The Cheapskate’s Updated Guide to Phone Service and Mobile Data

Things have changed since 2012 (duh). In my original 2012 “Cheapskate’s Guide” I recommended Google Voice + T-Mobile’s $30 5GB no-contract data plan + a hotspot like FreedomPop’s Photon.

That’s still a pretty decent setup, but the writing is on the wall for Voice and Project Fi has been out for a few months (if you’re a Google Voice user, Google knows about this and sort of forces you to move your number over if you choose to sign up for Fi). Bummer.

Here’s what’s changed…

SMS: Google Voice –> Hangouts

I had resisted abandoning Voice and integrating my SMS with Hangouts for a while because it’s very confusing and I would lose a lot of functionality in the move…


  1. There are no fewer than five places to access Hangouts: four on the desktop, see A-D below, and via the app on the phone/tablet. A:, B: the mac “app” for Hangouts, C: the Chrome extension available in the Mac Menu Bar, D: the “Chats” folder in Gmail.Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 1.45.11 PMScreen Shot 2015-09-28 at 1.50.30 PM
  2. Via any one of these channels there may (or may not be) means for switching back and forth between SMS and Hangouts messages.
  3. It is still unclear to me what happens with MMS and group messages (which has been a perpetual disaster on Voice).
  4. Voice encompassed SMS, voicemail, and calls. Hangouts doesn’t cover the last one. So if you want to take a look at your call history (which is super helpful when billing or remembering who you spoke with, when) you have to go out of Hangouts and back to Voice. (So even though I’m ‘done’ with Voice, it still is the only location for a valuable bit of data for my work).

Lost Functionality:

  1. Voice has an excellent Web interface (below). It’s super easy to respond to multiple texts through one interface with far less clicking.
  2. There’s a “more” tab for each message, which allows you to add notes to specific texts or calls (which is great for organizing Craigslists inquiries or business calls).
  3. You can select multiple messages for archiving, starring, deleting.
    Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 2.09.37 PM

There are some advantages to moving from Voice to Hangouts. Texts/SMS and Hangouts all come into a centralized repository (via any of the many apps) and I can use the Gmail inbox to see history in a familiar Web interface. Now all I have to do is figure out how to make notes on these items and I’ll have “Voice parity” via Hangouts.

Service: T-Mobile & Republic –> T-Mobile & Republic

I continue to use both of these services, but I’ve swapped their roles. Now I am piggybacking on my wife’s T-Mobile plan. For $100, we get two lines w/ unlimited 4G Data (+10GB of 4G Wi-fi tethering), unlimited calls, unlimited text. The tethering is key because I can stop mucking around with FreedomPop, which didn’t offer very good service anyway. The plan is just about as cheap as the 100-minute-and-5GB-of-data plan, but offers much better roaming coverage and the status of a “real” T-mo plan (not a pay-as-you-go, second-tier plan).

Republic has been relegated to the Wi-fi only plan. I can use the phone when I’m in a basement or when T-Mobile is roaming. (And it’s only $5/mo).

Of course, since I’m now using Hangouts for SMS, I can also use it for Voip calling, so the Republic setup might become redundant in the coming months.

Device: Galaxy Nexus –> Nexus 5 (–> Nexus 5x?)

The Galaxy Nexus is still a good phone (I keep it around as a backup/kids’ phone), but the not-very-new Nexus 5 is much, much better and can be had for $100 on Craigslist. The Nexus 5x comes out this week … it’ll be hard not to upgrade to that in the very near future.

No more vintage bikes to sell

I sold the last of my old-school bikes (the Trek) to a nice fellow named Nick today. Before that, the Jamis sold to a nice young Portuguese dad, and the Specialized Allez went to a recently returned British-American.

I wish I got pictures with each of the new owners since they were each so happy to have gotten the ‘perfect bike’.

Each bike has a story… the Trek was T’s first bike, the green Jamis he rode cross-country, and the Epic was my first ‘real’ bike, which I bought in D.C. in 1993.

Cheers to the bikes… may you ride safe and long!



The Office Bag: a Better Better Brompton Bag from Ortlieb

My first Ortlieb bag was a modified Downtown, which I attached to a Brompton S frame.  It worked out great.  But when I saw a priced-to-sell Ortlieb Office bag on CraigsList, I had to give it a shot.  The “Ortlieb Office Bag Large Classic” is a clean, minimalist bag that is very well designed (despite some dumb flaws in its interior, which I won’t go into).

The Office Bag utilizes Ortlieb’s QL3 mounting system. The bag’s hardware is minimal and perfectly horizontal so it needn’t be modified for use on Brompton’s S frame.  Though the QL2 mounting system did have a ton of hardware on the bag itself, it was far simpler and much more versatile.  Sure the hooks were bulky, but the bag included all of the hardware needed to clip it to nearly any rack on any bike.  With the QL3, half of the mounting hardware is external.  Therefore, each bike must have it’s own proprietary mount in order to accommodate the bag.  And because the hardware is permanently affixed, it renders the rack unusable with devices like the Copilot bicycle seat, which I use on the Blackburn EX-1 rack on one of my bikes.  To overcome this issue I attached a spare QL3 mount to the back of an old set of QL2 clips.  This franken-mount nearly achieves a QL2-level of versatility for the QL3-equipped Office bag, but it is a bit wonky so I don’t use it too often.

To attach the QL3 hardware to the S frame, simply remove the metal loops from the top of the QL3 rack, rotate them 180 degrees (so that they “point down”) and reattach the hardware (removing the cone-shaped shims so that the mount sits slightly closer to the rack).  The support tongue should point up and the wire supports should flex about a half millimeter so the round base of the tongue fits snugly against the plastic at the bottom of the S frame.  Once the hardware is mounted to the frame, simply click the bag into place and then drop the assembly on the carrier block.

The whole mounting process takes just a few minutes and it is very easy to remove the frame assembly from the bag (in fact you must avoid activating the QL3 release when carrying the bag as the frame assembly will fall off).

M’s Gnocchi Recipe

M makes a mean gnocchi. She sent the recipe to some friends recently and I offer it below for your edification:

Gnocchi Directions: (6 adults)

Boil 4 pounds potatoes (I use Russets but Marcela Hazan – my Italian food queen says “boiling potatoes” not “new potatoes” I don’t know what that means so I do russets which she says are too mealy) – with their skins on.  Try not to fork them too much (you don’t want water to get in the potatoes) but when they are done remove and while still hot put through the Potato Ricer.   Once done put them through potato ricer a second time.  While still hot (I don’t know why this is important, but my aunt says it is) add four cups of flour, a little parmesan, salt and one egg and knead till mixed through but don’t handle too much.  If it is sticky add a bit more flour.  Better for it to be on the wetter side because when you are rolling it out you can add more flour – but you can’t make it moister!
Roll out and cut into one inch pieces.  The traditional way to do it is to then roll them down the backside of a fork to make a little divet in the middle and stripes on the back (you could google this part if you like).  I have found if it does add more space for sauce but if you are pressed for time or dealing with kids it isn’t vital.
Sauce we made (cut down ingredients if you don’t want so much!)
4 slices of pancetta (1/2 inch thick) cut into bean size bites
4 heads of garlic (pressed)
4 heads of escarole
2 large jars of tomatoes (get the DOC san marzano whole tomatoes in their own juice)
red pepper (if your kids can handle it)
sautee pancetta until golden, add garlic, sautee for a few minutes, add escarole, sautee for a few minutes, add tomatoes (and red pepper if you like) simmer for 30 min.  You probably won’t need salt because of the pancetta.  If the tomatoes aren’t really vibrant you can add a little red wine vinegar and a touch of sugar (which will give it a little boost).   Whenever making tomato sauce the only real rule is to never cover it (because you are cooking down the tomatoes and you don’t want to add water.)
And the cookbook I love for italian cooking is: Essentials of Classic Italian Cookbook (Marcela Hazan)

Cars I Own in Accidents Involving ≤1 Driver

car accident in brooklyn

Knock on wood: I’ve never caused a car accident.  But I’ve been in several.  Each accident happened when my car was stationary and I was miles away from it.


