Adventures in Metered Internet Access

2018-08-10 UPDATE: if you are using Windows or Mac and will be on metered Internet, be sure to check out TripMode, an invaluable app for helping you control data usage (Mac users can also try Radio Silence). As mentioned, Linux has a lot less processes randomly talking to the network, but tc can be used to control ingress and egress speeds, Duoane and OpenSnitch allow per-process blocking.

I’m spending the month driving around New Zealand and I figure I’d write about one interesting tech travel challenges (and one of the major reasons that I’m in the process of switching to Linux from OS X). Those specifically interested in my yak shaving experiences on getting Linux set up on a Lenovo X250 of course can follow along, but this will be more focused.

I am currently on “Milford Sound Lodge Internet Access” which is a pretty decent satellite connection (about 20KB/s) considering that cell phone reception ended over 100km back (I have a Vodafone and Spark prepaid sims for this trip). The pricing is tiered, and the best per-MB pricing is 50MB for 10NZD (0.20NZD/MB) – I’m on day 2 and my third voucher right now. The captive portal is a short code provided by receipt-printed vouchers, and it’s actually pretty good/reliable as far as these things go. The portal itself is a simple Python cgi-bin, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it backed by a solid embedded FreeBSD setup (curiousity got the better of me, It’s running an ancient Debian Linux (2.6 kernel), the web server is lighthttp).

I haven’t bothered using my Macbook Air – it chewed through 20MB of even more expensive internationl airplane wifi in a matter of minutes. There’s no way for me to effectively control all the various daemons or lock down the network (Little Snitch tracks and shows me everything, but inexplicably gives me no way to go into a lockdown mode).

I’m running Ubuntu 15.04 on my X250 at the moment. iptraf and iftop work well for tracking connections, and nethogs lets you see connections on a per-process basis. OOTB, things were decent – I wrote a script to stop unattended-upgrades and dropbox to avoid any surprises, however a few surprises: avahi-daemon doesn’t seem to stop chattering even when turned off. It’s purely local, but it was running up charges so I ended up uninstalling it for now. The other thing that was (not surprising) was that both Chromium/Chrome and Firefox chew through networking with their auto-updates. I could probably disable the updates (there may be other extensions as well though) and various syncing things, but instead I’m using uzbl at the moment (surf and vimprobable are other options) for lightweight browsing. I’m also using elinks (links/lynx as backups), which is much more efficient, of course. On my yak-shaving list: finding a terminal-based webkit browser, setting up a travel Firefox profile w/ uBlock, Noscript, images and all updates disabled for travel mode.

Besides the browser hijinks, my current setup is incredibly well behaved – a few bytes for occasional ntp updates that I haven’t been able to track down (it’s not in my init.d…), but I can live with that.

Interesting notes on mobile usage:

It turns out that iOS 8 is almost as badly behaved as OS X on Wifi. I turned off “Background App Refresh” and scoured all the other settings available to me, but iOS still ate up 5MB+ of data immediately after signing in. I haven’t let it get online again. I must be missing something. I’d assume that there are many places in the world with metered wifi connections?

Android 5.1 is slightly better behaved. You can Restrict Background Data (Settings > Data Usage > Menu), but of course, by default this only restricts cellular, not wifi connections. There’s a separate Network Restrictions option that lets you specify Metered Wifi Networks, however that works. Once this is set (after I burned through a couple MB of data) then it works as expected.

The Wirecutter Is Always Wrong

A lot of my friends are big fans of the The Wirecutter, and I am too, at least in concept – a site that focuses on doing the research to simply find the best gadget, what’s not to like?

I’m a bit of a gadget-head, and my goal is typically the same (to find the “best” product in a category), and unfortunately, I’ve found over and over again, that in areas where I’ve done personal testing, the Wirecutter’s recommendations have been, without exception, wrong.

This year I’ve instituted a bit of a one-in-one out policy and plan on publishing more on the tools I use (and what I end up replacing). For now though, I’ll just start off with a list of things that the Wirecutter recommends and my personal findings.

  • The Best $100 In-Ear Headphones – The “final straw.” Wirecutter recommends the Sony XBA-C10IPs and commends them for having outstanding audio quality and being quite cheap. They were cheap, however, the audio quality was, to put it frankly, awful. My mind is boggled by their recommendation.

    As background, I enjoy my headphones/IEMs and was looking for a quick/cheap replacement for a pair of
    Phonak Audéo PFE 232’s (these are fantastic, BTW) I lost while traveling. I was looking for a cheaper stopgap replacement, and I’ve owned many IEM’s in the $100 range, so my expectations were set realistically – for that price, you can definitely get very decent sound.

