I really do wish I had more time to write blog posts for this site. It isn’t that I don’t have things to say — it’s that I have so much to say that I tend to say them on Twitter in 140 character bursts instead of here in long-form posts. In addition, I continue to contribute to the Minnesota Society of CPAs member publication, Footnote. I’ve written here about LastPass before and I tackled the issue of password generation/vault software for the September issue of Footnote. I have been impressed by the feedback I have received and I hope that everyone that is serious about security and about making their lives simpler investigates the use of LastPass or a similar password management software solution. Here’s a link to my article: http://www.mncpa.org/publications/footnote/2013-09/I-have-294-passwords-but-I-only-need-to-remember-one.aspx
Despite the lack of writing I’ve been doing here, my pen hasn’t been completely idle. In the past several months I’ve written a couple things for MNCPApublications.
A Footnote article from several months ago highlighted some file-syncronization services, including my favorite service, Sugarsync, that will keep files (especially those frequently used) synchronized across several devices. This has been particularly handy to me since the demise of Windows Live Sync that I wrote about before and the added bonus of cloud-based storage is a nice feature when I’m on a machine I don’t own.
A Student eNews piece hit the virtual press in October. It urges students to learn to use technology while in school because employers will expect it and there are benefits to be realized while they are still studying. It frustrates me that accounting majors are even allowed to graduate without knowing basic Excel strategies. Hopefully some of them take my advice and the make an effort to improve themselves before they are on someone’s payroll.
I remember thinking when I started this blog that I would make frequent posts here to share things, primarily with my friends and family. Then I discovered Twitter and that became my main place of sharing information instead. Every so often, though, a tool comes along that I can’t describe in 140 characters or less and it lands here. My discovery of Crashplan is one such item.
If you are like me, you have good intentions to frequently back-up your data, but those intentions turn into “I’ll do it someday” which turns in to never. Despite having the capacity to easily back-up my own data on a different computer or a separate hard drive within my main desktop PC, doing so (however infrequently) doesn’t help me in case of disaster such as a fire at my home. In that case all of my data, including the backups, would be destroyed. Also, I’ve yet to find an external hard drive and/or backup software that made the process easy despite what the marketing would have you believe.
A Footnote article I wrote for the MNCPA several months ago highlighted some services, including my favorite service, Sugarsync, that will keep files (especially those frequently used) synchronized across several devices. This can create a de facto backup service for the items you choose to synchronize and this works quite well for files that are frequently edited as it results in the current version of every file available on every device. But what about backing up the all-important photos or MP3 files that don’t really change (although the collection of such files does grow over time)? For that situation a dedicated backup solution is best.
In pursuit of such a solution I have discovered Minneapolis-based Crashplan. I recall them being mentioned as some professional conferences I had attended the past couple years and I pushed into looking at them further after seeing a billboard for their service just yesterday in Blaine.
This unique software offers free and paid options. Using the free options you are able to backup your data to other computers (including those of your friends to create an “off-site” backup) or external hardware. The paid choices add storage in the cloud on Crashplan’s servers as well. While many other services treat consumers as an afterthought by focusing primarily on businesses, Crashplan seems to place the consumer front-and-center and, while they do offer plans for small/medium businesses and larger, home/personal users will feel perfectly comfortable dealing with this company.
After playing briefly with the free choices, I took advantage of a 50% off sale to purchase 2-years of the Crashplan+ unlimited service. Even at the regular price of $49.99/year this seems like a steal and it is a double-steal to get two years for that price. I immediately started backing up my primary PC and the estimated time of completion is just over 11 days (nearly 200GB of data).
On my other PCs I don’t store data-hogs like photos so I’m fine using Sugarsync on those machines which mirrors my frequently-used files onto the primary PC where they are backed-up by Crashplan. I also still use SyncBackSE to maintain a subset of my frequently-used files on a flash drive. If your setup requires it, Crashplan does offer a household plan where all devices can be backed up to the cloud for a higher subscription price (a bit more than double the price of a single-computer option as I write this).
In summary, online backup is like insurance for your ever growing collection of data. Like insurance, it is something you hope to never need but just knowing it is there makes me feel more secure already. Check out Crashplan and try the free services for yourself to see just how easy it can be to “set it and forget it” while storing your backup in the cloud. The fact that they are a Minneapolis-based company is icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned, but you don’t have to be from the Land of 10,000 Lakes to find their service beneficial.
