Virtual Private Networks (VPN)

By Phil Davis

What is a VPN?

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have been in the news a lot recently so you may be wondering just what it is, how it works, and whether or not you should be using one. With the government allowing your internet service provider to sell your web history, It may be a good time to start looking for a good VPN product.

Normally, anything you send or retrieve from a website is sent in the clear. Anyone intercepting it can view or capture it – they can see exactly what you send or receive from a website. A VPN can make surfing on unsecured networks more secure by encrypting all of your traffic on that network and then decrypting it before sending it out – It’s a middleman between you and the internet. Your ISP can only see a bunch of encrypted traffic that looks like random characters and it looks like you only visited one website, your VPN server.

 

Figure 1. IP Cloaking

Figure 1 shows what happens when you use a VPN. I used dnsleaktest.com to detect my IP address in three ways: with no VPN, a VPN server in the midwest, and a VPN server in New Zealand. The VPN service that I use has over 35 other choices for servers in many other countries. Although I have blanked out the IP address with no VPN, it is just the IP address that my ISP automatically assigns when I connect.

 

Figure 2. VPN Diagram

A VPN connection is just like having a really long ethernet cable from your Mac to the server on the other end. VPNs are not new. Businesses have used them for many years to ensure the privacy of their communications and to allow employees to access their work network securely when they’re away.

One common misconception about VPNs is that they provide user anonymity. Jeremy Campbell, creator of DNSleaktest.com has said that “Using public VPNs for anonymity is foolish and potentially dangerous, no matter how securely it’s configured, simply because the technology was not designed at all for anonymity. VPN services require that you trust them, which is a property that anonymity systems do not have.”

Choosing a trustworthy, reliable VPN service provider is hard, but Reddit user That One Privacy Guy collected virtually everything there is to know about most large (and many small) VPNs and put them into a single color-coded Google Sheet that’s easy to read and understand. This online chart outlines VPN business practices, logging, service configuration, and other features, pinpointing contradictory policies and misleading claims that various services are 100 percent effective.

Tip: Be careful when selecting a VPN provider. While the traffic is encrypted, make sure you go for a company with a good reputation rather than one that looks a little too good to be true!

Learn more about VPN from Why You Should Consider Getting a VPN, What is a VPN, and The Short MakeUseOf Guide to VPN Terminology.

Using a VPN On Your Mac (or iOS Device)

Although there are free VPN services available most experts caution against using them because they may not provide the best security. It is better to pay for your VPN service which can be as little as $40/year.

Most VPN providers offer their own desktop clients that make it easy to connect to the service. Simply install the software that they provide and set some preferences. From there it is usually automatic. Most services let you pick a server location and set some networks to be trusted at all times.

I recommend using the VPN Comparison chart to select one or more product to test. Most of them will have a free trial so you can see how they work, see where their servers are located and test the impact on your internet connection speed (should be minimal). Occasionally you will find a site that doesn’t work well with your VPN but it is easy to turn if off temporarily. I tried several services before I settled on the one I use now. Make sure you select one that allows you to use the service on several devices, including your iPhone and iPad.

Several to consider include Private Internet Access, NordVPN, Cloak, and Tunnelbear which have a reputation for being reliable and trustworthy.

 

Create a Personal Knowledge Library

By Phil Davis

March 2017 OMUG Newsletter

Most of us are constantly collecting bits and pieces of information that we find interesting and useful. We’ll read some household or technical tip on the internet that we say “hey, I could use that someday.” So we file that away in our brain, or maybe write it on a piece of paper and put it in a stack with all the other bits of useful knowledge.

Then, three weeks, or three months later we have an occasion to need this bit of knowledge, but we not only can’t remember it but can’t even find the piece of paper.

There is a better way. Start creating your own Personal Knowledge Library (PKL). A couple of years ago I talked about creating a reference library of all your user guides and equipment manuals. A PKL takes this concept one step further and becomes your long-term memory assistant. You might even call it your personal Wikipedia (or for us older folks, a personal Encylopedia Brittanica).

So, how to get started?