    I picked up the XBA-C10’s unheard due to the recommendation in Taipei’s Guang Hua Digital Plaza, but was pretty much forced to get another pair immediately due to how terrible the sound was. I ended up going to 音悦音響有限公司 in Taipei (highly recommended) later in the evening to audition some headphones.

    Both the HIFIMAN RE-400 and the Shure SE215 Special Editions were far superior at the $100 price level. It wasn’t even close. I bought the Shures because I’m a big fan of Comply Foam tips. Note: the Shures have replaceable cables with standard MMCX connectors. People don’t seem to like their iPhone cables, but using the UE900 cables seem like the cheaper & better way to go.

    Note: I subsequently auditioned a bunch more headsets in Singapore at Jaben Audio (also highly recommended – they have some serious gear) and ended up picking up a $150 pair Etymotic HF3s – typical Etymotic lack-of-bass, but the clarity, isolation, and iPhone controls made it worthwhile. If I lose my saving throw against shiny I may end up picking up a “good” pair of IEMs.

  • The Best Travel Power Strip (with USB) – Wirecutter recommends the Accell D080B-011K. Their recommendation/review is just plain wrong. Do they even travel? If they spent any amount of time in airports/hotel rooms even domestically (not to mention internationally), they’d realize that the cable-less form-factor basically makes it useless in many situations. Which might be fine if you didn’t need the power strip, but if you did, then you are now fucked. They note that the strips they tested weren’t rated for 220V/international use as well, which makes the definition of “travel” pretty limited.

    While they’re a terrible company, I have yet to find a superior alternative to the Monster OTG400 (there is a 3-plug+USB OTG300 but I don’t recommend it since the USB is only 1A and I’ve found that I almost always would rather have the extra plug). The only other cabled alternative is the Tripp Lite TRAVELER3USB – it has the advantage of surge protection, but is also 1A USB and does not have 220V support. It’s also twice as large.

    Here is the uber-compact international travel adapter I use. Besides supporting most countries (basically everything except UK plugs actually UK plugs supported via clever use of EU plug; tested in HK), it also serves as a 2-prong adapter. I haven’t seen this for sale in the US. Note: I’ve also upgraded this in HK to a version that has a 1A USB plug built in.

  • The Best USB battery pack for travel – while we’re talking about power, the Wirecutter’s recommendation isn’t particularly offensive, there are just better options. The Anker Astro 3E 10000mA is 2/3 the price and otherwise equivalent. I’m currently carrying the Anker Astro 3 12000mA which is a bit heavier but has 3 USB ports (up to 4A) – the Astro Pro looks better if I were buying today. (Note: I’ve just bought an Astro Pro and a Limefuel and will write up a comparison shortly).

    In Tokyo, I picked up a cheapie 100g 4000mA battery for carrying around everywhere since my iPhone battery tends to not last at all out here.

  • The Best Mirrorless Camera Under $1,000 – The Wirecutter recommends the Sony NEX-6 (and the NEX-5 before it) even though it has the worst lens selection ever. There are other issues (handling for example), but I wouldn’t recommend a NEX camera to someone unless I hated them.

    While there’s a good argument for the Fuji X-Series (especially w/ the X-T1), but if you want an X, you should know. For people who actually need camera advice, I’d recommend m43 in general, and the GX7 in particular for <$1,000.

New Code: autotunnel

It’s been years since I wrote my original post on using SSH tunnels for SOCKS proxying, but since I’ve been meaning to dig into launchd more, I figured it was time for an upgrade.

Way too many hours later, I present autotunnel. It’s a couple configs/scripts that work together to automatically (re)create your SSH tunnels when you’re set to a Network Location that requests a SOCKS proxy. It’s now a one step process (change your Network Location in the Apple menu) to get secure.

(I also found an app that’s quite similar, sheepsafe. It’s a Ruby-based daemon that does automatic location switching based on “trusted” networks. It switches post-network connection (WatchPaths on SystemConfiguration) but I don’t know if that’s a practical concern or not.)

On the TSA

I’ve flown a fair amount over the past few years, through many airports in the US and abroad.  The International Terminal at SFO was one of the first places I regularly fly through (Virgin America’s HQ/hub) that had “Advanced Imaging Technology” aka the porno-scanner installed.  Still, with the ability to choose your line (and looking on with some morbid fascination that people didn’t realize what they were exposing and being exposed to), I was able to for the most part, avoid this particular security theater for quite a while.  It wasn’t until this spring that I was finally confronted with having to opt out – which I did.

