Tuesday, May 24, 2016 No comments

Mason Says Farewell to Kindergarten

Mason’s first year of school is drawing to a close. Yesterday, the kindergarten classes had their “graduation” ceremony.

In which Mason gets a hug, from the principal of the thing. :-P

He has made quite a few strides this year. He reads now, and he’s always been good with numbers. He doesn’t know it just yet, but he has a couple of graduation “presents” waiting for him tonight: his own writing/drawing journal, and the second Dragonbreath book. He always complains when packages arrive from Amazon and they’re not for him… at least the one coming in today is partly for him.

Wife’s birthday is tomorrow, Mason’s last day of school is Friday, DD’s wedding is Saturday, and I think I missed the 11th blogiversary day for TFM. This week is going to be crazier than usual. At least Thing #1 (the graduation) is over.

Saturday, May 14, 2016 6 comments

An Upgrade

Multitasking: Charlie’s eating and sleeping all at once,
while I’m feeding him and typing one-handed!
Sun Tzu said, "the wheels of justice grind slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.”

Karma was awfully busy around FAR Manor this week, preparing for the runup to Thursday’s court hearing. Whether you believe Karma’s a b***h or not, she got awfully cranky having to work overtime on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Big V has insisted all along that she should have custody of Charles, regardless of her unwillingness to take care of herself and her fractional ability to take care of Skylar. She kind of spilled the beans at one point: what she really wants is the benefits and tax deduction she'll get for having custody, while we actually take care of him and have the expenses. The wife is already taking her and Skylar to their various appointments as it is. So she did what anyone does who doesn’t want to acknowledge reality: constructed a narrative.

Because of various things, mostly having to do with DD’s upcoming wedding, I worked at home Tuesday so Mason and Fizzle’s kids would have someone at the manor for them when they got off the bus. Thus, when Big V called, I got an earful of narrative. Most of it is pure crap, especially the part where she says we’re not allowing her to see Charles—in fact, when I had to go down there, I would take him inside to see her if he wasn’t asleep in the car seat. The crux of the matter is, we don’t let her have unsupervised visits. That’s not our doing, that was a stipulation from DFACS at the time we got him. Signed papers and everything. She seems to think that we should blow them off at her own whim, regardless of the consequences (which could involve Charlie being relocated and none of us get to see him, but Big V and rational aren’t even nodding acquaintances).

Anyway. In her rant, she said she was going to file a Motion to Intervene to get “grandparent’s rights” (which means more in some other states than on Planet Georgia). In case I never mentioned it, my mom worked for a Federal judge when I was in high school. I’ve been behind the scenes at courthouses more than most, so her waving writs at me didn’t faze me much. Seeing I wasn’t giving her much satisfaction, and was in fact poking holes in her narrative bubble, she called the wife to rant at her—and then… here’s where Karma got mad. She called Charles’s lawyer and screamed at her. Now this lawyer is a volunteer for DFACS. She teaches law as a day job. So she isn’t paid to put up with weapons-grade crap like Big V throws when she’s in one of her moods. And… she’s originally from New Jersey. Yup, Big V pissed off a New Jersey lawyer, and you know that isn’t gonna end well.

So the DFACS advocates all know each other’s business, even if they don’t always get along. Charlie’s lawyer didn’t need a whole lot of poking to learn that Big V is legally-blind, one-legged, can’t drive, and depends on us to get both her and Skylar to their various appointments. So she decided to make life difficult for Big V.

So now we come to yesterday morning. Figuring the 8:30am scheduled time wasn’t going to happen, I brought my work computer since there’s wifi in the courthouse. And indeed I was right. There was a rather large spec review, and I got through all 13 documents before they called us in. Meanwhile, Splat and BB sat with us to see Charlie. We’ve never had a problem with them visiting, although we both wish they had actually done it more than a handful of times. At one point, BB took Charlie and was making all these adoring noises. He started crying, and BB said, “here, take it” and gave him back to the wife. Yes, take “IT.” Meanwhile, Big V was off to the side, bad-mouthing us. Like we cared.

