Friday, April 29, 2016

Sharing a Wifi Signal, Making Your PC into a Wifi Hotspot

I travel a lot, so getting the internet when I am traveling is an obsession. 

There are many ways to get the internet when traveling.  I've been using an iPad 3 with Verizon data, and the iPad can be turned into a wifi hotspot.  I have cell phones with Sprint and other networks, and those cell phones can be turned into wifi hotspots.  The only problem is that getting data this way can be expensive, especially if you forget about turning off automatic updates on your laptop.  Those updates can suck up 500 Mb of data instantly and without you knowing it -- costing you half a month's allotment of data, costing anywhere from $15 to $30 and even more. 

Macs have a way to share an internet signal that lots of folks know about.  If a Mac is getting the internet through a wired Ethernet cable, then it is fairly easy to turn that Mac into a wifi hotspot.  Go to System Preferences --> Sharing, and click on Internet Sharing.  Unfortunately, with a Mac, if you are getting the internet through Mac's wifi card, then you cannot also share that wifi signal.  In another writer's words: The one big limitation is that you can’t both be connected to a Wi-Fi network and host a Wi-Fi network at the same time.

Here's a scenario.  You are in a hotel, and the hotel allows you to use the wifi in your room, but you are only allowed to log in for one device.  You have three devices that need internet data -- your MacBook, your smartphone, and your iPad.  What to do? 

You could get the wifi signal through your MacBook, and then share that internet connection through the MacBook's Bluetooth connection, to other devices.  I've spent hours attempting to do this with no luck -- with a couple of Android phones and an iPad 3. 




Sharing Bluetooth on a Mac -- this NEVER worked for me

If you have a Windows laptop, however, you CAN receive wifi on it and then share that wifi signal!  Again, from another writer: Windows has a useful feature that allows you to create a virtual Wi-Fi adapter interface, making it possible to both connect to a Wi-Fi network and create a Wi-Fi hotspot using the same physical network interface at the same time. This feature is hidden, but you can access it using the Virtual Router software — this uses the same Windows features as Connectify, a commercial application.

I've downloaded and tested the Windows-compatible application "Virtual Router" which can be found at:
https://virtualrouter.codeplex.com/

Here's the description:
Virtual Router is a free, open source software based router for PCs running Windows 8, Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2. Using Virtual Router, users can wirelessly share any internet connection (Wifi, LAN, Cable Modem, Dial-up, Cellular, etc.) with any Wifi device (Laptop, Smart Phone, iPod Touch, iPhone, Android Phone, Zune, Netbook, wireless printer, etc.) These devices connect to Virtual Router just like any other access point, and the connection is completely secured using WPA2 (the most secure wireless encryption.)

Virtual Router was amazingly simple and easy to use.  I installed it, it gave a simple window showing the network name, and I entered a password and chose "share wifi signal."  BOOM, the Windows laptop became a wifi hotspot.  I was able to connect my MacBook Pro to this wifi hotspot immediately.  I did have a few problems initially with the MacBook Pro disconnecting from Virtual Router -- but after figuring out the best places to put the two laptops -- the connection has rarely dropped in the past day.  The Windows laptop serving as a wifi hotspot does not transmit too far -- about 20 feet, through a wall. 

However, I've not been able to connect my Android phones to Virtual Router, nor an iPad 3.  I was able to connect the iPad 3 once, after restarting the Windows machine and restarting the Virtual Router software.  However, the connection kept getting dropped for the iPad, whereas the connection remained steady for the MacBook. 

I've therefore tried Connectify, which took a long time to install, and required the Microsoft .Net 4 framework.  I kept getting a fatal installation error, so could not install Connectify. 

I am sure that there are other devices out there that do the same thing, so there's no reason to lug a Windows laptop around, but I have not tried these yet. 

PS I'd like to actually give compliments to Comcast and its Xfinity wifi hotspots, which are all over the place!  If you are an existing Comcast internet customer, then when you drive or travel to other places, you might see Xfinity wifi hotspots.  Just log into those hotspots with your usual Comcast username and password -- and voila! you will be on the internet.  I've been driving around the US quite a bit recently, and I've seen an Xfinity hotspot nearly everywhere that I've been. 