Like many others (and a couple friends it turned out), I experienced first hand TSA’s efforts to berate and attempt to humiliate me, which seemed like SOP to cow myself and others into not opting-out.  This, btw, included repeating the lie that this wasn’t an abrogation of the 4th amendment (which apparently some people fought about a while back and started some country or something), and that I had no right to fly. As pointed out in a recent thread, this is patently not the case either in law (“A citizen of the United States has a public right of transit through the navigable airspace”) or in case law (Kent v. Dulles (1958) – “The right to travel is a part of the ‘liberty’ of which a citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment”). This was pre “enhanced pat-down” aka groping of the genitals (FYI, the San Mateo DA has promised to prosecute inappropriate pat-downs as sexual assault). In any case after an exchange with @TSABlogTeam that about my treatment, I filed an official complaint online, which obviously had no effect whatsoever.

It’s somewhat of a relief to see this finally get some mainstream attention, and for people to really start thinking about what a decade of the TSA and it’s accompanying security theater really means.  In my view, even leaving out the basic civil rights issues, on the issue of basic competence and effectiveness, there has been a serious lack of overall seriousness in actual security – professionalism and training of agents is severely lacking and uneven, and the (completely arbitrary, ever-changing, secret, and again, unevenly applied) rules are mostly hare-brained and don’t pass basic common-sense sniff tests (much less any formal analysis of effectiveness, or real security/threat modeling).

At this point, a decade in, the TSA is a complete failure.  It has no credibility, even as security theater. If it were up to me, the only way that the TSA would be allowed to continue is that, as suggested on this recent GovLoop thread, that a serious government or independent panel were to publish cost/benefit and full risk analysis studies of their procedures.  Beyond that, public accountability in the form of published results for regular pen-testing/other basic quality assurance procedures to make sure that guidelines were being followed and that citizens are treated, well, as citizens would be another requirement.  The TSA as it stands, both as an institution and as an organization betrays the principles and basic laws that the US was founded on, paid for in blood by our predecessors.

That being said, my hopes are dim for any real reform to happen.  It’s probably best summed up in this comment from that same GovLoop thread. (This comment is what finally got me to sit down and write down some of my thoughts on the matter):

6. We are not talking inconvenience. We are talking abrogation of fundamental 4th amendment rights and the reduction of our society to a thinly vieled police state. The most shameful aspect of the entire situation is that we allow TSA and other law enforcement agencies to slowly and steadliy chip away at our freedoms because we are too scared or compliant to resist. I fly about 2-4 times a year, usually for vacations and will continue to do so. I have and will continue to stand in the machine and allow TSA work their will because I am more interested in getting on with my trip than in standing up for my rights. I am ashamed of this fact and bitterly resent TSA for forcing me to realize that in at least one sense, I am a moral coward. I strongly suspect that a large part of the backlash currently directed at TSA comes from people who share my views, share my moral cowardice, are equally ashamed of it and are looking for ways to resist without ending up on a no fly list.

In all likelyhood TSA will “win” this fight. Our rights will degrade a little more each year and few if any of us will ever offer any meaningful resistance. It is a sad commentary on our nation and our culture that we have allowed and will continue to allow law enforcement (not just TSA) do erode our basic values and do more harm to our nation than any terrorist could hope to accomplish in their wildest dreams.

For the first time in years, I don’t have any flight plans lined up.  It’s a good opportunity for me to think long and hard about what the correct moral stand is.

The iPad While Travelling

I’m actually about to head out on another extended trip (3 weeks in Taiwan, 2 weeks in Japan), but I thought I’d take a few minutes to write up how the iPad was on my first long trip (to Australia, Fiji) while it’s still somewhat fresh.

It was definitely convenient on the long flights to and from Sydney (about 14 hours each way) and I barely broke out my laptop on both those flights – while the 16GB is fine for most uses, when you’re putting on HD movies that are 4-8GB in size… well, there was definitely some laptop swapping (definitely cursing iTunes and wishing the iPad had some way to read external storage directly). As an aside, I highly recommend MKVtools, which will do intelligent container shifting for many devices. For the iPad, you usually won’t need to re-encode the x264 video track, just the audio (usually AC3 or DTS) into AAC.  It’s a one-click operation for the iPad, and is much faster than transcoding (taking about 10 minutes instead of 10 hours for a movie). It’s free to use one-by-one, but totally worth the $5 to unlock queueing of encodes.

I flew economy on VAustralia, which while not exactly cramped, was certainly more comfortable with the iPad than a laptop open.  In economy, the seats also had USB power, which was also convenient, although if you’re fully charged up, actually unnecessary.