With the advent of Firefox add-ons like Firesheep that make hijacking browser sessions easy for even the most novice users, it is more necessary than ever to take action to use the most secure methods of transmitting/receiving data possible. One good tip is to only visit sites that use a secure connection (denoted by “https” as the protocol rather than “http”). A great tool that will automatically do this for you for major sites it this add-on, HTTPS-Everywhere. Another tip is just to change your Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail, etc. bookmarks to https in the URL to make sure that you are always connecting securely through your own bookmarks, but if you click on a “share on Facebook” or similar link at a website you are still subject to the site owner’s link design as to which server you are taken to. Better to use this add-on to be safe, but do understand that there are limitations that might cause problems. These are generally the result of some services (like Google Images or Facebook Chat) not being available over HTTPS so some sites may not look/feel exactly the same as their non-secure counterparts.
If you find that you constantly share links with friends through Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. then this add-on is for you. There are literally dozens of services in Shareaholic that can be turned on or off so you can set up only the ones that you use. Chances are that just the act of going through the setup will introduce you to some services that you didn’t even know about before.
The ones I have set up, for example, are Facebook, Twitter, bit.ly, Google Mail, Google Reader, LinkedIn, and Microsoft Outlook. Sharing the current page or a link on the current page using any of these methods is just a click away.
Normally when you copy text in Firefox it retains the original formatting when you paste it elsewhere (such as into
Word or into a blog post). This is not always desired.
The workaround to lose the formatting that I used to use involved opening Notepad, pasting the text into there, copying from Notepad (Notepad is only capable of using plain text), and then pasting to whatever my destination was in the first place. This add-on puts additional choices such as “Copy as Plain Text” to the right-click context menu to make it as easy to copy text without formatting as it is to copy the text with the formatting.
Hat tip to my friend Brian for sending along a message he received about this great, simple tool. Readability is nothing more than a script that runs as the result of you loading a bookmark. The simplest way to use it is to put the Readability bookmarklet on your “Bookmarks Toolbar” or “Links” bar in your web browser. When you are on a site with an article that is worth reading, simply click the button up on your toolbar and all of the ads, sidebars, banners, etc. will disappear leaving you with only the text you want to read.
There are several options that you tweak at the Readability website before dragging the bookmarklet up to your browser toolbar (or right-clicking and choosing “Add to Favorites” if you use IE). I find that eBook | Medium | Extra Wide works best for me in most situations. Especially with wide-screen monitors it is nice to have the resulting text column fairly thin when reading so that is why I choose the largest margin possible.
Below is a comparison of a news story as originally presented and after activating Readability. An added bonus is that the resulting article appears all on one page and not spread out over several pages so there is no longer a requirement to click “next page” several times. This can be done with Greasemonkey (at least on StarTribune) but it would probably require a specific Greasemonkey script for each site you visit whereas Readability handles it very cleanly and simply.
I, like many people, carry a flash drive with me at all times. This allows me to work on files, primarily for a class teach at Metropolitan State University, wherever I am on any computer I can find. When I’m at home, though, I prefer to not hunt for my keychain (where my flash drive is located) and I like to make changes to my files on the hard drive of the computer that I’m using. Windows Live Sync does a great job keeping all of my computer hard drives synchronized, but then I’m still left with the task of keeping the flash drive that I carry mirrored to my computers as well.
I posted before about a Microsoft tool called SyncToy. It worked great with WindowsXP at managing the files I had on my flash drive and replicating additions/changes/deletions between my laptop and flash drive. Sadly, though, once I installed the Windows 7 Beta on my laptop I started to have issues with SyncToy.
Files that were identical on my hard drive and flash drive were copied back and forth as if they were different (usually due to an issue with the time zone offset it seemed). Other times it just seemed that certain files were overlooked in the synchronization process. These issues did not disappear when I installed the final release of Windows 7 in October so I started to look for alternatives. I see now that SyncToy was upgraded to version 2.1 in November, but I’m not willing to risk the integrity of my data given my recent experience with the product so I set off to find a product that did what I needed.
The program that does everything I need it to do (and then some) is SyncBackSE from 2BbrightSparks. Unlike SyncToy it is not free, but it is well worth the $30 for a task that is so vital to me. There is a free version of SyncBack but I found that it doesn’t manage deletions well. When a file was deleted on my flash drive, for example, the free version of SyncBack would identify that the file was on the hard drive and not the flash drive and it would copy the file back to the flash drive to keep the two identical. SyncBackSE version instead will note that the file was deleted on one side and then delete it on the other side of the folder pair. That is exactly the behavior I was looking for. SyncBackSE offers a host of other settings to fine tune the file management process to be exactly what you want it to be depending on your needs (see screenshot).
