Friday, December 28, 2012


Roku is one of the best, most affordable ways to improve your home entertainment. If you have a high-speed Internet connection, Roku can give you access to many "channels" of both free and paid content, including Amazon Instant, Netflix Instant, Pandora Internet Radio, and more. And if you have a Roku model with USB (HD-XR, XDs, XS, as of this writing), you can stream your own video, music, and/or photos from a flash drive or external hard drive.

To control the Roku you can use the included remote control, or an app running on an Android or iOS device, which control the Roku over Wi-Fi rather than infrared so line-of-sight is not required. Some of the current Roku apps for Android:
  • Roku (official)
    Works well, but requires you to sign in to a Roku account, so can't be used to control a Roku without access to the Roku account.
  • RoByte - Remote for Roku
    Works well. Recommended.
  • Rfi - remote for Roku players
    Automatic scanning fails to find the Roku XDs, and a pain to set up manually.
  • Remote for Roku
    Lags after touching controls can make it hard to control a Roku properly.
For streaming of your own content through a USB-equipped Roku, a small USB-powered hard drive is a good alternative to a typical USB flash drive, particularly if you have a lot of content, not only much higher capacity, but also much faster. A good choice to match and complement Roku is the Western Digital My Passport, with sale prices as low as $50 for the 500GB size.

Perhaps the best alternative to Roku as of this writing is VIZIO Co-Star, a 2nd-generation Google TV box that's similar to Roku. Pros include the more sophisticated Android platform, wealth of Android apps, Chrome Internet browsing, 3D support, DLNA, and HDMI pass-through. Cons include greater complexity, lower maturity, blocking of some content, clunky remote, and less smooth interface. Google TV devices will likely continue to improve.

Update (January 7, 2013): Another promising Google TV alternative to Roku is the new NETGEAR NeoTV PRIME.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Best Affordable Kitchen Knives

With so many ads for seemingly great knives at cheap prices, why do knowledgeable chef's spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on their knives? Because there really are huge difference in knives in terms of sharpness, durability, stain resistance, weight and balance, and the cheap knives simply don't measure up to the good ones. But fortunately there is a very good knife line that is affordable, the Victorinox (of Swiss Army Knife fame) Professional (formerly Forschner) with Fibrox handles.
Currently on Amazon, the multipurpose 8-Inch Chef's Knife is $25, the versatile 7-Inch Granton Edge Santoku Knife is $33 (can make wafer thin slices that don't stick to the blade), and knife sets start at only $70.
Tip: If you're going to keep the knife loose in a drawer, get a Blade Safe to protect both the knife and you.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Treatment of Cold Sores

Cold sores (also known as fever blisters, herpes labialis / orolabial herpes viral infections), small lesions that form on or near the lips, can be unpleasant or even painful. They normally run their course and heal in about 2 weeks, but the duration and severity of outbreaks can be significantly decreased with proper medication.

In addition to prescription antivirual drugs like Acyclovir, heavily promoted treatments include Abreva, Releev and Viroxyn (all relatively expensive at $20 and up). What really matters, of course, is the active ingredient, not the brand name. The active ingredient in Abreva is Docosanol (behenyl alcohol); in Releev and Viroxyn it's benzalkonium chloride, which was found to be more effective than Docosanol in a recent study.

So is benzalkonium chloride a new wonder drug? No, it's the active ingredient in classic Bactine, which has been around since 1950. In other words, inexpensive Bactine is as effective in treating cold sores as these newer, more heavily promoted, more expensive medications.

For best results, cold sores should be treated at the earliest signs, typically a tingling in the skin, and the treatment should be worked into (penetrate) the skin. The drawback to Bactine is that it's a liquid, so working it into the skin is inconvenient, but there are gel products with the same active ingredient that are easy to apply effectively:
  • Tecnu First Aid Antiseptic Pain-Relieving Gel ($10 at Walgreens)
    Extra strength (0.20% versus standard 0.13%), easily absorbed, recommended.
  • Scar Zone Topical Analgesic and Antiseptic Burn Gel ($5.50 at Walgreens)
    Standard strength, least expensive.
For related information, see Cold Sore Relief Scam.

