Category Archives: Software

Virtual Private Networks (VPN) – worth the price?

So are paid for Virtual Private Networks (or VPNs) worth their fees?  I was left wondering this question recently on a trip to China where I could not get access to many sites which I have come to depend on such as Google, Gmail and Facebook. Some of these fall under the outright ban category while others were just so slow they were basically unusable. VPNs should at least help bypass the former, while it may have surprising results for the later too.

Before I dive into my experience, just a quick recap of what benefits a VPN can bring

  1. Most VPN providers will have servers in various countries, which means you can select which VPN server you connect to which will allow you to access contents not available in your current location, but is available elsewhere. The example I gave before would be facebook where I can connect to a VPN server in USA while in China.
  2. Encryption means that the connection between your computer and the rest of the internet is encrypted and no one can spy on what you are looking at or doing. This provides an extra layer of protection against anyone spying on your traffic.
  3. Anonymised IPs are provided by the VPN so that your real IP is not revealed to any websites. This is important if you are visiting file sharing sites which might log visitor IPs.
  4. (Unexpected) Sometimes using a VPN can boost your internet speed. This is counter intuitive as the traffic has to be encrypted and therefore should be slower in theory – see next section.
Can VPNs make my internet faster?

As mentioned, the biggest surprise I got when using a VPN was the speed up of my internet connection. Two possible theories:

  1. Your normal internet traffic is not encrypted and gets throttled by your ISP. Your VPN traffic is encrypted, not recognised by your ISP as traffic they want to throttle, so they don’t.
  2. There is a bottleneck somewhere along the typical routes between you and the sites your are normally visiting. When you go via the VPN you end up going via different routes and bypassing the bottleneck.
Choosing the right VPN provider

After reading many review sites, I opted to try out Private Internet Access – https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/. They are known to offer some of the best service at competitive prices. At time of writing, you can get unlimited access from as little as $5.99 (or about £3.50) a month. That seems very reasonable to me given the amount of infrastructure they provide in order to make this possible. However, there are hundreds of different providers out there and some provide more tailored services aimed at specific tasks, it is worth shopping around before diving in.

Private Internet Access Packages
Private Internet Access Packages

At this point, you might be wondering if its a good idea to be sharing everything you do with a VPN company. You are right to be cautious, so when choosing a VPN company, make sure they have a long and reputable history. The VPN I chose (PrivateInternetAccess) also claims never to store server logs and also allows you to pay with Bitcoins – thus you can have another layer to protection as they don’t really know who you are either (disclaimer: you are relying on Bitcoin’s anonymous nature which isn’t perfect).

Reality strikes again

This is all very promising so far and I was extremely looking forward to permanently having it enabled for my internet. Unfortunately my experiences wasn’t so smooth.

Some of the issues I faced:

  1. VPN software wasn’t very stable, it would often drop and sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night because of the beeping (warning that VPN is down). There is an option to drop your whole internet connection if VPN is down by default as well.
  2. If you install the VPN on your computer, you will have issues connecting to it using your home wifi from other devices. For example I have Plex server on my PC and Google Chromecast connected to my TV. Because the VPN essentially encrypts everything, you cant connect to your PLEX server.
  3. The VPN software had Windows 8 compatibility issues even though it claimed it is Windows 8 compatible. You have to set the client to run in Compatibility mode for Windows 7.
  4. IPv4 supported but not IPv6 – this along with Windows 8 (IPv6 is on by default) can cause the VPN client to crash as well. To get round this, you have to disable IPv6 browsing on your computer.

Even after working with their support folks on 3 and 4, I could not get their VPN to reliability stay up for 24 hours. At one point, their support actually said VPNs are fragile by nature and very fiddly to get right – I totally believe him, but it means that this market segment is still a little immature and those who put up with it are your more computer savvy types rather than everyday folks.

Legal matters

It is important to mention that just because you are using a VPN, does not mean you are 100% protected. Always remain cautious and don’t start undertaking illegal activities just because you thought you could get away with it.

Recently police in the UK has started to target VPN sites, arresting a 20 year old owner who ran various proxy / VPN sites. It seems the authorities are now turning their attention to VPNs / Proxies after their victory over the ISPs in regards to direct access to torrent sites. The UK authorities were not the first ones to do this of course, VPNs have long been targetted by Chinese authorities and each month new sites are taken down.

Are VPNs worth the price?

