Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Fun with Holiday Travel

I swear, I'm never going to travel in December again unless both my destination and starting point are in the southern hemisphere. I was in New York City this past weekend with a classmate from school. We knew the weather forecast was for heavy snow to hit the D.C. area on Friday night then work its way up the coast and hit NYC Saturday night.

But we'd bought our Amtrak tickets and made our hotel reservations in August, so we got on the train on Friday morning and hoped for the best. We kept saying that we were so glad we took the train because (surely) they don't shut the trains down for snow, do they? They can just plow the tracks, right?

We were out and about Saturday evening after an exhausting day of shopping when the snow started to come down. We went to Rockefeller Plaza then did the usual Fifth Avenue tour, stopping in to see the huge indoor waterfall inside the marble-lined Trump Tower. We passed the Cartier building, wrapped up like a big holiday gift. And, of course, we went to Tiffany's to shop on the Silver floor.

As we walked up Fifth, snow, wind and cold us in the face. After Tiffany's, we were ready to go back to the motel on the upper west side. It was just too cold. My classmate's husband reported that D.C. had received 20" of snow. Meanwhile, there was little accumulation (yet) in NYC. I checked the Amtrak alerts on my Blackberry, and they were still running on time and not expecting delays. It surprised me, but I believed them.

Sunday morning we awoke to 10" of snow in NY. My face was wind burned. We frequently checked our train status, which continued to report being on time. After a walk through a gorgeous, white Central Park laden with sledders, and a trip to FAO Schwartz, we checked out of the motel at noon and headed to Penn Station on the subway. Needless to say, the Amtrak area was packed wall-to-wall with people. Several trains showed up as cancelled or delayed on the big schedule board overhead. Our train was scheduled to leave at 3:06PM and continued to be advertised as "on time" for the next 2.5 hours that we had to kill before our trip.

We grabbed a couple seats as soon as they opened up. Over the next 2.5 hours, there wasn't one single announcement about our train. Finally, just a couple minutes before 3PM, we got up and went out to the waiting area under the big board, confident that our train was on time due to the lack of announcements.

As soon as we got there, however, the sign suddenly displayed "Delayed" for our train. We decided to run back and see if our seats were still open—they were not. So we stood there under the big board, awaiting an announcement about our train. Over the next hour, not one word was spoken about our train. I went back to the seating area and asked an Amtrak employee how long the delay would be. He wouldn't even look at me—just shook his head and said "no idea," without considering my question.

One passenger said that his wife checked the web, and it said our train was delayed until 4:15PM. As soon as I logged on to on my Blackberry, however, it suddenly showed that the web site was down. It continued to remain inaccessible.

Meanwhile, several trains successfully left the station bound for Washington, D.C. According to the board, all the north-bound trains, however, suffered delays of up to nearly five hours. A guy from Providence who'd been seated next to us earlier said I could go over to Customer Service for information. So I waded through the massive crowd, stood in line at the counter, but got the same answer regarding our train's status: "We don't know."

How can Amtrak not know where one of its trains is? We were pretty frustrated by the complete lack of updates or other information.

Later, a girl sitting on the floor finally got through to Amtrak on the phone after being on hold for a half hour. They said that our train was delayed until 4:15PM. If those people knew, why didn't any Amtrak employees in the station know?? Why wasn't the new departure time being updated on the big board, like it was for nearly all the other trains?

We were tired. We had no choice but to stand. The alternative was to sit on the filthy floor. Finally, at 4:15PM exactly, an announcement was made about our train. It was still "sitting in Sunnyside Yards" (wherever that was), and we'd be updated later.

That's when I realized why our train was different from all the rest that seemed to be making it through to D.C.: Our train initiated its journey at Penn Station—the rest were passing through. It was hours later before it all made sense to me. The train had been sitting all night and needed de-snowing and de-icing. What took so long to do that, I don't know. Amtrak did their best to keep us in the dark.

We continued to stand there not knowing anything about our train. Finally, around 4:45PM, it was announced that our train was on its way from "Sunnyside Yards," (which I later determined is in Queens). It's the first real announcment with status that we'd received, and it came an hour and a half after we were supposed to leave. Finally, 20 minutes later, track 15 West was posted on the big board ("15W"), and the passengers on our train literally RAN to the gate for that track, practically running over each other. My classmate yelled at one person who went too far. We were piled 100 deep, squeezing to get on first.

Why the panic? Well, as I later found out when I got up to go to the cafe car for some food after pulling out of the station, many passengers were standing and sitting on the floor of the train. Every seat of every car was full. People stood amongst the piles of luggage at both ends of each car (right next to the stinky bathrooms). How on earth could Amtrak allow this?

As a woman in the line for the cafe explained to me, announcements were made at Penn Station that people whose trains had been cancelled were free to get on any other train heading that way. Wow. That plan had resulted in pure chaos. What a nightmare.

I still expected to get home by 9:30 (2.25 hours late), as this was the time continually posted on the Amtrak web. But as we got further into the trip, the delays became longer and I knew the web schedule just couldn't be right. I was so angry. We got no updates from Amtrak as to further delays throughout the trip. In the end, the 4-hour train ride took nearly SIX hours. Worst part? We sat at Union Station in D.C. for over an hour while the last two cars were uncoupled. I guess they were frozen together. I could have walked out and taken a cab home quicker. But I didn't because I had no idea we would be there for longer than the usual 20 minutes. Once again, not one single update was announced. At least when you're on a plane stuck on the tarmac for an hour, the pilot provides updates. Amtrak sucks in that regard.

The final blow came after that. I used my Blackberry to call several cab companies in the city where I live because the Metro web site was reporting that above-ground Metro trains were still suspended after the snowstorm that had hit D.C. a full 48 hours earlier. There was no excuse for this. The tracks were clear by then. But I guess Metro is paranoid after all its accidents this year.

Guess what? There were no cabs available either.

So when I arrived at the Amtrak station after 11PM, there was no train and no cab to take me home. My only option was to walk that mile at 11:30 at night. I dragged my suitcase through the massive piles of snow (and salt) at every intersection and through the uncleared sidewalks to get home. About halfway there, a Metro company car passed me on the street. I screamed, "You son-of-a-b****! Come back here and pick me up!! This is all your fault! Aaaaaaaaaaagh!"

Clearly he didn't hear me.

