Do you control your phone, or does it control you?

Cuddling while on phone ©Depositphotos/OtnaYdur

If someone took your mobile phone away for eight hours, how would you cope? A simple question that many people answer with, “I would feel naked” or “I can’t live without my phone”.

So the question is a simple one. Can you, and do you ever, turn off your mobile phone? If you see me on the street, I will happily admit I am often there tweeting away, sending an SMS, or surfing the web. Therefore I am probably the last person on earth that you might think would happily say, “I can live without it for a few hours, and at times I like to”.

Each night when I go to bed I turn my phone off, nobody can call me, nobody can SMS me, no emails, messages or otherwise to wake me up. If I go out to a movie, I turn my phone off, I don’t want it vibrating in my pocket, bothering other patrons or interrupting the movie I have paid three limbs and my first born to see. I like to retain control over my device, and control if, and when I can be contacted.

The Backstory

This post comes out of something that happened a little over a year and a half ago when I was out for my birthday dinner with my family at a lovely little restaurant. We were sitting there having a wonderful time when we all observed a couple at another table who had just sat down and both taken their mobile phones out.

From the time they sat down, till the time their food arrived (and much to my own dismay, during their meal) both barely said a word to each other and spent the entire time playing games (and different games so not even a co-op) on their iPhones. It was to the point where I was positively BAFFLED at how anyone could consider the two people as even knowing each other, let alone being out for a romantic dinner.

Is there a solution?

As a geek I know that technology is a part of our daily lives, I struggle to see why people have to grab for their phone the moment they get a message or an SMS, why they insist on letting their phones control their lives. I also can’t believe how often I see social interaction such as the case above with people grabbing for their phones.

Do I think there is a one-size-fits-all solution? Well no, probably not, however I can recommend a great first step for you is to take a step back, next time an SMS comes through, an email goes off or the phone rings, consider whether it is starting to control your life rather than you controlling it. The phone will be there in an hours time, as will any messages or anyone that was trying to call you.

As far as if there is a solution, I can tell you from first hand experience that your friends will need to be “managed” if you start taking back control of your phone, it took me a while to get people used to the fact that I will respond to their messages when I am ready to do so, rather than the instant they popped up on my phone. Initially people may perceive this as rude, but upon explanation they start to understand and accept why I do it.

Having said all this, it is simply my opinion, what are other people’s thoughts? Am I being too old fashioned? Do you have a different opinion or possibly agree with me?



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 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] rather than the standard link that WordPress would use ( 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.