Block the Meanies

There are plenty of active ad/spam/virus blockers out there. Quite a few of them are decent. I will likely even write about some of them at some point. But if there’s something I appreciate, it’s an elegant solution.

When it comes to blocking all the meanies, stopping them at the source is as smart as it gets. One way of achieving that is blocking their web addresses. I’ll explain.

Each website has an online address, called a URL. You may know this already. Those are the addresses starting with http:// or https://. Google has, and quite a few others. Amazon has, and so on. Well, it turns out meanies have their own addresses too.

When your device (phone, computer) wants to access a URL, it has to translate it to an address it understands. We call that address an IP address, and usually looks something like So four numbers in the range of 0 to 255 separated by dots. Your device does the translation via something called a DNS lookup.

DNS lookup is done against what we call a DNS server. Your ISP (internet service provider) provides one, Google has one, and there is a host of others. Some protect your privacy better than others. Some are faster. Some are free, others charge a fee.

But, operating systems (so Windows, MacOS, Android etc.) have a local DNS map they look at first. It is the hosts file. This is where the elegant solution comes in.

MVPS HOSTS is a project that’s been running since 1998 and is still maintained regularly in 2020. Wow! What they provide is, quite simply, a hosts file that blocks all evil address lookups. You download the file and move it to right folder. Once done, all requests to evil addresses will be automagically blocked. To be exact, they will all be sent to a dummy address where the evil data cannot be found. This is much nicer than downloading the malicious content and then blocking it.

If you appreciate the effort by the MVPS HOSTS team, consider donating to them. They deserve it.

Weight a Minute

As a developer, I don’t really exercise much. That is, most of my days are spent sitting in front of a computer. It means I have to really be proactive about burning those calories if I want to keep in shape. I do have a few close friends I trust to tell me when I gained a bit of weight (thanks, guys!). But really, I find it’s my responsibility to keep track of my weight.

For the past few years, I’m been doing it using the same scale. I’ve not seen a better one yet. It gives me consistent, accurate results. It identifies me and my wife separately. It syncs with my phone to provide me rich data. I can look all the way back to my first measurement. I can see body composition trends. It even tells me the weather!

It is important to note the ability of a home scale to measure your body composition is limited. It can only run the current through your lower body. So any improvement in your torso upwards will probably not be accounted for. Better focus on trends rather than actual measurements.

Knowing my weight and weight trends helps me keep myself in check. I try to exercise daily, eat healthy and generally control my intake. For the most part, it works. It definitely helps to see the trends improving when I work hard.

If you care about your health, I’d recommend getting a scale. While you’re at it, get a good one.

It’s Toasted!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how I believed in investing at higher quality appliances. This time I want to talk about toasters.

I usually approach the buy of a new appliance with little knowledge. What features should I look for? What features exist? So I start reading a few “top 10” articles. Pretty soon a limited set of interesting features emerges. Quite often, one or two brands catch my eye.

I always perform this initial research. I intend to live with each appliance for quite a few years. I want to enjoy the product I purchased.

So when it comes to toasters, I found a few interesting features. First, I learned I had to choose between a two slices and a four slices toaster. To save space on my counter, I went with two. Bigger families may opt for four. You have toasters with sensors that detect when the toast is ready, so you get consistent results. There are cool gimmicks such as the bread being lowered and raised automatically. Other features to look for include: long slots, removable crumb tray, clear view window and even touch screens.

Things to look out for: heating up of toaster, toasters that don’t let you lift the bread enough, slow toasters.

Having taken the above into account, I ended up buying the Sage Die Cast 2-Slice Smart Toaster. I’ve had it for quite some time now, and I am very pleased. You may also find the same model under the Breville brand. If four slices is what you’re after, there’s a 4-slice model as well.

Photo: Michael Hession
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Give Me More JUICE!

It was the autumn of 2015. A very excited young (well, young-er) me arrived in Essen, Germany. It was time for the annual Essen Spiel, and my first time attending it. Essen Spiel is the world’s largest board game convention.

I arrived at Essen the evening before the event started. It was dark. I got off at the seemingly deserted train station. I took my phone out, launched Google Maps, and started walking. Google led me into a pitch black forest. I had to turn on the phone flashlight to see where I was going. It was quiet, with nothing but the sounds of night.

