Laptop Security for Digital Nomads

Chances are that if you have no actual office or regular working spot you’re working in places like a cafe, a park, on a bus/ferry/airplane or some kind of public place.

Here are some common tips to protect your laptop, the data in it and how you can go about such protection. All tips in this article will help towards safer use of public wifi, protecting your data and such. In the examples you’ll see Mac OS X but all of it can be done on Windows as well. I don’t have a Windows computer so I can’t show you how to set it up though.

laptop-firewall

Read all about how to secure your laptop here.

New laptop, but not exactly what I planned

Earlier this week I finally decided what I wanted after giving my other options a go.
And I was thoroughly disappointed trying them out. A few months ago I wrote a post about how my next laptop would probably be some sort of Dell XPS model with Ubuntu on it. This path mainly came from my dissatisfaction with Apples Mac OS X lately.

Earlier this month I discovered an all new line of Dell laptops, the M3800 series, and that looked even better than the XPS hardware. So I decided to install Ubuntu in a Virtual Machine and see what that was all about, expecting to get along with it. I’ve used Ubuntu in the past. On a laptop, back in 2006 or so. And since then on and off every once in a while. I’ve always had a VM on my iMac with Ubuntu. But I rarely started it. I’ve ran servers with Ubuntu on it regularly over the years.

But earlier this month I got the latest Ubuntu, fired it up and made a serious effort to like it. Liking Ubuntu itself isn’t that hard. It looks pretty good, works fairly intuitive and overall it works well. It’s going bad quickly when you start to use programs.

I’ve spent 2 days trying and experimenting with various Email clients. They all suck.
I’ve spent a few hours with Firefox and ended up with Chrome. But neither was really attractive (I’ve been using Chrome on Mac OS X lately and that works much much better).
The Skype client is a damn abomniation… And, well… you get the idea.
I gave up after 4 days of installing programs.

If you’re used to software of a certain quality and then have to make do with programs that look like they’re from 1995, lack options, support or simply don’t work… It’s not a pleasant experience. Since Windows and then especially Windows 8 is no option either. I ended up with Max OS X again – Yes, I could have tried another Linux, but they all use the same window managers and apps. Not to mention, try finding a laptop that actually works with Linux. Not worth the hassle.

So I got this instead –
new-laptop

I ended up buying a Macbook Pro. No need to learn new stuff. And overall, if you compare OS X to Windows and Linux, it’s not all bad. Just less than ideal, I guess. That said, a fresh install of Yosemite works a lot better than a 3x upgraded setup (so far anyway). And somehow on a retina display the icons and stuff look a lot prettier also. Not sure what’s up with that. But perhaps it’s an optimisation thing where Apple favours just let non-retina users down.

Anyway; I decided to go (somewhat) all-out and bought the 15inch Macbook Pro Retina. 2.5Ghz quadcore, 16GB Ram, 512GB SSD, and a dual GPU; Intel Iris and a Nvidia GeForece GT750 with a bunch of Gigabytes each. Quite snazzy.

The Macbook Pro replaces my iMac and Macbook Air, which will go up for sale soon… And in a few months I’m going to get rid of my PC, too. Since I’m moving to the Philippines later this year and I won’t take them with me.

Just yesterday I realised I need a new backup harddisk. I bought a new one just last month or-so for my Macbook Air. But the Pro has a much larger harddisk, and a full backup now isn’t possible… Also the Macbook Pro doesn’t fit in my Laptop bag 🙁 So much 1st world issues…

Ongoing flurry of stupidness

broken-ethernetI have 2 internet connections with the same Internet Service Provider (ISP). One at home, one at work. Both connections are 40mbit DSL lines and are in the same geographically in the same neighborhood and as such use the same gateway onto the actual internet. This means that both connect to the same local ISP network and from there go on the actual internet. This also means that if that local network is broken both locations have poor service. This is very very simple.

