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Friday, November 13, 2009

Thanksgiving

By far my favorite holiday. Growing up, just about any holiday would be enjoyable for me, but Thanksgiving is the one that sticks out in my mind far more prominently than the others. Perhaps it's the smells associated with the meal. It is said that the association between memories and the sense of smell is stronger than that of the other senses.

To me, Thanksgiving was a day off from school, usually following an extremely early release day, translating into a four and a half day weekend. Quite the mini-vacation for a grade schooler. Family would gather and we'd watch the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special, I'd follow that up with the Garfield special, and any other specials I could find. The meal came, and we'd eat Turkey and all the fixings, drink cider, and follow up with some pie.



Afterward, the grown-ups would find a quite place to slip peacefully into a food coma, and I'd return to my video games. The next few days would consist of turkey salad, turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, and pie remnants although that was usually gone sooner than the rest.

As a child, Thanksgiving was really a chance to have a great meal, watch specials and goof off for several days.

Toward the end of my father's life (He died in 94, a cancerous tumor that started in his tongue) he found it difficult to eat. Favorite foods were no longer an option. Some things we could blend for him, which we did on Thanksgiving; a turkey-gravy shake in a small coffee mug I'd given him as a Christmas gift the year before. At the time, he was bed ridden, and the mug was easier to hold than a bowl. He enjoyed it immensely. When it became impossible to eat anything with more texture than a bowl of oatmeal, he'd express pleasure in simply smelling his favorite foods cooking.

I remember thinking it must have been torturous to be able to smell these foods cooking, knowing you wouldn't be able to partake.

The first Thanksgiving after my father had passed was strange. Things had changed. He'd been gone roughly nine months, and day to day life had only just started to feel normal. The thought occurred to me the moment I got up that morning to the smell of the first stages of Thanksgiving preparations. There'd be no turkey frappe this year.

I took the old coffee mug from the cupboard and examined it while I sat at the kitchen table in front of a pan of stuffed mushrooms that were waiting for their turn in the oven. It was a narrow eight ounce mug, suited for a small amount of coffee, with a serene painting on it of a duck pond. I remembered picking it out for him while Christmas shopping, thinking that it had no real symbolic meaning to him, but it did for me.

One of my earliest memories of being a child old enough to enjoy time with my father, yet young enough to have not appreciated it at the time, we'd walked around the Brookline reservoir. A family of ducks had come walking along in our path, two large, and a half-dozen or so little yellow chicks. The rest of the walk was mostly my father answering questions I came up with. Why don't ducks get wet. Why was one of them green about the head. How do ducks float. Why don't they get cold in the water. Typical kid stuff.

I had no idea that this mug that tugged so gently at the strings of my childhood memories would soon come to symbolize even more for me. Calm water, reeds bending gently in a light breeze, ducks placidly floating along. There was a peace in the scene on this mug. It became symbolic to me of the peace that had eventually my father had found.

The years after, I always thought back on Thanksgiving mornings to the mug, filled with thick gravy and bits of turkey breast. Thanksgiving for me now represents comfort for myself and loved ones, fond memories, and Peace.

Ironically, some of the same ideals that were professed during the first Thanksgiving, right before the New Englanders started to force the natives into small reservations and impose their "Civilization" all the while complaining that they were being treated unfairly by England.

Perhaps that's a post for another time though.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What's a blacklist and why am I on one?

The internet: a bustling cloud of completely organized chaos. The internet has the potential to send information to the waiting eyes of countless recipients, all in a matter of seconds. Coordinate your schedule with others, catch up on the latest gossip, ask an opinion, hire someone, fire someone, break up with someone… perhaps find a suitor for your available female Ukrainian friends? Maybe sell some Viagra imported from Canada? Get to know an Ethiopian ambassador who wants to transfer umpteen-jillion dollars into your bank account right away.

As I stated before in a previous article, around 70% of the estimated 210 billion emails that were sent in 2008 were spam. As you can see (and probably have witnessed first hand) spam has become somewhat of a problem. So what’s a little junk mail, right?

If we were talking about the post cards and sales circulars you get at home it would be one thing. The trouble with electronic junk mail is that it’s being used on a large scale to spread viruses and other malware.

Today’s Spam filters communicate with companies whose job it is to keep a constantly updating list of known and suspected spammer IP addresses. The filters download these lists and stop messages that come from those sources. Some of the most widely known of these companies include SORBS, Spamhaus, and CBL.

Unfortunately there are a number of reasons that you may end up one day finding yourself listed on one of these blacklists, and it may or may not be for a legitimate reason.