With the flashlight on and Google Maps reading my location, my battery was draining fast. I have to say, this was getting scary. I started imagining spending the night in the middle of the forest. Alone. In the dark. In a foreign country. It was not a pleasant notion.

I did end up finding my hotel, and the convention was spectacular. I lived to tell about my adventure.

Why am I telling you this? Because one of the first things I did when I got back, after unpacking all the games I brought back, was to buy a portable charger. I always have one on me now, always fully charged.

The power bank I bought back then is no longer available. My current one, which I bought recently, is an Aukey. To keep this post relevant, here’s a link to the search on Amazon, and here’s one for AliExpress. Make sure to get one with sufficient power for your device. Make sure your phone doesn’t die on you.

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Clean Your Code!

You may have heard of Uncle Bob. If you have not, now is as good a time as any. Robert C. Martin, known as Uncle Bob, is the author of quite a few canon books.

The one I want to focus on in this post is Clean Code. Out of all of Uncle Bob’s books I’ve read, I would recommend this first. I felt it improved me as a developer like no other book.

I don’t always agree with Uncle Bob, technology-wise or otherwise. But the fact is, Uncle Bob has a very interesting view of the technology world. He helped me form my identity as a developer, over 30 years after I started developing. That says a lot.

The book focuses on code readability. It helps you look at your code from a reader’s perspective. I am confident that my code has never been easier to understand by other developers. In fact, going back to code I’ve written two weeks ago, I AM those other developers.

I won’t bore you with too many details. Spoilers and all. Just get the book and read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts when you’re done.

Be a better developer. Read this book.

The art of programming by Geek & Poke is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Trimmed to fit.
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An Automated Green Thumb

I was trying to come up with ways to save money. One idea that came to mind was to grow my own food. Unfortunately, living in a flat, there is a limit to my options.

It seems I was not the only one thinking about this, and some clever people came up with a working solution. In my mind, a working product is one that works for you. It requires minimal effort, if any, and produces consistent, reliable results.

Early days

The AeroGarden line of hydroponics products is exactly that. You set it up in minutes. It then tells you precisely what to do and when. Your responsibility is to provide fresh water and food periodically. And keep it plugged in to a power source. That is it. It even takes care of lighting.

In return, you get herbs or vegetables all year round. My AeroGarden Harvest Classic currently grows Genovese Basil, Curly Parsley, Thyme, Thai Basil and Mint. The Thai Basil and Mint grew so wild I had to saw branches off to keep them from overgrowing. In fact, they grow so fast I have plenty left to share with friends.

Having fresh herbs every day is great. Not having to work hard to get them is even better.

A few weeks later

There are plenty of seed kits for the AeroGarden, in case you want to grow something else. Salad greens, salsa veggies, cherry tomatoes and Italian herbs are popular options.

A word of caution, though. Read the instructions. We accidentally trimmed our Basil too much early on, and it struggled to grow back. We had to take it out and plant another. Let your plants grow to a healthy size, and trim them sparingly.

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

I Disappear

It’s an interesting world we live in. A few huge companies surround us, offering us some amazing services. Some are free, others come at a fee. But all come with an added cost of giving up on some of our privacy.

I used to wave this concern off. What do I care, let them store data about me. Over time, I realised I really should care. There are a lot of articles out there that tell you why. And, for the most part, the effort involved is minimal.

One of the ways to protect your identity is to use a VPN. There are quite a few services out there that offer you an anonymous VPN. I can only testify to the one I’m using, which is IPVanish*. But maybe I should take a step back. What is a VPN?

Let’s say you live in the UK. Servers probing your IP address will know you are connecting to them from the UK. See here. Well, that’s a bit annoying. That means Facebook, Google and a host of other companies know where you are connecting from.

Along comes the VPN. A VPN, or a Virtual Private Network, is an extension of your local network. What this actually means is, the servers you connect to think you are whoever the VPN is. So let’s say your VPN service provider has a server in Spain which you connect to. Now, if you check where servers think you’re from, you’ll find they think you are connecting from Spain. Nice!