This was almost as bad as trying to get home to Midtown from "the other Jamaica" (Jamaica, Queens) in the NY winter weather about five years ago. Needless to say, this week I awoke sick Monday morning and have been miserable and apartment-bound ever since. Oh, and I'm supposed to fly out Friday morning to see family for Christmas but we're expecting a big ice storm from Virginia to NY.

That's it. Unless they move Christmas to October, I'm not participating in it anymore.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Ethics: Taking the Fun out of Handbag Shopping in NYC

I've learned a lot this year in the MFS program that I'm enrolled in. This past spring I was talking to my friend Rebecca after class about potentially taking a weekend trip with me to NYC. I said, "Aw c'mon, we can go to Canal Street and buy some knock-off purses!" That's when the professor, a DOJ prosecutor in the Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property Section, gave me one of his infamous looks that says, I can't believe you said that out loud. When I responded with, "Geez, it's not illegal to buy them," he informed me, "You need to take ethics class."

Even then I didn't get what was so wrong with buying knock-off handbags. What did I know? I thought it was fun shopping in the secret back rooms behind hidden doors. And I didn't understand what was wrong with it because the NYPD virtually ignores these street vendor transactions happening right under their noses thousands of times a day. I was still naive about it. But after taking the cyber Ethics class this summer, it started to sink in.

I've always been against software piracy and the like. When it finally dawned on me that selling these knock-off designer labels is virtually no different from that and is a federal crime, I realized just how unethical my actions had been. Not only unethical, but when you purchase counterfeit goods, you very well could be supporting mass counterfeit operations that use child labor and probably fund terrorism.

My ignorance hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. I wrote to my law professor saying that I'd never buy another purse on Canal Street again. He replied simply, "Then my work here is done."

This fall I'm enrolled in his computer-related law class, one of the toughest courses I'll take in the program. This DOJ prosecutor is my favorite teacher. We've talked a lot about intellectual property (IP) law, counterfeiting, copyright law, and copyright infringement this semester, studying statutes like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

It wasn't until I took this class that I learned that all of those "dollar stores" you find in strip malls are really mass counterfeiting operations. When I registered my shock with a classmate, she said, "Well, where do you think all that junk comes from?" Who was I to know that a dollar tube of Colgate was missing a key ingredient found in the real Colgate that provides its gelatinous consistency?

Honestly, I didn't know; and because those dollar stores are everywhere, It never occurred to me that they were not legitimate. After all, if they were trafficking in counterfeit goods, wouldn't they all be out of business?

As any good investigator knows, things aren't always as they seem.

Hence, in addition to giving up knock-off purses (and watches), I vowed to never shop at a dollar store again. It's true that you won't be prosecuted for buying a counterfeit item, but if you knowingly buy one and give it away as a gift or re-sell it, then you can be prosecuted for trafficking in counterfeit goods under 18 U.S.C. 2318. Until I studied the law, I really didn't understand how wrong it is—and why. It is theft. It is theft in support of child sweat shops and international terrorism.

My classmate Suzanne and I are going to NYC for the weekend right after we finish our law final. A year ago I would have made it a point to take her to Canal Street. Not this time, and never again! She thinks I'm being "self-righteous." Honestly, I'm just trying to be a law-abiding citizen and not a hypocrit who chides people for sharing software or music files with their buddies instead of buying a legitimate license—something I've always been vehemently opposed to.

For more info, see the Wired: Threat Level article Feds Prosecuting More Counterfeiters, IP Pirates. To learn about the counterfeiting industry and the impact it has on the global economy, check out the No to Fakes web site. You'll be shocked at the ubiquitousness of the counterfeiting industry.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Saying Thanks to our Troops

This Thanksgiving, I am thinking about the men and women who have given so much to ensure that Americans like you and I have the freedom to live the life we want. I think about what it must be like to go to bed on a cot in a tent in the middle of a dusty desert thousands of miles from home, and it makes me realize just how much our service men and women sacrifice for us every day. Not just today, but for the past 200+ years. I live a good life thanks to our veterans and active service people.

If you want to send a soldier a card, here's a freebie for you: Let's Say Thanks in Support of our Troops.

In the meantime, enjoy your Thanksgiving meal! Jelly beat me to the turkey, so it looks like I'll be spending the day doing homework :)

"Whaddayamean that turkey in the fridge was for tomorrow?!"

Just kidding, of course—there was no turkey in my fridge, not even of the NutriSystem variety. I fully intended to spend the whole holiday weekend writing my term papers. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Note from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan

Yesterday my sister-in-law wrote:
Today was my first real (almost) day off. The new British radiologist arrived last night and with he and Ian on board I was finally free to have a real day off. I planned to start the day by sleeping in until at least 0900. This plan was foiled, however, by casualties arriving at 0730 and since I was the duty radiologist the prior evening I got the honor of being hauled out of bed. Oh well.

I found that holding the US machine was a little difficult since I hurt my left hand yesterday playing baseball like a girl. After the morning adventure I decided to get it x-rayed to see if there was a least a small fracture to explain all the pain. It turns out the the left ring finger was completely dislocated (I thought it felt a little funny). After a digital block of the finger (about as much fun as it sounds), I had many surgeons offering to relocate it. Why does this sound like fun to these guys? Anyway, it is a disgusting feeling to have a bone slide back into place and I have decided to cut the baseball career very short to avoid any future recurrence.

With my free afternoon I roamed all the adjacent small bases including Leatherneck, Bastion 2 and the Danish base. While trying to get a good picture of the front of the Leatherneck sign I encountered a returning convoy that by the looks of it had been sent to clear the roads of IEDs. The truck just coming into the picture has a trailer contraption on the front to detect the bombs. The danish coffee house serves free real brewed coffee all day and fresh sheet cake at 1500 daily. I hung out with some of the Brits from the hospital and discussed what a nice day yesterday was (just a couple gunshot wounds) and how this has come to refine the whole TGIF concept. I then wandered over to Bastion 2 where I discovered the most awesome coffee bar in the back of the minimart. Unfortunately their coffee machine was down so it was back to the instant coffee. Oh well, the atmosphere was worth it.

I intend to sleep in tomorrow (god willing) and back to a regular work day on Monday. Hoping to make it to the American Base for Thanksgiving. hope everyone has a great thanksgiving holiday! Love Jacqui

Monday, November 16, 2009

Turning Point for Jelly

My friend Rebecca from class came over Saturday so we could study our flash cards for our computer law class when, out of the blue, Jelly jumped up on the ottoman in front of me where Baby was sprawled out and started licking Baby's back!