If you find yourself receiving non-delivery reports when you send emails to recipients who have historically always been able to receive email from you, you should check to see if you’re listed.
One way to do this is to go to mxtoolbox.com, type your domain name (usually the part of your email address following the @) in the search field and do an MX Lookup. The screen that pops up will show you where the internet gets your mail from. There’ll be a link that says “Blacklist Check”.

The Blacklist Check link will bring up a list of over 100 blacklists, and will let you know if you’re listed on any of them. Clicking the links to the lists you find yourself on will usually bring you to a place where you can request de-listing.

But why?
Before requesting de-listing, you really ought to find out why you’re listed. If you request a de-listing before fixing the problem, you’re likely to find yourself right back on the list again.

Malware
Spambot infections are a common reason to be listed on a blacklist. This is malicious software written for the purpose of searching through your address book, and sending spam messages out to those recipients, in the hopes of spreading the infection by tricking the recipients into clicking links or running programs.

This can generally be detected by reviewing your firewall logs to see if there are machines sending excess traffic on port 25, the default SMTP port. Generally speaking a user will have this problem in conjunction with other such problems as unsolicited browser pop-ups, warnings that there are infections, or odd computer behaviors. If your firewall does not keep verbose logs, start with machines having these kinds of problems.

Some malware will search through an address book and choose a recipient whose name it will then use for its emails. In other words, if John Smith’s computer gets infected, and he’s got my name in his address book, that infection could then start sending spam to all recipients in his address book that look like they came from me. This is known as spoofing an email address, and can result in my getting blacklisted.

Running MalwareBytes’ Anti-malware or other such malware scanners will usually remove these infections.

If you host your own email server, a good way to stop this and prevent it from happening again is to lock down your firewall, so that only your email server is allowed to send emails to the internet. You can then configure email traffic monitoring, or a spam filter that filters outbound emails to check all messages as they go through.

You can also have a third-party such as MXLogic or Postini filter outbound traffic, and lock down your firewall to only allow email traffic coming from the email server to only that vendor’s external IP addresses

If you use a host for your email and connect via POP3, this method will not be viable for you. Be sure to consult your network administrator if you’re unsure how you send and receive email.

Note: A mis-configured firewall can cause traffic to be delayed or stopped altogether. If you’re not sure of exactly what you’re doing, you should always consult with a knowledgeable source before changing firewall settings.

IP Blocks
Companies who make their money from spam emails will sometimes buy several external IP addresses at the same time. These are called IP blocks, and will be sold as a range, say for example from xxx.xxx.xxx.100 to xxx.xxx.xxx.150. That company will then use these IP addresses to host email servers from which they will then send spam.

The blacklist companies will notice an increased amount of spam from all or most of these IP addresses, and just add a whole range to their black lists. Unfortunately over time as IP addresses change hands, this can cause a legitimate company who has the misfortune of being assigned xxx.xxx.xxx.121 to become blacklisted.

Even more unfortunately there’s really no way to avoid this other than sheer luck.

Other
If the reason you were blacklisted is something other than these two common reasons, you may need to contact your network administrator, your email host, your internet service provider, or all of the above.

Now that you’ve found out why and remedied the problem, you can go ahead and request a de-listing. Sometimes you are removed in a matter of minutes, but changes like this can sometimes take several days to propagate throughout the internet.

Prevention
As the old saying goes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Our vendors realize that this is a problem. As I said earlier, port 25 has historically been the default port for email traffic, and thus a common path for malware and spam to take. Some companies such as Verizon are shutting down port 25 to all traffic from sources with dynamic IP addresses. If you’re not sure whether you have a dynamic IP address, consult your network administrator. While this isn’t exactly a blacklist, the results are similar.

Don’t be fooled by spam. Bill Gates is not going to share his money with you for passing a chain letter. You’re probably not really pre-approved for a mortgage from a company you’ve never heard of and never contacted. The shipping and handling on a mail order bride is probably too much anyway. Any email that seems too good to be true probably is.


Invest the time and make sure you’ve done everything you can to help prevent this from happening to you. Always ask a knowledgeable source if you’re at risk for email blacklisting. Get a spam filter, even though you don’t have a spam problem. Get a professional grade firewall, and get it configured by an expert. Make sure you have up to date Virus and Malware protection, and exercise cautious computing. Don’t wait until this becomes a problem, resulting in delayed or denied communications or loss of revenue.

Windows 7 Burger from Burger King

I actually feel a little ill after watching this...


