Staying safe and private online

I do lots of things to keep myself as secure and private as I can online – so many that I figured I’d make a list.

Securing my devices

  • make sure all my devices are fully encrypted – that includes all phones, tablets, laptops, and external hard drives (plus some USB sticks)

  • make sure all my data is backed up – and where it’s backed-up it is encrypted at rest (my cloud backup tool of choice is Arq and I use a local Synology NAS and Google Coldline as my backup locations)

  • make sure I have USB recovery drives for my all Windows installs

  • make sure my computer is kept proactively and reactively secure using anti-virus and anti-malware tools (my AV tool of choice is the pre-installed Windows Defender and my anti-malware tool of choice is Malwarebytes)

Securing my internet connection

  • configure my router to use a secure, private DNS server (CloudFlare’s 1.1.1.1 or Google’s Public DNS 8.8.8.8)

  • configure my Android phone to use a secure, private DNS server when on 4G (on the latest Android phones go to: Settings > Networks & Internet > Advanced > Private DNS)

  • use a VPN whenever I’m on an even slightly insecure network – on both my laptop and smartphone (my VPN provider of choice is Mullvad)

  • turn on my router’s guest network (with network isolation) and connect all my non-computer internet-connected gadgets (TV, Blu-ray player, cable set top box, etc) through that

  • use an advanced router that supports enterprise-level intrusion prevention (in my case I use a Synology router and their Intrusion Prevention app)

Securing my browser

Securing my online accounts

  • use a password manager to generate and store long, secure, unique passwords for all my accounts (my password manager of choice is LastPass)

  • use two-factor authentication to keep as many of my accounts as possible secure (check the excellent Two Factor Auth List to see which accounts and services you can set up two-factor authentication for)

  • keep a regular, close eye on the data that various online services and social networks have on me by going through their ‘security check-up’ processes (eg Google’s excellent Privacy Check-up)

  • check all my email addresses on Have I Been Pwned to see which online services that I have an account with have had their user data stolen – also sign up to their ‘Notify me’ service to get an alert every time any of my email addresses is found in a newly stolen user data set

Always be learning

  • keep up with the latest in security via things like the Security Now podcast, several blogs, and a bunch of security-related mailing lists

  • check the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense website for the latest guides

  • consider switching to “ethical, easy-to-use and privacy-conscious alternatives” to social media networks, online services, and software using the comprehensive (and growing) list on switching.social

An excellent introduction to TikTok

If you’ve been around the internet for a while you’ll know there used be an app called Vine that let you make six-second long videos. It was hugely popular but, after being purchased by Twitter, was discontinued in 2016.

TikTok is considered by many to be the spiritual successor to Vine. But, like with Vine, if you don’t know what it’s about and what’s happening in that space, it’s a bit difficult to get into.

So a couple of weeks ago Sally Kuchar started a fantastic thread on Twitter that showcases some of the best TikTok videos and memes. I highly recommend you check it out!

Decentralizing my online presence

Starting this year, I'm going to cross-post to my blogs:

  • everything I post on Instagram and

  • most of what I tweet (and retweet) on Twitter.

Why?

Two reasons.

1. I'm sick of the walled gardens that social networks force you play in.

It’s great that I can post stuff so easily to social networks. That’s where most my non-techie friends and family members are too – which is super cool.

But, once I do post stuff to a social network, there’s almost nothing else I can do with this content of mine. I can’t archive, index, search, tag, export, or repurpose any of it. And I certainly can’t share it to any other social network. So, once my content is in there, it stays in there.

That’s not the way things used to be, back when the web was more decentralized.

In the words of Tom Eastman: “I’m old enough to remember when the Internet wasn’t a group of five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four.”

Now I’m still a massive RSS user (yay NewsBlur!) so, for me, most of the web still is decentralized. I want my content to be part of this easily accessible, decentralized web as well.

Which brings me to reason number two…

2. Social networks are internet black holes.

If a post of mine isn’t in currently your social news feed or isn’t pinned to the top of my social profile, it might as well not exist.

Unless you’re willing to go to my profile and scroll through years of posts, there’s no easy way to see what I’ve posted since I joined Flickr in 2007, Facebook in 2007, Twitter in 2008, and Instagram in 2012.

None of my social network posts appear in Google or Bing, either. So, as far as the broader internet is concerned, this content of mine has disappeared into a black hole that you need to be a member of to access. And, even then, there’s no easy way to find what I’ve posted there over the years. (Though, to be fair, Flickr and Twitter do have fairly decent built-in search engines.)

I don’t want my content to be this thoroughly inaccessible.

So what next?

Initially, not too much is going to change. I’ll still keep posting regularly to Twitter and Instagram.

But, because I’ll be cross-posting most of my stuff to my blogs, too, you’ll be able to go to my blogs (this one and my professional one) and look through all the great stuff (mine and others’) that I’ve been sharing on Twitter and Instagram.

The best part: this blog content will be archived, tagged, and backed-up. And it’ll be easy to search for, export, and share to any other social network.

Yay for a more (re)decentralized web!

The NBN is 62% faster in our new house!

This time last year we finally got connected to Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN).

Doing so dramatically increased our average download speed from 6.9MBps with ADSL2+ (over the old telephone copper wire network) to 46.7MBps with NBN (over a new NBN fibre optic connection to the closest telephone/internet exchange).

A little over a week ago we moved into an independent house in another suburb. This meant we were no longer sharing that fibre optic internet connection with the other residents in an apartment block.

I checked to see if this had increased our connection speed and, sure enough, our download speeds have gone up by 62% to 75.7MBps!

Woohoo! 

Pro tip: If you’re looking to move house and, like me, can’t live without the NBN, check out the nbnm8 Chrome extension. When you use realstate.com.au and Domain to search for properties it’ll automatically do the nbn availability look-up for you :)

We're finally connected to the NBN!

On 23 June 2014 I tweeted this:

But it wasn't till yesterday, 15 December 2015, that we finally got connected to Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN).

Yes, this took 1 year, 5 months and 22 days

What was particularly irritating was that our neighbours got connected several month ago. It took us this long because we're in an apartment building. Which meant that, first, our Body Corporate had to get their act together and network our building — which they finally did at the end of October.

We then had to wait till iiNet, our prefered ISP (who we've been with for over six years), released their Fibre to the Basement plans for selling NBN services to individual apartment building residents. 

Once all these pieces fell into place, though, things moved quickly. And, six days after the NBN became available to us, we were online:

We're now enjoying download speeds seven times faster than our old ADSL2+ connection (an average of 46.7Mbps with NBN versus 6.9MBps with ADSL2+) and upload speeds thirty-one times faster (27.6Mbps now vs 0.9Mbps previously). We're also connecting faster, with an average ping time of just 2.5ms with NBN vs 27ms with ADSL2+. 

It's awesome.

Of course these speeds aren't as fast as the NBN can theoretically reach ("up to 100Mbps") or as fast as my internet connection is at work (average downloads at 64.3Mbps and average uploads at 86.9Mbps) — but it still pretty darned good. And it's more than enough for any video streaming we want want to do.

So, yay! The NBN was a long time coming, but it was sure worth the wait.

Mapping My Social Networks: Facebook, LinkedIn

Following on from my post on Immersion, the Gmail metadata mapping tool, I learnt of two other tools that map Facebook and LinkedIn metadata (i.e. your social graph). David Glance mentioned them in his article in the Conversation about the power of metadata ('Your social networks and the secret story of metadata').  

This is what my Facebook social graph looks like:  

What's cool about this network mapping is that, because people share a lot of information about themselves on Facebook and the tool knows who my friends-of-friends are, you can see one level deeper and find sub-networks within my broader social graph. Many of these are high school and university based sub-networks but some are also immediate-family groupings. 

The social graph that's probably cooler (and certainly prettier) is this one from LinkedIn Maps: 

This shows you that I'm connected to four major networks, one each for my two universities (LUMS and MBS) and one each for the two places I've worked at the longest here in Melbourne (Melbourne Water and Jetstar). 

And even though Jetstar and Melbourne Water are in completely different industries the kind of work I did (and am still doing) in both jobs is similar so the crossover space between their two clouds is where all my suppliers, vendors, and industry contacts are. 

One thing I've noted while doing all this mapping is the size of my network on each platform:  

  • Gmail contacts: 478 
  • LinkedIn connections: 505 
  • Facebook friends: 505 
  • Twitter followers: 776 

That's reasonably consistent and certainly above average for each of those social networks. I suppose that's a good thing. 

 

Immersion: Mapping My Email Networks

I've spent the last few days playing around with Immersion, a fabulous email network mapping project from MIT's Media Lab.  The project's creators describe this as "a people centric view of your email life" and what the tool basically does is create a network map of all your Gmail emails using the From, To, Cc, and Timestamp fields. 

Who Have I Been Emailing? 

You can can learn a lot from these maps. For example, here is what my email network looks like from April 2004 to July 2013. (I do actually have email from 1999 onwards in my Gmail account but, for whatever reason, Immersion only mapped my email from 2004 onwards. )

 

The person I emailed the most during this period was Nadia. After that, the network of people I emailed the most was my family. Obviously Nadia is also heavily connected via email to my family network. She is also connected with our Melbourne friends network and, to a smaller extent, my MBS (MBA) and LUMS (BSc) classmate networks.

The two other networks of people I emailed the most were my work colleagues at MBS and my other freelance jobs. 

Digging a Little Deeper

That's a high-level view but you can also divide this 2004 to 2013 date range into three distinct periods in my life.

The first is from 2004 to 2006, which is when I was living in Islamabad just before I came to Melbourne to do my MBA:  

Nadia and my family are obviously the largest nodes and network of nodes here, too. Aside from that, my LUMS classmates, my music projects (Corduroy and the F-10 1/2 project), and my other projects (earthquake relief) all have identifiable email networks of their own.

A couple on specific nodes are also interesting. Mosharraf, one of my seniors from LUMS and also a work colleague, is a connector of networks. And, on the upper right hand side, you can see my email correspondence with MBS starting to play a bigger role. 

The next period, from 2006 to 2008, is while I was doing my MBA at MBS: 

Here my MBS classmates network is a huge part of my emailing. That network also overlaps with the MBS staff network - from my emails to and from the Careers Centre team and my work colleagues from when I worked at MBS for a few months before graduating.  

Emails to my LUMS classmates have dropped of quite a bit, though I was still emailing Amanullah quite regularly. 

Finally, here is what my network looked like after I completed my MBA, that is from 2008 onwards:

Now a new network has popped up: my Melbourne friends outside of MBS. And, thanks to Facebook, I don't email my LUMS or MBS classmates as much as I used to.

That's really cool, isn't it? :) 

Summary Stats

Immersion also gives you a summary of your email stats, including who your top 'collaborators' are (and, if you want, you can also drill down further into your connections with each of these collaborators).

These are my overall stats and the stats for my two top collaborators: 

Yes, that's 20,879 emails with 194 collaborators over 9.3 years :)

My most active email sending years were 2007-2008, which was when I was doing my MBA. My most active email receiving years were 2010-2012 and I think those were because of Nadia, my family, my Melbourne friends, and various mailing lists. 

The group of people I email has stabilized over the last few years so the number of new collaborators I've been adding has dropped considerably. That's also because my Melbourne Water and Jetstar work emails aren't in Gmail so they're not counted here. 

Finally, the two people I collaborate most with are Nadia and my older sister Asha. I like that I've sent Nadia over a thousand emails, of which about two-thirds were sent just to her. Meanwhile I've sent Asha only 515 emails. Of those 137 were sent just to her, which makes sense because she's part of that big family network. 

So there you have it - my life in email.  

If you use Gmail you should check Immersion out yourself. It's fun to use and you can learn a lot about yourself and your email networks in the process. 

New Favourite: Pinguin Radio

I think my new favourite web radio station is Pinguin Radio

They're an independent radio station that play:

mix of pop, rock, hiphop, reggae, folk, metal, and singer-songwriters

Their music mix includes "golden oldies but especially new music" and they "specialize in broadcasting and developing new indie or alternative music."

Besides, how could you not like a radio station with the motto:

No bullshit, great music

:)

Give 'em a listen. They're well worth it.

We Have a New Website!

Yay! We have a new website!

Every since Squarespace 6 launched in July 2012 I've been meaning to upgrade our old Squarespace 5 site to this newer CMS version. I wasn't in any rush to do so - Squarespace said they'd keep supporting the old CMS version indefinitely - but I finally reached the point at which the old site started to look boring and I was itching for something new.  

This, by the way, is what the old site used to look like:

Insanity Works Version 3

And, for future reference, this is what the current one looks like:

Insanity Works Version 4

I've really enjoyed building this new site because Squarespace 6 is a really fun CMS platform to design on. I particularly love how it handles images - which you'll notice are now front and centre in this new site version. 

I also love all the fonts you get access to via Typekit and Google Fonts and the fact that, thanks to developments in responsive web design, this site automatically has an excellent mobile version, too :)

So, what do you think? Do you like the new design?

How to Combine Typefaces

This is an awesome write-up by Douglas Bonneville in Smashing Magazine: 

Best Practices of Combining Typefaces

Creating great typeface combinations is an art, not a science. Indeed, the beauty of typography has no borders. While there are no absolute rules to follow, it is crucial that you understand and apply some best practices when combining fonts in a design. When used with diligence and attention, these principles will always yield suitable results. Today we will take a close look at some the best practices for combining typefaces — as well as some blunders to avoid.

Yes, it's from three years ago but I recently needed to send it to someone and, while trying to look for it, realized that I hadn't actually blogged about it back then. So I'm talking about it now really just for completeness' sake :)

 

Hello NewsBlur!

So, how did I spend my Friday night? I migrated my RSS feed reading life over from Google Reader to NewsBlur :)

The whole process took about five hours because I first culled my RSS subscriptions in Google Reader from 470 down to 302 – not an easy task! – and then I skimmed through all of my unread posts, saving the ones I wanted to read to Pocket.

Making the actual switch to NewsBlur was really easy: I signed up for a paid account, automatically imported all my Google Reader feeds, and then tweaked a few feed URLs that didn’t get copied over properly (a couple of them got truncated).

And now I’m a NewsBlur person – complete with NewsBlur Andorid apps on my phone and tablet plus my own BlurBlog (not that I’ve shared anything there yet).

Why NewsBlur?

Why did I choose NewsBlur over Feedly as my Google Reader replacement? A few reasons.

For starters, when reading RSS feeds I prefer efficiency in reading over a more magazine style reading flow and layout – the latter being Feedly’s key differentiator and, therefore, what they’ll probably be focussing more on in the future. I like to get through my feeds as quickly as possible (I do subscribe to 305 of them, after all) and NewsBlur works better for that.

I also like the NewsBlur’s approach to feed reading – everything from its layout options to its Intelligence Trainer that helps bubble up relevant stories from your subscriptions. In a way, I’m glad Google Reader is shutting down because it’s given me the opportunity to explore better and more effective ways of reading news feeds.

I like paying for good quality software and supporting the people who build this kind of software. So even when I use freeware that I really like – applications like Metapad, Notepad++, Freemake Video Converter, Paint.NET, Calibre, Launchy, and so on – I make it a point to donate to these people. By supporting smaller developers like this you help maintain a market for innovators and their innovations.

Finally, I really like having my own BlurBlog. I hated losing the public, RSS-subscribe-able list of shared items that used to be part of Google Reader (they turned that off because they wanted all of the sharing from Google Reader to go into Google+, instead). But with NewsBlur’s BlurBlogs my friends and I can go back to sharing our favourite posts with each other quickly and easily (assuming, of course, they all sign up to NewsBlur, too).

So, yay! And let the NewsBlur-powered fun times begin :)

Explaining Introversion: Imagine You're Not Hungry

Much as I dislike the introversion-extraversion false dichotomy (which is the popular understanding of this ‘personality trait’) I do acknowledge that, given a set of circumstances, people tend to be either outgoing or reserved. [1]

Given this disclaimer, I would classify myself as being usually introverted.

Growing up with Extraverts

This was a bit of a challenge growing up because most of my family members are very extraverted and, at the time, I didn’t have the understanding or the language to express my discomfort with life in that outgoing and energetic household.

In fact I think the first time I read a good, easy-to-understand explanation of what it’s like to be an introvert was Jonathan Rauch’s famous ‘Caring for Your Introvert’ article in the Atlantic in 2003. (Sage Stossel’s 2006 interview with Rauch, ‘Introverts of the World, Unite!’, is a good, follow-up read, too.)

Since then the internet has been full of explanations from people about what their lives as introverts and extroverts is like. Most of these have been bad or, at best, misinformed and nauseatingly earnest (as people tend to be on Facebook).

Imagine You’re Not Hungry

So I was extremely pleased to read today on Reddit this excellent explanation about life as an introvert by bad_username (slightly copy-edited):

Imagine you're not hungry but every single person you meet during the day offers you a sandwich and it's rude to decline so you have to eat all of those sandwiches one by one. At the end of the day you are sick and tired of all the food. On the other hand you like good food and need it to survive. It's just you need less of it than most other people.