My internet is shit on both locations. Has been for a while on all devices connecting. So much so that often we can’t browse the internet because it simply doesn’t work. Other times it’s tediously slow with endless timeouts and half loaded broken sites. Multiple times per day it’s offline and if it “works” it’s usually slow and stupid.

I’ve been trying to get support about this on-and-off for weeks now. Mostly via twitter. 2 days ago or so they finally started listening and suddenly everything appears to be my fault. Reset your modem, show pics of said modem, disable eco mode (which visibly isn’t enabled – Yea, they’re that stupid), move the modem to improve your wifi (I’m not using Wifi on half my computers and they know that). Replace cables and more of that nonsense. They completely ignore that I mentioned numerous times it’s not my LAN that I ruled everything out on both my networks. Which are fast, stupidly simple set up and, well, it just works. I showed and explained them that a bunch of times.

Traceroutes timing out repeatedly on their stuff, and incredibly high latency on what I assume are peak-hours. Around lunch, dinner and during the evening for example. Obviously it’s not their network at fault here. The ISP network never breaks. Never mind that I reported the exact same problem happening on 2 physically different locations hundreds of meters apart from each other which just happen to use the same ISP network to go online.

traceroute

Both *my* networks are lightning fast. I’m out the modem, onto their network in less than 0.3ms. Then it either breaks or has 3000ms+ latency as depicted above. But no, it’s not their problem. And nothing is wrong on their end.

Sometimes being sort of a networking expert is just annoying *sigh* 🙁

Down with the network!

server-downTo further preparations for the oncoming move I tore down my fancy network at home recently. And now the last bit of advanced tech has been taken out too. My beloved Mac Mini Server running Plex Home Theater.

With all series we were watching ending or having ended last year we didn’t really use it in any meaning capacity anyway. I watched a movie or thing regularly but overall it wasn’t used all that much anymore. No video processing had been done in weeks. Time to take it down.

You can buy the hardware if you want 🙂 A 2009 Mac Mini Server and a 6TB Western Digital storage Raid. Up for grabs if you’re in the Amsterdam area. The Mac Mini has a original Snow Leopard Server license too – If that tickles your fancy.

My network is so simplistic now, boring and bland. Just a modem, Wifi station and a bunch of computers. Meh.

My very own shortlink service

Over the weekend I have created my very own shortlink service. No more wp.me links for me in WordPress – Or anywhere.
For this I’ve created a fancy plugin which I now employ in each of my sites.

So this post has a shortlink made with ajdg.link and every future post will have one too.
If you want to set up your own service like this you can do so rather easily using Yourls, a short (or any) domain and a Yourls compatible plugin.
I choose to make my own plugin, but that’s not required as there are various plugins out there.

I tried to go for a shorter url, but along the way realized I just wanted a fancy thing similar to bit.ly so I came up with a simple algorithm to make semi-unique urls. I say semi because there is no check of the link exists but the method I use is based on the post ID of the posts I write so should be fairly random. My domain is not as short as twitter their t.co but that’s not really the point I think. It’s more the “I have a shortlink service and don’t have to rely on something I don’t fully support” idea that makes it useful and cool.

So click on this: http://ajdg.link/w04mtmyg or this one http://ajdg.link/jcebook or even this – http://ajdg.link/1t45nmcq. And many more to come 🙂

Dropbox vs. BtSync – Why Dropbox is better

Today I ditched BTSync almost completely for my business use and moved everything relevant into my dropbox account. Why? Because BTSync doesn’t work.
It’s unreliable, slow and stupidly annoying when you go outside your Local Network. Yea.. NAT like it’s 2002.

BTSync

sync-logoThe idea of BTSync is great. Better yet, it’s awesome. It uses the regular Torrent protocol for Dropbox like functionality. That basically means you do not have to have a central storage point if you don’t want to. This is great for synchronising pretty much everything between any number of computers. As long as one other computer sharing the folder is online you can sync. If there are multiple online you get your files from all of them or the ones that have the newer files. Like a great mesh network with files flying in all directions.