There are also tons of free wifi hotspots around the US.  Examples are McDonald's, Starbucks, and Fred Meyer stores. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Verizon SIM card in iPad Still Works After Ten Months of Inactivity

Back in August 2014, I wrote about a problem that many folks with iPads with Verizon cellular data service had. 

Here's the post:
http://norbertwu.blogspot.com/2014/08/tips-to-cancel-your-month-to-month.html
This was two years ago -- and maybe the problem has been solved. 

Here's the problem:
Many folks bought an iPad 3 or higher, with Verizon service, because Verizon allows folks with iPads to use their iPad as a wifi hotspot at no extra charge. The other promises from Verizon were that you could buy their data for a month at a time, could cancel your account anytime with no penalty, and there would be no activation fees.

You would never think to ask that if you chose not to use Verizon data on your iPad for a few months, that Verizon would inactivate (“burn”) your SIM card and then refuse to give you a new card unless you paid for it (and got involved in other costly complications, such as being forced to enroll in a postpaid plan that involves a two-year commitment, charges activation fees, etc).

That was two years ago...today I discovered that perhaps this is no longer a problem. 

Perhaps Verizon has fixed this problem in a bid to be more customer-friendly.  Today I tried starting up my iPad 3 with a Verizon SIM card that I had not used for 10 months or so.  I fully expected that the SIM card would be burned.  Instead, when I went to Settings-->Cellular Data and View Account, I was taken to a page that offered me a free 500Mb trial of Verizon cellular data for my Ipad.  I clicked through, and received the free trial as per this screen.  Verizon did not even ask for a credit card.  Wow.  Perhaps enough folks have complained to Verizon about the problem described here that they fixed the problem.  Maybe Verizon has lost enough customers and is finally starting to be nicer to their customers.  One can only hope. 


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

AT&T Customer Survey Hell: Please Take a Survey to Tell Us Why You Won't Take Our Survey

Switched to AT&T U-Verse -- and Barraged by Spam and Marketing Calls and Emails!  ARRGH!!!

I decided to lower my bills for my landline phone and internet service.  I have had a copper landline for 20 years with AT&T, and the bill kept going up and up for basic limited service.  It started at about $10 and was now $35 per month with all the taxes and dubious fees.

I have had internet with Comcast, and they kept raising the price on me also.  So I decided to switch to AT&T U-Verse service for my phone and internet.  I could no longer get DSL from AT&T, and after research, it was apparent that once I cancelled my copper landline service from AT&T, I would never get it back.  But it was time.

I called, and I got U-Verse phone and internet service for a bargain rate for the next 12 months.  The technician came out to our house and strung in a new line, and was very professional.  I was able to get the internet and phone up and running the same day, and the entire process took just a couple of hours.   Now I have to rent a special AT&T modem, rather than being able to use a cable or DSL modem that I can buy from Fry's or Amazon -- which sucks.  But I'll just switch back to Comcast in a year. 

Unfortunately, AT&T has since barraged me with marketing emails and calls from both their marketing departments AND given out my new phone number to spam callers like cruise companies.  Before the installation day, we got about six calls from AT&T telling us to put the installation day and time in our calendar.  After getting the new phone service, I had to go onto my AT&T account page and block a bunch of AT&T marketing numbers from calling.  The phone was ringing and ringing until I learned to block all the AT&T marketing calls.  What a hassle.

Now AT&T is deluging my email inbox with marketing emails and requests for me to take a survey.  I HATE SURVEYS.  Hey big companies: it's not difficult to find out what your customers think of you -- just look at some forums.  Don't bother your customers endlessly with surveys -- it's pretty easy to figure out what good, professional, efficient customer service is.   Too bad AT&T is synonymous with BAD customer service.  Some companies just can't figure it out. 

Here's the email I got from AT&T today.  Their reply when I unsubscribed is so outrageous and ridiculous that I actually laughed.  Take a look.

Here's the email:



So I clicked unsubscribe in the email.  This took me to a web page where I was asked if I was sure that I wanted to unsubscribe.  When I said yes, a web page popped up -- asking me to participate in a survey as to why I wanted to unsubscribe from their survey!  Jesus -- when will this end?!!



