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14 posts from October 2014

Survey: Consumers Avoid Shopping At Retailers That Had Data Breaches announced the results of a survey of consumers about data breaches and their shopping habits. Key results found:

"45 percent of respondents with credit or debit cards said they would definitely or probably avoid one of their regular stores over the holidays if that retailer had experienced a data breach. 16 percent said they definitely would not return to a retailer if the store had been hacked and 29 percent said they probably would not shop at such stores... 48 percent saying security breaches will make them more likely to pay with cash."

However, the results varied by household income:

"Only 31 percent of those in households earning $75,000 or more annually said they'd definitely or probably avoid retailers who experienced a data breach, compared to 56 percent of those in households earning less than $30,000 a year."

Results also varied by gender:

"Among the women surveyed, 56 percent say they would definitely (10 percent) or probably (46 percent) shop at a store where a security breach had occurred, compared to 48 percent of men who say they would definitely (12 percent) or probably (36 percent) shop at such a store."

And by geography:

"Those living in the West and Midwest were the most forgiving. Fifty-nine percent of both Westerners and Midwesterners said they definitely or probably would shop at a retailer that had been hacked, compared to 52 percent of those living in the Northeast and 45 percent of Southerners."

The survey, conducted from October 2 to 5, included 865 adults in the United States. Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted the survey on behalf of

This is very timely information since the holiday shopping season approaches.  It's also relevant given several massive and high-profile data breaches at retailers during the last couple months:

 What are your opinions of the survey? Of the above data breaches? Have these breaches affected your holiday shopping plans? If so, please share how. Do you believe retailers can protect consumers' sensitive payment information? Why or why not?

Customers Sue Internet Service Provider For Failing To Provide Promised Broadband Speeds

Customers of Frontier Communications have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Internet service provider (ISP) for allegedly failing to provide the broadband connection speeds promised. The Charleston Gazette reported:

"Customers also complained about frequent Internet outages... according to the lawsuit filed last week in Lincoln County Circuit Court. Frontier advertised a service called, "High-speed Internet Max" which provides speeds of up to 12 megabits per second. But the company "throttled" back Internet speeds, particularly in rural areas, without properly notifying customers. Some customers were receiving speeds below one megabit per second, but paying for the faster service, the suit alleges."

Some customers claim the ISP didn't provide speeds anywhere near what was promised. A spokesperson for the ISP said:

"Although we cannot guarantee Internet speeds due to numerous factors, such as traffic on the Internet and the capabilities of a customer's computer, Frontier tested each plaintiff's line and found that in all cases the service met or exceeded the "up to" broadband speeds to which they subscribed..."

Reportedly, Frontier is the the only ISP is parts of West Virginia. lack of competition hurts consumers. The lawsuit also alleged that Frontier accepted $42 million in Federal stimulus money to build a high-speed network across the state, and then failed to allow competitiors to use the network as required.

It will be interesting to see what happens. The Consumerist reported:

"The lawsuit faces one huge roadblock... According to the Frontier Terms & Conditions [PDF], residential service subscribers are not only forbidden from joining together in a class action, but must each individually resolve any legal dispute with the company through mandatory binding arbitration — a process that is heavily unbalanced in favor of the business. But the plaintiffs believe they are not bound by this clause, as the only way to access the terms of service is via the Frontier website, and the company never obtains “informed written consent” from customers."

Binding arbitration means that for an unresolved problem or dispute, the customer must use the arbitration process specified. It also means that the customer has lost at least three rights: to sue, to participate in any class-action lawsuits, and to benefit from mediation. These rights probably are important to you. Bankrate published this in 2004:

"Binding arbitration, a little noticed clause in many agreements and contracts, strips consumers of their fundamental rights, including the right to sue individually or join a class-action suit if they have a problem with a company. Under binding arbitration, a consumer can be forced to pay thousands of dollars upfront to pursue a complaint, travel thousands of miles to a location of the company's choosing for the hearing, argue their case before an arbitrator who depends on the company for future business and surrender such basic legal weapons as the right to discovery and the right to appeal a decision... Labeled by the National Consumer Law Center as "astonishingly unfair and undemocratic," these clauses affect millions of consumers across the country. Corporations insert them into employment and home building contracts, in agreements for credit cards, computer software and hardware purchases, and many types of loans."

And, arbitration can cost more than a traditional court trial:

"Consumers' costs for arbitration vary widely and depend on the arbitration company, the type of dispute and the cost of the proposed remedy. The American Arbitration Association offers a streamlined process for consumer disputes that limits costs, but limits your rights too. While the American Arbitration Association is an umbrella group for arbitration companies, not all arbitration companies follow its suggested rules. Under these consumer rules, there is a filing fee of $125 if your dispute is under $10,000 and $350 if it is over that amount... However, in exchange for the low filing fees and streamlined process, you must give up some of your rights... There is no contingency in arbitration. Also, these costs don't include costs for an attorney if you want one..."

According to the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA):

"One of the alleged benefits of arbitration is that it costs less than litigation, but frequently this is not true for consumers and employees. Forced arbitration frequently costs more than taking a case to court and can cost thousands of dollars. Individuals often have to pay a large fee simply to initiate the arbitration process. If they are able to get an in-person hearing, individuals sometimes have to travel thousands of miles on their own dime to attend the arbitration. In the end, the loser (usually the individual) often pays the company’s legal fees."

The Public Citizen website lists the banks, retail stores, entertainment, online shopping, telecommunications, consumer electronics, software, nursing homes, and health care companies that include binding arbitration clauses in their contracts with customers. If this bothers you (and I hope that it does), you can take action at the NACA website.

Study: Researchers Find Online Price Discrimination Exists. Some Discrimination Methods May Surprise You

We all use the Internet to find things: products, services, travel deals, air fare, hotel tickets, and more. Are you getting the best price? Several sites, like Trivago, claim to help provide the best prices. How are consumers to tell? Do the search terms you use affect the prices you find?

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston announced the results of a study about personalization by websites and the prices displayed to consumers. The study included two types of e-commerce sites:

  1. General retail sites: Best Buy, Home Depot, Sears, Walmart, etc.
  2. Travel sites to find air, cars, and hotels: CheapTickets, Expedia,, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity

E-commerce sites currently collect a wide variety of data about online users, including your Internet history, (cookie files saved to your web browser, pages and products viewed, products purchased, products rated), search terms, device (brand, operating system, screen size, etc.), IP address, geo-location data, and more. Sites and marketers usually justify the data collection as necessary to display relevant content and advertisements. Readers of the blog are familiar with historical privacy abuses where marketers and advertisers used a variety of technologies to track consumers online: browser cookies, supercookies, Flash cookies, zombie e-tags, and zombie cookies, and zombie databases.

The Northeastern University researchers analyzed the prices displayed and the factors that affected those displays. They found:

"... that several e-commerce sites implement price discrimination and steering. Closer examination reveals that a small fraction of users receive personalized results across many sites, indicating that these users are being specifically targeted."

