All posts by Oded Ran

AXA car insurance just charged me an extra £30 because I became a dad

I was going to renew our car insurance with AXA. Quickly reviewing our details, I noticed I had to update them as we now have a child under the age of 16.
What I didn’t expect, is that AXA will increase my insurance premium by £30, just because I specified I’m a parent.
I called them and they said they do charge parents extra, because having kids means they’re more likely to be distracted and make an accident.
Is there true? Is there any research showing that parents are worse drivers than non-parents? What’s more probable is AXA figured out that parents have less time to compare quotes, so why not charge them an extra £30, just because.
Mumsnet and Facebook forums, maybe you can make them change their minds.
non parent
Without 1 child


With 1 child

20 reasons why you’ll hate switching to Mac (and a few reasons why you’ll love it)

In 2011, I switched from PC to Mac. I used a MacBook Air 15″ for about a year until it got stolen. I then rushed back to a PC. It was for a simple reason: I couldn’t get work done as easily on a Mac. It’s interesting how little marketing Microsoft has done to point out MacOS’s shortcomings. There are at least a dozen reasons why moving to a Mac would drive you nuts. Each of these could have been a great retaliatory “PC vs. Mac” TV advert. Here’s my top list of things you’ll hate about moving to a Mac, and a few things you’d absolutely love.

Disclaimer: I wrote this list before trying the abysmal OS that is Windows 8. Anything is better than Windows 8. Even Windows ME.  And please excuse the preponderance of ‘WTF’ below, I couldn’t find a more appropriate expletive.

What you’ll hate

  • Stupidest ever shortcuts with Control, Option (aka Alt), Fn, Shift, and Command. No consistency. Very hard to recall what to press and when. It’s maybe perfect if you’re a pianist, less so if you just want to get work done.
  • No home, end, page up or page down buttons in the keyboard.
  • No delete button. You have to Ctrl + Backspace. WTF.
  • Maximise doesn’t maximise (they did fix it in the last OS).
  • Close doesn’t close.
  • Enter doesn’t open files. It renames them. WTF.
  • Folders are sorted alongside files, instead of being displayed on top.
  • To install programs, you download a .dmg file (WTF?) and then drag it to drive (WTF?). Then you unmount the downloaded file. WTF.
  • Excel shortcuts.  E.g. F2 becomes Alt + U.  WTF.
  • Office sucks.
  • Office crashes.
  • You’ll have to zoom in, in every Word and Excel doc, which will just drive your PC colleagues nuts (they’ll zoom out, you’ll zoom in).
  • Apps do crash. Don’t believe the hype.
  • To switch to another window you use Cmd+Tab unless it’s another window of the app you’re in and then it’s Cmd+`.  WTF.
  • You have to empty the entire trash – you can’t permanently delete just specific files (something took the metaphor of a trash can a bit too far). WTF.
  • Apple fanboys who tell you can fix all of the above with some geeky hack or 3rd party software.
What you’ll love
  • Hardware is beautiful.
  • Hardware just works.
  • Hardware doesn’t come with ugly stickers by Intel, Microsoft and the OEM that you’ll have to remove.
  • Hardware doesn’t come pre-installed with crapware.
  • Standby just works.
  • Even a slow Macbook just works.  Not like a PC where you have to launch Task Manager every hour to kill apps.
  • Font rendering is just beautiful.
  • You’ll be the coolest kid in town and you’ll wake up to double rainbows every morning.

How to redirect your domain to, but keep a blog as a sub-folder?

Say you are launching a new website.  You create a launch webpage (aka sign-up, beta or pre-registation webpage) for your new domain, e.g. via  Now, how do you redirect traffic to that launch page, without redirecting all sub-folders, too? In our case we wanted people who visit or to get redirected to our page. But, we wanted to still point to our blog. Sounds simple, but it took me ages to find a relatively simple solution for our domain. Here’s how I finally did it.


Redirect from -> to:  -> -> -> [basically, to not redirect it]


How to do it

  • Create the sub-domains you need. In our case: for your launch page and for your blog.
  • Point the signup sub-domain to your launchpage domain using a CNAME DNS setting. We pointed it to
  • Then, to redirect also the traffic of people browsing to your website, create an empty Index.html file with the following contents, and upload it to your server.    Replace the text ‘’ with your signup domain.
<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"
 <meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8">
 <title>Time For Equity</title>
  • Lastly, simply place your blog (e.g. WordPress) in a sub-folder of your choice, e.g.


How to unfollow ALL your Twitter followers at once, in bulk, in one click (almost)

Twitter makes it very hard to unfollow all your Twitter followers.  3rd party services had to withdraw this feature because they got letters from Twitter “asking” them to remove that option.  “Asking” in quotes, because otherwise Twitter would have likely removed their permissions which would shut their business.Image

So here is a workaround for unfollowing all your Twitter followers quickly, in the shortest number of clicks.  If you find an easier way, please tell me in the comments.

– If you don’t know your way around Twitter, installing programs, or using a PC, please follow these steps carefully, or not at all.
– These steps require registering to Tweepi‘s Silver plan, which costs $7.95 for one month.  It’s well worth it, in my opinion.
– These instructions are useful for PC users only.  If you have a Mac, you can probably afford paying someone to do this for you.  (I’m just kidding.  If you spent all your money on buying the Mac, you may not.)

