Cell phone coverage in Europe as a US Tourist


Woman with Mobile Phone; Night

Since both Jess and I had Straight Talk cell phone service (a low cost MVNO partnership between Telemovil and Walmart) data and talk coverage was not going to extend beyond the US border. In order to save the time and trouble of finding a sim card in country as well as having to figure out settings and language barrier issues we got two 3UK sim cards that were prepaid. They ended up costing us about $50 for a British cell phone number with unlimited calls in the UK (we didn’t use this part of the plan) as well as unlimited data. To make sure we would have enough cash on the phone to make emergency texts and calls I also made sure to load about 10 pounds on the phone as reserve. The sim cards arrived quickly (actually they were shipped from Australia) and it was only a minor hassle to install them in our iphones. Pro tip for later, pack a paperclip to open the sim card slot. Because of the unlimited data we were able to use google hangouts to make free US calls. (This was especially helpful calling American express’ concierge to help set up details) We also tried to use google voice to call European numbers for cheaper however the connection was terrible with high latency. (Apparently traveling through England to the us via data on 3g HSP+ data and then back to Europe via POTS was just too much.) Thankfully for most of the calls we needed we were able to use the Amex Concierge to call and set up our reservations.

The two big benefit to having data was the use of google maps to figure out public transit (it was great and rarely let us down). The other was being able to fall back to google translate when our language skills failed us.

Data speeds were generally great as most places were 3g HSP+ speeds of about 20mb/s while they weren’t quite LTE speeds they were more than enough for our purposes. It was also rather odd that most of the apartments that we were staying at via air b&b had cellular based Internet with the same 3g HSP+ data that our cell phones were using.

If/When we go back I will now take advantage of Google Project Fi that only charges $10/gb for data and now also uses 3UK and tmobile’s international roaming agreements.

“One percent” matters or my experience with Google Project Fi

SIM card rejected
Lately sprint has been trumpeting that they have a network that is within 1% of the “other” networks. This claim seems to surround measuring the network only where a majority of people live. The only issue with this is that people often travel outside of those cities. There is another world outside of those small paths around the interstate and urban centers.

Companies like sprint and tmobile save large amounts of money and trouble by not having quite as much coverage out in the sticks. TMobile is one of those companies that you want to root for because of some of their more rebellious and wild ideas, however they are problematic in Iowa due to their partnership with iWireless. Outside of cities the coverage quickly falls to 2G.

Does this mean that there is only a couple of choices like verizon? No, not quite… I have had good luck with Google’s MVNO answer to cell phone service, project Fi. It uses sprint, Tmobile and US Cellular and will pick the best coverage for your location. Is it perfect, No. It sometimes has issues sending text messages and some outbound calls show up as “Unknown”. I have also noticed that sometimes calling my grandparents that are on a ILEC phone line the calls will fail or just ring through to nothing. Calls to Fi support end with them blaming the ILEC (Butler Bremer telephone company). The biggest attraction is their low cost coverage. It is only $20 a month for talk and text and then $10 a gb for data. At the start of the month you set a slider for how much data you expect to use. If you go over, it is $10 a gb, If you go under your guess you get the remainder of the money back as a credit. The other nice benefit is that international travel is also covered by Fi.Text is free, talk depends on the country but is usually $.20 a min and data is still the $10/gb that it always is. Internationally it uses TMobile’s network as well as Three.

If fi is a little too experimental or you plan on using more data, there are other options. My wife (the data hog) has an Iphone that is connected to Straight Talk wireless a MVNO partnership between telemovil and Walmart. For $45 a month she gets unlimited talk/text and 5gb of data. Her phone is currently on the AT&T network.

Want to see what coverage looks like near you? Most providers have a map (That shows a rosy picture of their coverage) as well as third party maps.

Travel to Europe and a layover at YYZ (Toronto)

Waiting at yyz

I am finally getting around to posting some of the information and experiences that we had on our 5 year wedding anniversary trip to Italy and Spain.

On Day 0 We started off in Minneapolis MN due to a lack of affordable and reasonable flights from our local airport (Des Moines).  Thankfully our friends Andrew and Kelsey put us up for the night and kept an eye on our car for the couple of weeks we would be gone. After a uneventful trip through security at MSP we hopped a Air Canada flight to YYZ. As a surprise we had to fill out full immigration forms for entry to Canada and pass through customs just to stay in the international wing of the airport. Canadian customs were quick and efficient as there was not much to talk about for our 6 hour stay with our great neighbors to the north. We rapidly found out that the £20 of credit on the 3UK sim cards we had gotten for the trip were exhausted as Canada was not a part of their free coverage (oops). This was due to the rather crappy wifi coverage in the airport.

