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    Scars & Grief

    February 14th, 2017

    I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not.

    I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents…

    I wish I could say you get used to people dying. But I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to “not matter”. I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it.

    Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.

    As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

    In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.

    Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.

    Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too.

    If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.

    — Credit: “Snow” via Reddit

    Protect Your Online World

    December 28th, 2014

    As our everyday world becomes more dependent on Information Technology (IT) everyone must take steps to protect themselves from malicious threats. Government agencies and large corporations have large budgets for cybersecurity teams to prevent, detect, and respond to intrusions. Unfortunately home users typically do not.

    I’m sharing my thoughts on how to protect yourself and your family. Some steps may seem obvious to those who work in the IT field, but I hope you still find this information useful.

    Email Account

    Your primary email account is one of your most important assets. If someone can access your email account, they can do some very bad stuff:

    • Read your private correspondence.
    • Impersonate you by sending email from your mailbox.
    • Read information about your contacts, and use that to attack them.
    • Prevent you from accessing your email by changing your email password.
    • Reset your other passwords as most services allow a password reset by emailing you a link to click.

    You should take extra precautions to protect your email account. I recommend the following steps to protect yourself:

    1. Use one of the major online email providers like GMail, Outlook, or Yahoo. They typically invest in the latest security standards and provide the most user friendly experience. Also, if you use your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to host your email, you will need to change your email address whenever you change your ISP.
    2. Use a complex and unique password.
    3. Turn on two-factor authentication.


    Nearly every website and service you subscribe to asks you to create an account with a username and password. Unfortunately it is increasingly common for websites to be compromised which can expose your password to the attacker. For these reasons, I recommend that everyone use a password management tool to keep track of them.

    1. Use a password manager. Consider an online service such as LastPass, RoboForm, or Dashlane which can synchronize your password database among several computers and handheld devices. Alternatively you can use software such as KeePass, 1Password, or Password Safe which keep your password database protected on your own PC. If you’re really old fashioned, a paper notebook and pen will work though you run the risk of losing it.
    2. Use long and complex passwords. If your password is short or easy, malicious software can easily guess what it is. If you can remember a password, it is probably not a good password. Every website and service has different requirements and limitations. I recommend at least 10 characters with a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. Password managers make this easy. They can generate and type complex passwords for you automatically.
    3. Never reuse passwords. If you reuse passwords, an attacker can capture your password from one hacked site and use that to compromise your other accounts too. Password managers make this easy, and can even warn you if you reuse a password unintentionally.
    4. Safeguard a backup copy. Regularly make a backup copy of your password database and keep it in a safe place. This might be on a USB drive in a small safe at home, or in a safety deposit box at the bank.

    Two-Factor Authentication

    To establish who you are, most services require only a username and password (something you know.) A second factor might be something you have (such as a cellphone or token.) This makes it much more difficult for someone to impersonate you or gain unauthorized access to your account.  Your ATM card operates on a similar principle, your card is something you have, and your PIN is something you know. Someone with both can withdraw cash from your account.

    Tokens come in both physical and virtual form. Your most important accounts like email and banking should support two factor authentication. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, LastPass, and Facebook all support multifactor authentication. Turn it on!

    • Phone – After you login with a password, you will receive either an SMS text or phone call with a one-time code. You must also enter that to continue.
    • Authy – Use your smartphone or laptop as a soft token.  Syncs among multiple phones/devices.
    • Google Authenticator – Use your smartphone as a soft token for multiple web services.
    • YubiKey – A physical token that supports USB and NFC connection.
    • Symantec VIP – Both soft and physical tokens, supported by some banks.

    Use Security Software

    Anti-virus (AV) software became very common in the 1990s as malicious software began to be more common. AV providers will identify, track, and create signatures for known viruses. Today, malicious software can be automatically generated so fast it is no longer possible to keep up. AV software alone will not protect you anymore.

    I recommend a comprehensive security suite such as Norton Security, McAfee LiveSafe, Kaspersky, TrendMicro, Webroot, or Bitdefender.  Be sure to enable both anti-virus and firewall features. Most of these packages protect multiple devices and include online backup and password management features. All of these are purchased on an annual subscription, but you can sometimes find a better deal from a reseller like Amazon.

