Category Archives: Tips and Tricks

TorGuard Review 2015 – My VPN of choice as an Australian

http://stu.link/TORGUARD
Choosing a VPN provider can be difficult, you want one that provides great customer service, security, reliability and most importantly, one with servers close to you as well as around the world. When my account with Astrill came up for renewal recently, I decided it was time to review the field again.

I use a VPN for a variety of reasons, I find them extremely handy for security reasons, I now have two static IP services with TorGuard so that I can restrict certain things I log into by public IP address. This also means that I can connect to these from anywhere in the world. As many Australian’s will know, they can also be used for “Geo dodging” services that are restricted to certain countries. Being a lucky user of Foxtel I personally don’t have that issue but if that is your end goal you will be happy to know that TorGuard has servers all around the world you can connect to. Lastly, they are handy for getting around firewalls when you are in a restricted environment (and have a legitimate reason for needing to get out of the firewalled environment)

The starting point is to find providers that have a good reputation, if Anonymity is what you are looking for you will probably be familiar with TorrentFreak’s roundup of providers that don’t keep logs (2015 edition). I checked out:

  • Private Internet Access
  • TorGuard
  • IPVanish
  • NordVPN

I came up with the above list based on those that have servers within Australia and will also note that some of these I have used previously. After testing the speeds of each provider, TorGuard turned out to be the best VPN for me as a Sydneysider. I am not necessarily saying that the others weren’t good, but I lost very little overall speed on my connection when using TorGuard, which was one of my primary goals.

After testing and selecting TorGuard, it was refreshing to see most things included. Astrill offers upsell after upsell (even for example if you want to use more than a single device), the only thing I have had to pay for extra so far with TorGuard is my static IPs (which are not a necessity for most people). I have found the service to be exemplary, support tickets are answered promptly, the service is solid as a rock and I have stayed connected for days at a time (usually only losing a connection when my ADSL drops sync… still hanging on for this NBN we keep hearing about).

The OSX client that comes with TorGuard was easy to use, I opted to purchase a full Viscosity license to get the latest version and configure it myself, I am stoked with it as a VPN client, however you will be happy to know that the clients that TorGuard offers are simple, easy to use and sufficient for 99% of all users needs.

So if you are looking for an anonymous VPN service that has endpoints in Sydney, has anonymity as a priority, is affordable, reliable, doesn’t require long contracts and above all… JUST WORKS! I can happily say that TorGuard is well worth looking into.

As always, when I review a service that I love, I have put an affiliate link here in the post. If you would like to visit the service directly please visit http://torguard.net.

How dirty is your keyboard? Time to give it some TLC for the new year!

I want everyone to stop, pick up their keyboard right now and shake it… go on… you KNOW you are dying to. Something that many people do is clean around their desks, making sure that all is squeaky clean and tidy, but especially in offices the common keyboard is far to often neglected.

Now that it is the new year it is time to give your computer a spring clean and your keyboard is the best place to start.

It might be time consuming, it might be icky but it is definitely a necessity. So lets find out how many of you have now shaken just SOME of the collection of KeyChow (Keyboard Chow) from your keyboards? Cleaning a keyboard is simple but time consuming and consists of one by one pulling each and every key off the keyboard, giving them a good wipe, vacuuming out all the crud underneath the keys and replacing everything back to normal.

There are some great articles on how to do this on the internet already such as HowToGeek’s – HowTo Thoroughly Clean your Keyboard (take a look about half way down for the good stuff).

The only additional piece of advice I really do STRONGLY emphasise is to take a photo of your keyboard before you start, that way you already have a solved version of the puzzle for when you need to put it back together.

So if you haven’t done so in a while, wipe off your desk and give your keyboard a good clean. The germs of the world will hate you for it! 😀

Happy New Year everyone!

Stuart

P.S. Apologies for being so quiet lately, been pumping all of my energy into a new open source project I am working on for the Atlassian Suite. I will try to blog more soon!

What you say in the cloud… STAYS IN THE CLOUD!

Once you write something on the internet, anywhere on the internet, it is there for life. By this same logic, every picture, every tweet, every Facebook status update, even so far as every email we write can be considered stored in the great big void that is the internet, forever.

Many of you will know I am a big fan of social media, I use it all the time and it is entirely probable that a large portion of you met me through an avenue such as Twitter. One thing that I see so often these days, is people (and especially young people) being very careless with what they say on social media.

The pictures you see of people that suddenly go viral, the stories of people who have been fired because they vented about their boss or company on Facebook, not to mention the celebrity who posted something slightly controversial that is now in deep water. All of these things are stories that we are becoming all too familiar with.