First, you will need to decide on an app to use to house your PKL. Ideally, you want one that is easy to use, can store many types of information and is searchable. Also, you would like your information to be accessible from your computer and your iDevices. The app should contain your collection of knowledge in a single file or database but have the ability to easily export stored information in a variety of formats.

Theoretically, you could do the same thing by saving everything in individual files on your computer, but this would quickly become a nightmare and defeat the entire purpose of your PKL.

Next, think about some of the categories you might want to use to identify your knowledge entries. I would suggest starting with some simple ones and expanding later — any good PKL app will make it easy to modify and add to your organization structure as it goes. For example, you might start with simple categories like household tips, technical tips, OMUG newsletters (saved as PDFs), favorite websites, travel plans, and important documents.

Finally, get an app and start using it. There are many to choose from, but here are a few to try. You might want to try several of these for a few days to see what works for you.

Apple Notes: This app is on all Macs and iDevices. The latest version of Notes in Sierra and iOS 10 satisfy many of the requirements but is not as flexible as some of the other choices. It is good for quick notes such as shopping lists that you want to use on your iDevice. Sharing between Mac and iDevices is done through iCloud.

Evernote: This cloud-based service is free, is easy to use, and has downloadable apps for the desktop and iDevices. Also, there are browser extensions that make it very easy to clip information from the web for later retrieval. There are paid upgrades available, but most users will be happy with the free version. Sharing between Mac, PC, iDevices, and Androids is done through Evernote’s web-based servers.

Microsoft OneNote: OneNote has been around for years on the PC and is now available on Macs and iDevices. It is free but requires you to have a Microsoft OneDrive account to allow sharing of documents. The user interface can be a little confusing but you might give it a try to see if it works for you.

DEVONthink: Devonthink is the best of the bunch in terms of power, flexibility, and searchability. You can dump almost anything in it and almost instantly find it later. It isn’t free, but there are several versions available and you can get a fully functional trial version to see if it is what you want. I have used DEVONthink as my own PKL since I switched to a Mac about ten years ago. DEVONthink knowledge bases can be shared using Dropbox, iCloud, Box, and a number of other services.

There are many, many other choices out there, but the best thing is to pick one or two and just get started. I think you will find that having your own Personal Knowledge Library will be one of the most useful tools on your Mac! Think of something like Apple Notes as your short-term memory and Evernote or Devonthink as your long-term memory.

How to Take a Screenshot on a Mac

By Phil DavisPublished February 2012; Updated December 2016

Use Keyboard Shortcuts

Screenshots can be made using these shortcuts.

  • Capture screen, save to file CMD+SHIFT+3
  • Capture screen, save to clipboard CMD+CTRL+SHIFT+3
  • Capture a selection, save to file CMD+SHIFT+4
  • Capture a selection, save to clipboard CMD+CTRL+SHIFT+4

Use the Grab Application

You can also make use of Grab application which is included with the Mac OS. You can find it at /applications/utilities/grab. The captured image can be saved to a file or can be copied to another application.

  1. Open Grab
  2. Select Capture from the Menu
  3. Select the type of capture needed (Selection, Window, Screen, Timed Screen)
  4. Select FILE > SAVE to save the image, or
  5. Select EDIT > COPY to put the image into the clipboard

Or, use the following keyboard shortcuts

  • Capture selection CMD+SHIFT+A
  • Capture window CMD+SHIFT+W
  • Capture screen CMD+Z
  • Timed capture of screen CMD+SHIFT+Z (capture occurs 10 seconds after selection)

Use the Preview Application

Preview gives you the ability to annotate your capture without the use of other software.

  1. Open Preview (from the Dock or from the applications menu)
  2. Select FILE > TAKE SCREENSHOT
  3. Select FROM SELECTION, or FROM WINDOW, or FROM ENTIRE SCREEN
  4. If desired annotate the capture: Select TOOLS > ANNOTATE
  5. Save the file as a PDF or an image.

If you want to annotate the screen capture, check out some of the following applications: Monoshap, Snappy, Jing (free) or Powershot, Snagit, Capto, SnapZ Pro, Napkin (commercial apps).