Step by step instructions to un-following all your Twitter followers

  1. Sign up with Tweepi for their $7.45 Silver subscription.  Nope, I am not affiliated with them or getting any cuts.  You can pay with PayPal.
  2. Click on their Cleanup page.
  3. At the bottom of the page, choose the option to show 100 users (which is the maximum).
  4. This page is where you’re supposed to manually click ‘Unfollow’ on each of the users you want to un-follow.   They try to make it easy by letting you simply click your mouse button hundred time in succession.  But if you have thousands of people, you’ll get tired very, very quickly.  I gave up after 1,000.
  5. So now we need a way to easily click 100 times on the mouse, without really doing so.  In geek parlance we need a macro.
  6. Go to Autokey and download their free open-source macro tool.  Install it.  When installation is done, click on ‘Run AutoHotkey’.
  7. Notepad will open up, showing you the default macro script.  Don’t worry about it.   Simply delete it all.  Then copy and paste this text instead.  Note the first line starts with a # character and ends with a double colon – ::
    [and so one – copy and paste a total of 100 times the word ‘click’ in a new line]
  8. Click Save (in Notepad) to save the script.  Then in your taskbar (that’s the bottom status bar in your Windows machine), find the AutoHotKey icon (looks like a green H), right mouse click and choose ‘Reload This Script’.
  9. Navigate back to the Chrome (or whatever browser) window which is open still in Tweepi.
  10. Position your mouse cursor over the top ‘Unfollow’ button.
  11. Ready?  Click the Windows keyboard button (the one near the Alt and Ctrl) plus Space key (the long one…)
  12. Voila!  Depending on your internet connection, you no longer have to click hundred times on the mouse button.  If you internet connection is slow, you may need to tap Windows+Space again.  Careful: wait a few seconds till all 100 clicks are performed, otherwise you’ll find your mouse cursor misbehaving a bit.
  13. When you’re done, you can cancel your Tweepi subscription so you don’t get charged the following month.   You can uninstall AutoHotKey by running the AutoHotKey Setup and choosing the option ‘Uninstall’.

Guest post by Freud

Freud RanHi everyone

I just wanted to say hi. My name is Freud. I’m now 10 weeks old and live in London with my keepers, the Rans (one of them writes this blog, I think).

I like to fetch things, jump and hop, wee a bit outside the house and a bit inside the house. I’m told that I’m really cute, pretty and smart, but that I’m not the bravest of them all. That’s fine with me.

I’m a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever but if you hold me upside down I look a bit like a fox.

Here are a couple of videos of me jumping around. I hope you enjoy them.

Jumping around – take 1

Jumping around – take 2

These videos were taken using an app called Vine, now owned by Twitter.  The guy who writes this blog thinks Vine is awesome.  He says it’s the best way to document the early life of pets and kids.

That’s it for now.  I hope I’ll be invited to write another guest post soon.

Woof woof,


Why doesn’t Dropbox support dd-mm-yy non-US date format? [Update: now resolved.]

mm-dd-yyyyThere’s one thing about Dropbox that drives me nuts.  The date format.  If you use their website, all files are listed using the US format of mm-dd-yyyy (e.g. 06-16-2012).  According to this, only Americans and Belizans use the month-day-year format.  Most of the world, over 3 billion people, use day-month-year and over 1.5 billion (mainly in China, Japan and Korea) use year-month-day.   For anyone else, seeing a date like 10-01-2012 is hugely confusing (it’s October 1st rather than January 10th).

Quite a few blog posts, bug reports, and change requests call for Dropbox to let customers choose the right date format. Over 500 people even votes for it.  The strangest bit? only 32% of Dropbox users are American, so the majority of Dropbox customers would actually benefit from this change.  So how strange that this is still deprioritised.  It’s not like British users are asking Dropbox to change all Z back to S or something like that.

Anyone else finds this annoying?  If you’ve found a solution let me know in the comments.

Update:  Dropbox finally added the option to set the date format.   It’s here:

Algorithms work better than doctors

I came across this fantastic paper after reading about Meehl‘s 1954 book, “Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence”.  It’s a meta-analysis (review of studies) of the evidence that mechanical prediction techniques like fixed questionnaires or algorithm generate superior predictions compared with those made by clinicians, regardless of their level of expertise.

In plain words, it suggests that simple questionnaires and algorithms arrive in more accurate predictions compared with clinicians, doctors or psychologists.  I can’t believe this is not mandatory reading in every university.

The abstract:

The process of making judgments and decisions requires a method for combining data. To compare the accuracy of clinical and mechanical (formal, statistical) data-combination techniques, we performed a meta-analysis on studies of human health and behavior. On average, mechanical-prediction techniques were about 10% more accurate than clinical predictions. Depending on the specific analysis, mechanical prediction substantially outperformed clinical prediction in 33%-47% of studies examined. Although clinical predictions were often as accurate as mechanical predictions, in only a few studies (6%-16%) were they substantially more accurate. Superiority for mechanical-prediction techniques was consistent, regardless of the judgment task, type of judges, judges’ amounts of experience, or the types of data being combined. Clinical predictions performed relatively less well when predictors included clinical interview data. These data indicate that mechanical predictions of human behaviors are equal or superior to clinical prediction methods for a wide range of circumstances.

The full article is available here:

How to find a lost Word / Excel / PowerPoint document, opened from email (Hotmail or Outlook Web Access), that was edited and saved – but is now gone?

This is a long post that I hope will help a few desperate souls out there: how to find your lost Word, Excel or PowerPoint files?