I was in awe. That was a first for Jelly! My jaw dropped open as I exclaimed, "Oh my god!" I'm sure Rebecca didn't understand the significance of this friendly behavior of Jelly's—an event I'd awaited patiently for six long months.

The next day, I realized that I hadn't seen nor heard Jelly hiss at Baby in at least in a few days. Right now we are just past the 6-month mark since bringing Jelly home. It's as though a switch was flipped in her little heart and she suddenly opened up to Baby.

Man, this is good news. I'm so glad that Jelly is finally comfortable around Baby and has officially made our home hers. She's so cute. She is certainly the only cat I've ever met who comes running whenever I pull the foil top off the yogurt container so she can lick it. And she's the only cat I know who comes bounding toward me at the crunch of an apple or pear I'm eating. She insists on licking the core.

Not unlike me, Jelly is very food-oriented. (Uh, a nice euphemism for "has an eating disorder!") On Friday after I got home from a trip to Natures Nibbles with my friend Claudia, I was emptying the big bag of Innova Evo dry food into its plastic container when Jelly came over and stuck her face in it before I had a chance to put the lid on. She sat there and ate from the huge "bowl" as if taste-testing this new bag of food and giving her seal of approval. (We did get one bad batch earlier this year that neither of them would touch and I had to throw away.) Baby was much more restrained. She sniffed and walked off. She's the "thin" one of us girls.

Oh, and on Saturday, Jelly ate from the fresh strawberries that Rebecca had brought over. I'd never seen a cat eat fruit before! This cat is more and more like me . . . she'll eat just about anything.

I'm betting that maybe NutriSystem MREs are an exception to that, but knowing Jelly I could be way wrong.

Monday, November 09, 2009

"The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3"

After inadvertently coming across the filming of the remake of the 1974 Walter Mathau movie "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" while taking one of my long NYC walks last year, I couldn't wait for the movie to come out on DVD so I could watch it. To wet my appetite, I rented the original version from Netflix and watched it while I was still living in Brooklyn.

I enjoyed it—especially the very last scene, which was the sneeze scene that gave the bad guy away.

So last night I started watching the new version. First thing that ticked me off was the big RED "6" emblazoned on the 6 train. The Lexington Avenue line is GREEN, not red! The 4/5/6 trains are green. And the 1/2/3 trains that run on the 7th Avenue line are red. Duh! Any New Yorker knows that. Even a lot of tourists know that, because the 4/5/6 runs through Grand Central Terminal.

How could the director get the most basic of details wrong?! Are you kidding me? They filmed in New York City. They were on subway platforms, inside subway tunnels, up on elevated subway tracks, inside subway cars, and on the streets of Manhattan where there are subway signs every few blocks—green "6" signs if you're on the east side. Heck, several of the subway platform scenes cleary display the green "6" signs—juxtaposed to the tracks where a train with a big red illuminated 6 is approaching. Whattup wit' dat???

I didn't finish watching last night because I was too tired. Plus, the red 6 really bugged me. I mean, seriously. The other thing that annoyed me was all the cursing. I don't mind when movies use the occasional "f" word, but when they use it Tourette-style, it gets very old very quickly. I do love John Travolta (and wished I'd gotten a chance to see him on the bridge that day last year), but I don't like him when his character is cursing like a spoiled punk. Of course, the 70's version of the flick didn't suffer the same annoyance.

Ok, so I need to watch the rest of the movie. But I wanted to watch Sunday's episode of Mad Men first. And I'm glad I did. It was the best episode ever! It even beat out the lawn mower episode. Matthew Weiner is a genius. It still tickles me that I had an engaging conversation with him last year in a Madison Avenue antique book store, all the while never knowing who he was. That was a little over a year ago. I recall it fondly.

God I miss New York. I can't wait to graduate this Master's program so I can go back. Every time I watch the latest CSI:NY episode I just want to cry because I miss it sooooooo much.

Ok, so I'll watch the rest of the movie and let you know if it's worth it or not.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

"Yes Ma'am, Officer!"

The funniest thing happened on my way to last night's Halloween party. I was actually dressed in a costume, something I haven't done in at least 20, 25 years. I went to a fund-raiser party dressed as a police officer.

On my way, I had to stop at Whole Foods to grab wine and cookies to take with me. I had some fun with the cashier and the guys in line ahead of me. Then I still had some time to kill before the party, so I decided that while I had a car I should check my postal box at the UPS store in Old Town. I drove the few blocks to that location and parked my ZipCar on the street across from the UPS store.

There was a white van parked on the street right in front of the store. Between the store and the van there was one of the standard blue USPS mailboxes next to the sidewalk. The driver side door of the van was open, and a young man was standing outside it, about ready to take a swig from his water bottle.

As I was crossing in front of the van, I said to him (in a firm, authoritative cop voice), “Sir did you know that you’re parked illegally in front of a mailbox?” and as I said it, I keep walking toward the store, my fake night stick swinging at my side. The guy quickly gulped back from the water bottle that he'd raised to his lips, grabbing the steering wheel as he clambered into the van, explaining to me in his slightly panicked voice, “I’m moving it now!”

I wanted to burst out laughing but kept walking up onto the sidewalk. I did say say, “Just kidding!” but am not sure if the van driver heard me. The UPS store was closed, and as I turned around to go back to my car I saw that there were three adults on the other side of the street laughing their butts off! I couldn't hold it in.

The van guy was still trying to figure out what just happened when suddenly it dawned on him that it's Halloween and he'd just been duped. I was bent over laughing when I said to the people across the street, “That was a good one, wasn’t it?!” They all nodded in agreement. As I got into my car, the van driver put his arms up over his head in a WTF gesture saying out loud, “A mailbox?”

I laughed out loud all the way to the party! And no, for all you party poopers, my actions don't qualify as impersonating a police officer because I didn't identify myself as a member of law enforcement and because there's no such thing as parking "illegally" in front of a mailbox. Not to mention, female cops don't wear dresses and funny hats.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

NutriSystem: Week 12 Coming Up

It's been eleven weeks since I first started eating NutriSystem MREs (meals rejected by Ethiopians) and I've finally broken the 15-pound weight loss barrier. I have to admit, I have much better eating habits now than I've had in years, but I'm so tired of the NS food that I don't know how much more of it I can take. The breakfasts are fine and the desserts are ok. It's the lunches and dinners that I'm sick of.

In fact, I'm on my second round of a 35-day supply of NS food, and I've finished all the breakfastes and desserts (for which you get one per day each). Funny how I ended up with a cabinet still stocked with lunches and dinners - at least six or eight each! That means I did some substitutions along the way. :)

My favorite substitution meal is the Whole Foods salad bar. It's a treat for me, and it's what I had last night when my friend Rebecca came over to study with me.