I ended up carrying my iPad just about everywhere, as I picked up a free data SIM (see my previous mobile data writeup) and had a perfectly sized bag. (only $20, and with just the right amount of extra pockets, super recommended.) The nice thing is that unlike my trusty Chrome bag when loaded with my Macbook, there wasn’t really a moment where I felt dragged down, even going up and down Sydney’s biggest hills. (I know, right? Who knew? Sydney is super hilly!)

While I had my laptop nearby most of the time, I decided to head to Fiji with just my iPad to see how well that would work out.  While that wasn’t too bad, it was mostly due to my being mostly disconnected (there was very little wifi and I barely got mobile data working at about $2/MB with a Vodafone Fiji SIM). I found that there were a couple times where I wanted USB charging and transfers, mostly for my camera, but also when I rented a car and it had an SD slot in the stereo. (!)  The iPad did, however work with the prepaid internet access at the airport despite the system’s warning that browser popups needed to be supported.

It was an interesting experiment, but even not doing any work, it seems that the iPad isn’t quite there yet as the only thing you carry traveling.  Not if you plan on taking photos or want to move any files around.

So that’s it for my iPad report.  The Toshiba AC100 is out in Japan, Taiwan, and in Europe, so that’ll probably be the next report (maybe, unless Apple releases a dead sexy 11″ Macbook Air, or I’m magically swayed by the Vaio X; I’ve written at length, however, about why I’m particularly interested in smartbooks, even over other ultraportable options).

Mobile Data While Traveling

Over the next few months, I’ll be heading to a few different countries. Fred Wilson wrote a post the other day about his experience roaming with his family in Europe.  In my experience, having an unlocked world phone (quad-band GSM is easy, appropriate 3G unfortunately, not as much) and picking up local prepaid SIM cards seems to be the best strategy. (I care a lot less about number porting than having data access. If you’re more interested in the former, hop on over to Wilson’s blog and take a look at the comments there.)

For those interested in the details of the different 3G bands, in the US, AT&T is on band II (1900MHz) and band V (850MHz) and T-Mobile is AWS band IV (1700MHz/2100MHz).  Other popular bands include band VIII (900MHz) in parts of Europe, Asia, and across Australia and Band I (2100MHz) in Japan, and across Europe and everywhere else. Most 3G phones are dual or tri-band (a Nexus One for example comes in two flavors, one supporting 3G on band I (2100), IV (1700), and VIII (900) and another supporting I (2100), II (1900), and V (850)).  Nokia’s N8 was the first penta-band phone supporting bands all the aforementioned bands, making it a perfect world phone – well, except that it runs Symbian.  The iPhone 4 is also a penta-band phone; instead of band IV (used by a few carriers the US and Canada) it supports band VI (used by DoCoMo in Japan). The iPhone 4 has apparently been successfully unlocked, but the unlock hasn’t been released quite yet.  The best news updates for unlocks are probably directly from the dev-team blog.

OK, now onto some research (various useful links, some good for multiple countries referenced inline):