Google “lost file opened from email attachment”, “rescue lost word doc” or “word document that I opened from my email did not save on my copmuter” and you can witness the misery of dozens (thousands? millions?) of poor computer users who lost their dissertations, school papers or theses after they emailed it to themselves, opened the document, and saved it – just to discover they can’t find the files they spent hours working on.

I want to smash my computerIt happened to me at least a few times and to my wife a few more.  Worst of all, none of the explanations on the web seem to actually work!  So for the sake of all you who accidentally ran into the same problem, read on (and if it helped, tell me in the comments).

I lost my Word / Excel /  other file after opening it from email

The scenario is always the same.  You:

  1. Opened a file from your webmail, typically using Internet Explorer.
  2. Made lots of changes and saved at least a few times.
  3. Closed Word or Excel.
  4. Tried to reopen the file but couldn’t find it.

Why it happens

This typically happens to users of Hotmail or Outlook Web Access (OWA), usually when you use Internet Explorer (especially versions earlier than IE9).  Google Chrome is built differently (and better in this case, in my opinion).

In Internet Explorer, when you click on an attachment you have two options: “open” and “save”.  If you clicked “save”, you’d be fine.  You will be able to save the file somewhere (e.g. on the desktop) and continue working.  The only way to lose the file is if you delete it or forgot where you saved it.  In any case you can just search for it.   In Chrome, any file you open is automatically downloaded and saved, too.

If you clicked, “open”, however, you’re entering zombie land.  Word will show you the document (maybe after a warning that you opened a downloaded file).  You will be able to edit and save the document regularly.  But little do you know that you’re saving the file in a “safe zone” (technically, a system folder) used for files downloaded from the web.   I call it zombie land because you have no idea that the files you’re saving will disappear the second you shut down Word.  Worst of all, because files are saved in this zombie land, you won’t be able to find these files when you search for them.

How to rescue the file you opened, saved and is now gone?

Luckily, there’s a way to rescue these files, especially if only a short time passed since you’ve opened and closed them.  Here are the instructions for Windows 7 or Windows Vista users, English version.

<disclaimer>  Please be careful and follow the instructions closely, as you can cause damage, too.  If you’re not sure what you’re doing, ask a friend to help. I’m just trying to help you but I can’t assume responsibility if something goes wrong… </disclaimer>

  1. Most importantly, do not try to re-open the file from your email.  If you have done so already, you may have overwritten your file.  You’ll know soon enough.
  2. Click Start (bottom left icon on your desktop) or on your keyboard’s Windows key.  If you don’t have a Start menu (e.g. if you’re using Windows 8), tap Windows logo key Picture of the Windows logo key+R.
  3. Your cursor should blink in the search bar.  Just copy and paste this line
    %userprofile%\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.IE5
    and tap Enter.   If this happened to you when using Firefox, please use this line instead: %userprofile%\AppData\Local\temp (Thanks to Paul who commented below for this tip!)This will open the special folder where temporary downloaded files are saved.  Annoyingly, Windows doesn’t show you this folder unless you manually type it.
  4. We now need to show the hidden system files where Windows saved your files.   Click Alt+T to show the Tools menu.  Click the fourth option, “Folders options”.
  5. You should now see the Folder Options dialog box.  At the top, choose the ‘View’ tab to see the Advanced Settings.  Under ‘Hidden files and folders’, choose the option ‘Show hidden files, folders and drives’.
  6. Underneath, un-check the box of the option ‘Hide protected operating system files (Recommended)’.  Approve the warning message by clicking ‘Yes’.  Don’t worry, we’ll put everything back to place later.  Click OK to close the dialog box.
  7. You should now see many more folders and icons.  Some will appear a bit transparent – that means they’re hidden files.
  8. The folder will contains many folders that have strange names like ANH4N2W1, etc.  Your files will be in one of them.  The easiest way to find the file is by sorting the list by ‘Date modified’ and opening each folder at a time.   Just click Alt+V to show the View menu, then choose Sort by, and ‘Date Modified’ and ‘Descending’ to show the latest files first.
  9. Double click to open each folder.  You’ll get an annoying warning message each time you do so, just approve it.
  10. When you open a folder, again sort it by ‘Date Modified’.  You can also sort by ‘Type’ to show your Microsoft Word files first.
  11. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your missing file in no time.  Just notice the file size – if it’s 1 KB you are probably looking at a temporary file created by Word and not at the file you saved.  Just copy the files you found to your desktop or to your My Documents folder.
  12. Check each folder until you find your file.  Jump up in the air and thank God if you have found what you’re looking for.  My sincerest sympathies if you couldn’t find it.
  13. When you’re done, you should return Windows to its normal state by hiding again the hidden folders.  In Explorer (the file browser window), just click again Alt+T, Folder Options, View tab, and check the box ‘Hide protected operation system files’ and choose the option ‘Don’t show hidden files, folders or drives’.

If it all worked for you, scroll to the bottom of this page and add your comment.  I’m so glad I could help.  Just remember to never, ever, click ‘open’.  Always save documents to the right folder before opening and editing them.   It’s safer and would save you trouble.   Or consider switching to Google Chrome or the latest version of Internet Explorer.   That’ll save you at least this sort of trouble.

27-7-2012 update: Cool! This post has been featured in Wired UK  magazine.

11-4-2013 update: Thanks for all the offers for a free drink!  I plan a worldwide tour after the 1,000th comment.

09-10-2014 update: 1,000 comments! Wow! Apparently more than 140,000 people viewed this post. Glad I could help.

All you need to know about the IceHotel in Sweden, Northern Light trips, visiting Abisko and day activities

This is repost of my TripAdvisor review after visiting the IceHotel in Sweden on 27-30/1/2012.   It’s pretty long, which is what you get when you end up on a 3 hour flight without any movie to watch…

This long review is intended for anyone looking for the specific details about planning their short visit to the area.

Friday – LHR to Kiruna via Stockholm with SAS arriving 3pm. 15 mins bus transfer to Jukkasjarvi to the ICEhotel. Stay in traditional warm cabin. Walk around town, buy snacks at the minimarket (open till 9pm). 7-11pm Northern Light snowmobile trip with dinner as part of the trip. Have a drink at the Ice Bar at the end of the day.

Saturday – Wake up late, have buffet breakfast till 10am. Walk around the ICEhotel. Leave at 3pm on unbelievable overnight dog sled expedition. Stay in a remote cabin, have a romantic dinner with wine, the works. Have an amazing sauna for two and roll in the snow. Watch the Northern Lights and feel lucky to be alive.

Sunday – Wake up at 8am, say hi to the dogs and head back. Return at 1pm to ICEhotel. Chill or walk around town. We could have visited Kiruna town, the mine or do the ice-carving or car driving experiences but we just wanted to chill. Have dinner at the Homestead restaurant. Stay in Art Suite and survive a night sleep at -5C degrees.

Monday – Wake up at 7am. Go for breakfast and a walk around, chill and send a postcard home. Leave at 12pm, returning 5pm to LHR.


Summary: Book directly. Book via Discover the World if you really case about flying non-stop from LHR, don’t have the time to plan your trip properly and want the standard package.

Coming from the UK, we originally planned to book it with Discover The World (DTW). They’re a travel agency with direct SAS chartered flights from LHR a few times a week.

We chose to book everything directly for a few reasons:
1) DTW have no direct flights on Friday, so their 3-day trips returns Tuesday. We both work so we preferred taking Fri and Mon off rather than Mon-Tue.
2) The two DTW people we speak didn’t really know much about the ICEhotel and the activities (they’ve never been there). By the time we finished our research, we knew more about the activities and itinerary than the people we spoke with. The only added value booking through them is therefore the direct flight.
3) We booked our trip just 2 weeks in advance and many of the activities and the art suites were unavailable in the week of the DTW trip. This is probably because in the weekends of DTW packages the ICE hotel is running full occupancy. Booking direct means finding a weekend when it’s not as full and you have more of the place to yourselves.
4) We checked the moon cycle and it was full moon in the weekend of the DTW package, which meant less chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
5) The quote for our itinerary booked through DTW was £800 more expensive than booking directly for two people. In other words, flying direct (and DTW’s commission) cost £400 more per person, which we don’t think is quite worth it.

We booked our flight with SAS, taking the Friday 7am to Stockholm, with a one hour connection to Kiruna arriving around 1pm. We flew back on Monday 1:25pm from Kiruna arriving 5:25pm in LHR. Don’t worry about the connection time, you’ll make it.

We booked all the accommodation and activities in advance via ICEhotel. You can email them or call them – they were very helpful.


Summary: If you haven’t seen the Northern Lights by the last day of your trip, do book a same-day trip to Abisko.

The problem with seeing the Northern Lights (assuming there’s enough solar activity) is light pollution and cloudy nights. You can solve the former by taking a night excursion away from the ICEhotel and getting away from the city lights, but if it’s cloudy, you won’t see a thing.

Strangely Abisko does seem to have much clearer skies, as evident in their real-time live camera. It’s not just their website’s sales pitch, is actually true, if you check out their real-time web camera.

You can either arrange a night trip to Abisko, leaving the ICEhotel at 7pm and returning at anything from midnight to 2am, or you can stay there the night.

Our recommendation is to have an option of going to Abisko at your last night, if you haven’t seen the Northern Lights by then. We lucked out and saw the aurora on our second night, so decided not to make the trip. Had we not seen it, we would have just booked an overnight trip.

Note that renting a car to go to Abisko isn’t cheap – Budget charged $120 for 24 hours. It will probably be cheaper to rent a car and drive from ICEhotel to Abisko but it will be a bit of a mission. An organized trip to Abisko cost about £400 per person including a meal and entrance to the Abisko Sky station, so that’s a big price difference.


In retrospect, if it wasn’t for the money we would have rented a car for the duration of our stay, just to have the flexibility of doing what we wanted. If money isn’t an issue for you, do it.

Airport transfer to the ICEhotel are £15 pp, each way. So that’s already £60. If you can get a deal of say £150-200 for three days rental it’s probably going to be worth it – especially if you end up going to Abisko.

Summary: Stay in a warm room the first night (or in Abisko). Do an overnight activity in the second night. Book the cold night as your last night.

ICEhotel has warm rooms (regular rooms) and cold rooms. It’s a bit hard to understand the difference between the different cold rooms from the ICEhotel’s website. There are four types:
1) Snow room – the most basic. Just a ‘bed’ in a small room.
2) Ice room – like the snow room, slightly larger, with two ice chairs.
3) Art suites – much larger, themed rooms, beds in various shaped, with artistic ice sculptures
4) Deluxe art suite – the super-duper art suite, double size room

We wouldn’t recommend staying in the snow room or ice room – the art suites are definitely better. The price difference to upgrade to an art suite isn’t massive and it’s a much more special and spacious room.

If an art suite isn’t available in your last night but only in your first night, definitely book it. It’s just that it’s not fun to come off the plane straight to a cold room.