We go back to the original question posed at the start, are paid for Virtual Private Networks (or VPNs) worth their fees? I think if I were to go on abroad this moment in time again, knowing there would be restrictions in the country I am travelling to, I would gladly pay the small insignificant fees. However, as a everyday tool, it is too fragile and breaks too often – I simply grew tired of fighting it all the time. I am hopeful that this sector will mature over time and a polished product will one day emerge.

London Technology Week 2014

This week I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off work and attend the London Technology Week. This is a brief write up of the talks I attended and photos of some cool exhibits. Lets start with the talks

When smart-phones sense how you feel: The era of intelligent mobile devices

Talk description: “Argus Labs uses deep learning algorithms to sense, understand and predict human behaviour and emotions, based on the sensors in a smart-phone and general usage of a smart-phone. The presentation will demonstrate how smart-phones will start to behave as intelligent entities that know how a user feels and improve our lives.”

  • Argus Labs is working on APIs and SDK which will allow programmers to build emotion aware mobile apps
  • A variety of tools is used to predict mood, based on learning over time – i.e. every Monday morning you feel depressed and you tell the app this is how your feeling and over time it will form that pattern or maybe after everySaturday night after you come out of a club you feel happy. They also make use of the gyroscope to determine how happy / angry you are – for example, you are happy after clubbing and reading a book, but you might be jumping around after clubbing whereas your quietly happy after reading
  • The Presenter mentioned how personality is now really easy to predict – i.e. based on what feeds we subscribe to and what circle of friends we have. However mood is still extremely hard
  • An interesting topic was whether you should act on the user’s current mood or their predicted mood – i.e. if you know someone will be unhappy in an hour’s time, maybe play some happy music now to start counteracting that
  • A good example of this application is if the apps sees the user stuck in traffic and knows the user is typically angry – time to play some gentle music to help calm the user
Will cars be able to detect your mood in the future to make you a better driver?
Will cars be able to detect your mood in the future to make you a better driver?
  • The apps you build will learn about an individual’s mood and behavior over time, but is locked to that person so you cant pass your mobile to another user and expect it to work
  • Future of mobile is not about mobility, its been done – it will be about AI

This was a really interesting talk, made appreciate a lot more about how much companies are able to learn about me from my general online profile and keeping track of the places I visit etc. I start to think that one day my phone will know me better as a person than I do! Also the general idea of data mining and building a reasoning engine behind the massive amounts of data you collect is a theme that runs through many growth areas.

The Database of You – The opportunities and issues that arise from wearable technology everywhere

Talk description: “The last 5 years have seen an explosion in the growth of wearable technology, health and fitness data and mobiles apps and devices. Yet we are still only at the very start of our journey towards the database of me; – a personal cloud containing details of every aspect of our lives. How will the availability of huge quantities of health and performance data on everyone affect how companies do business, how people lead their lives and the general wellness of the population?”

  • Talk was delivered by CIO of Virgin Active Health Clubs and he started by mentioning that attrition rate in health club industry is a massive 60% – i.e. 60% of their members leave every year
  • The way to reduce attrition is to better facilitate users with their goals and allow users to see that they are making progress
  • The presenter mentioned the term “Cambrian explosion”, this is the period when there was a massive explosion of different life forms on earth and before settling on the best design – he sees wearable technology currently going through this period and everything we have not yet seen anything like the final design yet. He compared this to initial stages of the mobile where they came in all different shapes and sizes before everyone making phones that look like an iPhone
Graph showing popularity of a new technology as it comes out and then over time as it matures
Graph showing popularity of a new technology as it comes out and then over time as it matures
  • In terms of collecting data about individuals, he was nervous about how much personal data we are now able collect, but at the same time he felt everyone was starting to feel at ease with their data being in the cloud
  • This is an area which Apple, Samsung and Google are now all heavily investing with different platforms
  • Finally he compared current wearable tech to the early stages of car GPS systems which would plot on the map exactly where you are and the route you took – which was amazing when it first came out – to current GPS systems which also tell you about traffic and weather and best route home. So to make the tech actually useful you need a lot more context and a collective database about the person – The database of you.

Personally I really love the design of the new Samsung Gear – although I do worry slightly about the massive database of myself being held online, does that mean my medical insurance will go up with every McDonalds meal I eat? Maybe it should – but maybe this is just the perfect reason I needed to keep myself healthy as well.