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Boston Driving

This is an old email I got about ten years ago. Found it amusing, so I thought I'd share:

The geographical center of Boston is in Roxbury.


Due north of the center we find the South End.

This is not to be confused with South Boston,

which lies directly east from the South End.

North of the South End is East Boston and

southwest of East Boston is the North End.

Backbay was filled in years ago.

Basic Rules for Driving in Boston: (Subject to change at any
time)

Boston is often acclaimed as the most exciting city in America in
which to drive. Who would argue? Herewith, for newcomers and visitors, are
a few basic rules of the road for driving in these parts:

  • To obtain a general idea of how to drive in Boston, go to a Celtics
    game and carefully watch the fast break. Then get behind the wheel of
    your car and practice it.
  • Never take a green light at face value. Always look right and
    left before proceeding.
  • When in doubt, accelerate.
  • Very generally speaking, the intransigence of the Boston driver is
    directly proportional to the expense of his American-made car, and
    inversely proportional to the expense of his foreign-made car. But in
    applying this formula, bear in mind that they are all more or less
    intransigent.
  • When on a one way street, stay to the right to allow traffic to pass
    coming the other direction.
  • Drivers whose cars sport "I Brake For Animals" bumper stickers may
    brake for animals, but they may not brake for you. Watch it.
  • Teenage drivers believe they are immortal. Don't yield to the
    temptation to teach them otherwise.
  • Taxicabs should always be given the right of way, unless you are bent
    on suicide.
  • Never, ever, stop for a pedestrian unless he flings himself under the
    wheels of your car. Most multicar pileups are caused this way.
  • The first parking space you see will be the last parking space you see.
    Grab it.
  • Learn to swerve abruptly. Boston is the home of slalom driving, thanks
    to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which puts potholes in key locations to
    test drivers' reflexes and keep them on their toes.
  • Never get in the way of a car that needs extensive body work.
  • Double-park in the North End of Boston, unless triple-parking is
    available.
  • Always look both ways when running a red light.
  • While it is possible to fit a 15-foot car into a 15-foot parking
    space, it is seldom possible to fit a 16-foot car into a 15-foot parking
    space. Sad but true. Don't even think of finding a 20 ft space.
  • There is no such thing as a shortcut during rush-hour traffic in
    Boston.
  • Rush 'Hour' generally only lasts from 7am until 8pm.
  • It is traditional in Boston to honk your horn at cars that don't move
    the instant the light changes. Color doesn't matter.
  • Never put your faith in signs that purport to provide directions.
    They are put there to confuse people who don't know their way around the
    city. And to confuse those who do but are detoured by the Big Dig.
  • Use extreme caution when pulling into breakdown lanes. Breakdown
    lanes are not for breaking down, but for speeding, especially during rush
    hour. Breakdown lanes may also end without warning causing traffic jams
    as people merge back in.
  • Never use directional signals, since they only confound and distract
    other Boston drivers, who are not used to them.
  • Similarly, never attempt to give hand signals. Boston drivers,
    unused to such courtesies, will think you are waving them on to pass you.
  • The yellow light is not, as commonly supposed outside the Boston area,
    a signal to slow down. It is a warning to speed up and get through the
    intersection before the light turns red. As a result, yellow lights only
    light for a quarter of a second.
  • Seeking eye contact with another driver revokes your right of way.
  • Never pass on the left when you can pass on the right. Sidewalks are
    optional.
  • In making a left turn from the right lane, employ the element of
    surprise. That is, do it as suddenly as possible, so as to stun other
    drivers. Crossing entire 4 lane roads in one block always gains the
    respect and salutes.
  • Speed limits are arbitrary figures posted only to make you feel guilty.
  • Whenever possible, stop in the middle of a crosswalk to ensure
    inconveniencing as many pedestrians as possible.
  • Remember that the goal of every Boston driver is to get there first,
    by whatever means necessary.
  • Above all, keep moving.

    And good luck. You'll need it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Comcast digital converter boxes

Comcast actually managed to sneak up another step on my annoyance chart this week.

I'm sure by now everyone's familiar with the movement to digital over analog. Well, if you've got Comcast for your TV services, you need to take it a step further. They require an additional converter box for any TV into which the cable was plugged directly.

This box is small, about the size of a sandwich. Best of all, it's free.

I called Comcast and told them I had Coax coming out of the wall and plugged straight into the back of the TV in two rooms of the house. They sent me two boxes. Pretty simple.

