"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The end of an error

It's the dawning of a new day, and as I watch today's historic events with awe I want to say not just "God bless America" but "God bless planet Earth." I feel cautiously optimistic that after the blunders and hubris of the past eight years, this nation is finally about to step forward as a global partner to begin finding solutions to some of the many problems that we all face together.

Yes, we can.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Shattered illusions

One of the reasons we moved to this small town from the Big City was because we were sick of crime. Our apartment in Houston was broken into twice, and the second time the mofo's got thousands of dollars worth of electronics and recording equipment, including my cherished vintage Gibson Les Paul sunburst guitar. It was irreplaceable, and I literally cried for weeks after it was stolen.

But for nearly the last twenty years now, we've lived in a community where everyone respects their neighbor's property, where you can go out during the day leaving your doors and windows unlocked, secure in the knowledge that no low-life scumbag is going to enter your home and take your shit.

Or so we thought, until yesterday.

I frequently nap during the day; with no fixed work schedule since I've been disabled, my sleeping/waking hours tend to get totally out of whack at times, and I often stay up until 4 or 5 AM, grabbing a few zz's during the afternoon to compensate before Mrs. Toast comes home about 5 PM. So I was deep in dreamland about 2 or 3-ish yesterday afternoon when I was jarred only semi-awake by the ring of the front doorbell. Since I was expecting a UPS delivery, I assumed they would just leave the package on the front porch like they usually did, and drifted back to sleep.

When I got up about an hour later and walked into the living room, I was quite surprised to notice that one of our front windows was wide open without the usual screen in place, and all three cats were missing. Since we never let them go outdoors, this freaked me out and my first priority was to find them and get them back inside. Fortunately, they had not wandered far and I was able to gather them up fairly quickly. The next thing was to try and figure out how the window got open. That's when I noticed my wallet (which had been on the kitchen table) was gone, along with my mp3 player and a couple of other small items.

I wish I could describe the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realized that someone, apparently thinking that the unanswered doorbell indicated that no one was home, had entered my house while I was sleeping, grabbed a few items, perhaps even looked in on me in the bedroom to realize there was someone there after all, then quickly got the hell out. This probably explains why more stuff was not taken, including this very laptop I am now typing on (which, sitting in plain sight, would have been a major catastrophe), as well as our stereo system and new TV. Indeed, the police officer who took the burglary report said I should consider myself lucky, as if I had happened to come out and confront the perp(s) in the act, I could have gotten hurt, or worse. As it was, I only lost a modest amount of cash and will have the hassle of having to cancel all my credit cards, get new drivers license and medical insurance cards, etc. Things could have been much worse.

But the purpose of this post is not so much to bitch and moan, but rather to attempt to make lemonade out of lemons. So lest you think it couldn't happen to you, as I did, let me pass on a few tips (learned the hard way!) that may save you some grief later on down the line:

1. Make photocopies of every credit card or whatever else you carry in your wallet or purse, or digital pictures of them, or at the very least write down the card numbers along with the customer service contacts for each. First of all, if something happens, you will know exactly what was lost. Also, the police will want to include in their report the full 16-digit numbers of any cards that were taken, and most statements these days (whether online or paper) include only the last four digits of your card numbers for security. I found it can take a crowbar to pry your own full credit card number from customer service. With Discover, it wasn't until a 2nd-level supervisor had me put the police officer on the phone that she would divulge the numbers. Keep these paper copies in a safe place, and keep them updated regularly as your cards expire and are replaced.

2. Inventory your home electronics and other valuables. Take a picture (and record the make, model and serial number) of every TV set, radio, stereo, portable mp3 player, camera, and everything else you own. Again, knowing exactly what you have can be invaluable if any of it is lost. If you have homeowners insurance, most companies will not process a claim without detailed information about the item, including serial numbers.

3. Password-protect your computer, both with a Windows logon password, and also individually encrypt any particularly private data you may have on your hard drive. It may seem like a hassle to enter your password every time you start up, but you will be glad you did if your laptop should fall into the wrong hands. If you want to go the extra mile, consider using tracking software that silently "phones home" via the internet to a monitoring service if the user doesn't enter a secret keystroke combination within a minute or so after booting up. While this is a bit extreme for most people, it can pinpoint the location of a stolen laptop and might be worthwhile if you travel a lot or have really sensitive data on your machine.