Just after 11, we finally got called in. Big V was looking all self-righteous, and got pretty steamed when she got the papers from Charlie’s lawyer. Shoulda kept your big freaking yap shut, sis. But when we got started, the judge said “we’ve got a conflict with one of the lawyers, come back at 1:30, and we’ll deal with this Motion to Intervene in July.” Seeing as neither the wife nor I had managed to grab any breakfast, we had no problem with that.

So after a nice leisurely lunch, it was “hi ho, hi ho, it’s back to court we go.” Big V was not there; since her tossed wrench got deflected for two months, I guess she couldn’t be bothered. Too bad, it would have been interesting to see her reaction. The DFACS lawyers and staff not only dug into Charlie’s case, they started laying the groundwork for Skylar’s. Meanwhile, Charlie charmed just about everyone in the courtroom—the caseworkers, the lawyers, and even the judge smiled at his “I’m content” growl1. But when Splat took the stand, it became an utter trainwreck. He really didn’t want to incriminate BB, who face-palmed a few times while he testified, but he was under oath and seemed to understand that. Finally, one of the DFACS lawyers asked, “do you want to save time and just turn custody over to [the wife and me]?” Interestingly, the judge quashed that question.

The upshot was, Splat and BB both admitted to having a serious drug problem, and they were unable to take care of Charlie (living in their car is another minor detail), and they wanted us to continue taking care of him. So now we’re officially a foster home, as opposed to a safety home. That means we get some more benefits (which is what Big V wanted for herself), Charlie now has his own insurance, and Splat & BB have nine months to clean up their act. Meanwhile, there will be scheduled visits (although our policy of “you can see him whenever you want to” is still okay), and Big V will likely get scheduled visits once her motion is considered in July. The question is, whether she’ll just be seeing Charlie, or Charlie and Skylar, by that time.

In Big V’s case, it would have been better to keep her yap shut and let everyone think she was nucking futs, than to open her mouth and remove all doubt. Meanwhile, she has killed any willingness on our parts to help her with… anything. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

1 He has some fairly distinct vocalizations. There’s the raspy wail for “I’m hungry,” the smooth one for “Rock me, I’m ready to sleep,” the growl that can mean “Everything is awesome” or “Pick me up NOW,” and one I can’t really describe that means “I want to go home now.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 5 comments

Protect Yourself from Ransomware (Tech Tuesday)

Welcome to Tech Tuesday, my new occasional column covering the nuts and bolts of writing, publishing, and keeping your tools sharp. There’s likely to be what my redoubtable co-op partner Angela Kulig calls “Finnish,” but I’ll try to keep it accessible.

You’re working away one evening, when your computer locks up and shows you something like this:

Bad news. Really bad news.
Image source: fbi.gov

Unfortunately, it’s not the plot of a bad cyberpunk novel. It recently happened to an acquaintance. Last year, I wrote about Three Ways to Crash-Proof Your Writing, and the tips are still useful. But you might need a little more caution when it comes to ransomware.

What’s Happening In There?
In short, a PC infested with ransomware establishes a connection with its operator. The PC might run normally for a while after getting infested, but at some point the ransomware begins encrypting data files with common extensions like .doc, .psd, .jpg, .zip, and so forth. When it’s done, it displays a ransom note like the one shown above. Operators usually demand Bitcoin payments, because they can’t be traced. Some ransomware allows you to decrypt a single file, thus proving they have the key, and usually give you a few days to get the Bitcoin you need to pay up. If you wait too long, the ransom goes up or the operator destroys the key (which means you're permanently hosed). Scary crap.

Unfortunately, Dropbox is not a failsafe. Ransomware encrypts everything on your hard drive, and if you have Dropbox mirrored, it nails your files there as well.