Rebecca and I have been in the same classes every semester since I joined the forensics program. We always sit together in class and work together when there is a group paper or other project. When she comes to class, she brings a 1-pound Tupperware bowl full of fresh vegetables for us to munch on.

It was her idea to make flash cards for classes this semester. So she created flash cards for our Protection class, and I created them for our Law class. It's a great deal 0f information to remember—we're talking the entire CISSP (information security) book, which covers every computer protocol known to man, and several statutes, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), Copyright Act, Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), all the fraud statutes, and more . . . plus court cases. It's a lot to remember for the final exam and for comprehensive testing required to graduate!

But the flash card thing is working for us, so we're going to keep up these sessions at my apartment (where Rebecca gets a brief reprieve from toddler duty). As a matter of fact, it's Halloween morning and I have a party to go to tonight, I so I need to get cracking on my Law paper, which will answer the question, "Does digital evidence fall under the plain view category as an exception to the warrant requirement?" Hmmm. A great topic for me, as it's Fourth Amendment-bound. I do love the Fourth Amendment!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Cat Sat on my Homework, Professor

It's official - Jelly Belly is now a member of our family. No sooner did I complete the adoption than she started sporadically romping with Baby. I've seen her do it twice this week now! That's great. Jelly is starting to come around. I feel like the proud Mom.

It's really hard to get anything done around here, what with having two profoundly spoiled kitties. I have a small, windowless, room at home that I call my office. It is where I do my job (what's left of it) and my homework. I have a stand-up workstation, which is simply a tall desk that I can stand at to work, or sit at in a tall chair. It's better for the lower back.

Baby has always gotten up on the desk with me when I settle in to do my work. I don't know what it is about paper and books, but cats love to use them as beds and pillows. So I'm constantly removing Baby from my homework or my laptop. Poor Jelly is too chubby to jump up on the desk. So she usually meows for attention from her spot on the floor next to my chair. If I don't pet her, she gets up on her hind legs and reaches up to me on the chair seat. She wants to be scratched.

For a while, that drove me crazy. She whined and whined. Recently I found the solution: I pick her up and put her on the desk too. With two cats, a laptop, and the keyboard/mouse for my desktop computer, there is little room for work. So I squeeze my reading materials in, between cats, and try to get some work done. God forbid I get up and walk away for a minute, because I'll come back to find a cat sprawled out on my homework.

Yesterday I was trying to finish reading my Computer Law assignment from the electronic evidence Search and Seizure Manual. I was forced to come to a stop when Jelly settled in on Chapter 2, as so:

I got up and went around the corner to grab my digital camera. Within moments, Baby had joined her:

What was I to do? I didn't have to do much because, before I knew it, they were fighting over my law binder, which I found to be quite hysterical. (Baby: "Don't you raise your paw at me, Sista!")

Eventually, Baby gave up and left. The only way I knew to get rid of Jelly was to leave the room because eventually she follows me to wherever I may be in our small apartment. Only then could I finish my homework assignment!

A couple days earlier I was reading the big fat CISSP book by Shon Harris for my Protection of Info Systems class when Jelly fell asleep on my notebook, proving that the highly technical topic of cryptography is equally stimulating to her.

At the same time, I think the CISSP Exam Cram book killed Baby:

It's amazing I get anything done at all, what with the constant activity on my desk!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fun with Guns

The following is an email from my sister-in-law Jacqui, the Navy doctor who is currently attending combat training at Fort Stewart in preparation for her Afghanistan deployment:

This has been an especially long week and every day involves body armor (IBA) and guns. I have had about as much fun as I can stand! However, the Navy/Army always has a new twist to add and tomorrow it is off for more computer simulator training (on identifying who to shoot and not to shoot) and then land nav. I just hope someone brings a GPS to the course on Saturday.

Today was actually pretty cool except for the 3am wakeup and the 4am range time to shoot the m9 in the dark. We then went to another range to shoot 'big guns.' The biggest is a 50 cal, and the others were a 500 and 700 something. Please see [my son] or [my husband] or other military type to give you better pecifics. I just can't retain stuff like that. We had tanks and dummies to aim at and I hit most everything so that was good. We then did a "tactical" course with the M16 which involves being pulled out of a humvee and shooting at multiple targets from standing, kneeling and prone. I learned that 'double tap' means to shoot it twice quickly, not run faster. This was followed by an exercise in walking and identifying targets with people to our left and right with live rounds in our rifles. The goal being to bring the rifles to bear on the target without shooting the person next to you. Mission accomplished. Of course, after wearing the IBA for about two hours in the sun at that point, actually hitting the target was the least of my concerns.

We had a Navy Ball here last Saturday which was a blast. It was held in the Marriott and really was well done. The alcohol ban was lifted for the night and that was a plus. One more week or this fun and then off to Kuwait for desert specific training. Love to everyone, Jacqui.

For me, I wouldn't have lasted 30 minutes in the South Carolina heat in all that gear. When it comes to humidity, I'm a wimp.

I am encouraging Jacqui to start her own blog so that we can follow her in her mission. She seems pretty adept at picking up computer skills, so there's hope that she'll get it going soon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Are Sure You're Logged in to Your Bank Account?

Beware the rogue online banking statement—it looks like your bank statement but it's not. And it won't display that withdrawal that you didn't make.

It's getting scarier to conduct financial transactions online. A student in my Protection class pointed us to this new article on New Malware Re-Writes Online Bank Statements to Cover Fraud.

As the author, Kim Zetter, reveals, there is a new Trojan horse called URLZone that rewrites the basic HTML code that displays your online banking statement when you log on to your account. The account's been hijacked, and the funds are dwindling with successive withdrawals, but to you it looks like your balance is right where it should be. Yikes! If in doubt, try logging on to your bank account from another computer that is not likely to be infected.

Likewise, Facebook users should keep abreast of the latest in malware transmitted to your computer via your Facebook page, as described in the article WARNING: New Facebook Malware Attack Is Spreading. I'm not a Facebook user and don't plan to be one, (much to the dismay of many of my friends).

Just be careful, folks. If it looks suspicious, it probably is. Just say no to clicking.

The Cat Crashed Vista

As if Windows Vista didn't have enough stability issues, my cat Baby had to go and break it to the point of inoperability yesterday.