The researchers compared results between users with and without Internet histories by using the same search terms. The researchers found that users with an Internet history could see higher prices online, and presented the example below with two images showing a higher price for a user with an Internet history compared to a user without:

Click to view larger image of price comparison between users with and without Internet history. From the Northeastern Online Personalization Study

In this example, the price difference for a hotel in Paris is $68 per night, a substantial difference. Also, the researchers found that e-commerce sites implement different types of personalization:

Cheaptickets and Orbitz implement price discrimination by offering reduced prices on hotels to "members." Expedia and Orbitz engage in A/B testing that steers a subset of users towards more expensive hotel rooms. Home Depot and Travelocity both personalize search results for users on Android and iOS devices. Priceline personalizes search results based on a user's history of clicks and purchases on the site.

About "price steering" and A/B testing:

" and Expedia are also owned by a single company, and our analysis reveals that they both implement the same personalization strategy: randomized A/B tests on users. A/B testing is a common practice among large websites, and is used to test specific features of a site (for example: do people click a blue button more often than a red button?). In this case, and Expedia appear to be randomly dividing users among three "buckets" based on their [browser] cookie. The graph below shows that users in different buckets see different hotel rooms in a different order... users in two of the buckets are shown higher priced hotels towards the top of the page, which is an example of price steering."

About personalization by device type:

"For Travelocity, we discovered that they alter hotel search results for users who browse from [Apple] iOS devices. The graphs below show that users browsing with Safari on iOS receive slightly different hotels, and in a much different order, than users browsing from Chrome on Android, Safari on OS X, or other desktop browsers. The takeaway from the grpahs below is that we observe evidence consistent with price discrimination in favor of iOS users on Travelocity. Unlike Cheaptickets and Orbitz, which clearly mark sale price “Members Only” deals, there is no visual cue on Travelocity’s results that indicates prices have been changed for iOS users."

There is more:

"Similar to our findings on Travelocity, Home Depot personalizes results for users with mobile browsers... Strangely, Home Depot serves 24 search results per page to desktop browsers and Android, but serves 48 products per page to iOS users. We discovered the pool of results served to mobile browsers contains more expensive products overall... Thus, Home Depot is effectively steering users on mobile devices towards more expensive products. In addition to steering, Home Depot also discriminates against Android users. We discovered that Android users consistently see differences on about 6% of prices..."

Overall, the researchers concluded:

"... we find evidence for price steering and price discrimination on four general retailers and six travel sites. Overall, travel sites show price inconsistencies in a higher percentage of cases... users experience personalization across multiple sites... we are able to isolate specific user attributes that trigger personalization on seven e-commerce sites. This includes logging-in to an account on Cheaptickets and Orbitz, using a mobile device with Travelocity and Home Depot, purchase history on Priceline, and A/B testing on Expedia and"

Read the full study titled, "Measuring Price Discrimination and Steering on E-Commerce Web Sites."

What can consumers do about this? The researchers didn't provide firm recommendations because e-commerce sites can change their personalization methods at any time. One suggestion is for consumers to become members at sites that show lower prices for members. However,, there is no guarantee that this preference will remain so.

Another suggestion is for consumers to try using different devices, including a desktop without any saved browser cookies. You might find lower prices with a specific device. This seems a huge pain, as it defeats the whole purpose of convenience with mobile devices.

I can understand lower prices displayed to members. That encourages repeat business. It's a standard marketing technique.

As a usability professional, I understand and have performed A/B testing with websites; specifically, a portion of a site where users were invited to a separate test session, paid for their time, and asked several questions. A test plan was written to clearly state the test objectives and testing program. The testing had a defined beginning and end; and was separate from the live site. Then, the live site was adjusted based upon the test findings. This approach avoids ethical issues.

When sites perform A/B testing contiuously with the live site, and without notice to users, then ethical issues arise. It becomes impossible to tell of the "test" prices are indeed new prices applied arbitrarily to users. That helps nobody and erodes consumers' trust. These ethical issues were highlighted recently with with the OKCupid dating site. Marketers often claim that "everyone is doing it," but that does not make it right.

Did you expect sites to display higher prices to users with certain device types? I didn't, and I bet you didn't either. Now you know that can and does happen. Is it right? Should there be warnings on sites that do this? What do you think of the study? Share your opinions below.

Investigation By New York State Attorney General Found "Widespread Illegality" In Airbnb Listings

Last week, the New York State Attorney General released a report that analyzed the short-term rental market in New York City. The report found several impacts, chiefly including:

"... widespread illegality across New York City listings on the Airbnb website, with data indicating that as much as 72% of Airbnb reservations over the last several years violated New York law... The report is based on data obtained by the Attorney General’s Office as a result of a May 2014 subpoena for information about potential illegal hotels using Airbnb’s site."

The report analyzed short-term rental in New York with Airbnb reservations data from January 1, 2010 to June 2, 2014. Findings and impacts cited by the report:

"Private short-term booking in New York City on Airbnb increased sharply during the Review Period, registering more than a tenfold increase. The associated revenue also spiked, nearly doubling each year. This year, revenue to Airbnb and its hosts from private short-term rentals in New York City is expected to exceed $282 million."

And, commercial hosts dominated:

"94 percent of Airbnb hosts offered at most two unique units during the Review Period. But the remaining 6 percent of hosts dominated the platform during that period, offering up to hundreds of unique units, accepting 36 percent of private short-term bookings, and receiving $168 million, 37 percent of all host revenue..."

The good news: a lot of people like and use Airbnb; both individuals and commercial entities. The bad news included two types of illegality. First:

"Most Short-Term Rentals Booked in New York Violated the Law. State and local laws in New York — including the Multiple Dwelling Law and the New York City Administrative Code — prohibit certain short-term rentals... 72 percent of units used as private short-term rentals on Airbnb appeared to violate these laws."

The second type of illegality:

"New York law does not permit commercial enterprises to operate hostels, where multiple, unrelated guests share tight quarters. In 2013, approximately 200 units in New York City were booked as private short-term rentals for more than 365 nights during the year. This indicates that multiple transients shared the same listing on the same night, as they would in an illegal hostel. The 10 most-rented units for private short-term rentals were each booked for an average of about 1,900 nights in 2013, with the top listing accepting 13 reservations on an average night."

Some people might think that this is no problem, because either change the law or force Airbnb hosts to comply with the law. The problem: other city residents have been affected with the decreased availability of traditional long-term rental units:

"Private Short-Term Rentals Displaced Long-Term Housing in Thousands of Apartments. In 2013, more than 4,600 units were booked as short-term rentals through Airbnb for three months of the year or more. Of these, nearly 2,000 units were booked as short-term rentals for a cumulative total of half the year or more — rendering them largely unavailable for use by long-term residents..."

Put simply: it seems that landlords (people and corporations) have found they can make more money from their rental property by using it as short-term rentals and by cramming into each rental multiple, unrelated guests.

What the folks at Airbnb are doing about the problems:

"In April 2014, in direct response to NYAG’s investigation, Airbnb publicly claimed it had barred certain large Commercial Users from accepting additional reservations. The time period covered by the Data does not enable us to gauge whether Airbnb’s purported reform lessened the domination of Commercial Users in the private short-term rental market."