Sunday, April 10, 2016

Using an AT&T GoPhone in Mexico; Cenotes, Getting Around Tulum, Isla Mujeres, and Cancun

I wrote this while on the last leg of a fairly long trip to the Cancun/Isla Mujeres/Tulum area.  Here are a few things I've learned that will hopefully help others. 

1.  Cancun airport is the main airport.  United has a nonstop flight from SFO to Cancun that takes only about 5.5 hours!  It's therefore a pretty easy destination to fly to, from anywhere in the US.  A friend in Fort Lauderdale said it was only a 2 hour flight. 

(Cancun Airport tip: It's a big airport.  Don't eat at Bubba Gump's -- it was the worst food that I had on the whole trip and the service was terrible.  The food was all fried and obviously frozen, then likely baked.  The french fries were like cardboard.)


2.  I brought an AT&T GoPhone with me and it actually worked.  This is an AT&T prepaid phone.  It costs 25 cents per minute for voice and texts.  I already had $35 on the phone so bringing it to Mexico made me more appreciative of this phone service.  It took me a while to figure out the below, so if you have a GoPhone and are going to Mexico -- take note. 

a.  Calling back to a US phone (or Google Voice) when you are in Cancun:

from a forum: To place international calls from Mexico or Canada, you will need to use the international number format plus sign followed by the country code and the phone number. The plus sign can be accessed from most GSM phones by holding down the 0 key. For example, to call the U.S., whose country code is 1, dial +1, then the area code and phone number.

This worked fine for me.  Just dial "+", the area code, and the phone number.  It worked for a Google Voice number, but not a landline. 

b.  Texting to a US cell phone: just text to area code and phone number.  No plus signs or "1-s" at the beginning seem to be needed. 

c.  Texting to a person with a US cell phone, who is in Mexico: same as b. 

d.  Calling someone in Mexico who has a Mexican landline or cell phone: when I was in Mexico, I did not need to enter any country code.  To dial a landline or cell phone, I dialed the following: (984) 115 dddd (where d is a digit).  This worked most of the time.



Here are some examples:
A friend who picked me up at the airport had a standard AT&T cell phone, not a GoPhone.  Texting to him worked easily -- I just entered his area code and phone number.  However, I could not reach him by voice. 
I could text to my wife, who has a Google Volice number.  I just entered "+" and then the area code and phone number. 


3.  The cenote snorkeling and diving is fantastic, out-of-this-world.  I could spend weeks exploring these underground rivers, which open up at certain spots into the world's most beautiful swimming holes.  Snorkelers can have a great time exploring these cenotes.  Divers can follow guides deeper into the cenotes. 

My favorites were Car Wash, which had tons of native tropical fish swimming around (but was otherwise roped off to help preserve the beautiful lily pads); Tajma Hal which featured many openings that let the sun's rays in; and Casa Cenote, which consisted of perfect mangroves, tons of mosquitofish and larger fish -- and flowed out to the ocean.  My least favorite cenotes were the ones that had been over-developed and felt like Disneyland.  I really disliked The Pit, where a guy sat there and kept pestering us for more and more money:  "Did you pay at the entrance?  Oh, but you need to pay if you are bringing a camera into the water.  The Pit was a cool dive, but super-crowded since it was so small.  "  It's too bad; with few people and minus the money-grubbing attendants, the Pit would be a truly awesome diving experience. 

4.  I stayed in Tulum (and really liked it), which is about a 2 hour drive from the Cancun airport.  A taxi from the airport to Tulum should be about $100; my host Bil Philips at Speleotech arranged a private shuttle for a friend for $90; and he told me that the public buses were not bad at all.  Of course, for a guy like me who has six heavy bags, taking a public bus is not an option. 