Side note: I swear I'm about to convert to a Mac. The only reason I haven't replaced Vista with XP on my laptop is because I don't want to spend a day and a half reinstalling apps and restoring data and reconfiguring Outlook, which will switch all of my 350+ imported contacts to "Last Name, First Name" format despite my pre-configuring it for "First Name, Last Name" order. That pisses me off every time I restore a PST file, and I'm just not gonna do it again because the manual process of converting all my contacts takes too long and I've already lost too many hours of my life doing it in the past. I'll be lying on my deathbead, cursing Microsoft to give me back those hours!

Anyway, yesterday I had my laptop up on my desk as usual, running side-by-side with my XP desktop that I use for work. The laptop is primarily for school and personal business. It's hard to keep my cat Baby off the laptop—she's drawn to its warmth. Unfortunately, I came back to my desk and found her lying down on the keyboard and touchpad.

On the screen was a bunch of calendar icons showing the date "5," completely covering up the gadget side bar. I realized that Baby had clicked a series of commands that opened up new gadget calendars—a lot of them! First, I removed the cat from the keyboard. Then I planned to click each calendar to close it. No biggie. That should take care of it. Problem was, after the first one closed, the whole operating system froze. Frozen mouse, frozen keyboard. We ain't got no stinkin' Windows!

My only option was to wait. Clearly a CTRL-ALT-DEL intercept was impossible. When the OS didn't un-freeze, I had to cold boot the machine. The desktop finally showed up several minutes later (as Vista is the slowest loading OS in the universe). Again, the "5" icons covered the gadget sidebar. Again, I clicked one to close it, and the OS froze.

Next time I cold-booted it, I reloaded Vista in Safe Mode so that the gadget bar wouldn't load, which it did not. However, in Safe Mode, the stupid gadget control in Control Panel is unavailable. I had to boot again (Normal mode) and try to load Control Panel as quickly as possible so I could go into it and reconfigure the gadgets before the gadget bar loaded.

The problem with that is that whenever I click Control Panel in Vista, I get the little spinning blue circle of death while Control Panel s-l-o-w-l-y loads. Finally I got Control Panel up and was able to disable the option to load the gadgets on Windows startup. That was the extent of what I could do. The gadget settings wouldn't let me remove any gadgets! I even tried resetting the gadget bar to the way it orginally loads in Windows. No go. It still loaded up infinite calendar gadgets.

This left me with no choice but to simply stop using gadgets altogether. This is what we call an "infinite loop" in software. I can't stop the gadget bar from loading infinite calendars unless I start up the gadget bar to attempt to remove the calendars, but starting up the gadget bar causes it to load an infinite number of calendars, freezing up the machine. Catch-22. No more gadgets for this user!

Sigh. I think I'll go shopping on

Friday, October 02, 2009

Foster-to-Adopt Jelly

Well, it's been nearly five months since Jelly moved in. It's time to decide whether to keep her or send her back.

It's not too difficult a decision. Despite how she snubs Baby (even when Baby is acting like an angel toward her), Jelly has her good points—including her pathetic squeaking for attention, her irresistible wabble and those practically pinchable chubby cheeks.

The goal was to get Baby a playmate. And although Jelly won't engage in any play despite Baby's daily attempts to get her to wrestle with her, Baby seems to take it all in stride. I am convinced that Jelly is still a good companion to Baby. They keep each other company when I'm not home. Plus, Jelly's the only other one in here whom Baby can see eye-to-eye with. They are on the same level, after all.

One day I think they'll be best friends. It'll probably take months, but it's bound to happen.

Maybe I can get another, younger kitty for Baby one day when I have my own place again (instead of an apartment where I have to abide by someone else's rules). For now, it's just us girls.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Packin' Heat

My sister-in-law Jacqui (my hero!) sent me email at 0500 hours today containing this photo of her. She'd been up since 0415—something my dad used to call "Oh-dark-thirty." I don't know how she does it.

As you can see from the photo, at the Carolina base where she's preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, it was "Weapons Day" yesterday. She was issued a pistol and an M-16. She is supposed to carry the M-16 with her everywhere she goes throughout training. And, at some point soon, she'll learn how to use it.

I'm sure this isn't what Jacqui had in mind when she went to medical school!

She still doesn't know too much about her future living quarters, although rumor has it that she has to share a tent with about 10 other people. That's something else I'd have trouble doing. I have so much respect for the military. It's not just that they are putting their lives on the line for our freedom and that many get killed or maimed in the process. It's the daily sacrifices they make—leaving their families behind and giving up their lifestyle and the comforts of home to live in a tent in the hot, dry, dusty desert or in the miserable, steamy, mosquito-infested jungle.

They don't get to "go home" every night after work—work that never really ends. There's no private shower or big screen TV with cable. No Simmons Beauty Rest mattress and Egyption cotton sheets to sink into at night. No air conditioning (god forbid). They don't get to eat whatever they want whenever they want it. There's no Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, no movie theater, no picnics in the park. The list goes on.

When most of us travel away from home we stay in a motel or B&B or other "home away from home." Imagine going camping in a foreign country thousands of miles away for nine or eighteen months straight. In the middle of a war, no less. It's the epitome of selflessness. It's takes a special kind of person to do that. Thanks, Jacqui. :)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Life at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan

My sister-in-law sent this YouTube link of a BBC news report that covers Camp Bastion: She is in the process of deploying there right now. It's neat that she can actually acquire video of her future 'home.'

Right now, Jacqui is in Norfolk, VA, for a couple weeks of training. Then she's off to another base in South Carolina for combat skills training. Then to Kuwait. And finally, Afghanistan.

Friday, September 25, 2009

NutriSystem: Round Two

Ok, as of today I'm back at it again. The truth is, the NutriSystem diet isn't that bad once you get used to it and determine which foods are good and which ones are worthy of the trash can. Plus, once you start eating well and stick with it, you stop craving the 'bad' foods (like triple-chocolate fudgy brownies).

My second 35-day box of food (weighing 37 pounds) arrived yesterday. That meant a weigh-in today. Last I'd checked, I was down seven pounds. As of now, I'm down nine pounds. I think the weight-lifting routine is finally kicking in.

I wish I could add caridovascular exercise to my routine, but my knee still hurts after a long walk. As soon as I discovered that the "semitendinosus" is a large hamstring muscle, and not a knee muscle, I realized that my problem isn't really a knee problem after all. Rather, my knee pain is actually directly tied to the hamstring muscle that I apparently tore one year ago on September 14th at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

From my research, I learned that a semitendinosus tear can cause knee pain. I wouldn't have known this if my sister-in-law hadn't read my knee MRI. She mentioned it may be an irritation of the semitendinosus or bursitis. I finally found out (via the Internet) that the semitendinosus is the exact same muscle I hurt a year ago but hadn't healed.