With any new technology or service, there are intended and unintended consequences. While initially developed to help travelers find alternative, short-term rentals, the above impacts can be huge upon communities, residents, and workers. The report found:

"Gentrified or Rapidly Gentrifying Neighborhoods Primarily in Manhattan Accounted for the Vast Majority of Revenue from Private Short-Term Rentals in New York City. Bookings in just three Community Districts in Manhattan — the Lower East Side/Chinatown, Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen, and Greenwich Village/SoHo — accounted for approximately $187 million in revenue to hosts , or more than 40 percent of private stay revenue to hosts during the Review Period. By contrast, all the reservations in three boroughs (Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx) brought hosts revenue of $12 million — less than three percent of the New York City total..."

This report raises lots of questions. Is similar illegal activity happening in other cities? If so, to a lesser or greater extent? Have residents seeking affordable, long-term rentals been forced to move out of neighborhoods and cities? What are the impacts upon schools and local businesses from this displacement? What are the impacts upon voting? I don't know the answers to these questions. Maybe a reader will post some answers and/or links to documents. The report did cite one impact:

"New York City is Likely Owed Millions in Unpaid Hotel Taxes from Private Short-Term Rentals. A number of taxes may apply to private short-term rentals... In particular, New York City assesses a hotel room occupancy tax of 5.875 percent that applies to private short-term rentals. Excluding fines and penalties, the total estimated liability for hotel room occupancy taxes associated with the Reviewed Transactions is over $33 million. Few Airbnb hosts appear to have filed the paperwork with New York City necessary to remit hotel room occupancy taxes, nor did Airbnb collect any of the hotel taxes owed..."

According to its website, Airbnb is in 34,000 cities and 190 countries. In a time of strained government budgets, you can bet that politicians won't leave $33 million on the table unpaid.

Download the report, "Airbnb In The City" (Adobe PDF).

TD Bank Settles With Several States About Its 2012 Data Breach

TD Bank logo Last week, the attorney generals (AGs) in several states announced a multi-state settlement agreement with TD Bank about the bank's 2012 data breach which exposed the sensitive financial information of consumers. New York State AG Eric T. Schneiderman announced:

"The data breach occurred in 2012, when TD Bank reported the loss of unencrypted backup tapes in Massachusetts. The tapes contained 1.4 million files and 1,800 different file types that had been accumulated over a period of 8 to 10 years. In total, the files contained various personal information for 260,000 TD Bank customers nationwide, including 31,407 in New York State.... The $850,000 settlement requires the bank to reform its practices to help ensure that future incidents do not occur. New York State will receive $114,106.11 under the settlement."

Other terms of the settlement agreement:

"The agreement requires TD Bank notify state residents of any future security breaches or other acquisitions of personal information a timely manner. TD Bank also agreed to maintain reasonable security policies to protect personal information. The agreement ensures that no backup tapes will be transported unless they are encrypted and all security protocols are complied with. TD Bank will review on a bi-annual basis their existing internal policies regarding the collection, storage and transfer of consumers’ personal information and will make changes to better protect such information. TD Bank will also institute further training for its employees."

The State of Florida led the settlement negotiation along with Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

43,157 residents in Connecticut were affected by the data breach. Connecticut AG George Jepsen stated in an announcement:

"The importance of this agreement goes significantly beyond financial remedies by seeking to ensure that future similar breaches are prevented. Consumers have a reasonable expectation of privacy and protection when it comes to their personal and financial information. This agreement recognizes those rights and ensures that TD Bank will continue to work to address the policies and procedures in place in 2012 that contributed to this breach in the first place..."

659 residents in Maryland were affected by the data breach. Maryland AG Douglas F. Gansler said about the settlement:

""Banks are as obligated to safeguard their customers' personal information as they are to protect their customers' money... While it appears this breach did not lead to any cases of identity theft, we must be aggressive to combat both traditional fraudsters and sophisticated hackers."

This was not the bank's first data breach. TD bank experienced data breaches before 2012:

  • March 2011: "insider identity theft" involving an employee that sold the account information of about about 10 customers causing about $39,000 in fraudulent charges 
  • March 2010: a fraud ring, using a former employee, stole and sold the account information of customers to accomplices who then stole about $200,000 from bank accounts

Massachusetts Town Tells Comcast Its Services Are Not Wanted

Comcast logo Last week, the city council in Worcester, Massachusetts voted 8 to 3 not to transfer the city's cable television license from Charter Communications to Comcast. The Worcester Telegram reported:

"... the council Tuesday night asked [City Manager] Mr. Augustus to reject Comcast's request for the license transfer because it feels the cable company lacks the necessary managerial experience, based on the number of public complaints there have been about its "substandard customer service practices." "

The city manager is not bound by this vote. The manager and Comcast are negotiating the license transfer. Reportedly, 43 of 53 towns so far have approved the license transfer. If all transfers are completed, then Comcast would add about 183,000 customers in the state to its current 1.5 million total. The transfers are tied to Comcast's purchase of Time Warner Cable.

In June, Comcast converted thw wireless routers of 50,000 Houston residents to public WiFi hotspots. In July, a horrific Comcast customer-service call went viral.

Comcast and other major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have lobbied against "Net Neutrality" rules that require them to treat all Internet traffic equally. Also, the major ISPs have obtained laws in 20 states that prohibit local towns and municipalities from developing their own broadband Internet services. That restricts competition and consumers freedom of choice. Comcast and Netflix reached an agreement in February where Netflix will pay Comcast additional fees to ensure faster and reliable access.

Charter Communications was one of several ISP and telephone companies in 2008 that wanted to spy on their customers' Internet usage, without notice and without customers' consent, by partnering with NebuAd, a behavioral advertising vendor that offered Deep-Packet Inspection capabilities. NebuAd closed in 2009.

Ars Technica reported about Worcester and Comcast:

"It's a terrible company," City Councilor Gary Rosen said after a vote last night, pointing to Comcast's "deplorable and substandard" customer service in other municipalities. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out."

Hopefully, more towns' city councils will speak out. The Worcester Telegram also reported:

"Councilor-at-Large Konstantina B. Lukes, chairman of the council's Public Service and Transportation Committee, which held three public hearings on the issue, said it was time for the council to send a message to the Federal Communications Commission about Comcast... District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen said the City Council should not welcome Comcast to Worcester because of its "deplorable and substandard" customer service across the country."

Is the FCC and Chairman Wheeler listening? I hope so. And hope that the FCC is listening to all feedback and focused only listening to ISP lobbyists.

Ebola And Leading Death Causes HIghlight Bigger Issues Facing the USA

The Ebola virus disease has been in the news. And, everyone seems worried. We all may be worried about the wrong stuff. ProPublica reported in September 2013:

"... a study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety that says the numbers may be much higher — between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death, the study says. That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second."

I'll bet you didn't know that so many people die every year from medical errors. Below is the ranked list of death causes in 2011 in the U.S.A. published by the Center For Disease Control (CDC):

  1. Heart disease: 596,577
  2. Cancer: 576,691
  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 142,943
  4. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,932
  5. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 126,438
  6. Alzheimer's disease: 84,974
  7. Diabetes: 73,831
  8. Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,826
  9. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 45,591
  10. Intentional self-harm (suicide): 39,518

440,000 deaths per year from medical errors easily captures the number 3 spot. As bad as this is, sadly there is more.