In short, I use a combination of Windows Live Sync (to keep files mirrorred between three different computers) and SyncBackSE (to manage files between one of those machines and my flash drive — changes that are then passed to the other computers through Windows Live Sync). It is great to once again have complete confidence that changes I make to files will be available everywhere each time I make them.
I’ll admit that this post is largely self-serving. Having rebuilt two WindowsXP machines (one of them twice) in the past week along with installing Windows 7 on my Toshiba NB205 Netbook, I am tired of trying to keep track of the add-ons that I love every time I install Firefox. Perhaps someday Xmarks or a product like it will synchronize these things across multiple installations, but counting my home PC, laptop, netbook, work PC, etc. I’ve ended up with quite an array of different add-ons on each machine. With any luck, by listing the best ones here along with links, I will be able to more easily manage these things — and if it benefits you as well, that’s great!
So here, in no particular order other than my ability to remember them, are my favorite add-ons for my favorite browser, Firefox:
I wrote at length about Xmarks back in May. Briefly, it is a way to synchronize your bookmarks (and passwords if you choose) across multiple Firefox installations. In the scenario I mentioned above about installing a fresh version of Firefox on a new (or rebuilt) PC, all that is needed to have all your bookmarks is to install this add-on and enter your Xmarks username and password and the bookmarks are downloaded from the Xmarks server to your new machine. All icons are maintained as the order and foldering structure present on your other machines.
I’ve sung the praises in-depth of Adblock Plus before. Disregarding whatever moral issues there might be to blocking ads on sites that are otherwise free, this add-on will make your browsing experience faster and less cluttered. There are very few times that I’ve had to disable Adblock Plus due to “false positives” but it has happened on a couple sites. Even so, turning it off is as simple as clicking the icon in the status bar and choosing from the menu.
I’m pretty sure that Forecastfox was the first add-on I ever used back when I first adopted Firefox as my primary browser. My previous post explains the details of this great tool and it really hasn’t changed much over time, which is just fine.
Normally when you choose to download a file, Firefox pops up a separate window to show the download status and from which you can launch the file when the download is complete. This is interesting behavior given that one of the primary reasons many people first adopted Firefox was because of the pop-up blocker that other browsers lacked. With this add-on, you can eliminate the extra pop-up window and instead monitor and execute downloads from the Firefox status bar.
This add-on is different from others in that by itself it does nothing. Instead, you have to download (or create) Greasemonkey scripts (there are thousands) to make it do whatever it is you desire. A more lengthy post I wrote in May provides more details, but having Greasemonkey is like putting your browser on steroids. Just like there are add-ons for Firefox I find it hard to live without, there are Greasemonkey scripts that I depend on heavily as well. Many of those are listed in the post from May, but I’ll update the list via a new post soon.
CamelCamelCamel.com used to have a Greasemonkey script that worked on Amazon so that you could see historical prices for a given item without having to visit the main CamelCamelCamel site. They have no released a Firefox add-on that does much the same thing except that it now also functions on NewEgg and Best Buy. This is a great way to know if that deal you are eyeing is really a deal and you also have the ability to set price alerts so that you’ll receive an email when the price drops below a certain point. If you enjoy shopping online, this is a must-have add-on.
Download Link: I discovered this add-on when I first got a netbook. Screen real estate is a premium on a small screen and I wanted to turn off the status bar at the bottom of the screen but I missed having the progress bar that shows how much of a page has downloaded. This add-on combines the address bar with the download progress meter at the top of the screen.
Another way to maximize screen real estate on a netbook is to eliminate the menus/links at the top of the browser screen. On my Toshiba NB205 this add-on is indispensable as I wrote about back in August.
Having used my Toshiba NB205 netbook for a few weeks now, I find myself wanting to eek out every available pixel that I can for useful purposes. At a maximum resolution of 1020 x 600, I find the width of most webpages to be satisfactorily displayed, but the height is limiting. This is especially true when browser menus, toolbars, status bars, etc. take up valuable vertical space. While it is true that using the “kiosk mode” while browsing ( also called “Full Screen” & can be accessed by F11 key) is one solution and hiding things like the status bar can help as well, that forces things like the search box and address bar to be hidden as well and I miss having the status bar available to show things like my download status and weather from Forecastfox.
I have found a workaround in Firefox through the use of an add-on called Personal Menu. This add-on allows the File|Edit|Tools|etc. menus as well as Bookmarks and History to be represented by tiny icons in the same row as the address bar and the search box. On a netbook, this is an ideal solution as it allows the top row to be sized very small while maintaining most of the useful browser functionality only a click or two away.
The Personal Menu add-on for Firefox can be downloaded at this link: