13 December, 2013

Who or what has access to your Google account and how to revoke that access

Like Facebook, one of the conveniences that Google offers is that it allows you to use your Google account in order to login to different websites. In IT circles this is known as a SSO (Single Sign On) functionality. It's another way of saying, that you don't need to create an account for every single site on the internet. Instead you create one with a well know and (hopefully) trusted provider and use that everywhere. One of the ideas behind this is that you can now have one fairly strong password, which would further secure your online identity. On any site that supports this, you will then have an option to create a local account, or to use your Google login instead.

I can just hear you asking now: "But wait. Doesn't that mean that all those sites will now know my Google login credentials?"
Thankfully, the answer to that is: "No, they won't." :-)

The way how this works (in fairly simplified form) is that other sites have decided to trust Google (or Facebook) to provide the authentication services instead of them. When you come to a www.tripit.com or www.linkedin.com and use your Google login, these sites will essentially ask Google if it can verify that you are, who you say you are. Google will say "yes" and with that the site will let you in. Your password will not be seen by these sites.
That's the good part of the story.

What about the bad?

There are actually a few, potentially, bad sides. And you have to weigh each one on its own to see if convenience outweighs the risks, as far as you are concerned.

  • Google knows (sinister music)
Since your Google account to login to the other sites, Google will know which sites you're visiting. So if you're keen on protecting where on the net you go, this may be an issue for you.
  • Sites know (sinister music)
Depending on the site, there may be a substantial level of information that they will get from Google about you, when you use Google authentication. On the upside, the site where you're logging in with your Google account will always let you know what level of information they want from you, before you allow them to actually access that information. Major problem here is that, often, there is no way of reducing requested privilege level and still be able to use Google login with that particular site.
Here is a bit of information, regarding the access levels and what they mean.
  • You forget that others know (no music)

In my opinion one of the hidden risks with this is that it's maybe too convenient. Lots of sites today use this capability. In some cases you may want to try out a particular site or a service that they offer and you then forget you did so. However the site in question still retains visibility in your personal data.

For the first two things there is no tool. You have to use your head. Unfortunately :-)
For the last thing, however, there is a nice page on google.com, that allows you to check all the sites and services that are at this time allowed to access some or most of your information. It also allows you to easily revoke access to any and all such linked sites and services.
Ha, actually, just as I was re-checking the facts about this functionality, I came across an updated and nicer version of the page, which serves the same function. :-)

I'm willing to bet that most of you, will be slightly amazed, when you see all the connected sites and services, when you visit these pages for the first time.

Have a nice Friday the 13th and enjoy,

05 December, 2013

Gmail - One account, infiinite adresses

So, you've got a Gmail account? Are you registering for a technical newsletter here, shaving forum there, loyalty service in another location? On top of that there are lots of websites or services, like free wireless at in cities or at the airports, that would like to have your email address.

Lots of these services require you to confirm that you can actually be reached through an email address that you provide, before you can use them. As a result quite a few people have taken to create a separate email account just for these registration purposes. It's one of the ways to combat the amount of emails that you get in your inbox and minimize the risk of appearing on someone's spam list.
Problem with this approach is that now you have TWO accounts that you have to use and check. At least when you need to check for confirmation emails or maybe when you need to recover passwords that you forget.

Well, with Gmail, there is a way to have a single account but at the same time have virtually unlimited amount of email addresses associated with it. Actually there are two such ways :-D

D.ot.s a.re (semi)imp.ort.ant

If you're like me, then you created your Gmail account in firstname.lastname@gmail.com format. Some people do it in firstnamelastname@gmail.com format. Or you use whatever other type of account name you like. Doesn't really matter. What matters is that Google will deliver emails to your account even if punctuation is different than what you specified as your username. So, if your default email address is firstname.lastname@gmail.com then also emails to firstnamelastname@gmail.com will reach you. As well as f.irstnamelastname@gmail.com or firs.tnam.elast.name@gmail.com or firstnamelastnam.e@gmail.com or any other combination in between.
Neat, eh? :-)


You probably know that Google is doing its best to compete with Facebook, with Google+ service, for the status of social network king. If it will succeed or not remains to be seen. But it seems (may be a coincindence) that a bit of that "plussiness" has spilled over to Gmail.
It seems like that, because another way to generate additional email addresses is to add + sign at the end of your username and follow it with a string of characters. For instance firstname.lastname+shawingforums@gmail.com Or firstname.lastname+technewsletters@gmail.com
Of course you could combine this with the first technique but that would likely complicate things a bit.

How does this help me?

Well, one of the things that you can fairly effectively do in Gmail is  creating filters for your incoming emails. The thing is that if you wanted to create a filter for every loyalty program, forum or newsletter, and you weren't using either of the above tricks, then you had to create a lot of individual filters that were based on sender addresses. And additional problem was that, relatively often, sender addresses change. Which means that it can happen that one of your filters stops working all of a sudden and you may have a hard time figuring out why.
With firstname.lastname+loyaltyprogram@gmail.com you just need to create a filter that will rely on your receiving email. And it can be one filter for all loyalty programs for which you registered with that particular address. If sender address changes at any time in the future or if your registration email is provided to some third-party company, then all the extra correspondence will be automatically treated with the same loyalty filter and will not clutter your inbox. Plus (hehe) you will have a better overview in regards with how your email information circulates around the internet.

What this nifty feature will not do?

Email addresses (more properly called aliases, for those of you that are detail nazis) generated like this are for receiving emails only. You will not be able to use them for outgoing emails. Any mail that you send will still be sent under your original username@gmail.com
Also, the login name (what you type in combination with your password when you login to Google services) can only be your original username, that you picked when you subscribed for a Google account.


28 November, 2013

XBMC Subtitles

I've had a request, after my previous XBMC post, to write about the subtitles in this HTPC application. So here goes.

One of the things that you can easily do in XBMC is to get a subtitle for any movie or TV series that you watch. Most of the time the process can literally be a single-click away.

XBMC is a very extensible platform, through the use of plugins, that you can add to it. One of such plugins is a subtitles plugin. It allows you to connect to one or more subtitle sites on the internet and can be configured to automatically fetch the first subtitle that seems suitable to the title you're currently watching. In some cases it may make mistakes and either download subtitles for the wrong episode or maybe subtitles which have a bit of delay. If that happens, you can simply initiate the download again and then it will allow you to select the subtitle file manually.

So let's see how this can be setup.

Open your XBMC and move to the right where you will find the System menu.

When you enter it there will be the Add-ons section.

Once you enter that, go to the Get Add-ons and there, under the XBMC.org Add-ons entry, you will find the Subtitles section. The only selection there will be the XBMC subtitles. Open that and you will have an option to download it.

Once it's downloaded you will need to set how it will behave. Enter the plugin again and choose the Configure button. First you will set up the languages that interest you.

Then you should decide which subtitle provider or providers you will use. This may depend on your language selection, since not all subtitle providers will offer subtitles in the language of your choice. For English subtitles I have good experience with OpenSubtitles.org. Be mindful that some subtitle providers require that you create an account. In that case, you will have to provide login credentials to the subtitle plugin so that it can retrieve the subtitles properly.

Finally you should go to the Advanced Options tab and check a few entries there. If nothing else, go all the way down the list and check the option which says Auto Download first "sync" subtitle. This will enable the one-click capabilities for you later in the playback window.

We configured the Add-on settings. Now we need to let XBMC know that it will be using this plugin for subtitles. In order to do that, we head back to the System menu and on top locate and enter the Appearance section. Here we move to the right, where there is a - Settings option under the Skin entry.

In the Settings screen we locate the Add-on Shortcuts section and then on the right look for the Video OSD entry. There we need to make sure that the XBMC Subtitles is selected.

After you're done, go back to your TV Shows or Movies section and open the title that you would like to watch. During playback all that you will need to do is to click on the subtitle button and the appropriate subtitle will be downloaded automatically.


26 November, 2013

XBMC – When watching movies or TV shows is just easy - Part 2

Part 1

Even though you can install XBMC on virtually anything, from an Android phone, iPhone (if jailbroken), Raspberry Pi device, and there are even Linux distributions that are made with sole purpose of running XBMC, I’ll again do the KISS thing and simply install it as an application on my Windows PC. You can go to www.xbmc.org and on the right hand side you will see a nice, large "Download" button that will help you to transfer the installation package to your PC.
When you transfer it (it's around 50MB at the time of writing) you simply go through setup like you would with any other piece of software. Defaults will work fine and when setup runs its course, you have the application itself installed and ready to run.

When you first run it, you will be presented with a nice, large user interface that is designed (also) for TV use. As such, you can completely disregard mouse and simply use your arrow keys to move around the interface. Enter will get you in a particular menu, while Backspace will go one level up. Full list of keyboard shortcuts can be found here. Of course, mouse will work just as well.

Now we will want to let XBMC know where media files are located. We will enter the "Videos" menu, then "Files" and finally "Add Videos..." section.

 First we will add movies to the database. You will get an option to name the media files in the location. If you have more than one location where you store movies then name your location, so that it makes sense to you. I will simply call it "Movies". Then browse to the location where your movie files are. This can be on your PC or somewhere else on your network. Maybe another PC or on a NAS server. In my case it will be a local drive with Y: letter assigned to it.

When you locate the folder where your movies are stored, you confirm it. Then you will be able to let XBMC know, that the folder contains movies in the content selection. This allows XBMC to scan the folder and identify the movies and put up all sorts of nice things about them, such as title image, list of actors, summaries and so on. When you get asked if you want to refresh the info for all items in the path, answer "Yes".

Movies are added, so you need to add your TV series as well. Process is the same as before. Only difference is that you now you specify content as "TV Shows". When you're done you again answer affirmatively to the "refresh info" question. You should now have Movies and TV (or whatever you named them) in your list of libraries.

And that's it! You're done! After the scan of your files is finished and you back out of the menus, you will be able to see two new entries in the main screen. One will be "Movies" and other will be "TV Shows". If you move over them, you should already see what content XBMC was able to find and catalogue.

And if you enter the individual selection, you will be able to see your media files and start watching them.

This completes the initial XBMC posting. Sometime in the future you can look forward to information about remotes, subtitles, TV streaming and similar.

Enjoy this greatly,

XBMC – When watching movies or TV shows is just easy - Part 1

It didn't start out like that, but this post will be divided into few parts. It's a bit too long for a single entry, in my opinion. So, here's the 1st part:

You probably watch movies on your PC now and then. You may also watch TV series there. I used to use quite a few different applications to do that over the years. I eventually went for the KISS approach (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and was using Windows Media Player with some codecs thrown in. It did its job quite well. Especially with my unwillingness to install extra software that was either bloated or not too user friendly (at least for my taste). That’s one of the reasons why I was avoiding VLC player, for instance. Even though it is extremely capable player and plays practically everything that you throw at it, it’s simply just a bit too ugly and just slightly less intuitive than what I want for my daily use.

With things like movies and TV shows I am a bit of a organizational freak as well as a hoarder. I like to have things arranged into seasons. I like to know if I have actually watched something already or not. I don’t mind if I can see some sort of art-work associated with that movie and/or TV show. And I also like to have English subtitles for everything. Even the shows that actually are in English. Sometimes you can’t watch stuff at full volume or with headphones and sometimes you don’t want to concentrate too much with unusual accents and subtitles can help out a lot.

One day I crossed my internet-browsing path with a piece of open source software called XBMC. It’s quite simply one of the best written pieces of software that I’ve ever used. Especially if you consider that it’s free of charge. I love using it and really cannot recommend it enough to anyone who uses PC to watch movies or TV shows.

It’s very likely that in the future I’ll delve into some additional use-cases and tweaks for XBMC, but for now, let me just explain how it works and in the following parts, how we can set it up.

Apart from its ability to let us watch movies or TV shows, XBMC can be used also to watch live TV. That does require either a TV tuner in your PC or an IP TV subscription. But on top of that you can also use it for your audio collection and listening pleasure as well as for watching pictures.
The whole program is extremely customizable and made with TV screens in mind. That means that it will work if you watch it from afar and does not require mouse as a primary (or indeed at all) method of interaction.
It also allows you to access media from any number of sources. Either local disks of your PC, network locations such as other PC shares or your NAS device that you may have somewhere at home or some other source.

Before you install XBMC it makes sense to check how your media files are stored and, if necessary make some adjustments. While you can have your movies stored on different location, as well as your TV series, it's best if the two types of files are not mixing on the same location.
For start let's assume that you will have two basic folders. You name one "Movies" and another "TV". Into each one you put your respective content. Again it's a good idea here to make subfolders with names that reflect titles of your media. For instance: "Star Trek The Next Generation". And in there you can dump all the files with episodes of that show. If you have more than one TV show it's fairly likely that you already have organization like this. For TV shows, if you wish, you can make subfolders for every season, but you don't really have to. After this you're ready for XBMC.

I hope this whets your appetite a bit :-)
Next time I'll go over the setup process and how we add some media into the player.


Part 2

24 October, 2013

Editing messages in Skype?

If you're using pretty much any IM (instant messaging) application and/or app, chances are that you sometimes mitsype something. :-)
Skype allows you to edit your sent messages in a very easy manner.

Your last message (the one that you just sent) can be edited, by simply pressing the UP arrow key. When you do that the affected message will get highlighted and text to modify will appear at the input box. Then you can simply modify that message, like you would if you haven't sent it yet. Person on the other side will, however, be able to notice that you did the editing, since there will be a small icon of pencil at the end of the edited line.

Messages before the last one can also be edited. But in that case, you'll actually have to right-click with mouse on the message that you wish to edit and then select "edit message" from the selection.

You can go even further. You can actually delete the embarrassing message.

Of course this only helps if person on the other side wasn't there, when you typed it... :-)

If you have any suggestions for something that you would like to see here, let me know in the comments. Maybe there's an easy solution available for that too.


18 October, 2013

Doing presentations? Replicating your desktop or extending it?

In the previous post I've stated that I'm a big fan of keyboard shortcuts. I'm also a big fan of working on multiple monitors. I find that it does wonders in almost any work type to have windows open on different displays.

Since pretty much everyone I know is replacing their old desktop PCs (if they even have them anymore) with laptops, the whole thing becomes even simpler. Pretty much every laptop has some sort of video-out port. It will either be VGA, or some version of HDMI or Display Port. And practically every laptop that I've seen allows for a separate output on this video-out connector.
This means that if you own a laptop and have a workspace that you use all the time, it makes a lot of sense to put a monitor there. Especially since you can get a 24" full HD monitor for less tan 160€ these days.
And turning this functionality on is usually as simple as using another keyboard shortcut (Windows+P).

In any case, what is also interesting is that if you attach a projector to your laptop, it's like having an external monitor. I don't know why, but apart from some of my colleagues, who do presentations for a living, almost no one ever uses ability to have separate desktops on laptop monitor and on the projector.

There are a lot of reasons why it makes very good sense NOT to show your desktop during presentations:

  1. Primary desktops are often messy and un-professional. What I mean with this is that there are often a lot of icons there. Shortcuts, documents,... In some cases it's nothing special in other cases there may be a document or two with sensitive names and you may be showing them to the whole auditorium.
  2. IM and email pop-ups. Unless you're extremely conscientious you likely don't close your IM programs (Skype and the like) before you start a presentation. If you are showing your primary desktop, then you can at least expect to see people who just signed-in to pop up there. Or, there may be an embarrassing beginning of a message or email that shows up briefly. Not really how you leave a good impression on your audience.
  3. Reference look up. Obviously, when you're presenting about a certain subject, you know EVERYTHING about it, right? But what the audience may not know is that some of your knowledge is due to the notes and reference documentation that you have on your own screen, while they're looking at your presentation.
  4. Power Point Presenter view. If you're using Power Point as your presentation software of choice, then Presenter view is something that you absolutely have to use. While slides are being shown normally on the projector, you can see your current slide, notes as well as previous and a few next slides on your laptop screen. Perfect in order to keep your flow going through the presentation.

So, is there any reason NOT to extend your desktop? As it turns out, there is at least one that is valid and another that sucks, but is realistic:
  1. You're doing a demo of a product. Such presentation can be problematic, if you're sitting in front of an empty primary screen and the product that you're demoing is projected behind you. Then you either have to crane your head back or even turn your back on your audience. And both of these things do nothing to enhance your presentation. So in this case seeing the same thing on the projector and on your laptop can be useful.
  2. If you have a crappy presentation tool that doesn't behave well in two-screen mode. So far I've only seen one such tool, but my hatred towards it is not diminished by that fact. I'm talking about a product that looks slightly like Acrobat Viewer but is in fact not. It's called Lock Lizard and is a tool that allows for presentation of copy-protected content. The tool is crap in more than one sense, but it really excels in how it doesn't work if you want to use it in extended desktop deployment, while presenting. So unless you really go out of your way to trick it, you simply have to revert to single desktop mode.

My conclusion here is that multi monitor environments rule! It doesn't matter if we're talking about a standard monitor or a projector, most of the time it makes excellent sense to extend your desktop. And it Just Works™.


16 October, 2013

Moving windows in Windows

First let me say that I love keyboard shortcuts. While I like GUI point-and-click interfaces, I also believe that a lot of tasks can be accomplished more efficiently and quicker just with a keyboard. Mouse is useful in lots of occasions, but if I can accomplish something with my fingers on the keyboard I'll do it that way.

Windows 7 brought a few interesting keyboard shortcuts with it. The ones that I'll mention here have to do with how you can manipulate application windows within a single or across multiple screens. You may be familiar with these, but I'm sure some people will find them new. And maybe even useful.

1. Maximize window: 
In the past, if you wanted to use keyboard, you had to press alt+space and then "X" to achieve this. Now a single sequence does the same.

2. Restore and minimize window:
Depending on the state of your window, this combination will either restore maximized window to its "un maximized" size. Or if window is already "un maximized" it will minimize it. In the past combinations of alt+space and "R" or alt+space and "N" did the same. Now it's a single sequence for either of the two actions.

So far, so good. We've only covered enhancements to already existing functionalities. But with Windows 7, some new actions were also introduced. For instance, if you grab window by the title bar, with the mouse, and drag it to the left or right edge of the screen it will "stick" to that edge. On top of that it will change its shape so that it takes up exactly one half of your screen. With that you can have two documents open, side by side, if you need to reference things, while you write about them, for instance.
But if you use multi-monitor setup, this becomes slightly trickier. The reason for that is that Windows may have trouble determining if you want to drag one document to the right edge of your screen to "stick" it there or if you want to drag it to the screen on the right side of the one you're currently using.
So now the keyboard shortcuts come to the rescue :-)

3. Stick window to the left: 
If your window is maximized or "un maximized" this combination will move it to the left side and stick it there. If your window is currently in the right "stuck" position, then it will first be "un maximized" and after a second use of the same combination it will come to rest on the left side.
If your window is currently residing on the right of your two screens, the first combination press will stick it to the left edge of your right screen, next combination press will stick it to the right edge of your left screen. One combination press more will put it in the middle of your left screen and final repeat will put it all the way on the left...
Whew... That sounds complicated. In reality it's actually extremely intuitive. Just try it out on your web browser now.

4. Stick window to the right: 
By now, I think it's pretty obvious that this does the reverse of what previous combination did.

When you use multi-monitor setups and you disconnect the secondary monitor weird things may happen. Most of applications will automatically "jump" back to remaining monitor. But there can be an application or two that misbehave in such situations. They may stay on the location where they were, when the secondary monitor was still connected. And in some cases even shutting them down through the Task Manager and then opening them again will put them back on that non-existent monitor.
Added bonus to knowing above combinations is that now, you can move the application to your screen with no effort at all.


14 October, 2013


8.6.2015 [Edit]
Hola was revealed to be a problematic tool. Please check my warning post here on details.

I don't live in the US. However either myself or my colleagues travel there on a fairly regular basis. For us the US is a source of good deals and sites like Amazon are especially handy, especially with their predictable delivery times and willingness to deliver to hotels.
The thing is, I could order most of things directly home, but then postage and customs costs would completely negate the original bargain.
So I invested in a service called Amazon Prime which allows for free expedited shipping. Fast shipping for me is important if I want to be sure that package will get to the hotel while I'm still there.
However, all of this is not too relevant here. What is important is that, besides free shipping, Amazon Prime also gives you access to a huge library of streaming video (both TV shows and movies) that you can watch for free, as long as you're a member.
If you're located in the US, that is... 