Five Quick Tips

By Phil Davis Published December 2011; Updated December 2016

Use Spotlight to Launch Applications

The simplest and fastest way to launch an application is to use Spotlight. Use the keyboard shortcut CMD+SpaceBar to open Spotlight, enter the name of the app (usually you only need the first few characters) and click on the app’s icon. It couldn’t be simpler!

Look For The Obvious

When trying to track down a vexing computer problem most of us will spend a lot of time on google, asking experts, calling Apple, etc. However, sometimes we are so immersed in the details we forget to look for the most obvious cause.

In a recent blog, the author was trying to uncover the cause of a drastic slowdown in his iMac’s performance. Nothing worked until he happened to notice that there were 0 GB left on the hard drive! Once he deleted about 10 GB of unneeded files, the Mac ran fine.

Remember: try to keep at least 15% of your hard drive free.

A Quick Way To Add a Software License Items to 1Password

One of 1Password’s features is the ability to securely store all your software licenses. The normal way is to use File > New Item > New Software License from the 1Password menu.

However, a faster way is to view your applications in the Finder, then drag-and-drop the app’s icon onto 1Password’s Dock icon and a new license item will be created with most of the needed information. Then you can paste your license into the new item for safe keeping.

Use Preview to Sharpen Text

Sometimes you have a PDF file that has fonts that are faint or in a color that is hard to read. With Preview you can adjust the contrast somewhat to increase the contrast.* Open the PDF with Preview* Choose File > Export* Click on the Quartz Filter drop-down menu and select Lightness Decrease* Click Save

Force a Disk to “Unmount”

Sometimes Mac OS X goes a little crazy and won’t let you eject an external drive, even after it’s no longer in use by any application. If you can’t unmount a disk even after all open applications are closed, and don’t want to restart your machine, this little Terminal trick is for you.

Open the Terminal utility, and type:

diskutil unmountDisk force /Volumes/DISK_NAME

Replace DISK_NAME with the volume name (yes, it is case sensitive) and you are all set!

Three Ways to Learn About Your Computer

By: Phil Davis. Published April 2013; Updated December 2016

You just bought your shiny new Mac and you are anxious to get started using it. However, you might want to take a few minutes to understand (and document) what you have before downloading all those apps.

Here are three easy ways to learn about your Mac.

Use About My Computer

The easiest way to see what is inside that fancy box is to click the Apple icon in the upper left corner and select About This Mac. You will see the version of OS X installed on your computer, the processor type and speed, the amount of memory, and the name of the start-up disk.

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If you click Displays, Storage, or Memory at the top of the small window you will get even more useful information. The storage window is one of the most useful as you can see how much space is left on your startup drive.

If you click back to the Overview page and select System Report you will get all the gory details of all your hardware and software.

Get a Manual and a Specification Sheet for Your Computer

If you click on Support you can download a PDF copy of your computer’s manual (1) and spec sheet (2). Your serial number will be used to get the correct information.

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This is also a quick way to get hardware and software information from Apple.

Get MacTracker

Your final source of information is to download a free app called MacTracker. Go here and grab this little gem http://mactracker.ca/.

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Mactracker provides detailed information on every Apple Macintosh computer ever made, including items such as processor speed, memory, optical drives, graphic cards, supported OS versions, and expansion options. There is also information about Apple mice, keyboards, displays, printers, scanners, speakers, cameras, iPod, Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, Wi-Fi products, Newton, iOS, Mac OS, and OS X versions.

Now, you will be able to start downloading those apps, learn how to master your machine and start on the road to becoming a Mac wizard.

Happy computing!

Newsletter Tip: What are Your Must-Have Apps?

By Phil Davis

2016-01-05

I’ve been doing some cleanup on my extensive list of apps, most of which go unused most of the time. It is going to take a while to trim this list down to the ones that are really necessary and useful. It’s amazing how many apps in the list I couldn’t identify without looking them up on Google. I clearly need to be more selective.