In all cold rooms, you’re not supposed to take your stuff to the room as it will freeze. If you’re staying in an Art Suite you’ll get a small individual dressing locker to keep your stuff and get changed. If you’re staying in a snow room or ice room you just get a luggage locker and you get dressed in the public dressing room. That’s annoying. You can pay 200 SEK/£20 to rent the small dressing room that comes for free with the art suites.

This does mean you have no room to relax or shower. You use the dressing rooms which have a dry sauna (separate men/women) and showers.

When you want to go to sleep, you receive an arctic sleeping bag and liners. We took a double sleeping bag with two separate liners – this setup is supposedly the warmest. You walk to the room with your snow boots and snowsuit. It’s -5C in the room so hopefully you’ll manage to take off your shoes and snowsuits and quickly jump into the sleeping bag quickly to keep warm!


Summary: of course!

It’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience and if you’re spending £2000 to schlep all the way to Lapland then of course you should do it! Plus if you enjoy cuddling with your partner here’s your chance – it’s way warmer when you do cuddle!

Some people wrote they had a really warm night sleep. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but I’ll see you will definitely not freeze. Taking my socks off was fine for the first few hours of the night but I woke up with frozen feet. Keep them on.

I wouldn’t say you’ll get a comfortable sleep, but once you wake up it’s a real good laugh thinking that you just slept in a -5C igloo.

You should consider switching the double sleeping bag for two singles – it may be more comfortable if your partner tosses and turns all night.

The reindeer skins you sleep on may be a bit stinky. If they’re too stinky, tell the reception and they’ll replace them for you. Take it as part of the experience. We found some of the rooms to be more stinky than others – not sure why!

Don’t drink too much before going to sleep, or you’ll have to schlep from the bed to the toilets outside and back, which is not fun. The only bonus of going to wee is to see the folks who couldn’t survive the night and decided to go back and sleep on the benches in the dressing room – yep, this happens!

Don’t forget to write your name near in the cold room reception to get your ‘I slept in -5C diploma’ when you check out.

Yep, Internet access is free (just ask for the password) and available in the public areas. It’s pretty fast, too.
If you didn’t bring your computer you can use their slow Windows XP computer at the cold rooms reception.


Every hotel has room for improvement and the ICEhotel is no exception.

It feels like the ICEhotel has a no-nonsense service policy, given that people come first and foremost for the experience rather than the service.

I’d say the service would be considered good if this was a wilderness camp charging £50 a night, but it falls short of what you’d expect from a place charging £250-500 a night. A more guest-focused experience would be a welcomed change.

1. Moving from warm to cold rooms:
The process of swapping from the warm room to the cold warm is not well thought out. Warm room check out time is strictly 11am. Until you go to sleep in the cold room, you literally have no room to shower, relax or have a nap. Even if you go an activity, you don’t have a room to go back to. Similarly, cold room check out time is strictly 7am. Until you leave (or, re-enter your warm room), you have to wait till check-in time of mid-day or later, unless a room is available. If you’ve got £200 spare, you can book a night in the warm room in addition to the cold room. Ideally they should be much more flexible – when we stayed there they were in low occupancy so there was really no reason not to let us stay in the warm room until late that day.
2. Room swap in overnight excursion: really not well thought through. We had to insist on getting a locker room. Once we received it, it was slightly better. Given that we paid £550 each for an overnight activity, we would have expected a much better arrangement. Again, this would be fine if they charge £100. Not when you paid those sums of money.
3. Aurora alerts: the staff is pretty nonchalant about whether or not the guests see the Northern Lights. Given that most people come for the unique experience of seeing the lights for their first time, they really ought to have some type of an ‘aurora alerts’ that you could opt in to (e.g. call your room, make an announcement at the restaurant or something like that). Especially during the night excursions, they could take a page from the way safari companies work, alerting one another for sightings. We had to be very active ourselves to ensure we did see the lights. Others weren’t lucky because they took a more passive approach and missed them.
4. Breakfast buffet: was ok, identical every day, and nothing to write home about. Bring a Nutella jar from home.
5. Cash advance for tips: we really wanted to tip our fantastic dogsled guide and didn’t have any local currency. It was our bad. The reception wouldn’t do any cash advances and there’s no ATM in town. It’s really annoying and we would have been OK to pay them 10% commission to withdraw some money. Definitely take out £50-100 for tips in cash before arriving in the ICEhotel.
6. Library books in English:
It would have been really simple to purchase 20 English books and have a decent library. There are only a few books in Swedish. Shame.
7. Homestead restaurant:
Our meal was ok. Dishes (£20 for entre) were medium size (UK size) or small (US size). White chocolate mousse, pasta, shitake mushroom soup and white fish salad were ok nothing to write home about. Maybe we ordered the wrong dishes.
8. No spa: This is a nice-to-have but my wife did wish they had an option to get a massage after the eventful-but-not-really-comfortable night in the cold room. I have no doubt they’ll add it sooner or later – it makes lots of sense and could easily generate nice incremental income.
9. Reception staff attitude: courteous, but slightly disaffected. I don’t think it’s due to the Swedish culture. We are not big fans of Pan-Am style fake enthusiasm, but slightly more warmness and smiles in the welcoming and servicing of guests would have been really nice, especially as we arrived with lots of enthusiasm. This is a subtle comment – no one was rude or anything like that. Note that the activities staff were super nice and enthusiastic, so this feedback is specifically about the reception staff.


Summary: overnight dogsled expedition, Northern lights snowmobile tour, and possibly Abisko night trip and car driving experience.