On the first of this month, one of the boxes stopped working correctly. For some reason, I was only getting about 15 channels, and they were spread far apart, starting around 234 and ranging all the way out to the 700s...

I called Comcast. Tech support sent a couple of reset signals which did nothing. They told me to keep the box off for thirty seconds. This too did nothing.

The conclusion was that the box was bad, and I was presented with two options.

1 - I could take the box to a Comcast service center and have it switched out for free.

OR

2 - A tech could be dispatched to the house to replace this box (and I quote) "you will never have another problem again".

I was very tempted to go this route just so that when I eventually have another problem, I could call back and complain... However, this would cost me $25!

I said "Hold on. So let me get this straight... I get the box for free. I've had it for a week, and now it's not working, and to have someone come fix this box that I was sent for free, would cost me money. How about just sending me another box for free, and I'll return this one?"

"No sir, I cannot do that."

Makes me wonder if I might be able to just find a third TV to report and see if they'll send me another free box and just use that one.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Elbows on the table!

Garth Brooks said "I'm not big on social graces" in his song "Friends in Low Places". This is one of my favorite quotes. I too, am not big on social graces.

Don't get me wrong, I like to think I'm well mannered when the situation calls for it. I believe in saying please and thank you. I believe in giving before taking. I am a huge fan of these things, and I'll be the first to agree that there's far too little of it in the world.

I find it interesting how things have changed over the years. There are some things that are considered bad manners, primarily by people over 50, that just make me wonder why?

For instance:

Elbows on the table.
I never understood why elbows on the table was such taboo.

I never had to observe this rule as a child, and hadn't heard of it until I ate dinner at a friend's house sometime around the age of ten. For the sake of this post, we'll call my friend "Paul".

The family was a well to do, young (early 30s) married couple with three kids. Very catholic. They would be made to hang their head in shame when they used the world "god" in anything that wasn't a prayer.

Paul and I had just been called in from an afternoon of goofing off in the back yard. I was invited to dinner and graciously accepted.

Paul's father had just gotten home, set his briefcase at the foot of the stairs and loosened his tie. We sat down at the table and I reached for my fork.

Paul swiftly kicked me in the shin. I looked up and noticed that they were all folding their napkins to place on their laps. I didn't even notice I had a napkin at all. I followed suit.

I was now a little gun shy, so I sat still and watched. They put their hands together and began to pray. At the time, I was an alter boy (hold the jokes please) so I followed suit again. Interestingly, I had never heard someone say "Grace" before either.

The meal went on as normal, or at least as far as I could tell. That is, until Paul was scolded for having elbows on the table. "But he's doing it," Paul ratted me out. It was explained that I was a guest. I was very puzzled by the interaction, but took my elbows off the table regardless. The dinner finished in silence.

We cleaned up and went to the living room to play. I heard talk from the other room, and listened although I knew I shouldn't. Paul's mother was explaining to him that I didn't know any better than to have my elbows on the table, and that it was bad manners.

I was baffled. I knew there were things that were simply unacceptable at the dinner table. Certain things were not discussed at the table. Disections we were doing at school, for example. Certain items did not belong at the table, like turtles. But, why would my elbows offend someone at the dinner table? They weren't bleeding or dirty.

I dismissed it as "one of those things".

It came up again from time to time. Most commonly was at other tables, when out at a meal. One fellow even threw an arm out and knocked his date's arms right off the table. Such a silly thing I thought, to strike out in righteous fury at someone who dared to put their elbows on the table during a meal.

I found a resource (which to my relief shows that I'm not the only one confused by this) suggests some possible reasons for this. Here are a couple of my favorites:

The great houses and castles of England during the middle ages did not have dining tables in the great halls, so tables were made from trestles and covered with a cloth. The diners sat along one side only; if they put their elbows on the table and leaned too heavily, the table could collapse.


Tony Muir, Tamarama
Leave it to the English... :P

It's taken me the best part of 50 years to work out what the elbows on the table thing is all about and I now realize my parents didn't understand it at all. If they had, they would have explained it to me.
When you eat with your elbows on the table, your upper spine is bent forward, your ribs are pushed in-wards and - most importantly - your stomach is squeezed between the two. It's incredibly bad for your digestion. I wish my parents had understood that. If they'd explained it, I might have taken some notice - and my digestive system would work so much better than it does today.

Will Kemp, Lismore
...Well, OK. I'll buy that it's not very healthy, but bad manners? Only person I'm hurting is myself!

Hats off indoors (or at the table)
Wearing a baseball hat, or other such sport, was a very "in" thing to do growing up. While I wasn't much of a sports fan, I enjoyed wearing a hat.