On Friday October 17, professor and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich posted on his Facebook page (link added):

"The failures at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital reflect a much bigger problem. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospital-acquired infections now affect one in 25 patients, causing 99,000 deaths each year. That’s 1 out of 4 deaths in hospitals -- more deaths than caused by many of the conditions that lead patients to enter hospitals in the first place..."

Hence, a more accurate ranked list of leading causes of death would include both medical errors and hospital-acquired infections:

  1. Heart disease: 596,577
  2. Cancer: 576,691
  3. Medical errors: 440,000
  4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 142,943
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,932
  6. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 126,438
  7. Hospital-acquired infections: 99,000
  8. Alzheimer's disease: 84,974
  9. Diabetes: 73,831
  10. Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,826
  11. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 45,591
  12. Intentional self-harm (suicide): 39,518

With existing death causes like these, the calls by politicians to ban flights from West Africa seem to miss the point. So much for American exceptionalism. Mr. Reich explored the problem further:

"... hospital administrators don’t have much incentive to improve. Most people have no idea of the infection rate at any given hospital, and don’t ask their doctors. If a hospital’s infection rate goes down the hospital doesn’t get more patients, and if it goes up the hospital doesn’t get fewer. (In fact, it might even make money because it can then increase its billing.) Bottom line: The CDC should require hospitals to report their infection rates into a common database that you have access to, and you should consult it before choosing a hospital for yourself or a loved one."

Now, that proposal makes sense. It allows consumers to make informed decisions about where to seek health care.

What are your opinions of the leading causes of death? Is the country focused on the right problem? Have you asked your physician about hospital infection rates?

Predictions Of How Consumers Will Use Faster Internet Connections In the Future

In the near future, experts say the average Internet connection speeds will be a lot faster: a gigabit per second. That's equal to 1,000 megabits. But we aren't there yet. Pew Research reported:

"Globally, cloud service provider Akamai reports that the average global connection speed in quarter one of 2014 was 3.9 Mbps, with South Korea reporting the highest average connection speed, 23.6 Mbps and the US at 10.5 Mbps."

In the United States, only selected areas have super-fast connections:

"... Google ran a competition in 2010 for communities to pitch themselves for the construction of the first Google Fiber network running at 1 gigabit per second... Kansas City was chosen among 1,100 entrants and residents are now signing up for the service. The firm has announced plans to build a gigabit network in Austin, Texas, and perhaps 34 other communities. In response, AT&T has said it expects to begin building gigabit networks in up to 100 US cities.The cities of Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Bristol, Virginia, have super speedy networks, and pockets of gigabit connectivity are in use in parts of Las Vegas, Omaha, Santa Monica, and several Vermont communities..."

Of course, the scientific and military communities are already using super-fast connections. How might consumers use this faster speeds? And, the Internet of Things (ioT) will suck up some of this faster bandwidth as more Internet-connected homes and appliances -- often referred to as smart homes -- along with connected cities.

Pew Research polled 1,464 experts in private industry and academia, and asked them what they thought that the coming killer apps would be between now and 2025. The experts' predictions were grouped into several themes:

"1. People’s basic interactions and their ability to ‘be together’ and collaborate will change in the age of vivid telepresence—enabling people to instantly ‘meet face-to-face’ in cyberspace with no travel necessary.

2. Augmented reality will extend people’s sense and understanding of their real-life surroundings and virtual reality will make some spaces, such as gaming worlds and other simulated environments, even more compelling places to hang out.

3. The connection between humans and technology will tighten as machines gather, assess, and display real-time personalized information in an ‘always-on’ environment. This integration will affect many activities—including thinking, the documentation of life events (‘life-logging’), and coordination of daily schedules.

4. Specific economic and social sectors will be especially impacted; health/medicine and education were mentioned often.

5. New digital divides may open as people gain opportunities on different timelines and with different tools.

6. Who knows? ‘I have no idea due to rapid change.’ ‘The best Internet apps are yet to emerge.’ ‘If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you, I would invest in it!’

7. Advances will be gradual for various reasons: Bandwidth is not the issue. The US will lag because a widespread gigabit network is not easily achieved."

Some high-level predictions:

"Massive change is likely to impact cities, and 3D video and printing will advance... Sensors will be everywhere, contributing to information visualizations... ‘Cloud immigrants’ will appear as holograms and compete for jobs... People will learn more about themselves and ‘avoid coercive marketing’... Bye-bye phones: Devices will manage things machine-to-machine... "Apps" Will Be So Over By 2025... Machines will have ‘more-complex intelligence’ and decision-making capability"

If history is to be a guide, look to military, advertising, porn, and gambling sectors for emerging "killer apps" and underlying technologies. Expect to see a lot more augmented reality and more robust holograms in a lot more places besides advertisements. Sadly, none of the themes directly addressed the high cost of Internet connections in the USA compared to other countries. And, number five is a troubling prediction. Several experts commented that not only will the poor be left behind, but also other groups.

How would you like to use faster Internet connection speeds?

Filing Supports Claims That ISPs Already Throttle And Violate Net Neutrality Rules

One argument you hear from people who argue against Net Neutrality rules is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) don't abuse existing, in-place net neutrality rules. That assumption seems flawed. TechDirt reported about claims where users have experienced ISPs already restricting or "throttling" users' Internet connection speed, in violation of current net neutrality rules. First, the data source:

"... we came across one very interesting one that actually makes some rather stunning revelations about the ways in which ISPs are currently violating net neutrality/open internet principles in a way designed to block encryption and thus make everyone a lot less secure. The filing comes from VPN company Golden Frog and discusses "two recent examples that show that users are not receiving the open, neutral, and uninterrupted service to which the Commission says they are entitled."

Next, the first claim about a net neutrality violation:

"... It got some attention back in July, when entrepreneur Colin Nederkoorn released a video showing how Verizon was throttling his Netflix connection, which was made obvious when he logged into a VPN and suddenly his Netflix wasn't stuttering and the throughput was much higher. That video got a lot of attention (over half a million views) and highlighted the nature of the interconnection fight in which Verizon is purposely allowing Netflix streams coming via Level 3 to clog. As most people recognize, in a normal scenario, using a VPN should actually slow down your connection somewhat thanks to the additional encryption. However, the fact that it massively sped up the Netflix connection shows just how much is being throttled when Verizon knows it's Netflix traffic."

The second claim:

"In the second instance, Golden Frog shows that a wireless broadband Internet access provider is interfering with its users’ ability to encrypt their SMTP email traffic. This broadband provider is overwriting the content of users’ communications and actively blocking STARTTLS encryption. This is a man-in-the-middle attack that prevents customers from using the applications of their choosing and directly prevents users from protecting their privacy."

