Data Roaming in the USA

I go over to the US a few times each year, and I want to continue using the data on my mobile phone. However, roaming data charges can be expensive.

The roaming data charges, per megabyte (for prepay and contract phones) on the Irish networks are:

And as anyone knows, one MB hardly goes anywhere these days. I sometimes use as much as 200MB a day, so if I used my Eir SIM for roaming data, it could cost me over €2,000 a day!

Data Bundles

Of course, there are often roaming data bundles available, but you need to shop around for the best deals, and set them up in advance:

  • Vodafone – Red Roaming – 200MB of data for €2.99 per day
  • Vodafone – Connect Abroad – 100MB of data for €18.45 per day
  • Eir – USA Data Add-on – 200MB of data for €19.99
  • Three – No data bundles available

The Vodafone Red Roaming is clearly the best value for money, and that's the roaming deal I use for my trips. I just need to be careful to ensure that my APN is correctly configured.

Signing up for Red Roaming

Vodafone prepay and contract customers need to elect to use Red Roaming to avail of the roaming deal. It can be set up in the "My Vodafone" self-care web site, or by texting the word 'RED' to 50020 to opt in.

It's worth noting that if you run out of credit on Vodafone prepay you may be automatically de-subscribed from Red Roaming without notification, and then end up paying a lot more for data.

You also need to remember that the 200MB per day allowance runs from midnight to midnight Irish time. So if you're in Los Angeles (8 hours behind Dublin) your allowance runs from 4pm to 4pm each day.

What about a Roaming or USA SIM?

One other option to consider, if you travel a lot is to get a specialist roaming SIM card (available from a number of companies), or a SIM card for a US cellular network.

A typical offer of a specialist Roaming SIM is one from Roam Mobility, where it costs $10 to buy a SIM card, and then another $21.95 to buy 1GB of data. Similarly ZipSIM charges $30 for 1GB of data.

The US network T-Mobile also offers a Prepaid International Tourist Plan, which gives you 3 week of voice, texts and 2GB of data for $30. That's not a bad if you're visiting for more than a few days and also expect to make phones calls and send texts.

Dual SIM Phones

Sometimes the best deal for roaming data is from someone that isn't your regular mobile provider. And unless you fancy switching to another mobile number while you travel, you may want to consider getting a dual-SIM mobile phone.

I have a OnePlus 5 mobile that can take 2 SIM cards. So I have my regular Meteor/Eir SIM for use at home, and a second prepay Vodafone SIM for mobile data roaming.

When I'm travelling, I can have both SIM cards active in my phone at the same time. I can set my Meteor SIM to be used for calls and texts – so that I can contact family and friends – and set the Vodafone SIM to be used for data.

SIM & Network Settings

I just need to remember to switch the mobile data between Meteor and Vodafone each time I get on the plane.

That time I wrote an email system

When I started university back in 1990 the computer systems available were a lot more primitive that today.

Desktop PCs were only made available to college students the year after I joined, so for the first year of my Computer Science studies I only had access to mainframe systems, and in particular a VAX VMS system.

This was the type of terminal I had to use, which had an 80 x 24 character screen.

There was a big darkened room in the basement of my faculty building that housed row upon row of these terminals, and it was common to see student hunched over the machines for hours upon end – although not necessarily doing college work.

We didn't have the internet to distract us, but we make a lot of use of the mainframe's internal email system (called "MAIL") to keep in contract with friends. This was before the days of mobile phones, so the email system was one of the few ways to keep in contact with classmates and friends.

The problem was that the university soon realised that the student's use of email was overwhelming the ageing mainframe system – and so they introduced a daytime email ban. Between the hours of 9.00am to 5.00pm on weekdays students were barred from accessing the email program.

Getting around the ban

Of course, resourceful Computer Science kids like me, with lots of free time on their hands, soon found way to bypass the ban.

We quickly realised that the ban was being enforced by the use of a script – in the VMS language these were called Digital Command Language (DCL) scripts. The script checked the time, checked whether the user was a staff member or not, and then decided whether to run the MAIL program or issue an error message.

And so in order to bypass the ban, all it took was the writing of a slightly modified version of the script that didn't do the staff check. Simple.

Of course, after a while the university IT staff soon realised that students were still accessing the MAIL program, so they tightened up security by implementing changes to the security using access control lists that implemented a more effective ban.

An email program written in DCL

The DCL scripting language was actually quite powerful, and you could write small applications in it. I had grown quite interested in the language during my long hours in the lab and had already written a number of small utilities, such as an application launcher, that a number of my fellow students were using.

So it occurred to me that I might be able to also write a primitive email client as well.

The mechanics of it were actually quite simple. The program would launch a text editor where you would write your message. Then, when the text editor closed, it would save the file in a common directory and prompt the user for a username and email subject. Details of the filename, sending username, recipient's username, and email subject were then written to a log file.

When the recipient then accessed my email program, it would scan through the log file for any matches of their username, and present the details of the emails to them.

The user could then choose from options to delete or reply to the message.