Make sense of your (big) data and analyze in real-time like you have never done before!
Talk description: “With companies like Bloomberg, Facebook, Goldman Sachs and The Guardian using Elasticsearch, discover how the power of search can power your data analysis. We’ll enlighten you with some impressive use-cases for on-the-fly real-time data analysis and share dashboards that will delight you (and your stakeholders) beyond belief.”
Free Elasticsearch USB stick - yup I am easily brought
Free Elasticsearch USB stick – yup I am easily brought
  • Elasticsearch actually mentioned Goldman a few times as one of their star clients
  • Major advantage is its server plug and play capability – by adding new servers, the load will be automatically distributed for you
  • One of the most useful way to use it is not to look for the items with the biggest volumn / ticks / treads, but to look for exceptions in your data – i.e. comparing this week’s and last week’s dataset and seeing which currency is doing more or less relative to last week
  • Everything is open source and available for commercial use for free – Elasticsearch themselves make money by providing training and some APIs and tools
  • Do not use Elasticsearch db as your golden source if the data is important for you, always keep a separate copy and elasticsearch can lose data in certain edge case scenarios
Other cool London Technology Week exhibits

LiteCoin Mining (another BitCoin) with Nvidia GPU

The rise of BitCoin (BTC) has been front page news for the past year or so and unless you just emerged from the Jungle you will have followed its ups and downs. Unfortunately BTC is now too difficult to mine for your average build and require very specialised rigs to even break even. Looking around for the next best thing, I decided to give LiteCoin mining a try – at time of writing the second largest crypto currency by capitalisation.

Quick Summary
  • Mining is extremely addictive, but do it for fun and not for profit as most crypto currencies are now no longer profitable to mine
  • Mining can be done from any hardware / CPU, but it only really makes sense to do it from a GPU (Graphics card) on a desktop or dedicated rig – laptops will burn out and CPUs are too slow
  • Join a pool if you want to mine, WeMineLTC.com is the largest LiteCoin pool
Getting Started – Litecoin basics

Before you do start mining, you should get yourself a Wallet – this is where your coins will be held. There are online options and offline versions which you just hold on your PC. Given the number of virtual hack attacks against Bitcoin site, I decided to hold mine offline. The first time you run the wallet it will need to do a long sync as shown below – go watch a watch.

LiteCoin Wallet
LiteCoin Wallet

There are a variety of different ways to get started with mining if you haven’t done so before, I wont go into details here – you can find step by step guides towards the bottom of this blog in the references section. I just used my personal PC for this little adventure, i.e. no custom brought GPUs etc.

  • CUDA Miner (This is currently the only sensible choice for Nvidia GPUs, everything else is too slow for Nvidia)
  • Joined WeMineLTC.com (The largest LiteCoin mining pool)
  • Used GPU-Z to monitor my GPU temperature
CUDA Miner in action
CUDA Miner in action
Why mine LiteCoin as opposed to Bitcoin?

One reason why people have started to move away from Bitcoin is because it uses the SHA-256 hashing algorithm. This involves calculations that can be greatly accelerated in parallel processing. It is this characteristic that has given rise to the intense race in ASIC technology, and has caused an exponential increase in bitcoin’s difficulty level.

Litecoin, however, uses the scrypt algorithm which incorporates the SHA-256 algorithm, but its calculations are much more serialised than those of SHA-256 in bitcoin. Scrypt favours large amounts of high-speed RAM, rather than raw processing power alone.

The consequences of using scrypt mean that there has not been as much of an ‘arms race’ in litecoin (and other scrypt currencies), because there is (so far) no ASIC technology available for this algorithm. However, this will eventually change and we will be back to ASIC units for LiteCoin mining.

Buying and Selling Litecoins

While buying and selling (and spending!) of bitcoins is now fairly common place, adoption of Litecoins is still light. While USD and EUR to LiteCoin conversion is fairly common, GBP is more difficult. The best site I found was Bittylicious, its interface is simple and offers a large number of ways to pay.

Spending Litecoins I found challenging as most retail sites only accept Bitcoins, the only places which accept Litecoin as payment currently seems to be Crypto currency related website.

Hardware considerations

For general gaming, I would argue that Nvidia GPUs has always had the slighly edge over AMD/ATI. However for mining, historically AMD/ATI has beaten Nvidia hands down to such a degree that it has not been worthwhile to mine with Nvidia until recently.

While mining is fun, its important to not get too excited and end up overheating your GPU. Remember at the end of the day, unless you have a custom rig, chances are your GPU wont have enough fan power for you to over clock it and use it to mine 24/7. I strongly recommend you always use a GPU monitoring tool whenever you are mining with GPUs. I use GPU-Z as shown below.

TechPowerUp GPU-Z monitoring GPU load
TechPowerUp GPU-Z monitoring GPU load
Hire a miner / Rent a rig!