There are several very clear implications

  • First, it is difficult for the average user to detect and confirm throttling. So, some indepedent verification and confirmation labs, or technologies are needed.
  • Second, encryption is one important tool to stay safe online, for online banking, and for workers to protect the confidential assets and processes of employers and companies. If true, then the ISP intentionally mismanaged the Internet connection by sacrificing the user's safety in order to protect its profitability.
  • Third, in order for consumers to know and receive the connection speeds they pay for each month (with hefty prices), net neutrality rules are needed even more. Otherwise, ISPs will manage their networks even more to consumers' detriment.
  • Fourth, a corporation will almost always work in its own best interest and in the interest of its shareholders. A broader public interest will be ignored, or sacrificed, for profitability. Regulation bridges this gap.

What are your opinions of these throttling revelations?

Filmmaker Uses CrowdFunding For Upcoming Film About Domestic Violence

The Trees film

Domestic violence has been in the news lately. The National Domestic Violence Hotline saw an 84 percent increase in phone calls after the Ray Rice video was broadcast last month. 12.7 million people are physically abused, raped or stalked by their partners every year. One in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Also last month, writer/director David Arthur Clark announced development of his film, "The Trees," about domestic violence. The film synopsis:

"Following a horrific act of violence, a tormented mother finds herself seeking refuge from the very man responsible, her estranged husband. As she experiences evil on a realistic level, a series of strange unexplained events start to unfold in the surrounding trees of her home."

Digital Producer reported:

"The film has attracted exceptional talent including Chalet Lizette Brannan, a young gifted actress with more than twenty feature films under her belt, and London Durham, who was recently in When the Game Stands Tall, starring Jim Caviezel. Scoring the composition of the film is Ryan Walker, the touring keyboardist for Imagine Dragons. Crowdfunding will fund the production of this film, including everything from professional sound design, mixing, more camera lighting equipment/rigs, festival submissions and possible distribution deals."

Before pursuing an acting career, Mr. London attended the training camp for the N.F.L. Seattle Seahawks football team. Mr. Clark described his film:

"Whether or not we have personally experienced domestic violence, we have all seen the shocking images. Real women and men deal with terrifying violence from their partners every day. This includes people of all races and socioeconomic status, which is why this film will transcend race and stereotypes by not shying away from them. The film will also tackle stereotypes surrounding athletes that are especially prevalent today, through the vehicle of a supporting character named Rome Wallace. Rome Wallace is the main character’s longtime friend and an aspiring athlete with dreams of making it to the NFL. He is the hero that tries to protect his friend’s wife from domestic violence. Rome’s character is intended to make a powerful statement about stereotyping groups based on the actions of a few."

The Trees film project already has partnerships with Fortune 421 clothing and Plus One Water that will seek to benefit local southern California shelters for victims of domestic violence. See the press release, Facebook, or the FilmikPictures website. Film trailers are at Vimeo and Live the Dream.

Mr. Clark has $37,000 of the $50,000 in funding to move his project from pre-production to production, with is scheduled to start next month. He sought crowdfunding to reach out to both fans of independent films and advocates for domestic violence resources for victims.

I happen to know David personally, as we were coworkers a few years back at a digital advertising agency. He is a hard worker, trustworthy, and talented. I hope that you will contribute to his project.

Interested contributors should visit The Trees page on Kickstarter. There are only a few days left to contribute. The deadline for contributions is Friday, October 17, 2014 at 2:30 pm EDT.

Rail Congestion And Delays Highlight Larger Issues Facing The USA

Last week, McClatchyDC reported:

"Last year’s freight congestion that was snarling Amtrak service in the upper Midwest has shifted east, and it’s gotten so bad that Amtrak has resorted to putting passengers on buses. Congestion on Norfolk Southern in recent weeks has delayed Amtrak trains from Chicago to Detroit, Boston, New York and Washington... Now it’s the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited, which was late 97 percent of the time in September. At least through Friday, Amtrak is putting passengers of its Capitol Limited and Lakeshore Limited trains on buses between Chicago and Toledo, Ohio."

Everyone wants low-priced products. Rail systems move large volumes of low-priced products and keep transportation costs low. Everyone wants corporations to provide jobs. Those jobs can't happen if the country's rail system can't move products and good quickly, efficiently, and on time. This negatively affects the economy:

"Federal lawmakers and regulators are expressing concern about the congestion as it’s delaying freight shipments as well, notably for auto manufacturers, grain producers, coal-reliant electric utilities and even UPS."

BNSF logo Those who are quick to blame Amtrak or offer up the repetitive, knee-jerk privatization-is-the-answer claim, would be advised to remember that rail companies are having problems with the congestion:

"The nation’s largest railroads have been the focus of increased scrutiny because of congestion and safety issues around the growing transportation of crude oil. Last year, BNSF, which blankets the western two-thirds of the country, struggled to move a record grain harvest on top of an increasing volume of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota... Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the railroad was experiencing traffic volumes it hadn’t seen since the 2008 recession..."

Norfolk Southern logo So, our railway infrastrucutre can't seem to handle the good news of production spikes from grain, oil, and gas. How did this happen? How did the country get in this bind?

I love trains; both freight and pasenger. I think that it is important to remember that Congress voted in 2011 not to fund the high-speed rail project President Obama proposed in 2009. I'll bet that you forgot about that. USA Today reported in 2011:

"The House and Senate voted today to eliminate most of the $8 billion that President Obama sought next year for his vision of nationwide high-speed rail. Republicans trumpeted what they said was the death of the president's six-year, $53 billion plan, saying the future of fast trains lies along the Northeast Corridor, The Hill writes. The funding was eliminated in a deal with Democrats on a spending bill for the Transportation Department and other agencies..."

Other countries have "bullet train" systems. The USA doesn't. The President's 2009 proposal would have fixed that with a 220-mph bullet train in California, and provided Americans with J-O-B-S. Just this past week, a multitude of news media reported that China is the world's largest economy, or soon will be depending upon which economic indicators you use. Well, China has bullet trains. Last year, Japan tested an even faster 310-mph bullet train. Where is American innovation?

A great nation deserves a railway system that can move both freight and passengers quickly and efficiently. Right now, the USA can't. We are left with delayed freight, delayed passengers, and some passengers shifted to buses. Embarrassing.

The same 2011 USA article quoted conservative politician Shuster from Pennsylvania:

"Today's vote marks the end to President Obama's misguided high-speed rail program, but it also represents a new beginning for true intercity high-speed passenger rail service in America," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials..."

Those Amtrak passengers that were bused should ask representative Shuster, and their elected officials, where is the high-speed rail he promised. Roughly 90 percent of households own cars. Car ownership by households has decreased since 2004, partly due to the last economic recession. Some studies have found that fewer youth buy cars. The trends of depressed wages and minimum-wage jobs will likely place continued downard pressure on car ownership. Those voters seek alternate transportation methods. Some want too use trains; for commuting and/or to avoid long car/bus trips in cramped seating.

Air transportation is not a viable long-term solution. It can't move the large freight volumes cost effectively. People I know who fly a lot on commercial airlines complain about the experience. You may remember some fights in the air earlier this year when passengers installed devices to prohibit seats in front of them from reclining. People mistakenly focused upon the device (e.g., Knee Defender) instead of the root cause: insufficient leg-room decisions by airlines. In a world with increasing prices for energy and concerns about climate change, you'd think that improvements to our railway infrastructure would get greater attention.

