The hunt for the perfect cell phone plan

I am nothing, if not occasionally obsessive.  I get fixated with certain projects, plans, or life goals  Well lately (as in the last 6-9 months), I’ve been rather preoccupied with finding the perfect, affordable cell phone plan.

The last time I was this worked up about hacking my status as a cell phone user, it was all about the iPhone.  This time, it isn’t the hardware, it’s the carrier.

I have this long-standing disdain for how my data gets to my head.  Whether it be of the internet variety, or the texting and talking variety, it’s all really just chunks of data.  But so that we’re all on the same page, let’s confine our terms to the industry convention:

  • data = internet access.  Think web.  Think email.  Think Facebook.  That’s data.
  • voice = cellular phone calls.  Self explanatory.
  • text = text messages sent via SMS.  This is old-school texting here, long before there were smart phones.  But don’t believe for a second that they are as valuable as those cell carriers say they are.  Profit margins for text messages are astronomical.  And the value of said SMS messages are plummeting with the advent of other, freer platform messaging (like Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.).

Now the sweet spot in a smart cell phone (i.e., iPhones or any Android branded phone) plan, as I see it, would be to leverage more data heavy offerings in lieu of the more expensive voice/text services.  Why?  Well, that’s the whole point of a smart phone.  These things are internet-gobbling dynamos.  That’s arguably what they do best anyway: present the internet in amazing, fascinating, startling new ways to us consumers.  Classic voice and text are two mediums that are nearly archaic, simply because they are nearly throwaway offerings in the data world.

All of these reasons have led me to often call cable TV and cell phone companies merely dumb pipes.  I stand by that.  The intelligence in our data consumption has moved downstream — into our little mobile internet gizmos.  The value of the service isn’t in the pipe itself.  And knowing that their product value was losing ground, those big dumb pipes did the only thing they could to retain customers: force us.  The CEO of T-Mobile (!) summarizes it best:

“Carriers figured out a long time ago that they could make money – a lot of money – by forcing customers into restrictive, overpriced data plans.  We changed it for smartphones and we’re changing it for tablets.”

I was floored when I read this from one of the big pipes!  Speaking directly to the core problem in the cell phone market right now.  As I dug more into his company’s offerings, I was even more impressed.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On average, with AT&T, we are paying $135 per month for two cell phones, both iPhones.  That’s a chunk of change.  And how much service were we consuming?   Take a look:


As you can see, our usage was quite low overall.  So I began to look for alternatives.  And there are many, many options.  But it helps to realize a couple of key facts:

  1. If you have a GSM phone, there are only two infrastructure games in town: T-Mobile and AT&T.  All the other smaller mobile companies are renting their antennae.
  2. When you sign up for a “cheap” phone upgrade, you are getting a reduced price because the hardware is subsidized by the carrier.  It’s like a lease.  You get the privilege of using this great phone, but you must stay with the carrier for 2 years.  By the time the contract is up, you would have paid twice over for the retail cost of the phone.  Early termination fees?  Those exist to “recoup” the cost of the hardware.
  3. The above typical cell phone plan is what’s known as a post-paid plan.  It is paid in full after contract maturation.  A “pre-paid” or “pay as you go” plan is the non-contract alternative.

So contracts are bad, all agreed.  But I found that the pre-paid alternatives were harder to get right too.  And there are many:

But in the end, all of a sudden, that little T-Mobile CEO quote popped into my radar.  And I was floored.  The more I looked into it, the better it sounded.  For a 2-smartphone plan, the first line is $50 / mo.  The second is $30.  This is their baseline rate, for 500MB of 4G speed data per month.  But there is never an overage penalty.  Instead, they just throttle you down from 4G to 3G.  That’s very reasonable.  Meanwhile, text and voice are rightfully “thrown in” at unlimited.  Their coverage map is roughly equivalent to AT&T’s.

So we’ll be looking at a 40% reduction in our monthly bill!  But the switch is only on paper right now.  The SIM cards are in the mail.  I’ll post an update when they arrive.  Happy bill-slashing!


Surround Sound Debug

For some reason, this keeps happening to me. I must be doing it wrong. But I’ve either been too stubborn or too distracted to find the better way to do it.

I’ve installed surround sound wiring into my abodes at least five times (twice in my bachelor days at two different apartments, and thrice in my married days in all three of Sarah’s and my mutual houses. So I have a fair amount of experience with fishing wires down walls and into ceiling joists, cutting in low-voltage single-gang electrical boxes, and wiring up multi-channel audio speakers.

But the one step in this many-tiered project that I haven’t mastered is this: the differentiation of the channels during the final wiring.

home-theatre-speakers-diagramHere’s what I mean. You get all the four main channels mounted and wiring run from the four corners of your media room. Add the center channel and you have five sets of wires coming into a single hook-up junction box near your media center cabinet. Next step: terminate those 10 conductors into speaker lugs, or banana jacks, or binding posts.

But which channel pair goes to which speaker location? Doh!