4. Use a master-password program that keeps all your logon information for various websites you use in a protected database. You might want to keep this file on a removable USB thumb drive for added security. This is particularly important if you use internet banking, pay bills online, or use other web-based financial services. Then, you only have to enter one single password (which should be second nature to you so you won't forget it, yet difficult for any stranger to guess, and never, never written down anywhere) to access all of your private information. It goes without saying that you should also have a full, current backup of your computer hard drive. Many people fail to do this because it's a task that's, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. But it's cheap insurance and can save you days or weeks of frustration, not just in the event your computer is lost or stolen, but in case of hardware failure (like a drive crash) as well.

5. Consider some sort of basic intrusion alarm for your home. High-end, monitored systems are not cheap, but the peace of mind can be worth it. Some advanced systems have stealth cameras that record any suspicious activity inside or outside your home. Not everyone needs this level of protection, and good quality unmonitored do-it-yourself alarms with wireless door and window switches and infrared motion sensors can be had for around $200-250. (We're getting one of these soon.) At the very least, consider a motion detector that reacts with the sound of a barking dog. These devices scan through walls and doors and will sound off if someone gets within about 20 feet of them. The police officer told me that these are crude but fairly effective, as thieves are generally spooked by any kind of dog, and won't stick around long enough to determine if the barking is real or fake. Of course, if you already have a real dog, so much the better ... but robo-dogs don't require feeding, walking, or poop-scooping.

Needless to say I am very freaked out by this, on several levels. For one thing, I am angry at myself for my naivety, thinking that this could never happen to me. It happens to everyone, everywhere at some time or another, and not being prepared or at least aware of the danger, is simply foolish. There will be no more leaving windows open or doors unlocked here, which is something I never thought twice about before just laying down for a siesta. Of course I'm also mad as hell at whoever did this, but I'm also getting chills at the thought that some creep was skulking around my living room while I was sleeping just a few feet away. The peace of mind I used to have, that comfortable feeling of being safe and secure in my own home, has been severely battered and may take some time to recover.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Come to the dark side, we have cookies

Hope everyone had a great holiday and that 2009 has gotten off to a good start for you. Here in Toasterville, our main source of excitement and entertainment has been to watch a lot of movies recently, some of them on the new TV set that Santa left under our tree. The beginning of the new year traditionally is a favorite time for pessimists to come out of the woodwork predicting the end of the world, and our movie choices this week have to some degree reflected that. How would you like your cataclysm served up? If you think the end will come in the form of an environmental catastrophe, we've seen "An Inconvenient Truth", and "The Happening" (OMG, watch out! Killer trees!), while fans of the ever-popular alien invasion scenario might prefer 1996's "Independence Day", or perhaps even the tepid new remake of the 1951 classic "The Day The Earth Stood Still", starring Keanu Reeves as an interstellar harbinger of global destruction who looks, speaks, and acts curiously like Neo from The Matrix.

The new year is also sparking major awareness and interest in the prophesies of Nostradamus and the ancient Mayans, whose Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar seems to suggest that doomsday will arrive on a very specific date. According to many, the end of life as we know it will occur on December 21, 2012. These theorists believe that the Earth will experience unprecedented disasters ranging from massive earthquakes and tsunamis to nuclear reactor meltdowns. Of course, people have been aware of these predictions for some time now, but as we turn one calendar year closer to the actual date, the hype is really beginning to take off. Go to the official website, add your name to the "Believers List" and get your End Of The World T-Shirt! Or, you might be interested in this book which includes handy checklists of survival supplies you might need. (Tip: don't forget batteries.) For those who like their gloom and doom in nice, easy to digest hour-long bite-size chunks, The History Channel's Armageddon Week not only presents a special about 2012 under the banner of "Hindsight is 20/20; foresight is 2012", but also throws in The Seven Deadly Sins for good measure.

The fact that world events have been somewhat dire of late is no doubt contributing to the ominous tone. The environment continues to deteriorate; we face global warming and other natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, the economic crisis is showing no signs of letting up, and the recent escalation of tensions in the Middle East plays directly to the fears of conservative religious types who believe that the region will be Ground Zero for the coming End Times.

But I'm not going to worry about any of that now, because ... we have a new TV set! Woo-hoo! Happy New Year, people!