One of the most interesting developments in the mining world is the growth in the rent a rig or hire a miner business. Simply put, this is someone who has a lot more hashing power than you and you pay them to mine for you for a period of time.

You will find contracts for hire everywhere from ebay to special mining brokerages such my personal favourite Betarigs. This is also known as cloud mining, i.e. similar to cloud storage. Now you might wonder why someone would offer their hashing power to make a profit for you, the answer is they arent. You always pay more to rent the rig than what the rig will ultimately mine for you! Sounds silly at first, but then you are also paying for electricity and hardware if you were to do it on your own so maybe not so different after all.

Why Mining is unprofitable for your average enthusiast

I started this blog by saying how addictive mining is but also that it wasn’t profitable for your average enthusiast. I will finish by mentioning some of the hidden costs involved and why if you only want to speculate on the future value of BTC / LTC, you should just buy the currencies rather than mining them yourself.

The biggest obviously cost most people will have to spend to have any chance at mining profitability is to buy the latest and most expensive gear. This could be thousands of pounds equipment and cost of which will take you many months to simply recuperate.

The other big killer is electricity – yes that hidden cost which you may not care about when running your average PC, which when you have a custom mining rig, this is one of your biggest costs. This has become such an important area due to rising electricity prices that Nvidia has recently brought out new cards which aim to half the running voltage and this is expected to be a killer features in its race with AMD/ATI.

Even with the fact that mining isn’t profitable, I still absolutely love it. Also don’t say I didn’t warn you, it is amazingly addictive, what are you waiting for? START TODAY!

References

WordPress for Beginners

I thought it was a good time to share with everyone my experience of using WordPress. To start with, like to briefly point out the other options I considered. Note I have very little hands-on experience with the other options mentioned, so my thoughts are totally bias :)

Alternatives to WordPress

The main alternatives seems to be Blogger backed by Google and Tumblr backed by Yahoo. Both are great choices and all have free accounts for beginners such as myself. The reason I chose WordPress over these is because WP offers its software for free and allows you to install to your own servers. I happen to have had a hosting account which I have not made good use of for last few years so this was a good opportunity for me to get some use out of it. If I didn’t already have a server sitting there doing nothing then the choice would have been pretty difficult.

Different versions of WordPress

As I mentioned earlier all blogging sites have free accounts, this means your blog will be hosted on their servers using their domain such as www.WordPress.com/yourblog. Each also have various paid options depending on the amount of premium features you require. A lot of comparison sites out there claim it is more expensive to use their premium packages than hosting the site yourself. I have to say I disagree and quite a few of the premium packages work out to be cheaper overall than plain hosting packages from pure hosting companies. Of course you wouldn’t be able to do with the site whatever you like, but in reality blogging sites are extremely customizable and caters for more than what most people require. I am currently seriously considering moving away from my current hosting provider to the full premium solution offered by WordPress once my current contract expires.

Setting up WordPress

As mentioned I decided to use the WP software with my existing hosting provider. Most Linux sites worth using will have some solution ready to help you install WP at a click of a button. Honestly it really is that easy, and although I hit some technical difficulties at the beginning, my host provider support was able to resolve within 10mins. I have to say this was one of the easiest and most stress free installations I have ever done.

WordPress Themes

WordPress themes are a major selling point for me, its variety and quality blew me away. Before I set out to start a blog, I had a very set idea of what a blog is and should look like, but WordPress completely changed that for me.

wpthemes
WordPress themes

Its selection of themes and colours have really blurred the lines of your typical blog with that of an expensive looking designer website. So much so that people are using WordPress sites to run business websites which offer the best of both worlds, namely ease of maintenance with a professional look and feel.

WordPress Plugins

One of the best features of WordPress is that it allows lots of different plugins which compliments and enhances its existing functionalities. My favourite is JetPack

jetpack
Jetpack feature selection

It offers functionality to help integrate your site with social networks so you can promote your posts automatically. Keep detailed stats for page access, spelling and grammar checks as well as better integration with the rest of the word press community.

Verdict

Quite honestly, if you are currently thinking about starting up your website, whether it’s for keeping your family updated or site for a new business. I would be hard pressed to suggest anything else other than trying one of the blogging solutions be it WordPress or Tumblr. The functionality offered is so rich, it beats most other pure hosting solutions out there which offer nothing more than a pack of Themes.

Have you used WordPress or one of the other blogger sites before? Or simply have some tips to share? If so please share your comments below, would love to hear about your experiences of them.

References