Tricking servers into thinking you’re coming from elsewhere has other advantages. For example, you can consume content that’s restricted to that particular country. Censorship 0, us 1. Go team!

Why did I choose IPVanish? First, they support a very broad range of platforms. From Windows, to MacOS, to Android, iOS, Linux, Chrome OS and then some. Second, they have servers pretty much everywhere in the world (well, over 75 locations in the world). They have no speed limit, no traffic logs, no device limit… So quite attractive.

Anther service you might want to consider is NordVPN. Now go and disappear!

Until November 30th, you can claim a 50% discount using my link.

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Ode to Robbie

I’ve never been very good at dusting. My place has been quite tidy for as far back as I can remember. Dusting, though, is something I struggled to get myself to do.

The original Robbie

I still did not get the hype around cleaning robots. That is, until my family bought me one for my birthday.

After the first run, its container was full of dust. Well, that was kind of to be expected. I gave it a second run. Full of dust. After five consecutive runs I got the idea and gave it a break. Clearly there was much, much more dust in my flat than I was aware of.

I have since moved to a two storey flat. So of course I had to get another one for the second floor. My downstairs one is scheduled to clean at 8am. That means it usually finishes cleaning before I go downstairs. The one upstairs is scheduled to run at noon, right on time for my lunch break. Both run every other day. Our house is dusted all year round, and we don’t have to lift a finger!

Now, I won’t lie. It’s not all perfect. It does shut doors. On occasion, it moves furniture around. If I was bad and left a sock on the floor, it would choke on it. But all in all – what a massive improvement.

The robot my family chose for me was a Neato. What a clever choice! It really is one of the best out there. I now have two models, both of which we nicknamed Robbie. The first is the older Botvac DC02, which is still my favorite. It always gets the job done without a fuss, and its interface is very clear. The other is the Neato D7. While it looks neater, I find it fails me more often. For example, it often only vacuums half a room and then goes back to its base, reporting success. Not great.

I will leave you with a few final notes on why I’d recommend Neato specifically. First, it integrates with Google Home and Alexa. It also sends you notifications when it’s stuck or finished. It maps your house and shares that map with you. Thanks to its shape, it vacuums corners really well. Round robot cleaners struggle with corners.

Save yourself time. Get a cleaner house. Whether it’s a Neato or an iRobot Roomba, get a cleaning robot.

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

A Book to Live By

Ok, I may have gotten a bit carried away with the title. But really, this book has changed my way of thinking about everyday problems.

Algorithms to Live By is an enlightening read. It helped me look at life through a prism of a problem solver. Suddenly everything we do can be looked at as a problem waiting to be solved. From sorting my collections, to choosing whether to eat at a new restaurant or an old favorite… It can all be mathematically analyzed – and this book helps you reach the answer.

Unlike many algorithm books, this isn’t a heavy read. Quite the opposite. With fun, relatable examples, it pulls you in and gets your brain buzzing. It won’t leave you hanging, either, because the answers are handed to you in a clear way. It almost makes you wish you had a problem you could apply all this new knowledge to.

Sadly, I lost my copy at an airport while traveling. I’m hoping it made for a nice read to somebody else. I’m definitely getting another copy, though. This is one I want on my shelf.

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Decisions, decisions…

Quite often, I’m faced with difficult decisions. Choosing our next flat, our next investment, where to take our next vacation (once we can travel again). There are too many factors for me to take into account. I simply can’t reach an educated decision in my head.

Sure, I could do a pros/cons list. But really, that doesn’t work very well. Mostly because some factors are more important than others. So the number of factors in each column isn’t good enough an indicator of the best choice.

Luckily, there’s a solution. It’s called a decision matrix. The business world has been using it for many years to solve difficult dilemmas. You could create one using a simple Excel sheet. You could event jot one on paper. But, since you’re here, you know I have a simpler suggestion.

Allow me to introduce Choice Pro. It’s a free Android app that allows you to leverage the decision matrix in a friendly, accessible way. I developed Choice Pro because I saw the value of decision matrices. Yet, I was not pleased with the overhead involved in setting them up – making them a bit less accessible.

Of course, an app has other advantages: you can check your past decisions; you can make random decisions when all options are as good (or as bad!); finally, you can easily share the results with others.

Give it a spin!