Dropbox

dropbox-logoDropbox is works fairly the same but it uses another protocol. Probably some in-house thing (But I don’t know for sure). It synchronises your file to the Dropbox servers so they have your stuff (encrypted!) but ALSO locally if they are on the same network (this is generally faster). This has as a plus that none of your other computers have to be online to get to your files. You just need Internet. It also works as a off-site backup. Obviously you need a Dropbox account, which comes with 2GB storage for free.

How is Dropbox better?

BTSync works very very well as long as you stay within the same network, for example your home network. It completely sucks when you go beyond your router and have to go through NAT. BitTorrent has set up a bunch of private trackers (private as in isolated, anonymous and encrypted) for this purpose so computers can still find each other if they’re not on the same network. One problem with it though. It rarely works, and if it does, it’s slow.

I have end-to-end 40mbit internet, that means 5Mbyte (ish) up- and downloading. I never saw it go beyond 200 Kbyte either way.
When the same computers were connected through a IPSec VPN (effectively bypassing NAT) or locally (So you weren’t going through their tracker and don’t need NAT) the speeds went way way up and syncing was much faster. Weird.

Most problematic with BTSync though was an ongoing issue with the app silently crashing when a computer goes to sleep. This would happen randomly, intermittently but frequently. And since it happened without any indication other than the little sync icon being gone, I often didn’t notice this until I was missing files. So annoying :(. I have used BTSync for almost a year and really relied on it for a whole bunch of files. About a third of the time I didn’t have them.

Then Dropbox… Over the few years I have had my account it never failed me and it just works.
The only big downside to it I always found was that Dropbox syncs the Dropbox folder and everything has to be inside that folder. This kinda kept me from using it for any serious synchronising until today and was the main reason I sought out an alternative.

Switching to Dropbox

Today I was so fed up that I once again had no access to my files and thus couldn’t work all day – My balance sheet was outdated, none of my development files were synchronised. I couldn’t do a damn thing all day until I was able to boot up my iMac at home and fix BTSync.
Except, instead of fixing BTSync I moved most of my files into Dropbox.

I figured out that Symbolic links (On a Mac, and probably Linux) will allow me to have files and stuff synced via Dropbox, while being outside of Dropbox. Great! So I set up a folder in the Dropbox folder which would hold those symbolic links (Symlinks) using a little App called ‘MacDropAny’.
I did this on both my Macbook Air and iMac.

What I didn’t think of was that this would create an endless loop of adding and deleting files. Since Dropbox doesn’t know the files are in a Symlink it will actually put those files on the remote computer inside the Dropbox Folder. Which I promptly deleted to have Dropbox go through a Symlink on that end. While doing so, Dropbox would sync the deleting of files back to the iMac and so on… A big mess.

Easily solved though. Set up one computer while the other has Dropbox paused. Here’s how.
For me I have an iMac and Macbook Air. I decided that the iMac would be the “source”. On the Macbook Air I paused any synchronising.

dropbox-pause

So I set up the Dropbox stuff on the iMac, with Symlinks and let it sync completely.
Meanwhile on the Macbook Air (with syncing on pause) I created the same exact same folder in the Dropbox folder and made the exact same Symlinks as on the iMac.

dropbox-symlinks

To remind me not to ever touch the Symlinks I tagged the parent folder “AJdG Solutions” red.
And in Finder I tagged the original folders Purple (which also shows for the symlink). On my computers a purple tag means that the folder is synced with something. Just a little trick to remember what’s what so things don’t screw up.

dropbox-tags

Then a whole bunch of time later the iMac finally synched it’s 27343 files and I could enable synchronising on the Macbook again. Since the files already existed on both computers I didn’t need to download it all. But Dropbox took a few minutes to indexed the whole lot. Then synced a few minor things and things work great now 🙂

But 2GB is not enough

Well that’s easily solved. I have 5.88GB for free with Dropbox. All you have to do is get some “achievements“. Have some friends sign up, try out their Mailbox Beta, link your facebook. That sort of thing. There are a number of ways to increase storage.