Tip: Benzalkonium chloride is also effective in treating acne. Acne treatments by Neutrogena with benzalkonium chloride are recommended.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Secure Wi-Fi with VPN

UPDATE: Recommended VPN 2020

When you use a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you expose your Internet traffic to interception and evesdropping by other users of the hotspot, even when wireless access is secured by WEP or WPA with a shared key.

The best way to protect yourself is to use a virtual private network (VPN) service, which securely encrypts (protects) your Internet traffic all the way to the VPN service provider gateway, thus also protecting you against monitoring (snooping) by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). (Your traffic is not protected between the VPN gateway and remote websites, but this is normally not a concern.)

To create a VPN connection (or "tunnel"), software in your computer connects to corresponding software in the VPN gateway. You may be able to use VPN software included in the operating system with your computer, or you may need to download and install special VPN software, depending on the type of VPN connection (protocol). After you've made a Wi-Fi connection, you typically start your VPN software, which then makes the VPN connection to the VPN gateway.

A few of the better low-cost VPN service providers, where you can get information and help on what software, protocol(s), and gateway(s) to use as part of opening a VPN service account:
  • Air VPN
    ~$70 per year or ~$9 per month (depending on current Euro conversion rate, 10-15% off coupon codes may be available). Selectable servers in multiple countries; transparent policies on bandwidth allocation; high performance; no discrimination toward any service, protocol or application; full support for dynamic remote port forwarding. Uses OpenVPN (very high security). Support by forums and email.
  • Private Tunnel
    First 100 MB free, then pay (in advance) for capacity you actually use with no monthly fees. Free easy-to-use software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iPad/iPhone. Good performance and reliability. Blocks access to malicious websites by means of Google DNS. Supports DD-WRT wireless router firmware. Run by OpenVPN Technologies in Pleasanton, California.
  • VPNBook
    Free PPTP and OpenVPN. No registration required. No bandwidth limits. Privacy protection. Easy to set up. Free Web Proxy. Commercial service available at $8 per month. Headquarters in Switzerland. Servers in USA, UK, and Romania.
  • WiTopia
    Service as low as $50 per year. Monthly plan available. Pro account only moderately more expensive. Unconditional money back guarantee. Gateway servers in 57 cities in 35 countries. Fast and unlimited data transfer. 99.99% uptime. Supports OpenVPN (Pro account only), Cisco IPsec, L2TP/IPsec, and PPTP. Free SMTP Mail Relay and Secure DNS service. 24x7x365 Support by live chat or email. 
Not Acceptable:
  • boxpn
    Sends passwords in insecure email, and passwords can't be changed by users (both serious security issues).
  1. Select a VPN service provider with care; cheap, fast, dependable—you only get two.
  2. Use only standard or open VPN protocols OpenVPN, OpenSSH, L2TP/IPsec, and SSTP.
  3. PPTP is considered cryptographically broken and should not be used.
  4. Only download and install VPN software from a trusted source, like OpenVPN.
  5. Test for and fix Windows DNS leaks here.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Windows 8 Misses the Mark

Windows 8 is a compelling proposition for tablets, but not for desktops and laptops, where the new interface is more confusing than compelling, leaving no good reason to upgrade from Windows 7. Some of the things Microsoft could and should have done to address that issue:
  1. Overhaul Windows display tech to compete with Apple Retina
  2. Build virtualization into Windows core
  3. Build cloud services into Windows core, with (say)
    1. 100 GB free SkyDrive storage for 2 years
    2. automatic cloud photo sync
    3. automatic cloud backup (like Carbonite)
  4. Integrate Skype into Windows core, with unlimited free calling for 2 years
  5. Integrate speech recognition, both command and dictation
  6. Include "personal assistant" capability (like Apple Siri/Google Now)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Surface Misses the Mark

Microsoft still doesn't get it. The new Surface tablet has some nice capabilities (Windows 8, Office, cover keyboard, Xbox controllers), but it also has some serious issues:
  • Price: Microsoft is making the same mistake Android tablets made when they first came out, pricing Surface ($500 without cover keyboard, $600 with) at least $100 too high. Surface is too new and insufficiently compelling on capabilities to gain traction against the Apple iPad without a more compelling price.
  • Display: 1366×768 resolution is crude, especially compared to iPad at 2048×1536. All Surface models should have been Full HD 1920x1080 (not just the "coming soon" Surface with Windows Pro, which will probably be even more expensive).
  • USB: The lack of USB 3.0 is inexcusable, a serious limitation.
  • Immaturity: Windows 8 is half-baked, much like Windows Vista, and time will be needed to flesh it out and smooth it out. Never buy version 1 of anything (Apple excepted).
Bottom line: Wait for version 2.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Relieving Adobe Installer Pain

When Adobe Photoshop Elements is installed on Microsoft Windows, the Adobe installer first installs the Editor, then the Organizer (whether you want it or not), and lastly Shared Technologies, with each of the three steps taking a good deal of time to complete.