George R. R. Martin famously does his writing on an air-gapped (i.e. no network connection) PC, running WordStar on MS-DOG [sic]. While he uses WordStar for its simplicity, he also has little to fear from most stripes of malware. Such a setup works well in the traditional publishing realm, where they still prefer to start from paper drafts, but it’s not a bad idea for indies. One might balk at the expense of a second computer—but the typical ransom these days is $500, and you can get a netbook for half that. It’s not bad insurance. Remember, if you’re trying to make money at writing, this is a business. Ransomware is one more disaster to plan for.

Let’s assume that, because you have no room or money for an air-gapped computer, or need to have a browser handy for research, that’s out of the question. What else can you do? Read on…

Right now (May 2016), the most effective way to avoid ransomware is to GROW (Get Rid Of Windows). Move to MacOS, Linux, or OpenBSD if you possibly can. This is likely a temporary advantage, but it may be a couple of years before ransomware goes beyond Windows. And if the techie press breathlessly reports every minor instance of MacOS malware found in the wild, they’ll be so beside themselves over MacOS ransomware that we’ll never hear the end of it. In other words, it won’t sneak up on us. Actually, I expect iOS malware first, because iDevices are so popular.

As a possible workaround, install a virtualization tool such as VirtualBox, VMware, or Parallels and run a separate operating system inside the virtualizer for Internet access. This isn’t foolproof—ransomware can encrypt virtual drives at a stroke, if you make a mistake—but it’s a little safer.

Stay Up to Date
That should go without saying, but it’s so easy to skip those updates in the middle of a project. Sometimes, there’s good reason for that; updates have been known to hose a working PC. If you’re doing your backups, though, you should be able to revert when needed. Don’t forget to check the backups, on occasion, to make sure important data is still good.

Don’t let your virus/malware protection slide, either. Keep them updated.

Avoid Common Attack Vectors
Currently, there are several common, well-known ways malware (including ransomware) can infest your system:
  • Dodgy attachments in spam
  • Compromised ad servers
  • Websites with infectious Javascript or Flash
Thus, installing ad-blockers and Flash blockers in your browser(s) can offer protection from so-called “drive-by” attacks. Turning off Javascript, once a common trick to speed up browsing and stop useless visual effects, is making a comeback as well. Try it with your favorite websites and see if you can live without it. You can certainly live without it trying to download garbage onto your computer.

Spammers will never go away, even if there’s a special place in Hell for them. They are paying more attention to grammar these days, so you can’t always catch them out by stilted language anymore. Some spam is really phishing, attempting to get you to click a link or open an attachment that Does Not End Well For You. If you’re not expecting that payroll statement from someone you’ve never heard of, don’t open it. If your bank sends you a report about fraudulent activity about your account… it’s not really your bank. A real bank fraud department will call you, verify your identity, then go over a few transactions. (I’ve been there.) In short, don’t open attachments you aren’t expecting.

Pull a Dirty Trick
Since ransomware only encrypts files with known extensions, consider renaming crucial backup files. Instead of GreatAmericanNovel.zip, rename it with a random extension like GreatAmericanNovel.e7b. If you have a thousand photos you don’t want to lose, copy them somewhere else now. Anything your computer can’t access directly, as if it’s on your hard drive, is safe. To be honest, I’m not sure how Google Drive works with saving local copies on a computer; I do know you have to start the Drive app to get the latest onto a tablet or phone, though.

In short, the goal is keeping your computer clean. Failing that, you want to recover with as little hassle as possible. Anticipate the disaster, have a plan, and execute.

If you want to dig a little deeper, here’s a couple of links that might be useful:

Your Turn
Have you been clobbered by ransomware? Do you have some prevention or recovery tips? The comment section is open.

Monday, May 09, 2016 3 comments

Charlie at 4 (Months)

Time flies. You realize you haven’t blogged for a while, and more time goes by. Ideas pile up, and where do you start?

I’m happy to be here! Or just happy!
Where I left off might be a reasonable approach… so heeeerrrrrrrrreeee’s Charlie!

When you’ve raised a couple of exceptionally advanced babies, “normal” can produce anxiety. Given Charlie’s inauspicious start in life, I was starting to wonder if he was permanently damaged.