The overnight dogsled expedition was by far the highlight of the trip. It was an unbelievable experience.

We lucked out and were the only couple in the trip, which was already awesome. Each person has its own sled of 4 dogs. Being a musher is really easy and not scary at all (though not recommended to under-16 or over 90 y/os). The dogs are so sweet and beautiful – we wish we could take them back with us… (warning: if you hug them they will be just a bit smelly after running for 20 miles!)

Our guide and chef was Anna, who was absolutely amazing.
After meeting the dogs, we headed for a two hour dog sled trip to the camp, which we had all to ourselves. We had an awesome wet sauna. If you’ve been in Japan it’s very similar – you wash with hot water bucket, use shampoo and all. You can roll in the snow and run back in – it’s scary, weird but awesome. Because we were alone, we had all the privacy needed to walk around naked, etc…

We had our own cabin with bunk beds and a nearby toilet.
Anna (our guide & chef) cooked a phenomenal meal catering to my wife’s dietary restrictions plus she arranged tons of snacks in the dressing room near the sauna.

To top it all, because the cabin is remote, we had no light pollution and watched the Northern Lights for good two hours until we got tired (see below)!

At a price of 5,650 SEK per person, it’s not cheap but it works out cheaper than paying for one night’s accommodation and taking the usual four-hour dogsled trip that other people do – not to mention the fabulous meal, sauna for two and best of all – not being rushed to return to the ICEhotel and missing a chance to see the aurora.

We also did the 7pm-11pm Northern Light snowmobile tour. It was awesome. If your partner doesn’t like driving fast, you should consider getting your own snowmobile… Wrap up warm because at 30-60kmh it does get freezing! It comes with a 3-course meal at the cabin that was tasty.
The one thing I’ll say about the trip is that it’s not really ideal for Northern Light watching. Thing is, it takes an hour to get to the cabin, a half-hour to get back, plus the meal takes an hour – which means you really have about half hour to enjoy the lights, assuming it’s not cloudy. So you could instead do a day snowmobile tour and go for a long walk (or drive to Abisko) to find the lights, or book instead an overnight snowmobile tour, so you’re not rushed.

We didn’t do the reindeer sled experience because we heard it’s awesome but not as fun as the dog sledding. If you can fit it in – do it.

We didn’t do the horse riding experience because there’s no opportunity to canter and we were not in the mood for a leisurely walk or trot…

Lastly, you should check carefully in the ICEhotel’s website what’s the availability of the tours. They don’t run them every day, which is a bit annoying. If you book the snowmobile tour too late, the 7pm group might be full in which case they’ll either add a 6pm group (which has less chances to see the lights, as it’s not as dark outside) or you’ll have to miss it. Plan well in advance what you do in every day and night, to avoid disappointment.


1. Ignore the weather forecasts. I was checking websites every day for a week, winding myself up that it’s going to be 100% cloud coverage for the duration of our stay. I used four different weather websites (,, plus Google and a local Swedish one) and they all were completely useless, including in the days when we were actually there! So pray for good weather and just ignore what the web weather sites tell you.
2. Use the Abisko Real time Sky camera. Their website shows you how clear the skies really are and last night’s aurora in 15 minutes increments. If you tried seeing the Northern Lights near the ICEhotel and couldn’t check the following day if they were sighted in Abisko. If so, consider taking a night trip there.
3. The Northern Lights look like bright ‘clouds’ in the night’s skies. Only that they’re not clouds but rather the interaction of the solar wind with the oxygen (green aurora) and nitrogen (the rare, red aurora) in the atmosphere. Only when taking a 15 second exposure with a camera do they look as bright green as they are in the photos – usually you’ll just notice massive long ‘clouds’ that move in the skies.
4. Look towards the nofirstrth and slightly above the horizon – this is where the Northern Lights would probably appear. If you know how to find the plough and northern star (high up in the skies as you’re close to the Northern pole) use that as a guide. Otherwise remember where the sun set (southwest) and look the other direction.
5. When we had the overnight dog sled tour, I checked every 10 minutes whether or not the aurora started, from about 7pm onwards. They started at 10pm and we just sat out till midnight enjoying the view that kept changing. They get brighter for a few minutes, then not as bright. Stay out until you get the photo you always wanted.
6. Pray for good clear weather, walk away from light sources, and stay up till 1am – you’ll see them eventually!

Buy 4-8 extra batteries (if your camera uses AAs) or bring 1-2 spare dedicated batteries. Our 2900mAh rechargeable batteries lasted maybe 20-30 long-exposure shots. A 30 seconds video was almost all we could take with a couple of brand new Energizer AAs we bought.

It’s obviously camera-dependent but just make sure you’ve got enough batteries.

Get a mini-tripod (costs only £5 on Amazon) – you won’t regret it, plus it will be much easier to take it out of your pocket with gloves on and to take photos with self-timer.

Replacing batteries in the cold is annoying – prepare to get some frozen fingers!

You get an amazingly warm snowsuit, great boots (the men’s are comfier than the women’s) and ok gloves.

Bring: thermal long johns, great thermal socks (you need great socks instead of 3 layers of ok socks that won’t warm your feet), thermal shirt, fleece jacket, balaclava (as the one they give you stinks a bit) and fleeced scarf. Bring your ski goggles if you’ve got them (for the snowmobile). If you have an amazing pair of gloves bring them. None of our ski gloves was warm enough, so we ended up using theirs.