The program was very basic, and not always stable. Some of the time the log file would get corrupted from multiple people trying to write to it at the same time. But for the most part, it served as an effective email system for the couple of hundred students that knew about it.

Short lived success

My basic email system lived for around 6 months, completely undetected by the IT staff, and sent and received in the region of half a million messages. I had to keep clearing down the log file periodically, as it wasn't indexed and a full file scan as the log file grew was taking longer and longer. 

Then at the start of the new academic year – my second year – a revolution happened. A new lab of Windows 3.0 desktop PCs appeared, with the Eudora email client installed and proper POP3 email accounts, and students soon lost interest in using email on the mainframe.

The reduced load on the VMS system meant that the MAIL program restrictions could be lifted, and the need for my email utility disappeared overnight.

In fact, all interest in the lab of VT terminals quickly dried up, as their fixed character screens were viewed as quite primitive in comparison to the GUI available on Windows. But I'll always have a soft spot for VMS mainframe systems and the DCL scripting language.

After university I even tried to get a job with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) who made the VMS computers – but I suspect I came across too strong in the interview!

Maybe I should look into getting a VM running OpenVMS so that I can revisit the operating system one last time.

OnePlus 5

I’m very much looking forward to the arrival of my new OnePlus 5 phone.

I’ve been a OnePlus fan for a while now, having migrated from using the Nexus phones. I like to have a high-spec phone, but don’t like paying the premium prices that the likes of Samsung and Apple demand.

I used to have a OnePlus 1 and currently use a OnePlus 3 (my wife has the OnePlus 3T as well), but about 2 weeks after a bought by OnePlus 3 I managed to put a huge scratch across its face – and I’ve been looking at that scratch for about a year now. It wasn’t bad enough to warrant buying a replacement OnePlus 3, but now that the OnePlus 5 is out I have the excuse to upgrade handsets.

If you’re planning to buy one yourself, you might be interested in this referral code that will get you €20 off accessories when you buy a OnePlus 5. Here’s the link: https://oneplus.net/ie/invite#W5ZGN6VN63274F

Working on more than one Excel spreadsheet

Microsoft Excel by default opens all spreadsheets into the same Workspace, so it can be tricky if you want to work on multiple spreadsheets at the same time.

If you’re copying information between two spreadsheets, or want to compare data from two different sources, then it can be tricky to do. You might have experienced the problem of having to flick back and forth between two spreadsheets.

One way around it is to use the View Side by Side option:

  • Open the two spreadsheets you want to work upon
  • Select the View tab
  • Click on View Side by Side
  • To switch between the spreadsheets being on top of each other or side by side, click on Arrange All and select Horizontal or Vertical

It will look something like this:

However, that’s still not much use if you have two monitors, and want to have a separate spreadsheet in each monitor, because a maximised Excel worksheet only works in one monitor.

What you need is to start up two separate instances of Excel, and then each instance can be maximised on separate monitors. The first instance of Excel loads in the normal way, and you open your first spreadsheet in that. The second instance of Excel can be started by holding down the shift key as you click on the Excel icon (either from the Start menu or Taskbar). A separate blank Excel worksheet will launch (it’s actually a second instance of the Excel program running) and you can load your second spreadsheet into that.

These separate instances run completely independently of each other, and one can be closed (or even killed in the Task Manager) without affecting the other.

Pebble has closed

I was pretty upset to learn about the demise of the company that makes Pebble watches.

I’m a big fan of the Pebble devices, and have a Pebble Time watch on my wrist right now. I use it throughout the day to screen the numerous alerts that arrive on my phone.

I was also looking forward to getting a new Pebble Time 2 watch, but that’s not going to happen now, because all manufacturing of Pebble devices has been cancelled.

For the last 9 months I’ve been wearing both my Pebble watch and a Fitbit Charge HR. The Pebble is for my notifications, and the Pebble is for health tracking. And with the new Pebble Time 2 on the way, and with Pebble seeming to move more and more in the health tracking direction, I had assumed that in the near future I’d be ditching the Fitbit and using just the Pebble for everything.

But that’s not happening now.

I’ve been doing some research over the last couple of days to try and see if there’s anything out there that can replace my Pebble. But most of the smartwatches out there don’t suit my needs. They have a poor battery life, and don’t have an always-on display. And many of the fitness trackers can’t handle mobile phone notifications very well.

I did look at the Fitbit Blaze as a possible pebble replacement, but I don’t really like the styling and I think the functions beyond fitness tracking are very limited at the moment. That all could change, of course, in the future, as Fitbit has acquired technology and staff from Pebble. So maybe in the next couple of years they’ll make a Fitbit that’s also a decent smartwatch.

But at the moment, I can’t see any natural successor to the Pebble. It had such a unique feature set that there’s nobody even close. And there seems to be very few companies innovating in the smartwatch industry at the moment. Indeed, a number of companies have pulled out of smartwatches altogether – and even the Apple Watch isn’t setting the world on fire.

So for now, I’m hoping that my trusty Pebble Time keeps going for as long as possible.