And it’s not just an accident. I have tried various cable labeling in the past, as I did this most recent installation. But inevitably, my installs have included fish-taping cable down finished walls. Therefore, the labels that I’ve used — such as tape or zip ties, etc. — have always come off the cable in the process. Without that identification, it’s hard to know how to hook the cables up.

So what to do? I haven’t found much on the DIY home audio forums on this topic, strangely, which makes me wonder if I’m going about this installation all goofy. Do the pros do it better? Probably.

My first generation surround sound amplifier had a channel test tone utility that was helpful. It would emit a 1KHz tone into each channel for about 2 seconds and automatically increment to the next channel. But this wasn’t ideal for a few reasons: 1) It wasn’t controllable. Once that 2 seconds had expired, you’d have to race to the other speaker to hear the tone. Not very efficient. 2) The tone obviously required that the speaker cable be terminated between the speaker and the amp to be of any use. It’s an audible tone, therefore you need a speaker to hear it. So that’s not too helpful either since I’d rather hook up all the wire after I determine which set of wires goes to which speaker channel.

So here’s how I solved the problem.


  • An LED
  • A 1KOhm resistor
  • A 12 battery
  • Some alligator clip leads


  1. Wire up the LED indicator with the current limiting resistor attached either to the anode or cathode. A more preferred method would be to use a ready-made indicator LED panel lamp that has a built-in resistor. These assemblies come with red (positive) and black (negative) wires. Here’s one from Digi-Key.
  2. Connect the anode side (red wire) to your unknown speaker wire positive lead.
  3. Connect the cathode side (black wire) to your unknown speaker wire negative lead.
  4. Back at the junction box end with all 5 channels, connect the 12V battery to the positive and negative wires.
  5. If you don’t see the LED light up, first try switching the battery leads on that same channel.
  6. If the LED still doesn’t light, move the battery to the next set of channel wires.
  7. If the LED still doesn’t light, repeat steps 5-6 until you find it.

Theory of operation

The nice thing about this method is that the LED is unidirectional. In other words, it doesn’t light unless (conventional) current is flowing from positive to negative. This is key, because you don’t want to get the positive and negative terminals mixed up to your speakers. Therefore, using a DC incandescent light bulb would be a mistake, since it will light bi-directionally.


I’m aware that some speaker wire have knurled, striped, or discolored conductor insulators to help you differentiate between the two. This is helpful in most cases. But in two of my installs, I used some Monster brand cable that had little to no helpful indicators. So the above bailed me out.

Project Gallery

Dyson vaccum fix

Is your Dyson Animal vacuum cleaner sucking, like mine was?  There’s a good chance you can fix it cheaply.

In my case, the vacuum head — in Dyson speak, it’s the “soleplate” — was not seating down fully on the floor.


Dyson soleplate, DC07
the culprit: the soleplate on my DC07

Because the soleplate wasn’t fully flush with the contact surface, the suction was greatly reduced.  Here’s the sad thing: I knew this for some time.  Like years.  And I never got around to doing anything about it.  I was just vacuuming in mediocrity.  Well, I finally did something about it today.

Required Tools:


Required Parts:

rubber band, x1

It’s tricky to describe where to apply the rubber band, so the pictures below will help you visualize.  But in words, the basic problem was that the intake hose (first two photos below) was making the soleplate assembly tilt up, away from the floor.  I didn’t see any abnormal wear signs of the hose, or any other reasons to believe that this was something that happened with age.  It makes me seriously wonder if this was a design flaw (gasp!) — a little hard to believe since Dyson’s legendary design esthetics resemble Apple’s.  Regardless, a simple apparatus to force the assembly back down toward the floor was really all that was needed.


The results?  I kid you not, this thing has never — NEVER — cleaned this good.  I was seriously astonished.  My rugs are finally spotless; with three fur-bound pets in this house, I see a lot of deposited hair, and the rugs were totally clean.  To quantify, a small family living room of about 15′ x 20’ used to equate to about a half full dirt chamber.  Post-rubber-band-fix? The chamber was more full than I’d ever gotten before in that same room.  Amazing!

IKEA mini-kitchen mods

One of my daughter’s most beloved toys is her IKEA DUKTIG mini-kitchen. It was a gift from the grandparents, and it’s one that she’s never tired of. Iris is a lot like her mommy, and baking and cooking wonderful savory foods are some of the many things they love to do.

The only problem with her mini kitchen is that it lacked a few fundamental similarities to Mommy’s big kitchen. For instance, her little oven door opened the wrong way. And there was no light in the oven that came on when she opened the door. This was just no good. Time to get modding.

Continue reading “IKEA mini-kitchen mods”

If a tree falls in your backyard…

A few weeks ago, a mighty wind blew.  It toppled a portion of one of our blue spruce trees, nearly destroying my neighbor’s garage and power line.  So it, and its brethren, had to go.

I was sad at first, these trees being at least 50 years old.  But I warmed to the idea of having lots of firewood and a fresh clean slate of a backyard.  So below are before (circa 2008) and after photos.