It was a rule though, that these hats could not be worn in the school, and would be confiscated on the spot if they were found on your head. It was explained that school was not a place of fashion, and wearing hats depicting sports teams encouraged the exclusion of those who were not. I could understand this, mostly because I never really fit in back then, and I agreed very much with limiting the amount of things the other kids could zero in on when looking to crush spirits.

However, my understanding of this was I'd not encounter this anywhere outside of school. I was wrong. In high school, where we were given many more freedoms, it was no longer against the rules to wear hats. I happily donned a new cap, and didn't attract any negative attention.

At least, not right away. Eventually, I was told by one of my teachers that it was a sign of disrespect. Again, I was baffled by social graces. A sign of disrespect to block the view of my hair? Was I suggesting to the on-lookers that they were unworthy of looking upon my head?

The best answer I found on Yahoo Answers was:

This goes back to Christian religious traditions of many years ago.

At one time, people wore hats to a much greater extent than they do now, and it was considered polite for men to always wear a head-covering (hat, beret or cap) outdoors.

However, when they entered a church, they were expected to 'uncover' their head, as a sign of respect for god.

Women, on the other hand, were required to keep their head covered in church, as a sign of respect. They were also expected to remove their head-covering in the presence of any 'higher' person, such as a king, or lord.

These traditions had their origins in passages in the bible and the widespread interpretation of those passages at the time.

Gradually, the habit of men removing their head-covering spread from being just when in the presence of god and higher persons, to a sign that the man considered the person to be worthy of esteem in removing their hat ~ for example, a man would take his hat of in the company of a woman to show respect.

Over time, it became generally acceptable and removing a head-covering has now spread from men to women.

It's simply a changing fashion with its roots in very old traditions and beliefs.

OK, so that's a believable origin, but I still don't understand why it was ever considered polite to show someone your hair.

"Good day, pleasure to make your acquaintance! Here, have a look at my cow-lick".

"Such a gentleman!"

Seems silly.

More on this custom here.

God Bless You!
I grew up allergic to dust mites and cats in a house that wasn't dusted and was home to a long-haired calico. I always had red itchy eyes, a runny nose, and frequently sneezed. Which of course, was answered: "God bless you!".

Only the back-and-forth went something like:

"hahCHOO!""God bless you.""Thank you."
"hahCHOO!""God bless you.""Thank you."
"hahCHOO!""God bless you.""Thank you."
"hahCHOO!""SHUT UP!"

I grew to hate being told "God bless you" when I sneezed, because it meant that I was forced to say "Thank you" around a soggy tissue, over and over and over... Yeah, I know, I seem like a jerk now, right? Well if you think about it, there's really no rational reason to ask God to bless someone when they sneeze.

It used to be that saying "God bless you" to someone who sneezed helped to make sure that person's spirit wasn't inadvertently thrust from their body.

Another common belief was that the sneeze was the body's way of expelling an evil spirit that had taken up residence in the body. Saying "God bless you" helped to ensure that this spirit did not come back.

So I ask you: is this really necessary? I believe that no, it's not. But still I'm blessed on the big guy's behalf every time I sneeze, and if I don't respond, I'm rude, and really it's not the person saying it that bothers me, it's the fact that the culture expects it for (what is in my opinion) no good reason.

More on this here.

I think it's time to put these things to rest as beliefs of the past and make room for some things that are going on every day today that should, in my opinion, be regarded as bad manners.

FOR EXAMPLE!


Being loud in public areas
More often than not, I'm assaulted verbally, yet unintentionally. This is generally by the young, usually girls but not always. Seems to be very difficult for people to keep their voices down when on the cell phone as well.

I've had conversations with people in public places quietly enough for them to hear me, but the person beyond them to not. I know it's possible to communicate without the entire room being made to listen.


Intentional misspellings
I'm certainly not the best speller in the world. I'm not even pretty good at it. Heck, I'm really not very good at it at all. If I didn't have a spell check, I don't know where I'd be.

However, I am well aware that "Ur" "sup" "wut" are not words.

I could understand writing like this if you're paying by the character, but generally speaking this is not the case. True, this helps when there is a character limit, such as in Twitter or text messages, but when you're chatting, or sending an email, it's just lazy. (Again, in my opinion.)

I've got lots more, but I figure I'll end it here. Some believe it's rude to be too long winded. :)

Note: Sadly, my spell check did not suggest anything for "Sup" and it corrected me on "ur". It asked me to change it to "Ur".