Click to view larger image of inter-city express trains. Cologne, Germany. September 2014 In 2000, I rode the high-speed inter-city rail between Munich and Nuremberg, Germany. (Generally, high-speed is over 200 kilometers per hour or 124 miles per hour.) It was fast, efficient, comfortable, fun, and on time. That was in 2000! Last month, I rode high-speed rail again in Europe between Hamburg, Cologne, and Amsterdam. Again, it was fast, efficient, comfortable, fun, and on time. There were no delays; no busing. None.

Meanwhile, back in the USA we remain focused on our love affair with autos: every person on their own in their own auto, despite the consequences from a lack of investment in our railway infrastructure. It's a myopic view. So much for American exceptional-ism.

A great nation needs a great railway system. Period. What are your opinions about the state of train travel in the USA?

Click to view larger image of passing a commuter train while on board an inter-city express train. Amsterdam, Netherlands. September 2014

Librarians Continue To Advocate For Consumers' Privacy

There's a good Washington Post article about how librarians have fought for and continue to fight for consumers' privacy:

"Edward Snowden's campaign against the National Security Agency's data collection program has energized this group once again. And a new call to action from the ALA's president means their voices could be louder and more coordinated than ever. Guarding patrons' library activities is considered a core value of the profession, written into the ALA's code of ethics: "We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted." "

The article also described a rare instance where a national Security Letter was sent to librarians, who were bound not to disclose the request until the letter was later revoked:

"In July 2005, two FBI agents presented George Christian with a national security letter - an information request that doesn't require judicial approval - seeking data about patrons' library use. He was the executive director of a consortium called Library Connection... The government wanted to know who had used a device at an IP address in February, Christian said. The address was assigned to a router that served many devices, and to hand over that data could have violated the privacy of many patrons beyond the subjects of the FBI's investigation... Christian questioned the constitutionality of the search."

If you have never heard of the "Connecticut Four," then I strongly recommend reading this article.

Apple Improves iPhone Data Security. Law Enforcement Complains

Last week, Apple announced the closure of privacy gaps in its iPhones. Previously, encryption only protected some data. Now, devices running iOS version 8 encrypts all data on the phone, and access to data is entirely protected from Apple by users' passcodes:

"On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data."

That is privacy by design. It is important for several reasons, including government surveillance activities:

"Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a “back door” in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed any government access to our servers. And we never will... Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8."

The Apple Built-In Privacy page:

"Your iMessages and FaceTime calls are your business, not ours. Your communications are protected by end-to-end encryption across all your devices when you use iMessage and FaceTime, and with iOS 8 your iMessages are also encrypted on your device in such a way that they can’t be accessed without your passcode. Apple has no way to decrypt iMessage and FaceTime data when it’s in transit between devices. So unlike other companies’ messaging services, Apple doesn’t scan your communications, and we wouldn’t be able to comply with a wiretap order even if we wanted to... Unlike our competitors, we never scan any of your iCloud data for advertising. All your iCloud content is encrypted in transit and, in most cases, when stored... Some companies mine your email for personal information to serve you targeted ads. We don’t. To protect your privacy even more, all traffic between any email application and our iCloud mail servers is encrypted..."

Google: take note about not scanning all Gmail. All device manufacturers and mobile providers should be doing what Apples is doing.

Of course, the government spy and law enforcement agencies have complained about this. Schneier on Security summarized the complaining:

"To hear US law enforcement respond, you'd think Apple's move heralded an unstoppable crime wave. See, the FBI had been using that vulnerability to get into people's iPhones... FBI Director James Comey claimed that Apple's move allows people to "place themselves beyond the law" and also invoked that now overworked "child kidnapper." John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for the Chicago police department now holds the title of most hysterical: "Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile."

The fearmongering doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Shneier summarized federal data about court-approved intercepts of communications:

"Of the 3,576 major offenses for which warrants were granted for communications interception in 2013, exactly one involved kidnapping. And, more importantly, there's no evidence that encryption hampers criminal investigations in any serious way. In 2013, encryption foiled the police nine times, up from four in 2012­ -- and the investigations proceeded in some other way."

The other important point is this: when good guys force companies to build back doors, the bad guys use those same back doors:

"... You can't build a backdoor that only the good guys can walk through. Encryption protects against cybercriminals, industrial competitors, the Chinese secret police and the FBI. You're either vulnerable to eavesdropping by any of them, or you're secure from eavesdropping from all of them... In 2010, Chinese hackers subverted an intercept system Google had put into Gmail to comply with US government surveillance requests. Back doors in our cell phone system are currently being exploited by the FBI and unknown others."

Schneier provides more examples in his blog post, which I highly recommend that people interested in privacy read. What are your opinions of Apple's new privacy policy?

Cruise Review: Sept. 13 - 27 Viking River Cruise From Amsterdam to Budapest

Click to view larger image of bicycle riders in Amsterdam, Netherlands. September 2014

For our 15th wedding anniversary, my wife and I enjoyed a vacation in Europe that included a two-week river cruise. Many people have asked me what a river cruise is like. So, today's blog post shares our experience and offers some travel advice.

We are experienced cruisers with 19 ocean cruises to various regions: Alaska, Caribbean, and the eastern Mediterranean. Those sailings included ships by several cruise lines: Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Costa, and MSC. What's a river cruise like? Read on below.

Plan Ahead

We began researching our trip about 18 months before the departure date. This approach allowed us to browse and compare cruise lines, ships, itineraries, and prices. Early planning provided time to discuss travel plans with friends interested in traveling with us. We settled on the Grand European Tour itinerary by Viking River Cruises. The itinerary, sailing between Amsterdam and Budapest, included 15 days, 3 rivers (e.g., the Rhine, Main, and Danube), 5 countries, 16 towns, and 60+ locks. We'd visited Europe before and this itinerary included an interesting mix of destinations we had and hadn't visited.

Click to view larger image of house boats in a canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands. September 2014 You can sail the Grand European Tour itinerary in either direction. After reading the Viking River Cruises site and the River Cruises section of the Cruise Critic site, we settled upon the eastbound sailing from Amsterdam to Budapest. Prices for river cruises seemed significantly higher than ocean cruises, so we looked for discounts. We have used the Cruise Critic site before, and I highly recommend it; especially the passenger-written cruise reviews in the Community Forum section.

Viking offers three types of cabins: standard with small porthole windows, ocean views with floor-to-ceiling windows, and balconies. To save money, we selected the lowest priced cabin. From past cruising experience, we spent little time in the cabin.

Based upon our research, we noticed that prices are higher for river cruising compared to ocean cruises. A direct comparison is a little unfair since Viking's prices include shore excursions and free, unlimited beer/wine at lunches and dinners, while base prices for most ocean cruises exclude shore excursions and beer/wine/liquor packages. We were able to save money (~50 percent) by using Viking's "2-For-1" discount plan. To get the discount meant sending money early. I realize that not everyone is comfortable paying for a cruise a year in advance, but the savings appealed to us.

Pre- Or Post-Cruise Activities

Click to view larger image of Hamburg, Germany. September 2014 We always plan to arrive in the cruise departure city one or two days before the ship sails. That ensures stress-free travel, especially if there are flight delays due to weather. For this trip, we wanted additional time to visit Hamburg and Cologne. So, we budgeted three days in Hamburg to explore the city and to visit the Miniatur Wunderland model train exhibit; three days in Cologne to sight-see, visit the Chocolate Museum, and sample several local beers recommended by family living in a Cologne suburb.

We also budgeted three days to explore Amsterdam. I used the RickSteves site to research things to do in each city. We weren't interested in any post-cruise stays in Budapest. After adding in travel time between the airports, hotels, and cities, our total vacation schedule included 25 days.

Booking Travel

A friend traveling with us recommended a travel agent. We used that travel agent to book our trip on the Viking Alsvin cruise ship. In addition to Viking's 2-For-1 discount, that agent secured an additional discount for us. To protect our investment, we also purchased travel insurance with Travel Guard. We've used Travel Guard before and have been satisfied with their services.

Similar to ocean cruise lines, river cruise lines offer travel options that combine air and cruise travel, plus (bus) transfers between the airports and cruise terminals. Given our 25-day schedule, the travel agent wanted to charge a deviation fee from the cruise line's normal air-cruise transfers package transfers. The fee was hefty, so we decided to book air, hotel, and transfers on our own. We didn't want to do that work, but we disliked the fee more.

We prefer non-stop flights and booked non-stop flights on Lufthansa between Boston and Munich. Non-stop flights make travel easier and minimize stress from flight delays and changing planes. With air booked, we focused upon travel from Munich to Hamburg, Hamburg to Cologne, Cologne to Amsterdam, and Budapest to Munich. We initially considered train travel because I love trains, and train travel in Europe is efficient. Given the distances, that plan evolved into a mix of air and train travel: Air Berlin from Munich to Hamburg, trains between Hamburg, Cologne, and Amsterdam, and Air Berlin from Budapest to Munich.

Schedule Change From Viking

We left for our vacation as planned. While in Cologne, we tracked the Viking Alsvin's GPS position using the MarineTraffic site. Something seemed odd since the ship was sailing the Danube river instead of the Rhine river. Then, I received an e-mail message from the Customer Relations department at Viking River Cruises:

"Thank you for choosing Viking Cruises for your upcoming European cruise. Due to a scheduling change you will be welcomed aboard Viking Bragi.  Like Viking Alsvin, Viking Bragi is a new, state-of-the-art Longship, featuring all the same comforts and style as the rest of the Viking Longship fleet. She also has a warm and welcoming staff who will be delighted to have you as our guest. Your stateroom category and room number will remain the same."

The Bragi was built in 2013; the Alsvin in 2014. So, both are new ships. Both feature the same deck plans with four decks. Each carries about 190 passengers and 50 crew members. The notice didn't explain what prompted the "scheduling change," and an e-mail to the cruise line asking for more details went unanswered. We'd hear more about that later during the cruise.

Our Viking Cruise

Click to view larger image of Viking Bragi long-ship docked in Amsterdam, Netherlands. September 2014 We happily boarded the Bragi in Amsterdam and began our cruise. We found the crew hard working, attentive, and very professional. The ship and our cabin were clean and comfortable. The digital television system in our cabin offered a wide variety of programming, including European cable channels, music, and information about the cruise. WiFi was accessible in many areas of the ship, and the connection speed was acceptable. Since WiFi is dependent upon a satellite connection and a cruise ship is a moving vessel, broadband speeds may be slower than you are accustomed to at home. The on-board dining room featured five-star dining at every meal. The food and service were superb. The portion sizes were excellent.

During the first night we experienced plumbing problems in our cabin. Water from the bathroom sink backed up into the shower. After a late-night call to the front desk, a maintenance crew arrived and fixed the blockage. Unfortunately, the plumbing problem occurred again the next morning. After another call to the front desk, the maintenance crew returned and fixed the blockage. We did not experience any more plumbing issues, but the experience left us a little jittery since this was a new ship.

Day two included an awesome shore excursion in Kinderdijk, Holland to a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring 19 working windmills built during the mid-1800s. The tour guide explained how windmills operate, and the tour included the opportunity to explore the interior of a windmill.

Three key advantages of river cruising quickly became apparent:

  1. The focus is upon shore excursions. Everyday there is a new port to explore. You can use the shore excursions included with the cruise price, or pay a little more for optional, special excursions. Local guides led all of the shore excursions. In most ports, there was time after a shore excursion to explore on your own. We did this whenever possible.
  2. The ship's public spaces (e.g., dining room, lounge, cafe, sun deck) encourage you to meet other passengers. There is no assigned seating in the restaurant, and one seating. We met many other passengers.
  3. The ship's public areas allow passengers to easily watch (and photograph) the spectacular landscapes, castles, and towns you sail by. You pass something interesting every day.

The original schedule for day three included 10 hours docked in Cologne. We had planned to use that time for the included shore excursion, to explore on our own, and to meet family and friends. That plan quickly changed when the ship's Program Director informed all passengers that dock time in Cologne would be reduced by three hours. The Bragi needed more sailing time.

This was a disappointment. We completed the shore excursion, but had no time to meet family and friends at the pier. The optional shore excursion, a pub crawl around Cologne, was cancelled.

Click to view larger image of a view of the Rhine river from the Marksberg Castle. Germany. September 16, 2014 The Bragi's slow sailing speed caused other changes. The original schedule for day four included a stop at Koblenz for a shore excursion to the Marksburg Castle via bus, and then rejoin the ship further upriver in Braubach. Instead, the ship skipped Koblenz and docked at Braubach for us to depart on our shore excursion. During our shore excursion, the Bragi sailed further upriver where we rejoined it at St. Goarshausen. So, we missed seeing Koblenz, and spent more time traveling in buses to stay on schedule.

We quickly learned that things can change during a river cruise. Viking has buses pre-positioned in port destinations to carry passengers for bus-based shore excursions. If a ship encounters delays, Viking will use those same buses to move passengers to stay on schedule.

The day five stop included a wonderful walking tour around Miltenberg. We ate and drank beer in the hotel Zum Riesen, which many claim is Germany's oldest inn. The beer tasted great. The day six stop in Wurzburg featured an awesome shore excursion to the baroque Bishops' Residenz, a huge and very ornate palace, which is another UNESCO World Heritage site. If you have never visited this palace, I strongly encourage you to do so. You probably have seen nothing like it.

After leaving Wurzburg, the passengers were informed that we would be switching ships in Nuremberg to "get back on schedule." All passengers sailing on the Bragi from Amsterdam to Budapest would switch to the Alsvin, and similarly all passengers sailing on the Alsvin from Budapest to Amsterdam would switch to the Bragi.

The day seven schedule included a stop in Bamberg. I decided to skip the shore excursion and stay on board. Things became controversial that evening when one passenger got lost and missed the bus to return to the ship. Staff looked for this poor soul who, rather than staying in one spot, kept looking for the bus. They eventually found this person, but the damage had been done. The ship missed its scheduled time to transit the locks and we were forced to dock overnight at Bamberg, next to the smelly town dump.

This delay had a ripple effect: we spent more time the next day in buses to stay on schedule, and to complete shore excursions in Nuremberg. The stop in Nuremberg didn't include free time to explore on our own. Disappointing.