On 5/26/05, a car I own was the victim of a truck accident on the block. It was a hit and run on my ’96 Jetta. A neighbor left a note with the license number of the U-Haul that hit the car, but the company refused to pay because nobody would step forward as a witness.


car accident in brooklyn

On 6/7/07 a distributor’s truck destroyed a Toyota, which was then slammed into the front end of my ’01 TDI damaging the wheels, quarter panels, and steering mechanisms (the car needed to be towed, wouldn’t drive). All told four cars were damaged in the accident. The truck driver was fine.


Update June 2011: Another hit and run.  Again on the 2001 TDI. The left rear taillight was destroyed and the bumper beat up a bit. I replaced the taillight with some help from our friends at the Parts Place in Auburn Hills, MI.


Update November 2012: This time a tree fell on my 2001 TDI while parked down the block.

The Cheapskate’s Guide to Phone Service and Mobile Data

I am a cheapskate. I, especially, don’t like overpaying for mobile phone and data service.  The fees that carriers impose for on-contract smartphones are obscene.  My recent iPhone service looked something like this before I cancelled it: $30 for 3G data + $20 for unlimited texts (more data) + $50 for a meager calling plan (even more data). Eventually, these high monthly fees forced me to take a look at other options.  I’m happy to report that there are a lot of them and they’re pretty good, though you might have to make some concessions and tinker a bit to get things working properly.

Here are some of the assumptions that we’ll be working under in this article:  you’re out-of-contract with your cell provider, you’ve at least sipped the Google Kool-Aid, you’re open to using an Android handset, you have access to an unlocked GSM phone (not required, but helpful), you’re OK with last generation’s 3G or 4g (read: non-LTE) data speeds, and you’re willing to use pay-as-you-go services (and, potentially, jump around a bit).

Google Voice

The first thing you’ll want to do is migrate your current cell phone number to Google Voice, which is a painless process if you have a Gmail account and are out of contract on your current phone contract.  Google Voice does a lot of cool things.  You can fluidly set and schedule which phones should ring when someone calls your number (office?, home?, cell?, summer house?, mother-in-law’s place?).  You can originate a call or send a text to any of your contacts directly from a browser and everything can be logged and annotated there.  The best part is that you can use any cell phone number(s) you want and change it (them) on a whim. People simply continue to call your regular number (e.g. your “old” cell number) and your “new” phone rings — you can even configure it so that your outbound calls and texts use your Google Voice number regardless of the handset you’re using.  The cherry on top: Google Voice can replace your cell service’s mediocre voicemail system, which, among other things, will email you a transcribed copy and a recording.

Google Voice on Android

Almost any Android phone can use Google Voice.  In my experience this has been a completely seamless endeavor–it will take you longer to read this paragraph than it will to set it up.  Install the Google Voice app (not the Google Talk app, though you might want to install that too).  In Google Voice open the settings menu and under the “making calls” menu tick the box next to the “Use Google Voice to make all calls” option. Save. That’s it.  When you use the phone’s native dialer all calls get routed over Google Voice.

Google Voice on iPhone

This is a little trickier.  There is also a Google Voice app for iOS, but it’s not as tightly integrated as it is on Android.  In essence, you use the app as a text messaging client and dialer (rather than simply using the native dialer, you dial a number using GV’s interface).  When you place a call in Google Voice your phone rings and only after you answer the call does it ring with the person that you’ve dialed.  Google Voice acts as the call’s broker by making two calls (one to you and one to your friend) and creating a handshake between them.

Google Voice Caveats

Google Voice uses data for all of its services. Texting happens over Wi-Fi or cellular data so when you have spotty data coverage (e.g. roaming or 2G data) it can be a bit dicey sending and receiving texts.  The handshake that occurs when you make a call also requires a data connection, though the calls themselves happen on the cellular voice network so they clock real phone minutes.  In a pinch you can always disable GV on your phone and send a message from your phone’s native text client and phone number.  In this case your friends and family might not recognize the number (as you never handed it out), which can lead to some confusion or unanswered calls.

Choosing a Handset

You’ll probably want to use an unlocked GSM handset.