So when I set out to install Photoshop Elements 11, I expected it to take some time. What I didn't expect was a fatal error at the end of the lengthy install process, followed by a lengthy rollback of the entire install. The error message ("The installation process has encountered an error while installing Shared Technologies.") was uninformative and unhelpful, just suggesting the computer be restarted before trying again. And of course it then failed again, wasting a good deal of additional time.

So I was left with searching the Web for more helpful information on the issue, discovering it to be a not uncommon problem, eventually finding an Adobe help page on troubleshooting Photoshop Elements installation problems, with a Note pertaining to my specific situation. I was trying to install from a downloaded install file on a USB flash drive. When I followed the advice in the Note to first copy the install file to the root of the system drive, the long installation finally succeeded. From start to finish the install took more than an hour (and might well have taken longer) for something that shouldn't take more than a few minutes.

The install hack is beyond the skill of less experienced users and shouldn't be necessary. The Adobe help page indicates this issue has existed since at least Photoshop Elements 9, a period of at least two years as of this writing, raising the question of why it hasn't long since been corrected, or at least more helpful information provided with the installer. Customers deserve better.

Moral: The safest way to use a downloaded Adobe installer is to place it in the root directory of the system drive (usually C:\) before installing. Don't try to install from a USB flash drive.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Navas' Rules of Mobile

For Developers and Content Providers
(Parts shamelessly adapted from Google's Android Design)
  1. The essence of mobile is movement, not a small screen.
  2. Minimize use of resources (data, battery, memory, etc).
  3. Make it easy to access either mobile or standard version of content.
  4. Optimize standard version of content so it works as well as possible on mobile.
  5. Don't presume to know what I want; instead, make it easy for me to get what I actually want.
  6. Make me amazing. Do the heavy lifting for me.
  7. Only show what I need when I need it, and make important things fast.
  8. Simplify my life, get to know me, but let me make it mine.
  9. Don't abuse our relationship in any way. Always ask me for permission.
  10. Either do it right, or don't do it at all
Note: I plan to expand each rule with a paragraph of explanation, so please do check back.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Tale of Two Locks

Leave your computer unguarded for a moment in a coffee place and it might be gone when you get back (including all your data), and even when you're there, it might still get snatched. To keep that from happening, you should get a lock to secure it. While nothing will stop a skillful thief with time and opportunity, the better cable locks will deter most thieves. But you need to choose your lock with care, because there are big differences in performance.

The Good

Arguably the best locks are by PC Guardian, with secure locking mechanisms, rotating and swiveling cable attachment to resist prying, and tough cables that are hard to cut. I particularly like the red cable version because it is more likely to be noticed in advance and deter a thief from even trying. Unfortunately, PC Guardian no longer makes these locks, although it's still possible as of this writing to find them for sale online. The next best bet is the Kensington Microsaver, which is relatively easy to find.

The Bad

One of the most widely available locks is the Targus DEFCON CL (PA410U), also attractive because it's less expensive. However, it has a big deficiency: the combination dials can slip and change the combination while it is being locked, so it won't unlock with the combination you have set, which can be a huge problem. When this happens, Targus has no solution other than either (a) cutting off lock with a hacksaw or (b) trying all possible (10,000) combinations.

The Ugly

I'm not guessing this — it happened to me! And in the process of dealing with the problem I discovered the DEFCON CL has an even bigger deficiency — it's easy to pick! When you press the unlocking pin, any cylinder not in the unlock position will deflect (move) slightly in the same direction, making it a simple matter to rotate the cylinders in turn until they don't deflect. It took me less than 5 minutes to figure this out and unlock my computer despite the changed combination. I estimate a knowledgeable thief could do it in 1-2 minutes while not even looking suspicious. Thus I rate the DEFCON CL unacceptable.

(With apologies to Charles Dickens and Sergio Leone.)