The doctor here certainly wasn't any help. It's pathetic when you get better medical advice from the Internet than from the M.D. you just paid $750 to spend three minutes with. I told him about the pulled hamstring that hadn't healed in a year, but he totally blew me off. If he'd paid attention and asked more questions, he would've sent me for a thigh MRI, not a knee MRI. I won't be going back to him again. I'm so tired of doctors like him that make you wait then usher you out as quickly as they can before spending more than a few minutes with you.

A word to the wise: If you ever pull or tear a hamstring, stop running. Get off of it, ice it for a few days, take some anti-inflammatories, elevate it, and wear a compression sleeve on it. Let it heal. Now I know this. But back then I did not, and I was too busy getting laid off from my big Wall Street job to even think about seeing a doctor. (I was in shock for a month, so give me a break!) :)

I kept running on it thinking that it was "just a pull" that would go away in time, like most pain. Bad idea. I should've learned from my last year-long bout with plantar fasciitis.

Live and learn. I finally have a thigh compression sleeve and I'm icing the correct muscle (instead of the knee). I haven't run since last November, and I've cut way back on my walking. Maybe it'll get better. If not, well then it's time to find a new orthopedist. Ergh. It sucks getting old!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Destination Afghanistan

I was blessed with two really cool sisters-in-law. Both Judy and Jacqui are the kind of people that you can't help but like. They're down-to-earth, funny, and deal with life head on. My kind of women!

My sister-in-law Jacqui—who was my inspiration for going back to school—went to med school when she was in her 30's and now is a radiologist and commanding officer for the Navy. She is leaving for Afghanistan this Sunday. A month ago, just three days before Jacqui's 46th birthday, the Navy notified her that she was on the deployment list as first alternate. It was quite unexpected.

Several days later, when the primary officer was let off the hook, Jacqui was notified that she'd be deploying in two weeks. Then she was given a one-week reprieve. Finally, her deployment date is rapidly approaching.

She'll be going to a large British camp about 100-150 miles northwest of Kandahar, literally in the middle of nowhere. Endless miles of nothingness. Dust-storm land. From Camp Bastion it is nothing but flat, dry desert as far as the eye can see. The camp has a fully functioning hospital manned by Brits, Danes, and Americans who have saved a lot of lives over the past few years in the war.

Although Jacqui is currently head of radiology at the naval hospital in Florida where she works, she'll likely be practicing general medicine over there—she's not sure. In fact, she doesn't know much at all about her tour. It's one of those "You'll find out when you get there" things.

Her deployment is supposed to last seven months. But with the military you just never know; it could be longer. Her youngest child Matt is due to graduate from high school in early June, so we're all hoping and praying that she comes back in time for that event. Her eldest child Jason is in the Marines. He's due to deploy to Afghanistan in February. Because their deployments overlap, they won't be able to see each other for over a year.

I know how close Jacqui is to her boys, so it's not going to be easy for any of them. And of course my brother Pete isn't happy about it either. Me, I'd probably be terrifed. I know I certainly wouldn't want to leave my family and wonderful job to go into an unconventional war in a barren land on the other side of the globe. Jacqui has been amazingly strong about the whole thing. She's a true hero, like the rest of our service men and women who have gone off to war.

Sure, I don't like it. But my family and I can only pray that Jacqui and Jason both come home safely and timely. Your prayers are appreciated.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Impulse Control in America

What's going on? We've got a lawmaker yelling "You lie!" at the Commander-in-Chief during a congressional address. And a tennis player flying off in a profane rage at a line judge for a foot fault call. To top that off, some idiot rapper stole the microphone away from an MTV award winner on stage to let the world know that he thought someone else should've gotten the award.

What do these events have in common? They all took place in front of TV cameras, and we get to see (and hear) it all.

Everyone who knows me knows that I don't blog about politics and I do everything in my power to sidestep politics in the workplace (something that can cost you your job on Wall Street where it doesn't pay not to play). I admit, I've lost it before. Haven't we all gotten so mad about something that we just exploded? But most of us learn to control it by the time we reach middle age.

The difference between us and them is that most of us aren't celebrities or national figures, much less high-ranking political leaders. Most of us aren't being video-taped during our outbursts. And most of us have enough common sense not to lose our cool in very public settings, especially those endowed by the leader of the free world.

So, even though I normally don't blog about politics, when I saw the news blurb tonight that the Legislative branch of our federal government actually took time out to vote on the impropriety of Joe Wilson's outburst, I thought, "Are you kidding me? Isn't this carrying it too far?" Seriously, a "disapproval resolution??" Joe Wilson's behavior was beyond idiotic. Why in the world do our lawmakers need to waste precious resources to vote on it?

Getting back to the point, either this type of unprofessional behavior is far too commonplace these days, or America is just having a bad week. Some of us are a bit stressed because we had to watch the twin towers disintegrate all over again on TV, eight years later. Others of us are probably miffed that the Times afforded Osama bin Laden the title of "Mr." in its latest article about his recent anti-American rants. D.C. folk might be a tad on edge because the Redskins are, once again, 0-1. But there's no good excuse for the childish behavior that we all witnessed this past week.

We expect to see unsportsmanlike conduct in sports arenas because it's gone on for years there and we all know that many sports celebrities are grossly overpaid spoiled brats. Besides, clearly our national sports organizations don't have scruples. First it was the baseball players we idolize all getting caught with their hands in the steroid jar. Then came the Eagles' brilliant hire. How many outfits do you know would hire an ex-con? I'm sorry, but shouldn't there be an NFL rule against that? Maybe the NFL took Vick back because no one else would hire him (because most organizations have the sense to leave convicted criminals off the payroll). But I'm pretty sure it was about winning, and money that winning brings to the organization.

So on the tennis court, Serena's behavior was pretty much on par with what many of us have come to expect of these overpaid sports stars. And I certainly wouldn't put it past a rapper to be a total jack ass in front of the cameras. But I gotta say, I do not expect this type of conduct of one of our own congressmen toward our President.

I used to work for Microsoft. I cannot imagine standing up at a televised company meeting attended by thousands of my peers and screaming at Bill Gates that he is a big fat liar. I'd be fired in a heartbeat and escorted out by security. And that's just a software company.