If you use an iPhone (on any GSM, aka non-Verizon/Sprint, network), call your provider today and ask them to unlock your phone.  They will likely do it for you for free–it is perfectly legal and you are within your rights to ask (especially if you’re out of contract).  A factory unlocked handset is a good idea for two reasons:  it increases the resale value of your device and it allows you to use your iPhone on any domestic or international GSM network.

Though I was a long-time iPhone user, I was willing to try Android.  So I bought the Galaxy Nexus “Google Phone” (technically the I9250 or the GT-I9250TSGGEN) directly from the mothership.  The unlocked handset costs $349, which (granted) is more than most phones if you ignore the on-contract pricing schemes that the cellular companies use, which I didn’t (more below).

If you decide to go the craigslist route, be careful. You’ll probably find many handsets that are locked to a specific network, which you’ll want to root and unlock.  Even if you do this, remember that the phone probably doesn’t have all of the radio bands at its disposal that you might need.  Be sure to check that the phone you buy/root/unlock is compatible with and uses the data bands of the services and plans you intend to use.  What this means in practice:  if you get a T-Mobile plan using an unlocked AT&T iPhone, you might find that you only get Edge data, which is basically useless for all intents and purposes.  Sprint and Verizon iPhones use CDMA radio technologies (e.g. they don’t use a GSM SIM card), so they won’t work at all in this scheme.  If you intend to leave the phone locked to its parent company and use a pay-as-you-go service from the same company you should be fine (but your plan options become much more limited).

Choosing a Plan

When you have an unlocked GSM phone, you’re free to choose nearly any SIM-card based monthly or pay-as-you-go plan from any cell phone company.  The GSM Galaxy Nexus is a nice option because it has radio bands for many 3G (and 4G/HSPA+) networks. I have mostly used T-Mobile’s $30/mo 4G (HSPA+) plan (here’s a great write up about it and the Google Galaxy Nexus combo) though I have had to fall back to a $40/mo AT&T voice/3G data plan from time-to-time (e.g. when I’m in northern Michigan where T-Mo’s coverage is non-existant).  Each of these plans has its own phone number, but it doesn’t matter because no one sees those numbers–all calls/texts go through Google Voice.

One of the best features of the stock Android OS is that you can use the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. This may violate the terms of your monthly service, so exercise caution, but if you’re on the go and want to stream a few songs on your iPad or download a file to your laptop, an HSPA+ data connection piped though the phone-as-WiFi-hotspot is more than ample to handle the task.

Keep in mind that these cheapo monthly plans skimp on some frills like data roaming.  In my case, this meant that the T-Mobile $30/mo plan was essentially useless in northern Michigan since I got little-to-no coverage north of Grayling and Google Voice relies on a data connection to send texts and initialize calls.

It’s Not Perfect. “Switching” to Republic and FreedomPop.

Being limited to 100 minutes on the $30/mo T-Mo plan wasn’t great.  I found myself calling folks back on another line if I knew the call would last more than a few minutes. Most months I was able to stay below 100 minutes, but if I didn’t have a few dollars clanging around in my account (T-Mo charges .10/min when you go beyond the 100 minutes), the phone simply wouldn’t make or receive calls if I exceeded my allotment. I found myself relying on VOIP solutions (more below), which can be a bit wonky.  The data and hotspot sharing were excellent–I was able to stream music, video, or radio in the on-the-go and never worry about data overages.   I still have the Google phone and I use it in an ad-hoc manner on a month-to-month basis whenever I want that sort of service.

For the time being, though, I’ve decided to supplement my voice/data options with yet another phone — this one is from Republic Wireless (which is still in beta).  For the bargain basement cost of $20/mo I get “unlimited” text, calling, and data.  The air-quotes are around the word unlimited because most of the calling and data actually occur over Wi-Fi–the main stipulation of Republic’s service is that you must have Wi-Fi at work and at home.  Not a problem for me.

Republic offers only one phone: a Motorola handset that runs a (cyanogenmod-based) version of Gingerbread (2.3.7). It’s not the fastest or freshest handset and the on-phone storage capacity is abysmal, but it gets the job done (and setup with Google Voice is, again, seamless).  Because the software is locked, it’s not possible to use the Republic phone as a hotspot.  Enter: FreedomPop.