The six hours in the airport went quickly as we spent most of the time at the American Express Plaza Premier Lounge. They had nice comfy chairs, newspapers and magazines as well as an open bar and a good spread of food this included a really good Garlic and lentil soup and Teriyaki Chicken with Boiled Cabbage and rice. The only other complaint was that the lounge was a little warm and stuffy as it was an open air area above the rest of the international wing. While we were stuck at the airport we also took advantage of a little shopping including a Canadian moose with a I ❤ Canada shirt on.

We finally left YYZ at 20:00 and continued on our 8.5 hr flight to FCO (Rome).


It’s Complicated and has layers… Like an Onion. Or How I  learned to stop worrying and love the tor.

With the latest outcome of the election and roughly half of the nation waking up to the fact that their “guy” was not going to be in the white house, people have been reminded of a need to keep their private lives a little more private. Of course this is outrageous because no matter who is in the Whitehorse the various security and spy agency of the world are always watching almost everything. One of the “easy” low cost ways of helping to secure your Internet presence is using Tor. Tor allows your Internet traffic to bounce around the Internet from volunteer to volunteer secured all the way before either landing on an exit node or a tor hidden service. In theory this prevents your traffic from being observed and monitored. Tor was originally designed by the US Government to allow spies, freedom fighters, and the oppressed to securely and communicate without fear of oppression. This in theory defends against most attacks up to massive brute force, possible flaws in the program, or if the bad actor has control and is observing a majority of the nodes in the network. (In theory these are possible by various three letter agencies owned by Uncle Sam).

Of cause, the big issue with using anything secure is that to be truly secure, you have to give up all of the nice to haves like Java script, goggle services and cookies. All allow you to be tracked by various parts of the Internet. One of the nice low hanging fruit that can quickly be secured through tor is Facebook. They have a tor service that will ensure that your Facebook traffic will be routed only inside of tor. The other easy way is to enable tor in android. The only additional software needed is orbot. The biggest thing to remember while signed into Facebook is that you just tied your tor persona to a named identity that allows you to be tracked. This is just bad opsec but would allow you to communicate out of oppressive countries elsewhere in the world. The other shortcoming to Facebook over tor on android is that push notifications of events will not work.

Vidalia Onions

Now Andy, what good is Facebook over Tor for you, you may ask. Almost nothing… even while connected via insecure wifi Facebook is already secured via https/tls encryption, and the fact that I am posting on Facebook via android is no secret, Nor am I trying to share state secrets. Plus Facebook is a US owned company, one National Security Letter and Uncle Sam has a copy of all of my actions. Plus to quote one of my friends who works in the field, “you are not that interesting.” I do it to make Facebook better for the people who need to use the service, plus to keep encouraging Facebook to continue improving the service. If no one uses the service, then it is easier to get rid of it. I also use it to help provide some additional cover to those who need it. If the TLA groups are bruteforcing the traffic, this adds yet another set of packets that they have to work on. Finally, it is so easy to do for androids. All you need to do is install orbot and click the “enable tor” option in facebook’s setting menu.

In the end, it may be just whistling in the dark, but at least it is something. Plus it ups my geek cred just a little bit. The only downside that I have found is that tor burns the battery far faster than the regular network.

Express Scripts or the value in failing the right way

FAIL stamp
System outages and maintenance are a reality of the computer driven world that we live in. The key to a good user experience is how you handle the failures that will always eventually happen. If you fail early in the process as possible, provide a meaningful error and provide the expected time until resolution it can go a ling way to keeping your users happy.
In todays example I had to call Express Scripts (my employer’s health plan’s mail order pharmacy) for a simple refill. I knew that I was in for trouble when the computer voice repeated “please wait” for several minutes while it was looking up my account. This was only confirmed after entering the prescription number and being greeted with “please wait” again. Eventually it transfered me to a human who said “The system is down, you will need to call back tomorrow after 6am. After I used the agent as a bit of a human verbal punching bag for wasting my time, I went on my way to try again successfully the next day.
What should have happened? The moment I went into the refill voice prompt, it should have greeted me with a message that the system was down due to maintenance rather than the 10 minutes that were needed to get to that information. In the end it also would have cut down on the support time and costs as the automated self service system would have been able to handle the problem with out any human intervention.
Failure happens, the trick is to plan for it and use it for the better.

The allure of the AlphaSmart

RetroRio 2012

Many years ago, when I was in elementary school computers were still somewhat rare. There was the computer lab in the library with a large number or old of Apple IIe computers that only ever ran sticky bear teaches typing and then one classroom Macintosh computer. To help bridge the gap they had a portable cart of small battery operated keyboards called AlphaSmart keyboards. They had an apple keyboard port on them and when the time came to dump your paper that you were working on to the mac or to the printer you could hook them up to the mac and they would type your paper out to a file. They were durable, the batteries lasted for ever and they were the perfect thing to keep kids on track since all they could do was type and spell check.