Yes, it’s a bit of a rip-off at 150 SEK (£15) for a 15 minute bus ride, but just book it. Taxi will cost you 450 SEK so it’s cheaper if you’re a party of four.

Yes, have an awesome trip! Going to the ICEhotel was one of our best 3-days excursions. You won’t regret it.

Google’s says “Zero Crashes” in Chrome campaign: Yeah, right.

All browsers crash.  I’ve been using Google Chrome since it launched and like other browsers, it crashes too.  I don’t take it hard; Internet Explorer 8 crashes, Firefox 3.5 crashes and Safari crashes on my Windows machine too.  No news here. 

But it’s a completely different story to build a marketing campaign around the false claim of “Zero crashes”, which is precisely what Google has recently done in its latest Chrome campaign.

YouTube and Wave keep crashing Chrome on my Windows 7 machine (screenshot below) and a search for “Google Chrome Crashing” rests my case.  Again: all browsers crash.  It just that Google has the audacity to lie about it in a multi-million campaign.

Google search results for Chrome crashing.
Wave and YouTube crashing my Chrome.


Great to roam (with Vodafone)

Whenever I travel outside of the UK, I don’t have a clue how much Orange charges me for calls or texts.  Data is a complete mystery all together.  After coming back from Japan I was hit with a £140 data charges bill which I am still trying to track down.  So in the meanwhile I try to refrain from using data.

This is why I was delighted to be using a Vodafone SIM in France last weekend.  The minute I landed, I received a text hat read:

Welcome to FRANCE.  Calls cost 75p per call + your home rate (including bundles mins) to make and receive.  SMS’s are 11p.  Daily cost for data is up to £4.99inc VAT per 25MB allowance.  We’ll text you before we charge you again.

Now this is what I called great user experience.  It doesn’t matter if £4.99 a day for data is a lot or not (I don’t think it is).  At least I know how much it’s going to be.  Plus the fact that Vodafone will text me if I go over the 25MB allowance is just great.

I was also travelling with an O2 phone and I received a similar text that read:

Calls to UK/EU are 35ppm (18ppm to receive). Text is 11p.  Data £3/MB.

Well, it’s great to receive the text from O2 (Orange did not even send that), but just look at the data charge of £3/MB.   So if you are using  25MB you will be paying only £4.99 with Vodafone but whooping £75 with O2.    For a 10 minutes call you will be paying 75p with Vodafone but £3.50 with O2.  That’s 4 times more for you.   I’m not sure how I would feel about O2’s “We’re better, connected” message when I get hit with a £75 bill, that’s for sure.   I haven’t checked ‘3’ and will look into it in a couple of weeks when I am away again.

I am still waiting for regulators to clamp down on these ridiculously high tariffs that have nothing to do with reality.   The EU has already done some steps with regards to voice and texts and I am waiting for their move on data charges.  Till then we will continue to be hit with hundreds of pounds in roaming charges.

Sixteen days in Japan

When we booked our flight tickets to Tokyo a few months ago, I wasn’t quite sure how this holiday would turn up.  I try to be cautious about promises to visit “the most amazing place” and doubted whether Japan would live to the hype.   It did.  Japan is such a fascinating and unique place to visit.   I am also glad I ‘graduated’ to travel in Japan after having already experienced China and Singapore, which in retrospect appear in a different light. 

Here are 16 thoughts about Japan, one for each day of our travels there.

Geisha apprentice, Gion, KyotoUniqueness
It is logical to assume that the more countries one visits, the less likely they are to find something novel and unique.  Japan is guaranteed to be different.  Whether it’s its culture, food, architecture, entertainment, transportation, or people; Japan feels like nothing you have seen before.

Not just temples
We wanted to have a mixture of cities, history, hiking and sun and followed the itinerary below.  The only change I recommend is to substitute a night in Osaka for an extra night at Shirahama.
Days 1-2:  Tokyo
Day 3:  Honke Bankyu Onsen, Yunishigawa
Day 4: Nikko
Day 5: Hakone and Mt. Fuji
Days 6:  Takayama
Day 7:  Shirakawa-go
Days 8-10:  Kyoto
Day 11:  Hiroshima
Days 12-13:  Osaka
Days 14-15:  Shirahama
Day 16:  Tokyo

Cool billboard, TokyoMeet the Japanese
It is hard and problematic to generalize about 127+ million people, but everyone we met was nice, welcoming and courteous.  Privacy and personal distance is well kept but not in the cold–don’t-look-at-me manner you encounter in London.  For some obscure reason the Japanese overwhelming courteousness is only detracted by the tendency to jump queues or push in line to the elevator, a behavior which I found rather amusing.
Compared to our travels in China, we found it harder to interact with Japanese.  At our last night in Tokyo we met two Chinese couples and before we knew it, joined their table and were invited for a drink.  This does not really happen with the Japanese, regardless of your proficiency of the language.  In that sense, Mandarin is more useful in landing you a free drink and a great night out…

Language barriers?  Not really
I got a bit lazy practicing my (very) basic Japanese when I realized that in most places English is understood.  Knowledge of Japanese is helpful when buying train tickets, making hotel or restaurant reservations and ordering food.  Knowledge of Japanese is mandatory if you want to have a chat with locals in onsens, sushi bars, train or elsewhere.   You will have a better time if you speak some Japanese.

Onsens are natural hot-springs spas, usually separated for men and women.  They’re everywhere and they’re great.  We visited three or four onsens and each was different than the other.  In Osaka we went to Spa World, an in-house “spa palace” with dozens of different themed pools.  For ¥1000 ($11) it’s a non-brainer.