It got me thinking also about which of these are really my “must-have” apps — the ones that I use daily and don’t want to do without.

I start by classifying my apps into three categories.

  1. Core Apps: These are the ones that I install first when I do a clean installation of a new OS, or buy a new computer (a very rare occurrence, unfortunately). It’s interesting to think about what you do on a daily basis and which apps you use.
  2. Essential Apps: These are apps that I use often for specific purposes, but are not needed on a daily basis. Even though I don’t need these every day, I still consider this as “essential” to my work.
  3. Useful Apps: These are the utilities, tools, and other apps that are rarely needed, but are vital when called upon.

Another way to classify your apps are by their function. Categories like create, organize, automate, develop, utilities, cloud services, backup, connectivity, security, and tech support.

For what it’s worth here is a list of my “must-have Core Apps.” They start with the usual suite of the programs that Apple provides as part of the OS release such as Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Preview, Safari, Photos, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

Then, I supplement these with my top 20 including some that you may not have heard of but are vital to my workflow. These include nvALT (my short-term brain), TextExpander, Marked, Reeder, SpamSieve, FoldingText, and Voila. Finally, I add Dropbox, 1Password, DevonThink Pro (my long-term brain), PDFPen Pro, Evernote, Postbox, Pocket, Alfred, TextWrangler, Carbon Copy Cloner, Dropzone, LibreOffice, and Chrome to the bundle.

So there you have it. Of course, there are many other apps that I use occasionally — utilities, troubleshooting tools, apps to create and manipulate images and videos — the list could get very long. But, the bulk of my time is spent with my must-have core. If you are interested I used the following while writing this article: nvALT, TextExpander, Marked, FoldingText, Safari, and DevonThink Pro.

So, what do you consider as your “must-have” apps? It never hurts to occasionally take an inventory of what is in your Applications folder and do some culling of the ones that you don’t need. Not only will this force you to think about how you work, but it can make it easier to stay on top of upgrades. This is particularly important prior to any major OS upgrades.

Do You Really Need a Word Processor?

By Phil Davis

2015-12-05

After reading email and surfing the web, one of the more common tasks that we use our computers for is to write stuff. And when we do, we usually open a word processing program without giving it a second thought.

The question that you should ask yourself is “Do I really need a word processor for this writing project?” Certainly, if you are writing a novel or your resume where you want all the fancy formatting options that your word processor offers. But just to dump a few lines of text on a page? Come on!

Rule #1: Use the right tool for the right job.

Typically, most of us (including me) automatically open a word processing program without thinking about whether it is the best tool for the job. Often it isn’t. We don’t need all the toolbars, special commands, massive formatting options, and all the other overhead associated with this type of tool. In fact, many times the options slow us down and get in the way of our creativity.

Over the past several years, I have been doing a lot of my writing, including writing for the web, using a variety of simple text editors. These allow me to focus on the content and not get bogged down messing with formatting and making it “look pretty” until I’m finished writing.

When I do need to create a document that has lots of formatting, embedded images, tables, and other fancy things, I turn to Pages or LibreOffice rather than the ubiquitous MS Word. LibreOffice is easy to use, loads much faster than MS Word, and is compatible w/ MS Word file formats. Plus, it is free. Pages is also free and is great for jobs that require graphics and sophisticated page layouts. Do you really want to pay $10 a month forever for the latest version of MS Office when there are better options?

Rule #1 revised: Use the right tool for the “write”” job.

If you decide to try something new and simplify your life (always a good thing), take a look at some of the alternatives.

Start with TextEdit built into every Mac. TextEdit can probably satisfy most of your simpler writing needs without getting in your way. But there are others that you might want to try. Several that I use on a regular basis include BywordTextWrangler, and FoldingText. These are just a few of the excellent editors, many of which have both Mac and iDevice versions. Brett Terpstra has compiled a massive list of iDevice editors if you are interested.

If you want to get adventurous, you might take a look at a formatting language called Markdown. Markdown lets you write in plain text, but then use simple symbols to add the most common formatting — bold, italic, paragraph headers, etc. I’m using Markdown to write this article. Once it’s finished I can save in a variety of “fancy” formats, but the raw material is just plain old ASCII text that can be opened in any editor on any kind of computer.