Time passed and computers in the classroom became more and more common. Computer labs expanded beyond just the corner of the library, and the AlphaSmart faded into the past. They became a relic of a simpler more elegant time. Apparently the AlphaSmart company continued to innovate until a few years ago when they finally ended the reign of the dumb keyboards. I was looking for a simple word processor that would be able to write drafts without the distractions of more modern systems. Also I was looking for something with a battery life that could outlast Moses himself. I remembered back to my elementary school days and the AlphaSmart units. After some research and a Lifehacker article in preparation to NANO month, I found that there were AlphaSmart that had a usb port and could work with almost any modern computer hardware. A little searching on amazon and I was able to find a gently used Neo by AlphaSmart. Shipping was quite prompt and the unit was exactly as described. A relic of a simpler time when research was done by hand and all that was needed to write a school paper was the electronic update to a typewriter.

Brigade Poster

I plan to use the neo to type more articles for my blog as well as other correspondence and will let you know how it is working out for me in later posts.  Also, by the way, this post was written on my “new” neo AlphaSmart.

Lessons learned from selling a car on craigslist

Rompin' Ralph Automobile Exchange

After several years of faithful service, a great opportunity arose to replace my 2000 Chevy Lumina with a newer 2008 Honda Civic LX. As it was a private transaction I was unable to “trade in” the old car and had to go through the trouble of disposing my old car.  Enter in the seedy underbelly of the internet, craigslist.

The first thing I did was to check KBB for a hint of what the car was worth, cleaned things out and took some photos. I then posted it to the site and waited.  The first thing I noticed was several rather shady text messages from out of town numbers starting out asking (+1 213-204-5393) “Hi.. is your 2000 Chevrolet Lumina for Sale Still? Just saw it online and it looks perfect for me. I’d like to buy it this week do you have any kind of report run on it’s history?” to which I responded no, explained the providence of it and that they could take a look at it if they would like. they then responded with “Will you please grab one of them from http://deep.historyreporting.online?deep and email it to me at …” where the email was a numbered yahoo mail account.  This all got my scam spidy sense tingling. I promptly responded that they could run the report themselves if they wished or that I would provide a report from a NMVITS approved source (http://vehiclehistory.gov). He responded back with “I don’t feel comfortable running it myself because I am not the legal owner. Is that doable?”  I again offered a NMVITS blessed report and communication was broken off.

Next was from +1 701-645-7589 “Saw this advert and i am interested, am deaf if available text me back and let me know, sam” I was already a bit twitchy from the last message so I replied back “It is, I would be willing to meet you to take a look at it. Where are you? I see you have a 701 area code. Are you in ND or local?”

Sam then replied “I am in Arkansas right now due to work would you accept cashiers check as payment then after it clears your bank my mover will come for pickup.”

That is a big red flag. One of the CL scams that these fine people run is to give you a funny cashier’s check and then due to our arcane banking laws the money will appear for a little while and then get yanked back out by the other bank when they figure out something is wrong. So I replied back “I am sorry but it will have to be in cash, especially with the long distances involved. I find it surprising that you are buying the car sight unseen. All of these risks are too much for my comfort.

Each time I made it clear that I was not going to be an easy mark, they immediately broke contact and moved on to their next mark.

I assume that each of these numbers will be shortly back into the pool to be handed out as they don’t ever stay in one place for long, so please don’t go calling them with cleaver quips like “is your refrigerator running?” as the poor person on the other end of the line likely did nothing wrong.

I eventually did sell the car for cash money and thanks to the Iowa DOT checklist for selling a car it was a successful transaction.

Build boost in visual studio with Bzip

IRC on the Apple //c

Figuring out the correct magic incantation to compile the C++ boost library with Microsoft Visual Studio 2013 is somewhat of a magical trip. It is even worse if you want to include bzip for compression access. Add on top of that wanting to have x86 and x64 versions and you have a mess!

Here is what I was able to figure out:

First download Bzip from http://bzip.org/ and uncompress the source code.

then inside of the visual studio tools command prompt (the 64 bit version for 64 bit and 32 for 32 bit) run the following commands:

.\bjam.exe -s NO_COMPRESSION=0 -s NO_BZIP2=0 -s BZIP2_SOURCE=<path-to-bz> --stagedir=.\stage\x64 --toolset=msvc-12.0 architecture=x86 address-model=64 -j8 --build-type=complete


.\bjam.exe -s NO_COMPRESSION=0 -s NO_BZIP2=0 -s BZIP2_SOURCE=<path-to-bz> --stagedir=.\stage\x86 -j8 --build-type=complete

If you are using a different version of visual studio, the toolset will be different. This site has the version numbers.

Good luck, and after you get it compiled remember, here be dragons Here be Dragons