  • Argentina
    • I’ll just mention this since I didn’t ever get around to finishing up my Buenos Aires writeup, but I did do a fair bit of writing about my mobile phone experience there. The Prepaid Wireless Internet Access wiki page corroborates my experience – Movistar’s datos special at ARS$9 for 2 days/1GB access is pretty reasonable. At current exchange rates, that comes out to $1.15/day. PrePaidGSM is a good place to find rates.
  • Australia
    • Quite civilized with lots of options. Virgin Mobile has a great deal: 30 AUD ($25 US) gets you 28 days of 1.02GB/data and “$150” in credits (calls are 90c/min (167min of talk time), 25c/txt (600 texts)). Virgin Mobile is an MVNO on Optus 3G, which runs at 900MHz/2100MHz HSPA.  Optus offers super-cheap calling but no data. 3 offers a pretty great deal on an iPad microsim – if I’m reading it right, it’s 15 AUD ($13 US) for 1.7GB of data. Telstra has options as well, but is more expensive overall. The most useful comparison site I found for Australia was:
    • Update: In Australia, I went with Virgin Mobile (picked up the SIM at a convenience store for $2 AUD and after some bumpiness setting up online (apparently their activation servers were having problems that day)) and it’s been great in Sydney. Will update w/ how it does in Cairns. Picked up a 3 microsim for my iPad at a 3 mobile shop – it comes w/ 200MB/30 days for free which I’ve yet to use up. You’ll need your passport number to activate the 3 SIM online. It seems to work ok except occasionally I seem to need to go in/out of airport mode to get it to start transferring data. I’ll be heading to Fiji for a couple days – a quick search online shows that only Vodafone roams there – I might just go sans-connectivity there.
    • Update 2: In Cairns, 3 was a bust – only roaming, so no cellular data on the iPad. Virgin Mobile (Optus) was a bit spotty. 3G worked fine in the Airport, downtown Esplanade, and (what!) by the reef, but only worked sometimes from my hotel (11th floor, just north of the Esplanade across from the Volleyball courts / skate park). I found myself breaking down and hanging out at the Macca’s (that’s Australian for McDonalds) one night, which had free wifi (although my 3G there was strong, and much faster – 1Mb+ down). There were a lot of Japanese backpackers hanging out there.
  • Fiji
    • I picked up a Vodafone FJ SIM (Vodafone and Digicell are your two choices). There’s no good data plans, you’re charged by the KB (something about $5/MB), although you can get for free. Even with the proper APN setup and whatnot, was still more difficult than expected to get reliable mobile data.  Internet access is available for about $1/hr or so at Internet cafes and hostels. Once you’re headed off the main island, all bets are off for service.
  • France
  • Germany
    • Tchibo offers a montly rate of €9.95/30 days, throttled to 64 KBit/s after exceeding 500MB, or  €19.95/30 days, throttled to 64 KBit/s after exceeding 5000MB.
  • Japan
    • There are conflicting reports about prepaid SIMs. You can rent one, but the data rates look pretty ugly (charging by the packet!!!). Here’s a post with some more information on using a SoftBank SIM w/ an unlocked iPhone. There’s also a company renting Android phones/iPhones for $85/wk. Weak sauce, Japan. Weak sauce.
    • Update: While in Taiwan, I’ve done some additional research. The Softbank SIM rental comes out to $1.20/day, which doesn’t seem bad, however, mobile data is charged at an extortionate rate of $31/MB. The iPhone SIM has a $426 charge cap for the month of data (gee, thanks). The regular data SIM… seems to not to have a cap at all. A company called Pupuru rents data cards (mobile broadband) for about $120 for 11-20 days. This is about the best I can find (unless you get a used b-mobile card – it’s a decent deal, but sells as $480 for 150 hours of usage). JCR corp now has iPhone4 rentals ($160 for 2 weeks). A SIM card rental is $235 for 2 weeks. (special note: most of these you need to reserve days/weeks in advance) Hey Japan! Get with the program. Your mobile data pricing sucks.
    • Update 2: The JCR rental ended up costing about the same with all the fees added in, but was still worthwhile. I’d definitely recommend it. I also went and picked up the b-mobile U300 microsim @ Bic Camera. No one knew what I was talking about, but I got it (about $150) and it worked great, if somewhat slowly after a brief trouble with setup. Having data on the iPad was a real lifesaver quite a few times (booking hotels, etc), so if you have a budget, I’d also recommend it.
  • Taiwan
    • This Singaporean forum thread was useful in getting started.  It looks like you can pick up data SIMs from any of the major phone companies at the airport for about 400 TWD ($12.46 US) for unlimited data for 5 or 7 days.
    • Update: Getting set up was easy breezy. Just turn right after exiting customs at the airport to get to the mobile kiosks. I bought a Dageda (Taiwan Mobile) 3G SIM (they also offer a MicroSIM) which provides voice and data. Data cost is 350 TWD/5 days (~$2.20/day) for unmetered 3G. I also bought a Chunghwa 3G MicroSIM. Their voice/data SIMs for prepaid only have expensive metered usage, but the data-only SIM was a good deal: 850 TWD (~$27) for one month, unmetered 3G.  Speed tests gave me a reliable 1-2MBps download speeds.
  • UK
    • I’ve had a decent experience with T-Mobile UK (have picked up SIMs at Carphone Warehouse). They used to have a day rate, but it appears to be even cheaper now. Unlimited internet for the month for 5 pounds. (Double take on that, but looking at 3’s rates, which comes with 150MB free per top-off, and maybe those rates are just what happens when there’s decent competition.)

Perhaps of interest may be to comparing these rates to the US.  If you’re interested in prepaid mobile data, there’s Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go, which is data only $40/mo for unlimited data 1GB or $60/mo for 5GB (Virgin is a Sprint MVNO (and subidiary now), so it doesn’t have SIMs), Simple Mobile (T-Mobile MVNO) that has a $60/mo plan w/ unlimited voice, text, and data (“unlimited” data apparently = 1GB), and AT&T offers 100MB for $20 as an addon option for their GoPhone SIM. T-Mobile has no contract data-only plans as well, their best being $40/mo for 5GB, but it’s a bit unclear if signing up is more involved than regular prepaid solutions. Still, overall, it seems pretty grim.

I’d love to hear experiences people have had w/ prepaid 3G data in other countries. My next three countries are Australia, Taiwan and Japan.