So now I was in a situation where I paid for something but couldn't access it, due to not being in the right place.
There has to be something that can be done about it. 

So I started to look on the Web. Like with pretty much everything else, there were a lot of people that had similar problems like I did. Most of the suggestions revolved around VPN or proxy solutions. I looked at some but couldn't find anything that would just work in the way I wanted it too.
There were a few things that I expected from the solution with which I would be happy :
- it has to be free. I already paid money for my Prime subscription. I don't want to pay more to get my original purchase "activated".
- it should Just Works™, with as little impact as possible to the other things that I have to do on my PC.
- it should work all the time.
- you have to be able to set your "exit" location. In other words: where the website, that you're visiting, thinks you're from.
None of these parameters is a deal-breaker for me, but the more I could find in a single solution, better I would feel about it.

VPN solutions looked good on paper, but had a few problems. You have to pay for them (understandable) in general all your traffic will go through the VPN. And while I only need to be seen as someone from the US, I may want to use some other location also. So that's not perfect.
Proxy alternatives didn't pan out much better. While they are often free, they seem to be much less stable in terms of longevity. In other words, one may work today, but not tomorrow. Also performance can be questionable. And, again, it's not too simple to direct traffic from different sites as if it comes from different countries. So proxies didn't seem to work out too well for me either.
I then focused for a bit on TOR

I may write a bit more about this product/project at a later time as online privacy is something that I'm a bit concerned with, but I usually give in to the comfort of convenience. In any case TOR, in theory, offers ability to present yourself as if you're from a country of your choice, but in practice it's something that again proved slightly complicated for me and also performance left something to be desired due to all the hops that the traffic needs to make inside of the network.
I wasn't happy.

I then looked around a bit more. And I found something called Hola

I'm not sure why I haven't run across this service earlier, but it provides everything I was looking for! It's available primarily as a browser plugin, but if you need to move non-browser traffic then there is an application for Windows and Android available.
So, what does it do?
It does exactly what I wanted. It convinces the website which you open, that you're from a country of your choice. In my case, the US. Most web sites work by default, for some you may need to find a plugin, which can be found on Hola's Facebook page (simple Google search will do the trick).
If you're using the web plugin, then you can actually have different tabs open to different sites and a choice of a separate country in every tab.
It's free.
It's (at least it seems) reliable.
And it Just Works™.

So, if you want to access something that may be blocked from from external access and you either travel a lot or simply don't live in a country where the content is presented, then I would say that this is a service for you. So far it worked for me on pretty much any site that has blocked content. Obviously there may be exceptions, but I haven't found one yet.


12 October, 2013

1st post! :-)

Hi all,

A bit of introduction about what will be happening here:

Over the years I've been and still am an avid user of all that is technological. I like computers, mobile devices, gadgets,... At the same time I'm lucky enough to work in a computer-related job.
Nevertheless I'm often frustrated to find that a lot of things are just a bit too complicated. Just a bit counter-intuitive.
I'm also very, very happy when I find some small nugget, some small thing that Just Works™. Once every so often I let my friends know about it and more likely than not, they are similarly excited about something that makes things simpler and works as it is supposed to.

So, what I'll be doing here will be to share some those discoveries with you, who will stumble upon this blog. Due to the nature of how I come across my discoveries, updates will likely be sporadic, at best, but I'll see if I can keep them going.

Since I like a lot of different things, you may find things here that will be "WOW, this is insane! I cannot believe I never knew about this!" or you may have a "Meh, who cares..." reaction. Hopefully it will be more of the former than the latter.

To kick things off, I'm linking to an article that I've written more than five years ago, when I was working for a company called NIL. At the time Windows 7 was just released and I was trying to combine 64-bit version of Win7 (which is what pretty much everyone is using today (unless you moved on to Windows 8 of which I'm not the greatest fan) and Cisco VPN client. Problem was that at the time Cisco wasn't making a 64-bit version of the client. So I stumbled across a solution that worked for me.
The article is today likely irrelevant, but we have to start somewhere. On NIL's page it's broken down into five parts and I'm linking to it here:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5