You could also shell out €9.99 a month for 1 Terabyte of space and some extra features.
I’m an affiliate, signups get me more Megabytes… Click here and sign up for your FREE account!

What will my next laptop be?

dell-ubuntu-appleGiven that Apple keeps dropping the ball and it has been a steep downward slope for the past 2 years or so I was fantasising about my future laptop. Would I buy a new Macbook should I need one? I currently have a Macbook Air with some sort of i7 CPU and 8GB of ram. It’s neat, I like it. But OS X and included apps, services and policies keeps ruining it. The constant removal of features and dumbing down of apps is getting tiresome. Pretty much every service Apple offers is broken, inefficient or otherwise not very useful lately.

So the conclusion; probably not.

Hardware

Then I remembered the Dell Vostro series from last year. Dell has since discontinued the series but they *do* actively maintain a XPS Laptop model that has Ubuntu pre-installed and is optimised for Linux in general.

If I were to buy a new laptop now, this month or in the near future I’d seriously consider a “Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition” (Link). This laptop seems to be up to spec, It’s pretty, has Ubuntu Linux on it and can run a lot of software I use today (or close alternatives for what I use today).

So that’s hardware covered.

Software

But going back to Windows is no option. What would I use for software.
Currently I don’t use all that much… A bunch of developer tools for PHP/MySQL and such. A mail client, browser, Skype and so on.
All available on Ubuntu as well. Even Yahoo Messenger for Ubuntu works – A thing that’s no longer working on OS X. No, Adium sucks.

For development I’d probably use something like Bluefish. For (s)FTP I’d go with Nautilus and for MySQL something like DBeaver or Navicat.
I use OpenOffice already. And I’m told Krita is a good alternative for Pixelmator. Games? Well who are you kidding, nothing runs on a 1.4Ghz Macbook Air that has no proper GFX chip. So anything Ubuntu has to offer will run better on the superior hardware of any modern laptop such as the Dell mentioned earlier.

Compatibility

Linux is not very compatible with a lot of things. Sure it works fine, and you can do pretty much everything. But last I tried a lot of tools and apps either are simply not available or they’re half-assed attempts to mimic the real thing. For example, I’d have to find an alternative for iCloud. I can’t sync my iPhone anymore and the iTunes store is out of reach for the most part.
Things such as these may be something to reconsider moving away from Mac OS X. But do they outweigh the horrid experience Yosemite is giving?

I bought my current Macbook in April this year. And I don’t really want to invest in a new machine just yet. So until then, Apple has some time to make up for what they’re doing. But next year? When a new laptop makes more sense? The coming year will tell…

Alternative for OS X Mail?

mail-macSince Apple apparently doesn’t care for good software anymore I’m ready to switch to another email client. Ever since Yosemite happened my mailbox has been a crumbling mess of failure. And I’m tired rebuilding my mailboxes or having to clear out folders that didn’t exist before. Nor do I want to see 200+ drafts of emails every time I open up Mail on another computer.

Come to think of it, over the past year or so I’ve replaced pretty much every app Apple provides with something else. The few remaining ones are Mail, Notes, iPhoto, Safari and iTunes. Everything else has been replaced. Not a good trend 🙁

Anyway – Mail replacement. Who knows a good alternative that isn’t Outlook or Thunderbird?
I don’t care if it costs money, but I want it to be good. I know about Mailbox, I have tried Sparrow already (And don’t like it). What else is there available and what are your experiences with it?

I do everything with IMAP, I have folders on my IMAP accounts and I use SSL for a few addresses. I need things to sync fast and effortless between my iMac, Macbook Air and iPhone.
Which basically means, it needs to play nice with iOS Mail. I receive a ton of email per day – A spam filter would be neat.

Any and all ideas welcome! Thanks!