Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Can you be too secure on the internet?

I practice safe surfing on the web and good digital hygiene. Still, news of widespread hacks and security breaches at formerly rock-solid institutions had me wondering whether I was safe enough.

When my internet security provider offered a special deal on its SecureLine VPN, or virtual private network, I decided to give it a try.

Setting up the VPN on my computer and iPhone was easy. Understanding it wasn't. But I don't understand exactly how most technology works. I just know how to get it to work—or who to call.

Everything was going swell at first. Then strange things began to happen. I couldn't access my bank account online or through the mobile app. After a few calls to customer service and some false fixes, it occurred to me to disconnect the VPN. VoilĂ ! I was back in business.

A few days later my credit card provider called—twice, from headquarters and a local branch. There was an issue with my online login. Someone from Seattle was trying to gain access to my account. Actually it was my east coast computer being routed through a west coast VPN server that was the problem.

So...what's a cautious internet user to do? For now, I'm keeping the VPN on for most of my work. And I now know to turn it off when too much security gets in the way.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Fall clearance

Leaves are powerful things. When they change colors in the fall, they become an industry in themselves. Leaf peepers flock to New England and other parts of the country to see the vibrant colors. And they are spectacular.

For years, I pressed fall leaves to send to my folks in Florida. There they enjoyed the warm weather year-round, but palm trees have nothing on fall foliage.

I lived in New Hampshire for a time, which gave me a front-row seat on prime leaf season and its devotees. Even moving back to the Philadelphia area gave me enough colorful falls to fully appreciate the change of seasons.

Now there’s another reason I look forward to fall: I can hear satellite radio again.

I am a SiriusXM subscriber. My go-to stations are Laugh USA, BBC World Service, and E Street Radio. When I’m driving my mom, I tune to Siriusly Sinatra. When I need a change of pace, I can surf the 100+ stations available.

And when I drive tree-lined backstreets, I switch to terrestrial radio to hear local FM public radio stations.

More than just liking public radio, channels on the FM band come in loud and clear wherever I drive around town. Not so with satellite radio. There are constant dropouts driving through wooded areas, such as the state park, shortcuts into town, and various backroads that bypass the highway. Dropouts are particularly annoying when listening to satellite comedy channels, because I always miss the punchline.

All that changes when the leaves fall. Clear reception returns. It’s hard to believe something as thin and flimsy as a leaf can effectively block radio signals.

Consider how satellite radio works. A ground station transmits a digital data signal from earth, traveling more than 22,000 miles to reach two satellites in geostationary orbit, which then bounce the signal down to radio receivers on the ground. The signal is unscrambled and sent to my car radio, with instantaneous channel changes whenever I press a button.

It’s a perfect setup, until it isn’t. I don’t have a scientific explanation for the dropouts I experience under leaf cover, I’m just putting forth my observational theory. More leaves, more dropouts.

For now, all is well. The fall foliage was again spectacular this year. Now that the trees are bare, it's my satellite radio reception that's awesome.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Stand and deliver

It seems I have spent my whole career sitting on my butt. Tied to a desk. Typing on a keyboard. Telling stories.

The work of a writer is largely sedentary. The better to immerse oneself in background materials, research, and blank screens waiting for words to magically appear.

Now it’s time to take a stand. Literally. And I am doing so, thanks to my new height-adjustable sit/stand computer riser.

Standing computer desks have been around for years, but I never seriously considered one. I already had office furniture, and I didn't like the idea of standing all day. As a solopreneur, I figured I had earned my seat at the table, er, desk, and I was going to take it.

Don't even mention treadmill desks, which were a thing a while back. You don’t hear too much about them anymore; maybe it’s because better sense prevailed. Writing and walking are too dissimilar activities, with each one seeming a distraction to the other. 

So what changed my mind about working on my feet?

Sitting is being called the new smoking. “There's no running away from it: The more you sit, the poorer your health and the earlier you may die, no matter how fit you are,” reports an article in Runner’s World. While The Active Times website presents a sobering slideshow of “Ways Sitting is Shortening Your Life.” Evidence also suggests the effects of long-term sitting are not reversed by exercise or other healthful habits.

The decision to stand up for myself was further helped by product innovation, which made the choice less an either/or thing and more affordably priced. There are so many sit/stand options available today, one is surely bound to fit any specific circumstance.

I'm still getting used to my new position--and the flexibility I have to work sitting down or standing up. Just a touch of the desktop, and my computer keyboard and screen rise and fall at my command. If only my writing projects were as easy.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Boo on you

Halloween comes early in my neighborhood. September barely fades into October when mystery goblins set the Boo-ball rolling.

They wait until dark to creep to an unsuspecting neighbor's front door, where they deposit a small bag before running away undetected.

This is the start of an exponential spread of seasonal treats. Each bag contains three elements:
  1. A ghostly “Boo” sign
  2. Candies and other Halloween-themed items
  3. Directions for what to do next
Recipients are instructed to post their Boo sign and, within two days, deliver similar treat bags to two others on the street. Within our small circle of houses, it takes no time at all before every door bears evidence of being booed.

I don’t know where or when the tradition started, but it’s been going on in my neighborhood since before we moved here 17 years ago. Many of these years have coincided with election cycles, and while lawn signs promote candidates from opposing political parties, boo-meisters pay no mind what side you're on.

When it comes to Halloween, everyone gets into the spirit. Twix becomes more important than Twitter. Butterfingers over pointing fingers. Snickers instead of snickering.

Being booed is a welcome distraction at Halloween. It’s a sweet reminder about good neighbors, especially in today’s increasingly scary and gremlin-filled world.

* * *
Many websites have variations of the Boo sign and directions, including...