This, on the other hand, was a televised Presidential address! Was Wilson thinking when he did it, or was it a temporary lapse in judgment based on his uncontrollable rage? Was it pre-meditated, or should he plead insanity?

I don't care if you're Democrat or Republican. This isn't about that, and the media shouldn't make it about that. This is why our country is so divided, because the media makes it so, and forwarded email threads perpetuate the blue vs. red mentality. The world just is not that black and white. Nonetheless, the Times article (naturally) had to go and make a big point about how many Democrats voted against the disapproval resolution and how many Republicans voted for it.

Who gives a rat's patooty? Joe Wilson's embarrassing behavior is no less disrespectful than that of the Bush shoe-thrower. And that guy went to jail for his actions. Did the media report on the shoe-thrower's political affiliation? Nope. Do we care? Nope. But here in America, we sure as heck care. Too often, too much.

This also isn't about the First Amendment. It's one thing to speak your mind and voice your opinion freely; it's an entirely different thing to display unconscionable disrespect to the President of the United States in front of Congress and the world.

Rather, what this should be about is a basic human right that is much more intrinsic than even the right of free speech— and that is our right to be treated with respect and dignity by our fellow human beings.

I'm quite sure that many people disagree with me on this. And that's fine. But to me, this whole Joe Wilson event isn't about agreeing with Obama or disagreeing with the health care plan. And, contrary to popular belief, it's not about being a Republican or a Democrat. It's about common decency. There just isn't enough of it anymore. We can do better than this.

Next week I will be happy to revert to much simpler blog topics, like the love of chocolate or the joy of kitty cats.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

NutriSystem: One Month

Ugh I've only lost 5.5 pounds after over a month of susbsisting primarily on MREs, vegetables, and fruit. Even after virtually giving up my favorite meal of the day—dessert, and all my favorite foods (like cheese, bread, popcorn, and chocolate), I only lost half as much weight as I expected to.

I started lifting weights nearly three weeks ago. I've been doing that five times a week. My knee still isn't 100%, which makes any other form of exercise nearly impossible. Could it be that I've been building muscle mass, which weighs more than fat? We shall see. In my experience, a weight-lifting program will cause either a weight gain or stagnation for the first six weeks; then, suddenly, the pounds start to come off.

Or it could just be wishful thinking.

I looked in my cabinet for lunch earlier this week and screamed, "I'm so sick of NutriSystem!" I think I just skipped lunch that day.

I'm not a big fan of NutriSystem because some of the food tastes so badly that you have to throw it away. Like the breakfast egg fritata - blech! And a few of the dinners that I started to eat but couldn't finish. But now that I know which foods to avoid, maybe I'll have a better go at it next time.

So I ordered another month's subscription through Costco. This time I'll know which foods to pick when I place my order. And I went to the grocery store this week, loading up on about 20 bags of frozen vegetables. Thank god for those steam-in-the-bag microwave vegies—they're easy and good.

Looks like I have another six weeks of this "diet" to look forward to. Yippee.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sweatshirt Weather!

After a long, icky, sweaty, sultry hot summer in D.C., we finally had some Seattle weather here today. It was cloudy and gray all day, and cool and breezy. Upper 60's. Just lovely. When I told the postal clerk to "Enjoy the weather!" she probably thought I was nuts. I could've jumped for joy when I stepped outside.

School is in session, and this semester is going to be another killer. I'm taking "Protection of Information Systems," which uses the ~1,200-page Shon Harris CISSP book. The amount of reading I have to do for that class surpasses even Ethics class from this summer. The class technically isn't a CISSP prep course, but I figure that, if I'm going to read so much of the book, I may as well do the whole chibang and take the CISSP exam when the course is over.

It's the kind of test you want to pass on the first try because it costs over $500 to take it.

Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) is one of the hardest certifications to acquire in the IT industy—also one of the most esteemed and valued by potential employers. I know a handful of people who've passed the 6-hour 250-question test. They're all very smart guys, but even they have told me how incredibly hard the test is. If my brain is still functioning after final exams, I'd like to sit for the test in December or January. We shall see.

I'm also taking a class that I know I'll enjoy, "Computer Law," better known as "Computer Crimes" by the teacher. This is the same teacher that I had for the criminal procedure class that I loved so much last spring. He's a DOJ prosecutor. He's tough, but we all love him.

So far we've been talking a lot about U.S.C. Title 18 Section 1030, otherwise known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which has only been around since the mid-80's. By constitutional standards, it's a relatively young statute. I'm glad I recently read Cliff Stoll's book (The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage) about the first documented hacker attack because one of the cases we study in this class is the United States v Robert T. Morris case, and Cliff was one of the folks that help track down RTM, the creator of the first known Internet worm.

Mr. Morris, a graduate student, was convicted under the CFAA for his 1988 release of the worm, which brought down thousands of government Arpanet computers across the U.S. His primary defense was based on his claim that he had no intent to do damage; (and he was basically given a slap on the wrist and a $10,000 fine for his crimes). No intent? Really? That's strange becuase he went to great lengths to hide his tracks.

For example, he released the worm without authorization from MIT's network, not from the Cornell network where he was a student. In addition, he later released his "Oh-crap-what-have-I-done-here's-how-to-kill-the-worm" email from Harvard's computers where he'd formerly had an account, not from the Cornell network. Not only that, but he'd built a fail-safe into his worm ensuring its replication on at least every seventh computer it was passed to, knowing it would multiply at an exponential rate.

All of this stuff fascinates the heck out of me. I love reading about it. I never knew school could be so enjoyable. So this is what's it's like to work on a degree in a field I actually enjoy!

I can't wait for the day that I graduate and can get out there and do work that I enjoy. It's too bad that many of us run off to college at 17 or 18 years of age when we really have absolutely no clue what we want to be when we grow up. I was one of those, and I struggled with it for a good 18 years after that.

Why can't we have the kind of wisdom that comes with middle age when we sign up for college? And the kind of body in middle age that we had when we signed up for college? Just more of life's mysteries....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

NutriSystem: Week Two

I don't recommend shopping at Costco if you haven't had a meal in a few hours. It's even harder to resist the tempting concoctions there if you know your next meal is a 200-calorie NutriSystem entree with two sides of vegetables.

I love Costco food—they have an awesome bakery and deli area, and that's just for starters. One of my favorites there is the brownie bites. Or Berger cookies (only found in this area of the country). They also have great spinach salad, stuffed salmon, and creamy pumpkin cheesecakes and chocolate pies that they put out at Christmas time.