One of the traditional accommodation options in Japan is the ryokan, somewhat of an upscale Bed & Breakfast (& Dinner).  Rooms are Japanese style which means sleeping on a futon laid down at night on the tatami floor.  If you’re coming all the way to Japan you should definitely spend a night or two in a good ryokan.   They usually have their own onsen or other public hot bath and depending on where you are staying (and how much you are willing to spend), offer delicious multi-course meals.

Shirahama beachBeach time
Try searching for “best beaches in Japan” and you’d hardly find an answer.  We researched long and and finally booked two nights at Shirahama, Kansai and were delighted with our choice.  We found a beautiful white-sand beach, nice hotels, great sun, fresh sashimi and not too many people.  Japan might not challenge the beaches of the Philippines or Thailand, but if you’re there already, there are definitely nice beach to consider.

Bullet Trains
The Shinkansen, bullet-train service is unbelievable.  The 250-300 km/h speeds feel like a safe rollercoaster ride.  They are so efficient and pleasant to ride that it would be hard to get used to air travel again.   It would be a blessing if Shinkansen type trains would start challenging low-cost airlines travel in Europe but given the price point I am not holding my breath.   If you’re a train-buff, the Modern Transportation Museum in Osaka makes a nice visit and opportunity to play around with some train models not found elsewhere.

Phone camera everywhereMobile Phones
By far Japan has been the most mobile phone-obsessed country I have been to.   Interestingly, in over two weeks I spotted just a couple of iPhones and a few Samsung phones.  All the rest were vanilla flip-phones which look pretty much the same.  I expected massive use of data but didn’t quite expect the ubiquitous use of phone cameras by everyone, from five year olds to an elderly grandmother.

Food, Food, and Food
Be it restaurants, groceries, markets, food stands, deli shops or vending machines, it feels like the majority of retail space in Japan is dedicated to food.  Quite a surprise when you consider how rare obesity is and how slim everyone around you is.

SushiFresh fish for dinner
Even the local supermarket offers better sashimi than most London restaurants.  We had sashimi or nigiri almost every night.  Ordering is easy: all you need is to point to the fish in front of you, or better off, ask for the same dish that someone else has ordered.  After sampling more than a dozen different options, we still preferred Tuna and Salmon over everything else.  Our best meal was at the Kozue restaurant at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo.  It is a must.  The set meal was worth every penny and I cannot wait till my next visit in Tokyo to revisit it.

The Japanese Sweet Tooth
There are sweets shops everywhere, selling a variety of bean-based and rice-based candies.  In the large cities you can also find beautifully done gourmet European-style patisseries.  Now this is the deal.  Imagine spotting a chocolate brownie, mousse or tiramisu which looks as good as a million dollar sushi roll.  You get excited, pay the bill and bite into it, expecting the best desert you have ever tried.   And then you realize how bland it is.  What can I say; we have tried hard but could not find a single shop to offer even a reasonable decent croissant.  It looks like a great opportunity to open a sweet shop where the deserts would actually taste as good as they look.

O-Sake, Umeshu and Whisky
Alcohol is as unique and good as Japanese food is.  We settled in most nights for various types of umeshu, plum wine and especially like the brown sugar (kokuto) type.  We also tried a drink called Half Moon but could not find it anywhere outside of Kyoto.  With such a variety of sake (rice wine), beer and whisky Japan offers great drinking as well as eating.

Service is just great, especially if you compare it to what you’re used to in the UK or the Continent.   There’s no tipping in Japan but given the average price of meal you can assume it is already included in the bill.

Traveling in Japan is as expensive as traveling in the UK or Europe.  Rates for 4* hotels start at $150.  A meal for 2 people in a mid-range restaurant was usually around $20-40.   Transportation is expensive.  We purchased a Japan Shirakawa-go viewsRail Pass, but otherwise a three hour bullet-train from Osaka to Tokyo would cost you $150.   It is possible to enjoy Japan on a lower budget, but transportation and decent hotels and restaurants would still cost significantly more than in neighboring China, Thailand or Philippines.

Lucky August
Almost every single day was warm but not too hot (25-30°C) and sunny.  We maybe had a day or two of brief rains.  None of the warnings about 40°C Tokyo came true.   On our last day, we got on the last flight to London as all other flights got cancelled due to a typhoon.  Overall, I guess we just got lucky.

Some drawbacks to Windows 7’s great new taskbar and IE8

The IE8 team just blogged about how Internet Explorer 8 will be integrated into Windows 7’s new taskbar.

Annoying UX with IE8 an W7
Annoying UX with IE8 and W7

I have been using Windows 7 for a few months and whilst the new taskbar is miles better than Vista’s, it does have one major drawback: users simply cannot easily open new instances of IE if they already have an existing IE window open.

The blog suggests several ways to open a new instance if one is already open:

  • You can right-click on the IE icon and select “Internet Explorer”
  • You can drag up on the IE icon with the mouse and select “Internet Explorer”
  • You can shift+click or middle+click on the IE icon
  • If IE is in the first position (next to the start button as in the diagram above), you can press “Win + 1” and this will launch a new instance (same as Vista).
  • So bottom line, if you were used to simply clicking the IE icon to open a new window – the default experience in XP and Vista – you now need to either use your keyboard, click-move-click or use the center-button (which my laptop lacks) just to open a new instance or center-click. 

     This is quite a miss in user experience.  I bet most users won’t get it.   My suggestion: if all IE8 tabs reside within the same window, how about simply opening that IE window?