5.  I've been in Isla Mujeres before.  Here are some essentials:
a.  Taxi from Cancun Airport to the Ultramar ferry in Puerto Juarez can cost up to $60.  Be patient and hold your ground.  I would offer $30 to $40 and someone will likely accept.  There are two ferries from Cancun to Isla Mujeres.  Take Ultramar.  It's by far the more professional ferry. 

b.  On the way back, when you come off the ferry -- don't haggle with the taxi drivers that are closest to where you get off.  Have the porter take your bags out of that parking structure to the street.  There will be several taxi drivers there, who you can negotiate with.  A fare to the airport should cost between $20 to $40.  I wanted to get to the Marriott on hotel row in Cancun (a fairly long drive).  The guys on the inside wanted $40, the guys on the street wanted $30, and then $20; and I got a nice guy for $15.  I gave him $20 at the end for being a polite person.

c.  I stayed at the JW Marriott in Cancun, which is on the long hotel row strip.  It's not my favorite kind of place to stay.  The hotels are all huge resorts that attempt to hold their guests captive.  I found that a 7-Eleven, McDonald's, and Papa John's Pizza were all within a fairly short walking distance from the JW Marriott. 

The hotel's website states that a taxi from the airport to the hotel costs about $40; but in reality, the concierge told me that taxis from the hotel to the Cancun airport cost about $25.  That's what I agreed with in advance with my taxi driver. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sailfish Slashes Through the Air Pursuing a Baitfish




I recently returned from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where I joined my friend Brandon Cole to get photographs of sailfish attacking bait balls.  I sat on the boat in rough seas for four days, but on the second day, we had some action -- about three minutes of really fantastic action up close, and a few more minutes where we saw sailfish but could not get close or spend much time with them.

This is one of my favorite images from the trip.  This sailfish actually slashed through the air and into the water, while chasing a baitfish.  I was incredibly lucky to have captured this kind of action.

I have to thank the real experts: the captain Rogelio Delgado and his mate Juan, who know enough about this sort of thing to put us photographers into the action.  Rogelio's the MAN.  He and Juan could spot baitballs by watching birds, and could tell if it was worth jumping in the water or not.  If there were bonito feeding, then it was not worth it.  If the bait was up near the surface, he'd get us close and tell us when to get in.  Brandon Cole was good at spotting stuff, too. I just lay on the cushions trying to get unconscious and to avoid seasickness, then rolled over and jumped in when commanded to.

I thought this was a unique thing -- sailfish slashing through air to hit a baitfish, but then a friend (Stephen Wong) sent my a bunch of shots that HE got showing even better action. So that put me down a peg.


I also visited the mainland, staying in Tulum, to dive the cenotes around that area.  They were just phenomenal places to dive and photograph.  I'll post some photos and a trip report when I have time to edit the images.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Glass Ports for Underwater Housings Are STILL Susceptible to Staining or Etching

I've been a fan of acrylic domes for underwater housings over glass domes for years.  I recently was convinced to try glass domes again -- and I discovered that manufacturers STILL have not solved the problem of these glass domes etching or staining!


Many underwater housing manufacturers are moving towards using glass ports for housings now.  I first encountered this problem with a Subal dome 20 years ago.  According to Subal, if one did not scrupulously wipe off the water off a glass port, it would stain over time.  Sure enough, that glass dome stained.  No one that I know, in all the world of underwater experts, knows how to remove the stain once it hits a glass dome.  I would never have bought a glass dome if I had known that this sort of thing was still a problem.

So underwater shooters -- be careful.  If you have a glass dome, be sure to dry it off with a microfiber cloth after every dive.  Never leave a wet neoprene cover on a glass dome.


I've just been jumping in and out of the water off Isla Mujeres, several times a day, so trying to wipe down my dome port and keep it dry and maintained to prevent further staining has been a real pain in the butt.  I am going back to acrylic domes.

I've always preferred acrylic domes because I can fix any scratches myself.  In Bali a few years ago, I forgot my dome polishing kit, and I just used sand from various beaches and ended with toothpaste!

One source tells me that glass is preferable to acrylic because it flares less when shooting into the sun.  I hope to test this sometime. 