All that changed about a month ago. He’s been eating well for a while, but he kicked it up a notch and really started putting on weight—pretty close to 15 pounds now. He also started vocalizing—first with this odd growling sound he makes, sometimes with two notes at once—then recently, more normal squawks. His “feed me” and “I’m tired” sounds are pretty distinct, and he’s working on his “my diaper is wet” sound. The communication goes both ways, sort of… the wife says when he’s sitting with her, he recognizes my gait and starts looking for me. And he’ll get rather upset if I don’t stop and say hello!

He does have some odd notions of what’s funny. Jiggle his legs, pump his arms, and he’ll reward you with a big grin and a giggle. He will also give you a big smile when you lay him on the changing table—he knows that means a dry diaper is on the way. (His happy place is a dry diaper and a full belly.)

He’s a little lazy about holding his head up, though—he lets it flop forward when we’re holding him up. The wife thought he had a problem at first, but when he’s fighting sleep, he’ll push off your chest and turn his head back and forth for a good long while. Like Mason at that age, he’s trying to get by on brief catnaps through the day, then sleep all night… 9 or 10 hours. This works for me, obviously. On the other hand, he’ll fight sleep at night, some nights. Like last night. He kept going until 12:30 a.m., but then he slept past 9 this morning.

Also like Mason, he likes to be held most of the time. He’ll lay on our bed and watch the ceiling fan, but mostly he likes interaction. He’s finally big enough to sit in my sling, so maybe I can catch up on writing. Typing one-handed, while feeding a hungry baby, has been a lot slower than I like. Accidental Sorcerers #7, The Blood of Heroes, is way behind, and everything else is backed up behind it. But now that I’ve done one blog post, maybe the logjam will break. I’d really like to get four books out this year if possible… but with the year already ⅓ over, it’s going to be a challenge.

Sunday, February 07, 2016 7 comments

T + One Month…

…and counting.

Hm… am I hungry yet? It’s been six minutes…

It’s been a rough one on the wife and me, too. Mostly her, but I’ve had my share of sleep deprivation as of late.

Given his profound lack of pre-natal care, it might be best to think of Charles as a preemie even if he was carried to term. During that first week and a half, the pediatrician clucked at his inability to gain weight. She encouraged us to encourage him to eat more, and not let him sleep a whole long time in between.

An aside: I was a preemie, a month early and under five pounds. And I had a hernia that made me howl like a banshee. The docs said I had to get over six pounds before they could operate on me… and so, every time I opened my mouth my parents stuck a bottle in it. With the hernia fixed, I started sleeping through the night. DD was also a preemie, and was very much a “hold me close” baby. And so is Charles, most of the time. I’ve found recently that if I prop him up on some pillows, he’ll contemplate the universe for a little while before deciding he needs some more personal attention.

Anyway, Charles doesn't have a hernia. But we started encouraging him to eat more… and about the time he got a “gained six ounces!” report, he really took it to heart. And hasn’t stopped. One night last week, he inhaled three ounces of formula before I realized (he typically gets an ounce at a time, then gets burped). Lucky for us both, he didn’t live up to his nickname (Chuck) and give it right back.

Unfortunately, he does have some issues with gas cramps/colic. Not to mention the typical baby trick of rockin' and rollin' all night long while everyone else is trying to get some sleep. This last week has been particularly hard on us ol' farts. We’ve started taking shifts. So last night, I got up at 4:30am and staggered into the living room. “Shift change,” I said. Wife made him some formula, but also prepped a second bottle with a tea she makes for his cramping. “Give him some of this,” she said, and somehow managed to get to the bed before falling down. So I let him suck down an ounce of tea and settled back in the recliner. Sometimes, he’ll zorch out on my chest… the trick is to not zorch out myself, then see if he’ll lay in the Pack&Play. I got him down, went to bed, and heard him squawking ten minutes later.

