It would accept anything at all with three letters, even nonsense domains, but it wouldn’t accept valid four letter domains.  That used to be an occasional problem twenty years and more ago (four letter domains have been around since the late 1980s), and it is disappointing to see it reappear.

The good news is that the developers quickly published a fix that now allows four letter domains in email addresses.

We had a problem with the program, and noted there is no link from within the program itself to go to the Sonarworks website, and no built-in help information at all.  There’s not even a copyright page.  Tool tips appear alongside the three configuration options – but only if you set the configuration choices on.  If you don’t set them on, you’ve no way of knowing what they are, and the options such as “Captures your device’s sound” are not at all intuitive.  Neither is the matching tooltip once it has been set on – “True-Fi will be disabled if the output device is changed at the settings.”  I’ve still no idea what either the option or its explanation means, and I’m also not sure whether the disabling occurs if the check box is checked or unchecked.

Another support challenge is the result of the developers being in Latvia, variously 7 – 10 hours ahead of US time, and only providing email support.  So pretty much whenever you send in a support request, it is night in Latvia, and you have to wait until the next morning and hope for a reply having come in overnight.  Alas, as was the case when I sent in a support request, the response wasn’t a resolution, but a request for more information (some of which I’d already supplied in the original support request), and so the answer to a question spills over into a second day, and potentially still more days (in my case, my second email to them has been met with silence rather than additional assistance and the problem remains unresolved).  Annoyingly, the software resets my computer sound card’s volume level to maximum every time I reboot the computer, so I have to then dial it back down to the usual setting, only to need to repeat again the next time I reboot the computer.

It would seem not unreasonable to expect a more interactive form of support for a $79 product, and some additional documentation built into the program itself.

Another minor annoyance was when a new version of the software was released, installing it caused the customization settings and selected headphone types all to be lost.  Sure, it is a small thing, but it is a ‘rough edge’ that should be smoothed over.  There was also no explanation about what was new or improved or fixed in the new version, just a request to download it.

All these issues are of course minor blemishes on a fundamentally fine program, which perhaps makes them all the more regrettable.


The True-Fi program from Sonarworks, currently available for both PC and Mac computers, and soon to be released on Android and iOS devices too, is a great way to make the music you hear through headphones appreciably better.

If you have one of the supported makes and models of headphones (here’s the current list on Sonarworks’ website – we’re told the list is steadily growing) then you’ll for sure get much more improvement in sound quality by spending the $79 that the program costs, instead of buying a better set of headphones.  Does it really make your headphones now sound comparable to headphones that are ten times more expensive?  Perhaps not, but it definitely does improve them.

With a ten-day free trial, and a really easy installation process, there seems no reason not to try it out.  Recommended.

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