FreedomPop offers 500MB of “free” monthly data and “free” hardware.  All of the air-quotes mean more stipulations, of course (e.g. if you go over 500MB, they charge you $.02/MB).  Regardless, this free service offers double the data that most providers charge ~$20/month for on their basic plans.  The cute little “FreedomPop Photon” hotspot requires a $90 deposit. It works as advertised and will connect up to 8 devices simultaneously.  Why anyone would order an iPad with 3G data is beyond me when Freedom Pop’s Photon is on the market.

UPDATE: FreedomPop sort of sucks.  They automatically recharge your plan in $10 increments using the credit card on file if you begin to approach your 500MB limit. So, this means that they charge you for data that you won’t use (e.g. beyond the 500MB) rather than for the data that you do use.  If you disable the automatic recharge “feature”, then this remains a viable backup data solution (just don’t use it for Netflix, like I did).

UPDATE2: Freedompop sort of sucks even more. They have instituted a “floor” to go along with the “ceiling” mentioned above. Now if you don’t use at least 5MB of data, they charge you $1 to keep the account active. Again, it’s not a huge deal, but it’s another fee. In my case, my credit card had expired so when they tried to charge me the dollar maintenance fee, the charge was refused and my account was suspended. It took about a week and a half dozen emails to support to get it ironed out.

The VOIP question (Wi-Fi calls)

In any case, Voice Over IP (VOIP) is an excellent addition for cheapskates who are able to exercise the option.  In a happy coincidence, the telecoms services that run my home and work numbers both offer free VOIP services, which has allowed me to use my numbers via a SIP client on my phone.  While on Wi-Fi networks (basically anywhere in the world) I can make and receive calls from my home or work numbers as if I were sitting at my desk/on my couch.  Additionally, my current cell phone provider, Republic Wireless, runs on a “hybrid” calling system, which works over Wi-Fi, so I can freely make and receive calls when I’m using any Wi-Fi data connection anywhere in the world.  There are many, many VOIP/SIP apps and services.  I’ve used CSipSimple, Skype, and Talkatone to name a few.

The Bottom Line: Total Cost of Ownership

Though on-contract phones seem cheap at the outset, the total cost of ownership over two years can be astronomical. Pocketnow reports that the iPhone 5 costs $1800 (at its cheapest) to $6000 (with the top-end phone and bells and whistles)!  The two-year scenarios described above break down like this:

  • Google Galaxy Nexus ($349) with T-Mobile 100 min & unlimited 4g ($720/2years): $1069
  • Motorola Defy “unlimited” everything ($249) with Republic Wireless ($480/2years): $719
  • FreedomPop ($90 deposit) with 500MB/mo ($0/2years) and random fees: $5.50
Even if I used both phones and the hotspot every month for two years ($1768), I would just begin to approach one iPhone (with very meager allotments) in terms of total cost.
Update 10/2013: I’ve been up to a lot of tinkering since last year:
  • I tried TextNow (with both the Nexus S and Galaxy S III), but the voice service is entirely VOIP.  Over Sprint’s network making calls is nearly impossible. The TextNow service also does not play nice with Google Voice.  Non-starter.
  • The Motorola Defy that Republic offers has become almost unusably slow.  It got to the point that I never used the service.  I will reinstate the service soon to  take advantage of Republic’s new Moto X offering… I’ll get a $100 credit by sending in the Defy and then primarily use the $5/mo wifi only option unless I need to upgrade on a pro-rated monthly basis.
  • Finally, I’ve switched off the T-Mobile $30/mo unlimited 4g plan and opted for $40/mo Solavei (T-mo MVNO) instead–the lack of roaming service on the $30/mo T-Mobile plan was a deal breaker.
  • I’m curious about FreedomPop’s free service, but will wait to see what they come out with in terms of phones in coming months.

DIY Brompton Emergency Toolkit

Brompton is coming out with their own toolkit (dunno when). It looks really nice, but it will likely be a costly little set.

