Thursday, December 14, 2017

Lighting up the night

Holiday lights illuminate more than nighttime neighborhoods. They honor as well as continue and reinvent the annual tradition.

In seasons long past, houses were outlined in single strings of large, multicolored bulbs. Then bulbs got smaller and started blinking.

Suddenly, white lights became all the monochromatic rage. Then came icicle lights, now available as LED strings with falling snow sequences.

This year, more houses have stepped into the digital age, with lighting and color changes programmed by computer and even synchronized to music.

There also has been rapid adoption of holiday projectors to supplement or supplant strings of bulbs. Instead of climbing on rooftops, homeowners just plug in and aim a laser to create a captivating light show of virtual reality decorations. No muss, no fuss, and no emergency trips to the hospital after falls from ladders.

By night, holiday displays are magical. By day, well, it depends on the house. Those with airblown inflatable lawn decorations can look pretty sad. After a night of colorful characters waving and bobbing, the deflated forms of morning are a stark contrast. It’s as if someone rampaged a polyester village and took no prisoners. Thankfully, a flick of the switch at nightfall brings everything back to life.

Years ago, I visited Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas. Everyone I told about my plans mentioned how wonderful the holiday decorations would be. It didn’t occur to me that 18th century celebrations would be everything but electric. Think candles and wreaths and, well, more candles.

Ironically, I have never decorated my home for the holidays. Lighting a menorah is about as close as I get. Still, I do enjoy the efforts of others—from candles in the window to big commercial displays. Seeing bright lights on cold, dark nights never fails to lift my spirits.

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.