I personally am very careful and choose what I post very specifically. Even things like retweets on Twitter, I have to stop and think, “OK that was rather funny but how could retweeting that portray me”. All these bits and bytes of data that we put up about ourselves on the internet, day in and day out, all lead to an online “persona” that can, and often does come back to bite people in the posterior when they least expect it.

With the advent of social media, cameras in smartphones, the ability for friends to tag you in photos that you never really wanted to be taken and a plethora of other factors mean that data about us is being captured at a faster rate than ever before. Something a lot of people do not think about is the consequences of putting information up about themselves that might not portray them in the best of light until it is too late.

So how do you handle your online life and youronline persona? Do you carefully monitor what you put up, say, tweet, and do online? Have you ever said or done something online that *has* come back to bite you in the bum? Let me know your thoughts below!

Look forward to hearing others thoughts.

Stuart

Addition: As though by pure luck there is just one such case on Sydney Morning Herald today regarding a Vodafone Staff Member.

Improve your productivity and save time by typing less!

Man typing on macbook with a clock in the backgroundWhen you use a computer all day, every day, typing will invariably take up a significant amount of your time. Therefore, finding ways to minimise what you need to type, can not only save your fingers some extra mileage (helping to stave off RSI), but also result in some significant time savings as well.

For the last few months I have been using Breevy (for Windows) and TextExpander (for Mac) to achieve just that. Not only have I found significant time savings by typing less, I have also found I can achieve tasks faster by the reduction interaction with the mouse. I personally think the mouse is the slowest form of input we currently use today with computers, and therefore by automating tasks and removing the need to take my fingers away from the keyboard I can greatly increase my productivity.

What do they do?

Both Breevy and TextExpander enable you to define keywords/abbreviations that will expand to a “snippet” of text when they are typed on your computer. For example rather than constantly typing “Kind Regards, <newline> Stuart” on emails all I need to type these days is “krds”, and the text is expanded for me.

While this may seem simple at first as you start to use the text expansion on different tasks, the time savings really start to add up. Currently I use the following keywords (just to name a small few):

  • pmob – Mobile Number
  • pmobi – Mobile Number (international format)
  • pmail – Personal Email
  • umail – Work Email
  • lhack- Lifehacker URL
  • sshcbg- SSH to a server with a specific connect string with port forwarding
  • sr- My Name
  • /. – Loads Slashdot.org URL (personally I love the geekiness of this one)

You might wonder why I use a text expansion utility for entering URLs, as I mentioned earlier I find the mouse to be a very slow form of input. Now I can open my browser using keystrokes on my keyboard, then type a few letters and press enter to go to all the common websites I visit. The great thing is I can do this all without needing to move my hand away from the keyboard to engage with the mouse until the website is actually loaded.

What is the difference between Breevy and TextExpander?

From the feature set that I have used the programs are virtually identical and perform the same function. Breevy and TextExpander are made by two separate companies and the biggest difference between them is that Breevy is for Microsoft Windows and TextExpander is for Mac OSX.

Both TextExpander and Breevy have implemented synchronisation via Dropbox. This enables you to keep all your shortcuts in sync between your different machines. Breevy has taken this one step further and provided the option to synchronise with a Dropbox account that already has a TextExpander database on it. What this means is for you geeks that switch between Mac and PC you can use both Breevy and TextExpander between your machines without needing to maintain two separate copies of the database.

What do they cost and where can I get them?

Both Breevy and TextExpander cost $34.95 USD each (at time of writing). Both are available directly from the company that develops the software, Breevy is available from 16 Software and TextExpander is available from Smile Software.

Tips and Tricks!

Firstly I would strongly recommend that you start out small, pick a few easy things such as your name, mobile number, email address and train your mind to start using those as shortcuts. Once you are in the swing add some more, then take a while to get use to it and so on.

I too thought “Ooh I could add that… and that… and that…” but discovered that by doing it a little bit at a time, I was more easily able to memorise the shortcuts and not have to constantly refer back to find out what the shortcut I had written was.

Another thing to be aware of is that after you create a shortcut you may find that down the track you run into an issue where another “actual” word causes the expansion to occur. Take for example the shortcut “blogger” if you were to create the shortcut “ger” which would expand to “get emergency rations”, you will find you run into issues. When you attempt to type “Blogger” you will end up with “Blogget emergency rations”, therefore you will need to rethink the shortcut and perhaps add an additional letter to it.

This is the main reason why I now try to aim for four letters minimum in my abbreviations. I do admit I have made a couple of exceptions to this rule however even the “sr” I mentioned earlier causes me problems at times.