Inspired by the forthcoming Brompton kit, I pieced together an impromptu toolset.  Admittedly, it lacks a crescent wrench to remove the front wheel, but it’s a start and I’ll update if/when I figure out where to stash a small adjustable wrench.

First, I snaked a replacement inner tube into the long top tube. The inner tube is curved, mimicking the shape of the top tube so it’s a pretty easy fit. The schrader valve makes for a good handle and the tube comes out without hassles.

It turns out that the Pedros Hex Set plus Screwdrivers fits in the front part of the top tube along with one tire lever. Be sure to put the hex set in first with the fat end pointing towards the head tube. Then use the tire lever as a wedge to hold the wrench in place. (The piece of inner tube or rubber band wrapped around the tire lever provides some padding and stops the duo from falling out when the bike is folded).

The zefal pump that came with my bike is basically worthless–I was never able to get more than a few psi with that thing. So I got a Lezyne Road Drive pump, which I housed in the seat post. (Some inner tube wrapped around the end helps keep it firmly in place).

With tire, levers, hex- & screwdrivers, and a pump, I’m ready for almost anything. Now, how about that crescent wrench?

Update: I simply slid a 5/8″ wrench in with the inner tube and now I’m all set. Also, if you pick up the Lezyne pump, be sure to get the one with the Schrader and Presta (rather than the Presta/Slip fittings that come standars with that pump — both of those fittings are actually Presta). I contacted Lezyne and they sent me a free replacement hose for free, which was super nice of them (great customer service as well).

All of the tools laid out:

Halloween in the Slope 2010

Last year we counted 359 wee visitors to our stoop during Halloween evening.  This year we didn’t bother (there were too many to count… it was, quite literally, overwhelming).

However, we did give away 17 pounds of candy this year (up from 14 last year) plus a butt-load of small decks of playing cards, which M got at Costco.  Given the ratio of candy:kids that we had last year plus the addition of the non-candy treats, I calculate that we had upwards of 500 trick-or-treaters at the door.

2010 highlight:  a neighbor down the street was offering candy or brussels sprouts.  I actually saw a few kids taking the latter, though I hope they didn’t eat them.

Pics here.

Bobike Mini+ On Brompton

I hope someday in the nearish future my child will want to ride a bike with me badly enough to necessitate the itchair for my Brompton.  Until that day, I’m saving up my pennies, because at $360 it ain’t cheap.

In the meantime, she’s small enough and light enough to use the Bobike Mini+, which I was able to find locally on CraigsList for $40 in a decent color and pattern.  The factory-supplied mount works great on my beater bike, but the mounting bracket was far too narrow to fit on my Brompton frame and it would have been too bulky to allow the bike to be folded anyway.  So I began work on a custom made mount.

I contacted a number of local metal workers to build a small bracket with mounting tubes to accommodate the Bobike, but the job was too small for most of them to take it up.  Others, though interested, priced me out of the market (one guy quoted $300-$500 for the part).  I’ve still got a couple of leads to follow up regarding a “production” version of the clamp, but on Thursday I fabricated a first prototype mount and last night I completed the second prototype.

The construction is simple:  the bracket is held in place with a U-clamp that has been covered in plastic tubing.  The bracket itself is a piece of 1-1/4″ heavy-duty steel that’s been folded over on itself and drilled to accommodate the clamp.  There is a small spacer (made of wood) to keep the bracket spaced properly and to keep the Bobike’s pegs sit firmly in place.

The most recent design is pictured above.  A couple more photos: a close-up of the second prototype design and the bike half-folded in its natural habitat.

UPDATE 8/2012:  I’ve gotten some comments about this post and looking back on it, I’d probably recommend against trying this.  The chair itself won’t accommodate a lot of weight (it’s rated to something like 30 lbs).  I used this set up pretty regularly with my daughter until she was ~26 lbs.  But after that, her weight started to affect the bike’s steering negatively (especially when she moved around a lot, which toddlers tend to do).

In New York you must wait until your child is 1 year old to put him/her in a bike seat.  One year olds usually weigh in at ~20 lbs.  This means that there’s a relatively short window in which you can realistically use a seat like this.  And even then, the safety is a bit dubious (especially in my case with my shoddy workmanship).