For the day seven shore excursion in Nuremberg, I took the optional World War II Documentation shore excursion. After a bus tour around downtown Nuremberg, we stopped to enter an administrative building used after World War II for the trials. That included a tour of Court Room 600.

After re-boarding the bus, the tour continued with a visit to areas used by the NSDAP/Nazi party circa 1929 – 1941. The areas included the Zeppelin Field (Adobe PDF), a parade ground for rallies, the incomplete Congress stadium (modeled after the Coliseum in Rome), and the Documentation Center (DC). The DC presented a wealth of details about how Adolph Hitler rose to power, democratic freedoms were removed in Germany pre-1933, and the many programs to remove and eliminate minorities – much based on pseudo-science. I was struck by the efficient propaganda machine, manipulation of citizens, removal of democratic freedoms, sneaky efforts to circumvent the post-WWI treaty of Versailles, and efforts to hide militarization prohibited by that treaty. It was a stark reminder about how citizens must carefully watch how any political party says one thing and does another. That shore excursion felt rushed. I could have spent two days in the DC, not two hours.

The day ten stop was at Passau, Germany a beautiful town where three rivers converge. We took the included shore excursion: a guided walking tour and a wonderful organ concert in the 17th centur Saint Stephen's Cathedral.

The day 12 stop in Vienna included a bus tour of the city and a complimentary Mozart and Strauss concert by the Wiener Residenz Orchestra. This was fabulous. The concert was in a private room that held about 350 guests. The 13-person orchestra included two dancers. This concert originally cost 64 Euros per person, but the cruise line provided it for free to compensate passengers for the inconveniences we had experienced.

We arrived in Budapest at night-time, which is probably the best time to arrive. You see the city buildings and bridges lit up. It is a unique, wonderful sight; another advantage of an eastbound sailing itinerary.

When leaving the ship, Viking ordered our car service since we had an early-morning flight departure. This level of service is noteworthy, as it is something we never experienced on ocean cruises. It was a pleasant 45-minute ride from the cruise ship to the airport. I paid the driver with a mix of Hungarian Forints and Euros.

Fitness Challenges

Click to view larger image of Sun Deck on the Viking Bragi long-ship. September 2014 For passengers interested in exercise and relaxation alternatives, the Sun Deck on the Viking Bragi is the place. It features a walking track (not running/jogging), lounge chairs for sun-bathing, tables and chairs for eating, a three-hole putting green, an over-sized chess set, and a shuffle board. Viking ships are designed so that railings, the pilot's house, and other items on the Sun Deck can be lowered to enable the ship to navigate under low bridges. Sometimes, the clearance is only a few feet. Our Viking cruise documents stated:

"Weather permitting, the ship's sun deck is the most popular area when the ship is sailing. During passage through locks or under bridges, it may be necessary to close the sun deck for passenger use. We invite you to use the other outdoor areas during these times."

May be necessary? During our cruise, the Sun Deck was closed for five straight days, about one-third of the total cruise, due to low bridges. I wish that the cruise documents had been more forthcoming about the closure. I practice T'ai Chi and the Sun Deck is the only place on board the ship with sufficient room. Several passengers joined me, and tai chi became a very social activity. The shuffle board and chess set seemed to have gone unused the entire cruise. We noticed that other cruise lines' ships had hot tubs.

The Viking cruise documents say that passengers wanting exercise options can use the on-board concierge to make appointments with land-based gyms and fitness clubs. One person in our travel group asked the concierge for assistance renting bicycles. The concierge needed time to research bicycle rental options. Perhaps, the cruise line should store bicycles on board. My impression: using land-based fitness clubs doesn't appeal since time the ship is docked in ports is already limited. Time spent at a land-based gyms could easily replace time for shore excursions.

Switching Ships

Every evening before dinner, the on-board Program Director explained to passengers during a Briefing in the Lounge what would happen the next day. This was a useful and appreciated method to keep passengers informed. During these briefings we heard about schedule changes affecting shore excursions. The Program Director on the Bragi worked very hard to explain things, and I got the impression that Viking's corporate headquarters made decisions the crew just had to react to.

The day before arriving in Bamberg, the Program Director explained what would happen during a ship switch. Basically, passengers packed up their luggage and settled their accounts on one ship by paying their on-board bills. Cash and credit cards were the options. The crew transported passengers' luggage to the new ship. During our shore excursion in Nuremberg, the buses took us to our destinations, and then transported us to the new ship.

Switching ships is a hassle in that you spend time packing and unpacking luggage; which defeats the purpose of booking a two-week cruise so you pack and unpack only once. Viking recognized this hassle and compensated passengers with free drinks and a complimentary concert during the shore excursion in Vienna, Austria.

Families And Children

Viking River Cruises' target audience seemed to be people ages 50+ and retirees. There were no children on our sailing. I did not see any resources on-board for children. Most passengers were from Canada. To enjoy a European river cruise, you should be pretty mobile. There is a lot of walking and uneven cobblestone paths in many historic sites. During our cruise, I saw a few passengers with canes or walkers. I didn't see any passengers in wheelchairs.


River cruises provide many conveniences: plenty of shore excursions, knowledgeable and local tour guides, great dining on board, spectacular sights, professional service by the staff, and the opportunity to sample beers and local foods daily in every port. You unpack and pack once.

Is a river cruise for you? Only you can decide that for yourself. I've been told that most river cruise itineraries don't include switching ships as we did. Regardless, it seems that things can quickly change during a river cruise. Weather can produce high or low water levels affecting navigation. River traffic, broken locks, and lost passengers can cause delays. Delays mean more time spent in buses to stay on schedule.

To be fair, weather (e.g. hurricanes, storms) can disrupt ocean cruises, too. I found the sailing on a river cruise to be far smoother than ocean cruises. People who avoid ocean cruises because of seasickness may find river cruises appealing. During our river cruise, we frequently never knew we were moving. At night and in bed, you may hear or feel the ship's rumble. That applies to both river and ocean cruising.

If you have never cruised before, then a river cruise is a great way to experience a cruise and meet people. You can pick a shorter itinerary than the two-week sailing we selected. A river cruise is a very social experience.

If you have sailed on ocean cruises before, then you know the importance of deck plans. When researching river cruise lines and ships, pay close attention to deck plans so you know what is (and is not) available on board. The available activities may or may not fit your lifestyle. For me, I was aware and still missed the on-board casino, hot-tubs, spas, and athletic facilities commonly offered on ocean cruise ships. I would not select a river cruise during the colder months because outdoor areas, such as the sun deck, would be even more inaccessible.

Are river cruises better than ocean cruises? Only you can decide. The important considerations are your lifestyle preferences and the regions, cities, and towns you want to visit. Some people may become bored with multiple shore excursions to churches, palaces, and castles. Others never get bored. If you are considering a river cruise, hopefully this cruise review has given you an idea of what it's like.

If you have sailed on river cruises, please share your experiences below, including the cruise line, ship name, and destination.

Click to view larger image of model train layout at Miniatur Wunderland exhibit in Hamburg, Germany. September 2014