Grumbling some things I’m glad Mason didn’t hear, I went back out, got him, and gave him another ounce of tea. Fifteen minutes later, he was out cold again. I put him back down, but this time just laid on the couch. I wasn’t comfortable in bed for some reason. But then I slept until 7am, when Mason got up. Charles slept until 9. Wife was still zorched when I left for church; she supposedly got up around 11. He had a very wet atomic diaper, and his outfit was moistened as well. Like DD, he doesn’t like to be uncovered much (unless he’s being held, then he’ll tolerate it). So I’m hoping we’ll get a break through the night really soon.

Splat and BB have started making more of an effort to see him, lately. I took him down to Big V’s today; she has griped mightily that we have him and not her, but she admitted she couldn’t take care of him anyway. Splat, BB, and a bunch of BB’s family came to see Charles as well, and BB even changed his diaper. I don’t know if that means they’re going to make a serious effort to get him back when the 45 days are up (a little over 2 weeks from now), but I hope they at least are getting the idea he’s worth the effort of making some serious lifestyle changes.

And with that, the workweek begins anew tomorrow. With the X-Files back on the air, I have a reason to look forward to Mondays. And to watch at least a little TV.

Monday, January 11, 2016 9 comments

Our Newest Inmate [UPDATEx2]

I have been sort of quiet about this, but the wife… well…

Already sleeping (and snoring) in my sling
I’m joking. This is Charles, the offspring of Cousin Splat and his wife (let’s call her Badger Boobs, for the pawprint tats that show up when she wears something low-cut). The tale of his arrival at FAR Manor is definitely an exercise in the weirdness that reigns in the free-range insane asylum.

So. Charles was born Friday. BB (not to be confused with DD, as the latter would hurt you for that) is not exactly the most stable isotope on the periodic table. As Cousin Splat is Big V’s offspring, I guess he was comfortable with that. One problem with BB is that there was some question about whether the baby was Cousin Splat’s… but one look at him dispelled all doubts. The other problem is BB is on probation for drug issues, and may not have exactly stayed squeaky-clean during her pregnancy. So there was a test.

Now here’s where stories diverge. BB claims the only stuff they found in her system were what they gave her at the hospital. Other claims were that the baby tested positive for meth, and yet another that his bloodwork was “fine.” Howe’er it was, DFACS asked Cousin Splat if he had any relatives who could provide a “safe house” for the kid. He gave them the wife’s name. They called Saturday, paid a visit Sunday, and Charles came home with the wife from the hospital today. [UPDATE #2: The pediatrician says they found amphetamines in his system, not meth. Bad enough, but not horrid.]

You can’t hear it, but he’s snoring in my sling right now. BB thinks the sling is an awesome idea. I like it too, because I can have both hands free to type.

According to the agreement, he could be here “up to 45 days,” although the case workers said that could run a lot longer. I expect an immediate return to the old 3am feeding/diaper change runs.

UPDATE: I forgot the funniest part of the story. We spent much of the weekend preparing for the new arrival, which included digging out a bunch of stuff from when Mason was a baby. Hearing the noise in the living room, he went to see Daughter Dearest and Fizzle setting up the Pack&Play. “I know what that is,” he said, and came back to me. “I’m gonna have to cover my ears. Aunt DD’s gonna have a baby.” Of course, I explained the situation to him, and he was fine with that. He can’t wait for Charles to get old enough to play with.

Saturday, December 12, 2015 5 comments

Just Add Light

It’s unusually warm for the bottom of the year on Planet Georgia. Our high today was around 72°F, a good 20 degrees above normal. So, when I announced I was heading to the grocery store, Fizzle suggested I grill some fish for supper.

Good idea, thinks I, and added salmon to my list. As it turned out, the wife had a few things she wanted to get, and Christmas presents was part of it. So we got about 90% of the presents this morning.

But we neglected not the grocery run. My feet were well sore by the time we were done, as I just came off a gout flareup (the only one this year that was more than mild) this week. There were a few other things to do this afternoon, and they got done.

This time of year, it’s pretty much dark by grilling time… but I made do.

Bring on the food!

Work lights are really useful for all sorts of things. Oh, and it’s not just Planet Georgia. Not by a long shot:

May your days be merry and warm—even if they’re not bright!


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