Berkley White, prolific shooter and owner of Backscatter, wrote me:
To prevent etching, you must never leave a wet dome cover on the dome and blot off the dome after rinsing.  Even then I use a little Novus2 every few days to minimize mineral build-up.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Traveling Through Fort Lauderdale Airport Is a Great Big Hassle

I try not to complain too much about airports and airlines, unless the situation cries out for someone to write about it.  I fly United Airlines the most, and even though they are very lowly rated in most surveys, I am still loyal to them.  But here are some observations about flying through Fort Lauderdale airport and United, from a trip I just made last week.

Let's start with FLL airport.  This is a pretty big airport, with four terminals.  I flew from SFO to FLL direct, which was nice, then had an overnight and had to fly United's partner airline, Silver Airways, the next morning from FLL to BIM.  Last year, flying Silver Airways to Bimini was a disaster.  Their planes had not flown to Bimini for the past four days, stranding quite a few passengers, so our flight to Bimini was packed, and our luggage did not come with us.  Two folks from Hong Kong had to sleep in the FLL airport for a full day since their Silver flight the day before had not left, and there were no hotel rooms available in the entire FLL area.  I wrote about this last year.

This year I had no complaints about Silver Airways.  The problem was that I booked a flight on United's website all the way from SFO to FLL to BIM.  The last leg was FLL-BIM, and United's itinerary and paperwork showed clearly that I was allowed two bags at 70 pounds each at no charge.  Here's a copy of the paperwork: 


So, United shows me the itinerary and it collects my money.  It shows clearly on the paperwork that I am allowed two bags at up to 70 pounds for no charge.

Of course, I was not born yesterday, so I did not load my bags up to 70 pounds.  I was prepared with my paperwork, and when the agent for my FLL-BIM flight said "give me $65 for your bags", I showed him the paperwork.  It did not matter.  He said that United was at fault and I had to pay, and I had to take the matter up with United.

So a word to fellow travelers: if United says you will get two bags at 70 pounds if you are traveling on United/Silver Airways, be careful.  I would advise you to limit your bags to 50 pounds if you can.  In my case, one of my bags was 55 pounds, and the agent wanted to charge me $225 to check that "overweight" bag in!  I took out five pounds and the agent relented.  I was lucky that he allowed me to put those five pounds of gear in my carry-on. 

On the way back, I checked two bags once again from Bimini to FLL.  I had bought the ticket on the United website, and United's paperwork did state that I was going to pay $25 for the first bag and $40 for the second bag, and that the limit was 50 pounds per bag.   I was prepared to pay and did so in Bimini.   No problem -- if United says so in advance in its paperwork, then that is a contract and I will honor it -- just as I expect United to honor its end if it states that I won't be charged for excess bags.

So let me state again: I paid $65 in excess bag charges in Bimini, for the United/Silver Airways flight all the way from BIM-FLL-IAH-LAX-MRY (all the way home) -- just like the United itinerary said I should. 

Much to my surprise, however, upon lugging my bags to the United desk at FLL that same day (direct from getting off my BIM-FLL flight), the kiosk stated that I owed $65!  I already paid the $65 that the United paperwork said I had to pay.  The United agent could not have been less helpful (I recorded the entire incident with my smartphone).  Only after showing her my United credit card, which allows me two free bags, did she finally relent and admit that their system was flawed.  I had showed her my United Gold elite card also, and for some reason that had zero effect on her.  She was tired, ornery, and unhelpful; but after finally realizing that I was in the right, she asked me to write United "or nothing will ever get changed."

Why don't United's employees at FLL solve this evidently recurring problem, rather than asking its passengers to contact United.  We passengers are busy too.  

So, some advice to travelers planning a trip to the Bahamas and flying some portion on Silver Airlines.  You will likely be BETTER off buying a United ticket and Silver Airways ticket SEPARATELY, rather than trusting United's website and paperwork, and paying United for the entire ticket.  In my example, I purchased my entire itinerary on the way back as a one-way ticket all the way from BIM to Monterey (MRY).  The itinerary had five separate flights: BIM-FLL-IAH-LAX-MRY.  I saw this itinerary on the United site and figured that since all flights were United flights and on United's website, that I'd be covered if the BIM-FLL flight was late, and that my bags would be checked all the way through.  I was wrong.  Instead, I was almost PENALIZED for buying this all-in-with-United itinerary. 