Finally, if you really must have a word processor for the job and you don’t like MS Word, Pages, or LibreOffice, take a look at an interesting one that many professional writers use — Nisus Writer. Nisus Writer is very powerful and it saves files in the RTFD format which can be read by most text editors on any computer. Not a bad feature to have if you want to avoid problems with proprietary formats being changed in the future.

Create A Reference Library Containing User Guides and Manuals

By Phil Davis
March 2015

Tired of digging through file cabinets or boxes full of paper when searching for a manual for your TV? How about the manual for using your microwave? If you are like me you rarely remember where you put them, and they often refuse to be found.

Try a better way. Download PDF versions of the user guides and manuals for your appliances, electronic gear, computers, tools, and all the other stuff we accumulate. Almost all manufacturers provide them on their websites these days.

First, you must create a folder to store your reference documents. I suggest something like this: Documents/Reference/Manuals.

As you start to accumulate your manuals you might want to create more subfolders such as /Manuals/Applicances, /Manuals/Electronics, /Manuals/Computer Equipment, /Manuals/Photo Equipment, etc.

Use Google search to find the manuals. Usually all you need in the search term is the make and model of the item + manual. Apple makes it easy to find your computer manuals. You just need your serial number.

  1. Click on the Apple icon in your menu bar (top left corner)
  2. Select About This Mac
  3. Find the Serial Number and write it down
  4. Go to http://support.apple.com/manuals/
  5. Click Browse by Product
  6. Enter the serial number into the search field, click Search
  7. Select the manual you want and download the file. Note: sometimes you will see other items that seem to be unrelated – they are shown because they contain information that is somehow related to your computer.

Be sure to save the downloaded PDF files into the proper subfolder in your Documents. Once you save them you can easily find them again using Spotlight.

Make Your Reference Library Available Anywhere

Now that you have a Reference Library, you might want to make it accessible from other computers or iDevices. There are several ways to do this.

  1. Use iBooks. You can put copies into iBooks and then they will be available on your iPad or iPhone. You will need to connect the device to your computer (via USB or WiFi) and copy the files into the iBooks app.
  2. Use Dropbox. Instead of creating folders for the reference library in Documents, use your Dropbox account. In this case the folder structure would look like this. Dropbox/Reference/Manuals & Guides/. Now the Reference Library will be accessible on any computer connected to your Dropbox account as well as on your mobile devices.
  3. Use Evernote. If you have a free Evernote account, then create a category on the Evernote account called Manuals and Guides. Upload the PDF files, and add Tags for the type of manual. Now your Reference Library will be accesible on all your computers using the Evernote app. You can read them on any computer using your browser, and on all your mobile devices. What’s not to like!

There are at least four more ways to do this, but I think you get the idea. I’ll stop here before you overload your brain.

The Bottom Line: Just do it – you won’t regret it.

Your Digital Afterlife – Virtual Will

By Phil Davis

January 2015

January is always the time for making New Year Resolutions, at least for many people. It’s also a time to review last year’s resolution and realize how many were forgotten or left undone! I don’t normally like to do this, but there is one resolution that I’m making for 2015 that I intend to keep.

Resolved: Create My Digital Asset Estate Plan (Virtual Will)

Almost without realizing it, we have shifted toward an all-digital culture where things like family photos, home movies, and personal letters now exist only in digital form. Moreover a growing part of our digital life is stored in services like FaceBook, Flickr, YouTube, and Gmail. Have you considered what will happen to your accounts and digital assets when you die? Whether you like it or not your digital assets have an afterlife.

It is important to think about these things early and create a plan so that your family and heirs will not be left with a mess should you die or get incapacitated. Without a plan, the executor of your estate may have difficulty tracking down accounts, extracting photos and other important information, and then closing the accounts.