I really like that analogy and I think I’m going to use it from now on.

Crawl Under My Rock

My other go-to explanation for introversion comes from Gavin Lister, one of my MBA career coaches at Melbourne Business School back in 2006, who said something along the lines of:

While I am perfectly happy to attend a networking event or stand in front of you like this to deliver a lecture I will need to go home and crawl under my rock to recover from all this socializing.

That is a perfect description of what I’m like: I’m happy to go out to meet people and do things but, afterwards, I will need time to recharge and recover (usually in my cave). That, for those who are interested, is why I very much prefer doing almost little on the weekends.

ufZBiRC

Understanding Nerds

Fortunately life as an introvert isn’t too difficult for me now. Nadia who, as a huge extravert, gets recharged by meeting people (the horror!) really understands my need to be alone for extended periods of time (loosely correlated to how my day has been). More than that: she is happy to go out and meet her friends or even our friends on her own, leaving me at home to recharge. (Yes, she is awesome.)

I also have really good friends, many of whom are nerds like me and so understand very well the needs of other nerds.

So, overall, life right now is good. And today I have added another arrow to my introversion-explanation quiver.

--

[1] For the record my preferred personality classification tool is the Birkman Method.

Online content & services worth paying for

I get a lot of ‘free’ stuff from the Internet – everything from news and entertainment to email and online storage.

By 'free', of course, I mean ad-supported (in most cases) so while I do technically pay for these services with my time, attention, and user profile data I don't directly pay for them in cash.

There are, however, a bunch of online services that I do explicitly pay for with my own money.

Paid Services

These include services you can't access without a subscription, such as:

I only recently signed up with MOG, by the way, and chose to pay them over their competitors for two main reasons: they stream high quality music (320kbps over WiFi and 4G) and, since they’re a Telstra partner, streaming music from them doesn’t count toward your mobile data bandwidth. Being both an audiophile who values high quality music and a Telstra mobile customer both of these are excellent reasons.

Payment Optional & Freemium Services

The other online services I pay for/contribute to are the kind that you can access for free but can also support financially if you so choose.

These include the news, information, and editorial services like:

With the exception of Wikipedia, to which I donate annually, the rest I support through automatic monthly micropayments.

The freemium services (products, really) that I pay for include:

  • Online information management from Evernote
  • Online photo storage from Flickr

Oh, and depending on how Fairfax rolls things out, I’ll probably subscribe to The Age Online, too, once they set up their paywall. And, speaking of news outlets, I also used to subscribe to the Economist but, much as I loved their content and editorial, I wasn’t getting enough of a return on my investment.

So that’s my list. What online services – content services or products – do you pay for?

Use the Web to Be a Better Skeptic

Lifehacker recently published a skepticism-for-beginners type article called 'How To Determine If A Controversial Statement Is Scientifically True':

Every day, we’re confronted with claims that others present as fact. Some are easily debunked, some are clearly true, but some are particularly difficult to get to the bottom of. So how do you determine if a controversial statement is scientifically true? It can be tricky, but it’s not too difficult to get to the truth.

The article features advice from Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy) and David McRaney (You Are Not So Smart) and, even though it's a little long, it makes for a good read.

tl;dr for Lifehacker article: Search the web (Google, Snopes, Wikipedia, Science Daily, Phys.org), search scientific journals (Google, Google Scholar), and ask science advocates. Also, beware of confirmation bias and don't forget to think critically.

 

New Squarespace Website!

In case you haven’t already noticed, we’ve upgraded our website.

We’ve moved from a basic, static HTML site that was built in 2008 to one that’s hosted on the fantastic Squarespace platform – which, by the way, I highly recommend.

Why the upgrade?

We upgraded the site because the old one was…well, old. Also, it was too manual and time consuming to maintain. This new site, on the other hand, is leaner, faster, and, overall, a more effective online presence for both me and Nadia.

The web has also changed a lot in four years. For example, your own website no longer needs to host your entire online life. You can do things like outsource your media storage and sharing to services like Flickr, YouTube, and Picasa Web Albums. And, on the social media side, you can outsource a lot of your micro-content and general web content sharing to services like Twitter and Google+.

But you know what the best part is? Using a professionally hosted web content management because that really makes website management both easy and a lot of fun.

What do you think of the new site? Love it? Hate it? Don’t care?