I was charged by Silver Airways $65 for my bags from BIM-FLL, and I would have been charged another $65 by United in FLL for excess bags from FLL-IAH-LAX-MRY (the US domestic portion of my itinerary).  I only got out of paying the second $65 because I have a United credit card that gives me two free bags when flying United!  If I had not had this credit card, I would have paid less by buying a separate Silver Airways ticket and a separate United ticket to get home.  I would have paid $60 in Bimini for the BIM-FLL leg.   Then for the domestic portion, assuming I had  no elite status or United credit card, I'd pay $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second bag (total of $60).  OK, that's only $5 less, but I trust my fellow passengers see my point here.  Also, the gate agent who insisted that I owed $65 was wrong as was the kiosk -- my charges when flying domestically should have been $60 rather than $65.  This should have been a red flag to any United agent who cared about Premier service (I was in the Premier line). 



Now, here's a major problem with FLL Airport: when you arrive from the Bahamas on Silver Airways, you arrive at Terminal 3 (4?), the international terminal.  You have to go through customs and get your bags, then re-check them.  For just about every airport that I've been to in the past years,  if you are changing from international to domestic or vice versa, the airlines have desks right outside the international terminal to re-check your bags.  This makes it easier on the traveler, who does not have to lug all his bags around a giant airport to the airline's check-in counters in a separate terminal.  At FLL, if your airline was American or Virgin, you were in luck and could immediately upon exiting customs, check your bags on to your next flight.  But if you were flying United, you were sh** out of luck.  Again.

Several in our group flew United, and all of us lugged our many bags (we were divers and photographers, thus had a LOT of bags) to the fairly remote area where the airport shuttle bus to various terminals supposedly would pick us up.  I sat there in the sun (luckily, it was winter) for thirty minutes as three different buses to the parking lot, and even one to the terminals 2, 3, and 4 stopped, declined to pick us up, and went on their way.  I discovered that there is only ONE bus in the entire FLL airport that picks up and drops passengers to all terminals.  This is ridiculous!  Perhaps six of us waited for a full 30 minutes before the one bus finally arrived.  If any of us had had a tight connection, this would have been maddening.

My advice, therefore, to passengers with tight connections at FLL who need to check bags into different terminals than the international one -- call Uber or a taxi rather than attempting to wait for the free shuttle bus.  The free shuttle bus may take over 30 minutes to reach you.

A last complaint: because I use a United credit card, I have access to the United Clubs at various locations in the US.  Now, these Clubs aren't that great.  They are almost always crowded, sometimes the bathrooms aren't kept clean, and there is hardly any food to speak of.  The coffee machines are almost ALWAYS broken or being cleaned.

The United Club at FLL airport is the worst I've seen.  It's quite small.  The men's bathroom is single use -- there's a door that a user locks, and no one else can use the bathroom if it is occupied.  What I'd like to point out in this post is that when you, as a member, approach the United agent/gatekeeper to gain entry to these crappy Clubs, you have to hand over your Club membership card and your ID.  The gatekeepers scrutinize your ID for longer and harder than any TSA agent I've encountered, and they are deadly serious about this.  Quite often, they are scrutinizing member's credentials so carefully that a line forms up, to get into the Club.

When I asked the gatekeeper at FLL why she was so careful in inspecting my identification, she said "You paid for your membership, didn't you?  So how would  you feel if folks who didn't pay got into the Club?"  I answered that United gives away Club passes like spare change and that the Clubs were always crowded, so I didn't care, and I would prefer not to have to stand in line just to get into a Club. She had no answer to that, but did ask me what flight I was on, making me wonder if she was going to f*** with my itinerary.  The agents in these Clubs supposedly have great power. 

Hey, United!  Your Clubs kind of stink.  They are crowded, usually small, and they aren't that great.  So there's no reason to have your gatekeepers act like they are granting you entrance to some noteworthy or singular area.  Your Clubs are always crowded, and it's ridiculous to have to stand in line or have my ID scrutinized carefully just to get into a crappy United Club. The United Clubs are better than nothing but they aren't so great that you need to make your members stand in line or make your members wait for your gatekeepers to read every last detail on their drivers licenses.