    Automate Backups

    Use an automated backup solution to keep backup copies of your important files, photos, videos, and software. Backups are “recovery points” that can be restored in the event of hardware failure, data corruption, or malicious attack. More frequent backups provide more recovery points.

    External hard drives are a low-cost and effective place to store backup data. Both Mac and Windows come with free backup software that works with external hard drives. Consider using more than one external drive, and occasionally rotate them between your desk (for daily use) and a safe (in case of fire or theft.)

    If you have a fast internet connection, also consider a cloud provider such as Mozy, Carbonite, iDrive, Backblaze, or Acronis who can keep backups in your home, and in the cloud.

    Embrace Encryption

    Encryption protects data from being accessed by unauthorized parties. Typically a “key” is used to unlock encrypted data. Think of an encryption key as an extra-long password. Be sure your password manager uses encryption to protect your password database. Also ensure your backup data is encrypted so it cannot be restored without your key.

    Software Updates

    Flaws and vulnerabilities are found in software on a regular basis. Quickly apply updates to your device operating systems such as Windows, Android, Mac, and iPhone. If possible, enable automatic updates for trusted software so you don’t have to remember to do it.

    DNS Service

    Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) includes DNS service which translates the easy-to-remember names like google.com to more complicated IP addresses.  There are third party DNS providers that can provide enhanced security by making a configuration change to your home router.  This change will provide some protection to all your home devices.  Read more at OpenDNS, CloudFlare, and Google.

    Note: Updated on April 3, 2018.

    Cloud File Storage

    April 23rd, 2013

    Do you frequently use more than one PC?  If so, you should consider using either Google Drive or Microsoft SkyDrive to share files among your different computers.  Both of these services operate in a similar manner.  Both services are free.  If you use GMail regularly, I recommend Google Drive.  If you don’t use GMail, I recommend SkyDrive.

    With Google Drive, your account is tied to a Google Account (GMail or Google Apps.)  SkyDrive is tied to a Microsoft Account (Hotmail, Passport, or Outlook.com.)  Moving forward I’ll use “Drive” to interchangeably reference either service.

    Once you’ve installed the “Drive” software, there will be a new folder on your PC.  When you save or copy a file to that local folder, a copy will be transmitted through your Internet connection to the “Drive” service.  If you have more than one PC running, with the same account, the file will automatically sent to each of those PCs.

    An additional benefit of using a “Drive” service is that you can access your files from a smartphone, tablet, or other Internet connected device at any time.  The data you store in your “Drive” service is only visible to you.  I would be reluctant to copy any sensitive or protected information to an Internet “Drive” service like this, but for most of your data, this should be a relatively safe idea.

    If one of these services stops working, or your Internet connection is interrupted, your data will still be stored on your local PC.




    November 9th, 2009

    Once upon a time I frequently reused passwords. So if you knew my dogs name, or what kind of car I drove, you could easily have pretended to be me with just a little extra work. This is obviously a very bad idea, but I’m sure many people struggle with managing passwords for web sites and computer systems you access on a regular basis.

    Passwords are keys to your identity.  If a malicious person were to figure out your email password, what harm could they cause?  Could they quickly gather the names and contact information for your friends and family?  Could they figure out where you bank?  Could they reset your bank password by telling your bank that your password was forgotten?

    A researcher who examined 10,000 Hotmail, MSN and Live.com passwords that were recently exposed online has published an analysis of the list and found that “123456″ was the most commonly used password, appearing 64 times.
    Wired Magazine

    Here are my tips for choosing the best passwords:

    • Use different passwords for every site/application.  Do not reuse them.
    • Change passwords frequently.  The more you use a password, the more you should change it.
    • Keep your passwords secret.  Guard them as if they were keys to your identity — they usually are.
    • Consider using a random password generator.
    • Consider using passphrases (e.g. Myhouseismadeofwoodandhasyellowsiding!)
    • Consider using acronyms (e.g. Mhimowahys!)
    • Do not use words, birthdays, family and pet names, addresses, or any other personal information in your passwords.
    • Do not use repeat characters such as 111 or sequences like abc, qwerty, or 123 in any part of your password.