Laws have not caught up with our rapidly evolving technology. There are no uniform policies across technology platforms, states, or countries. As a result, the executor of your estate may have to go to court to gain access to your online assets. State Senator Dorothy Hukill,  Port Orange, states “There’s nothing standardized. And there’s nothing in law that addresses it. If we don’t address it soon, I see it exploding as a problem.” Hukill, an attorney specializing in probate and estate planning, says she will file legislation on the issue. Basically, her proposal would allow a designated fiduciary or personal representative access to the dearly departed’s digital life.

According to Kate Santich writing in the Orlando Sentinal “Even people who do make provisions now — who specify their desires in a will, for instance, or leave their user names and passwords to a trusted loved one — can’t count on having their wishes fulfilled, at least not legally.”

Identify Your Digital Assets

So what are we to do in this period of “legal limbo.” The first thing is to identify and inventory your digital assets — accounts, passwords, backup files, computer files, social media, email, online banking, etc.

Digital assets can be organized into several categories:

  • Computers and Devices: Content and access codes for desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.
  • Email Accounts: Account access codes and messages.
  • Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and others.
  • Cloud Sites: DropBox, Google Drive, Onebox, Box, and others.
  • Off-site Backups: Crashplan, BackBlaze, Amazon S3, and others.
  • Online businesses: Online stores, blogs, and websites, including PayPal, eBay and Etsy.
  • Multimedia content or digital mementos from Shutterfly, Snapfish, Flickr, Instagram, and other digital content sites.

Collect all the information needed to access your accounts, then document it in a way that is secure but easily accessed and understood by your Digital Executor. Think about all your digital assets, both personal and professional, and think about what they might be worth, financially, and emotionally.

McAfee recently released the results of a global digital assets survey and our digital devices hold an estimated $35,000 of value on average. Topping the charts are irreplaceable personal memories, photos and videos, at an estimated $17,000 in value. Additionally over half of respondents expressed they kept assets on their devices that are impossible to recreate, download or purchase again. (source: The Digital Beyond website)

Name a Digital Executor

Your digital executor should be someone that you trust and is comfortable with computers and technology. They will be responsible for managing your local and online digital assets. You will want to provide them with a copy of your Virtual Will and with your regular updates.

Create a Virtual Will

Your virtual will is all the information needed to document your accounts, their location, login information, passwords, and all the other metadata that goes along with digital assets. Don’t forget photos, documents, and backups stored in the cloud or in off-site locations.

Your virtual will should specify what you want done with everything and provide all the information needed by your Executor. You might want to:

  • Have your executor archive everything for your heirs.
  • Provide access to designated content to specific individuals or groups.
  • Delete some or all of your digital assets. Be specific about your wishes.
  • If you want to let your executor decide what to do with your assets you should make the clear in the virtual will.

You might want to archive your most important digital content and then ensure that your executor has all the information needed to access the archive. If you have been following the advice to establish and maintain good backups, then you already have a start on your archive.

1Password is an excellent program to securely keep track of most of your important information, but you must be sure to include the master password needed to access the program in your will. Another good option is to create an encrypted spreadsheet to contain the information. You can download a PDF file that makes it easy to collect much of this information.

Periodically Review Your Virtual Will and Keep it Updated

Most of us are constantly modifying our accounts, adding new ones, changing passwords, and making other changes so we must not only create the will and give it to our executor, but we must review and update it on a regular basis. I suggest that you do this at least once a year. Providing computer and mobile device access to your digital executor or heir – including physical location, usernames, and passwords – is essential to your digital asset estate planning.

Other Resources

One resource that others have recommended is a book called Your Digital Afterlife by Evan Carroll and John Romano. This book, along with other resources can be found on the website The Digital Beyond. This website maintains a list of online services which are designed to help you plan for your digital death and afterlife or memorialize loved ones. These services come in all flavors including digital estate services, posthumous email services and online memorials.

Disclaimer

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes, not be construed as legal advice. Rather it is a collection of good practices that make sense, even while you are in this life. As always you should use your own good judgment and adapt these recommendations to your own situation. I’m not a lawyer, so if you have questions about any of this you should consult your own attorney.