Lastly, while it is not a feature that I have used (YET), both Breevy and Textexpander provide the ability to use variables in the templates, upon triggering an expansion the software will pop up a box at you requesting the information so you can have a template that requests the users name for example. Very powerful and definitely worth a look, as I mentioned I have decided to start out small and have been slowly building up over the last couple of months.

Final Thoughts

As an Analyst/Programmer, I use a computer all day, every day. The use of these text expansion tools has helped me to save significant amounts of time by eliminating (at last count) 119 repetitive typing tasks that, previously, I did not realise were taking me such significant amounts of time.

All I can say is do yourself a favour, if you have a computer, and you use it regularly, grab yourself a trial and see the amount of time you can save by eliminating the need to type the same things over and over and reduce the times you need to reach for the mouse.

Content Delivery Networks – What, Why and WOW

Map of the world displaying network linksContent Delivery Networks, CDNs, origin push and origin pull…
Has your brain exploded yet? Don’t worry I know things might seem confusing now but let’s work on clearing some of that up. On my recent break from work I delved into the realm of CDNs and found out how impressive the results of using a CDN are in speeding up website page load times, as well as learning a lot of new things along the way which I will share today.

A bit about CDNs

First things first,  a CDN is a distributed network of servers that synchronise content between them. A content delivery network may have upwards of 15 geographical locations where they can serve content from. The important and distinctive feature of a CDN is that when a file is loaded by a customer the CDN will detect and send them to the closest server to get the content. The closer you are to the server the faster it loads. Therefore if two customers, one based in Sydney and one based in New York load the same file they will be sent to two geographically distinct servers greatly reducing the time required to load content.

With that in mind it is time to bust a little bit of jargon. An origin pull CDN defines a solution which does not require content to be loaded onto the CDN manually. By simply replacing the standard hostname with the CDN hostname, the CDN will either:
a) serve the file if it already has it, or
b) if it has never seen the file before (or it has expired) will load the file from you own server (the original hostname), cache it on the CDN servers for future hits and then serve it to the initial person loading it on the fly

The benefits of origin pull are that by simply changing the URL (either manually or programatically) you can easily enable the use of a CDN on a website or other web application for loading all the static content including files such as images, CSS and javascript files. If you have a look at this page you will see the Softlayer logo uses http://cdn[xx].technicalnotebook.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/softlayer_logo_colour.jpeg rather than the standard link that WordPress would use (http://akamai05.technicalnotebook.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/softlayer_logo_colour.jpeg) and this is an example of how W3TotalCache has made it very simple to enable a CDN for this WordPress blog.

The alternative to an origin pull CDN is an origin push CDN which requires you to push/upload content to a storage area on the CDN and then link to the content. The difference between the two solutions is that origin pull is generally better for lots of small files such as Javascript, CSS files, XML and images that would be served as part of a standard blog. Conversely, origin push is required when you will be serving large files such as video, audio and streaming media. With this in mind, in an origin push setting you will also need to rent storage space from the CDN provider to store these larger files where as origin pull will generally only have a per Gigabyte charge.

Softlayer’s CDN

Softlayer LogoSo now with jargon aside, if you are in need of a CDN for your site I would strongly recommend Softlayer. In the coming weeks I will be putting a couple of posts together on issues I ran into, how to get things set up and most importantly how it all works.I can definitely say that once you work out the quirks it is extremely simple to get going (I know, I know… famous last words :D).

I would also like to give a big shoutout to the team at Softlayer for their assistance in helping me get my new CDN set up with them. Softlayer uses the Edgecast Content Delivery Network and has very reasonable prices ($0.12/GB USD), especially when you consider the worldwide coverage (which for me includes a POP here in Sydney).

The team has been extremely helpful in getting me up and running and I give them 12/10 for their support. The only thing I will say is, I feel the website wasn’t clear that the pay as you go option is exactly the same cost per gigabyte as the prepaid option (so keep this in mind, by going with pay as you go you only pay for what you use). Unfortunately once the CDN is set up as a prepaid you can not switch to pay as you go. I have learned this the hard way and have had to set up everything a second time. With that aside, page load times for my sites are through the floor and I am working on tweaking things further as I go. To provide some insight into just how much faster things are I I have reduced the page load time for the Technical Notebook homepage from between nine and ten seconds (outside of the US) down to around three to four seconds from most locations around the world.

For you bloggers out there if you use WordPress (self hosted) I would strongly recommend you consider looking at the possibility of a Content Delivery Network to help speed up your web site loading times around the world, also keep an eye out here on Technical Notebook in the near future for more info).

Hopefully this has been insightful and you might just have learned something new.

Stuart