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Monday, May 30, 2016 4 comments

Daughter Dearest Ties the Knot

And we officially begin a new chapter—both our kids are married.

Here comes the bride—get outta the WAY!
Saturday was the culmination of a lot of preparations that made everything a little crazier than usual around the free-range insane asylum, but everything went off as expected. Charlie tried to steal the show, making his contented growling noise in the back row and making DD laugh a little up at the altar.

At rehearsal, I had to carry on a tradition started by the wife’s dad. Back when, the preacher got to the part where he asks who’s giving away the bride. He answered “Her mother and I. And I got two more at home! Who wants ‘em?” So when it came to my time, I put her hand in Fizzle’s and said, “She’s all yours, buddy! Good luck!” (Of course, neither of us did that at the actual ceremony.)

So now it’s time to rename Fizzle, since he’s no longer the Future Son In Law. +Katherine Hajar suggested “Sizzle.” And why not? Sizzle it is!

And tomorrow, I’m off to NC with Mom. For the whole month. Once she gets her cable modem activated, I’ll resume regular blogging.

Friday, May 27, 2016 3 comments

Stiletto’s Getaway (#FridayFlash)

This runs a bit longer than a flash should—just short of 1300 words—but it’s part of a larger work in progress (16K words and counting). Stiletto has a bit part in Blink’s story, being serialized at WriteOn now, but she’s the main character in this one. This takes place the winter before Blink manifested…

A jet-black rocket on two wheels glided over the streets of Skyscraper City. What little noise it made was drowned out by the roaring and wailing of three police cars in hot pursuit. The bike had no lights; the rider had a night vision display to show her where to go.

“A little tighter than I’d have liked,” Stiletto muttered to herself, snapping the motorcycle around a corner. The back end stepped out, but Stiletto knew to stay on the throttle and the bike jerked upright with a little wiggle. Pegging the throttle out of the turn, she thumbed the voice command switch. “Deploy caltrops.” Above the soft thrum of the engine, she heard the caltrops rattle onto the street behind her. The cops would have to slow down for the turn as well, and so they wouldn’t plow into a wall when their tires went down. Stiletto would kill only if she had no other choice.

Behind her, the lead cop car went into a skid and the other two braked hard, giving Stiletto some breathing room. “Now they’ll call for backup.” Captain Heroic was retired, it was too cold for No Sweat to do his thing this time of year, and the Masked Warriors never did this kind of pursuit. That left the Devis and Count Boris to worry about… but she was almost home free. She blew through a red light, swerving to miss the delivery truck lumbering through the intersection, then took a left at the next block. Two blocks down, she took another left and slowed enough to keep the traffic surveillance cameras from tripping and giving away her position.

A supervillain had to know exactly where she was at all times, and Stiletto was no exception. Twelve blocks would get her to the bridge and then to Riverside North, where she had her lair. And her home. Cops feared to tread those streets at night, but things were more orderly than they thought. That, of course, was largely due to Stiletto. She had put the word out to the gangs long ago: Don’t recruit kids, don’t sell drugs down here, and don’t involve bystanders in your wars. After making examples out of a few non-believers… well, it was a pretty safe place for everyone who belonged there. But between here and home was—

A cop car skidded around the corner, lights flashing. The driver hit the siren as Stiletto hit the gas. Between here and home was two blocks run by the LeFleurs mob. She had little use for mobs—white guys in suits who thought that made them superior to gang-bangers—but they might be good for a little distraction. Behind her, three more cop cars joined the renewed chase. Good. That should make it a fair fight. “Side guns,” she commanded. “Rubber bullets.” The weaponry clicked into place.

A hard right, a left, and now she was in position. “Fire!” The automatic weapons pumped rubber bullets into storefront windows, shattering them and setting off alarms. Mobsters on watch, hearing gunshots and police sirens, responded immediately. Focusing on the traditional enemy, they barely noticed the black motorcycle without lights. A few bullets spanged off her fairing, spending themselves against brick walls and pavement.

In turn, the cop cars skidded to a halt. Cops poured out the lee side of each, returning fire. “Now they have something else to think about,” said Stiletto, with a satisfied smile. “Disarm all,” she told her bike, slowing to a legal speed. “Let’s go home.”

At an abandoned factory along the riverfront, Stiletto ran her motorcycle up a loading ramp. A narrow door swung open long enough for her to shoot through it. She rolled between two sets of uprights; as she shut the bike down and raised the cowling, the uprights came together, clamping the wheels. The entire thing turned around, facing the door for her next caper. This was Stiletto’s hideout, and it was more comfortable inside than it looked. Some dumbass yuppies had tried to gentrify this part of Riverside back thirty years ago, and ended up running back to the white side of town. She owned this building outright, through a few shell corporations, and the defenses kept druggies out.

City Loan, a notorious payday lender with hidden ties to Grimes Financial, had lost about two hundred thirty thousand bucks tonight. They would get half of it back soon enough; she knew several families who were about to have their loans paid in full. The rest would give her secret identity a little free time. “Yeah, you deserve it hon, havin’ to put up with Stiletto most weekends,” she told herself. But for now, all but a couple hundred went into the hidden safe along with her costume.

Dressed in street clothes, she used a pair of night vision goggles to check the perimeter. Nobody nearby. She locked up and emerged into the night.

A few blocks from her apartment—another failed gentrification attempt—she paused. She knew the snick of a switchblade, the click of a revolver’s hammer, the chick-chick of a cocked semi-auto, every sound of every weapon you might find down here. But this was more of a tock sound, like someone doing a really loud tongue-click.

What the hell? she thought. It was pitch-dark here, so she felt no need to hide. Anyone coming for her would be just as blind as she was right now. She put a hand on her own switchblade.

Tock, came the noise again, rattling up and down the street. “Busy night, hon?”

“You could say that,” Stiletto blurted, expecting neither the kindly question nor the woman’s voice behind it. She always tried to put her villain identity away with her costume, but all her mental alarms were blaring. Just another lady, she tried to convince herself.

“Easy, now. You got nothin’ to fear from me,” the voice came again. “I know where you go and what you do. Doesn’t matter to me.”

Snick. Stiletto brought out the switchblade without thinking about it. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“The phantom who sees in the night.” The woman—whoever she was—pitched her voice to make it sound spooky, then chuckled. “You might want to go around one block. The Three-Knees are hangin’ out up the way you usually go. Young woman, walkin’ by herself? Could be trouble.”

“What… this ain’t their hood.” Theirs was Third Street Northeast; they used 3NE as their tag. Calling them “Three-Knee” to their faces would get a violent response.

“Don’t matter. They’re there. And they don’t quite understand how things are done down here.”

“Yeah.” Stiletto worked by cutting one of the violators out of the herd; she couldn’t take on a whole gang by herself. “Thanks for the warning, uh…”

“Don’t matter who I am,” came the answer. “Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… well, you ride your ride, hon. I’ll ride mine.” And the presence was gone. Somehow, Stiletto could sense that.

“No. Way,” she whispered to herself. Her aunts had brought her up on stories of the Night Stalker. The phantom who sees in the night, she thought with a chill. It couldn’t be the real Night Stalker; if she was even alive, she had to be pushing eighty. But you heard things, and not all of them were from superstitious old folks. Women and children, warned of danger up ahead in a hood where most of the streetlights never worked. Or rescued. Not all the peace in Riverside North was Stiletto’s doing, when it came down to it.

She took the recommended detour, chewing over the woman’s riddle. Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… “are forgotten and not gone?” she asked herself. “Was there really a Night Stalker?”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 4 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.


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