    I strongly recommend using a password managment tool for three important reasons.

    1. Tools remember many passwords so you don’t have to.
    2. Tools can type passwords for you.  This makes strong passwords easy to use.
    3. Tools can create strong passwords which are complex, unique, and random.

    I have previously blogged about software based password managers PasswordSafe and KeePass.  Both remain excellent ways to manage your passwords.  I have now begun using a new online password manager services called LastPass.  Why change?  The primary reason is that I can now access my password database from my iPhone.  Otherwise, KeyPass is great!

    LastPass is an online service that stores your password data both on your PC and “in the cloud” so that you don’t need to carry it with you.  Remote storage means you can access your accounts from anywhere you have an Internet connection.  LastPass addresses privacy concerns by only storing data in encrypted form (256-bit AES).  They don’t have your encryption key, and the encryption / decryption is all done on your PC.   As a result, LastPass cannot actually read any of the data they store for you.  You can read the technical details here.  You can also save a copy of your encrypted password database on a USB memory key, and use standalone LastPass software to access it.

    For the ultra-paranoid among us, LastPass supports multi-factor-authentication mechanisms.  Requiring a combination of something you know (a master password) with something you have (like a YubiKey) to access your data makes it very safe.

    One of the unique features of LastPass is the ability to use a PDA to store your password database.  LastPass has mobile versions for iPhone, Blackberry, Android, and other mobile platforms.  I use the iPhone version which updates my local copy every time I start the software (if an Internet connection is available.)  Now I don’t even need a PC to find a password!

    LastPass has an assortment of YouTube videos that explain how their solution works, and tips for using it effectively.  I recommend you watch a few of these videos before getting started.

    I was able to quickly import my existing password database from KeyPass to LastPass.   Unfortunately the two tools use different methods to auto-type your credentials, so I did need to adjust some of my entries once they were imported.


    Windows Cleanup

    May 3rd, 2009

    One downside to using Windows regularly is how performance seems to degrade over weeks and months of normal system usage.  In my experience, the root cause is typically sloppy and/or malicious software. 

    Bad software frequently leaves a mess of temporary files, extra registry entries, and sometimes extra software components you are not aware of.  This problem is increased with frequent web surfing as many popular websites actually install software on your PC as you browse.

    You should already be running some sort of Anti-Virus software.  Such software updates itself daily with signatures of known viruses.  At home I use Trend AntiVirus (one license covers several machines.)  At work I use Symantec (because thats what my employer pays for.)

    AntiVirus software does not typically detect all of the bad stuff that may be on your PC.  I use two additional free utilities on a regular basis.  You may want to try them for yourself.


    CCleaner is a nifty utility that scans and deletes extra stuff that can bog down your PC.  It also removes logs of your activity that many common programs create.  It is a free download, and is free to use.  Note that the setup wizard will install a web browser toolbar by default, so I always remember to “uncheck” that box.

    CCleaner is a freeware system optimization, privacy and cleaning tool. It removes unused files from your system – allowing Windows to run faster and freeing up valuable hard disk space. It also cleans traces of your online activities such as your Internet history. Additionally it contains a fully featured registry cleaner. But the best part is that it’s fast (normally taking less than a second to run) and contains NO Spyware or Adware!

    Malware Bytes Anti-Malware (MBAM)

    Malware Bytes Anti-Malware (MBAM) is great utility that scans your system for “malware.”  Malware is software you don’t generally want on your PC, even though it isn’t technically a virus.  A classic example of malware is software that advertising companies quietly install to track what sites you visit, and sometimes interrupt you with advertising popups.  MBAM does a good job of finding and removing garbage that your AntiVirus software may ignore.  MBAM is free to download and use, however they offer a “premium” version that costs money but runs automatically in the background.

    We at Malwarebytes have created an easy-to-use, simple, and effective anti-malware application. Whether you know it or not your computer is always at risk of becoming infected with viruses, worms, trojans, rootkits, dialers, spyware, and malware that are constantly evolving and becoming harder to detect and remove. Only the most sophisticated anti-malware techniques can detect and remove these malicious programs from your computer.

    What other tips can you share?  What utilities do you use to keep your Windows clean?