So, at Costco this week, I breezed through the warehouse without looking at anything yummy. I had to avert my eyes and jog past the food-tasting carts that they set up at the end of the aisles with free hand-outs of things like warm cinnamon buns or sausage bites.

I'm not only hungry; I'm disappointed. Thursday marked the end of week two of this NutriSystem diet. Two full weeks of going to bed hungry and feeling an empty stomach about an hour after I've finished a meal. All of that, and I only lost three pounds. Three pounds! I really felt that I deserved more.

Granted, I haven't been burning any calories due to my knee injury. I'm sure that's what has minimized my weight loss. But it's really hard to deprive yourself of life's pleasures day in and day out and not be thoroughly rewarded for it by something more substantial than three pounds!

I so want a cheeseburger. Or a rib eye steak with garlic mashed potatoes. I miss the Whole Foods salad bar and their oatmeal raisin cookies. A couple days ago I had a major craving for peanut butter. I could have opened the jar and spooned it into my mouth. The night before it was popcorn. I just know I'm not going to last another two weeks without popcorn. Aaaagh!

Dan Marino must be a masochist.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Girls

Well, Jelly and Baby are getting along better. I see progress every month. As of just a couple days ago, Jelly is willing to jump up on the ottoman to lie down even if Baby is already perched there.

That's a big step for Jelly. And this morning when Baby jumped up on the bed and walked right over Jelly to lie down close to us both, Jelly didn't immediately jump off the bed like she normally would.

Baby has had some really sweet moments. She walks up to Jelly, sits next to her, and licks the side of her face! It's really cute. See, I told you she was really making an effort at this relationship. ;)

Not only that, but Jelly doesn't hiss at her when she does that. So, yes, we're making progress. Slowly but surely.

I wish I could say the same for this stupid NutriSystem diet. I am sorely disappointed after putting up with it for a whole eleven (endless) days now. My overall loss is just 1.5 pounds! I have stuck to the diet but somehow managed to gain back a pound. Ergh.

I know why - it's because I've been stuck indoors resting my knee. If I was outside doing my usual multi-mile walks almost daily, the pounds would probably be melting off.

Still, with all the starving I've been doing eating these low-calorie, low-carb meals—added to the grave suffering I've endured by completely giving up chocolate and popcorn, I feel I deserve more. I better see some improvement by Thursday or I'm gonna have to take drastic measures—like go for the cortisone shot in the knee. Yuk.

Oh, and by the way, I was just kidding when I wrote that the hamburger patty is probably something that you "just add water to" in order to get a burger out of it. Guess what?! I was right! You add boiling water to the plastic tray it comes in and let it sit for two minutes. Then you're supposed to put the soggy burger on a non-existent roll.

Check it out:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

NutriSystem: Week One

I survived a week on NutriSystem without blowing it. It appears I've lost three pounds. Or maybe two. My scale tends to fluctuate. So let's call it 2.5. Not bad for a week of going to bed hungry, although I sure feel like I deserve more! But I won't make jokes about being hungry because it's a very real problem for a lot of people around the globe.

One thing that I've found about this diet is that I'm having the most bizarre dreams. One dream of a couple nights ago was so horrific (involving murder and dismemberment by hatchet), that I won't repeat the specific details here. Early this morning I went through an entire wedding day preparation that involved my ex-husband's little sister (whom I used to babysit back in the 1970's).

I know I could've lost more weight this week if it wasn't for my knee pain preventing me from walking my usual 10-15 miles. But the good news is that, as it turns out, the problem is not a torn meniscus (thank goodness) as previously diagnosed in a hurry by a local orthopaedic surgeon. Thanks to spending my entire $1,000 deductible on an MRI, it was revealed that this is a problem with the semitendinosus tendon—either it's irritated, or the pain stems from bursitis (fluid around the tendon). It sure helps having a sister-in-law who is the head of radiology at a Naval hospital.

At least I know I don't need surgery. I haven't decided whether to go back to the local doctor, who refuses to discuss possible treatment over the phone after all the money I've already shelled out for this. He obviously prefers that I fork over another $500 to sit in his waiting room for an hour and spend three very quick minutes with him before he rushes me out of his office to get to the next patient, only to find out he wants me to come back daily for expensive rehab that I could do myself at home. I just can't afford that right now.

Anyway, I can't believe I lasted a week on a diet. Yuk. I'm just no good at self-deprivation, except when it comes to the really bad addictions, like nicotine. Speaking of which, I just realized that it's been five years to the week since I quit smoking. Hence my chocolate addiction. . . . Oh, well. It could be worse.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

NutriSystem: Day Four

Well, I'm almost done with the fourth day on this NutriSystem thing. Surprisingly enough, I haven't blown it yet. But after a week of this I'm sure I'll be craving some serious chocolate. Lots of it.

I gotta say, this might be an OK way to lose weight for the short-term, but there's no way I could eat this stuff on a regular basis. It's not great. In fact, the "beef pepper steak" I had for dinner was mostly liquid. I actually had to add some brown rice to my plate just to try to absorb some of the soupy stuff that had spread across the entire dinner plate. I couldn't even put my peas on the same plate. They would have drowned.

Same with the stroganoff last night - it was about 70% sauce, 29% little tiny beef-flavored chunks, and 1% pasta. I think there were two small pieces of pasta in the whole thing. Good thing I left that one in its plastic container instead of dumping it on my plate. I didn't like the taste - it reminded me of burnt roux. This is not my mother's stroganoff.

On Wednesday I'll weigh myself and we'll see where this gratification deprivation program is going.... It better be worth it!

Friday, August 14, 2009

NutriSystem: Not for the Hungry

I don't know what they call the "Freshman fifteen" for grad students, but I'm definitely suffering from it, whatever you want to call it. I've gained about 10 pounds since my last move in December. (Moving is my best weight loss program - works every time.) Between school, studying, a sit-down job, and all my various aches and pains that have forced me to cut down on exercise, I just couldn't keep the pounds off this year.

I've had a bad case of plantar fasciitis in my right foot for over 13 months, plus a painful right hamstring injury of some sort for 11 months that just hasn't healed yet. And today I was diagnosed with a meniscus tear in my right knee that I've had since late June. It's frustrating because walking is my favorite activity. In fact, it's a required activity because I don't own a car. When I lose that ability, it really screws up my day-to-day life.

So since I can't lose weight with exercise right now (and it's too soon to move again!), I thought I'd use my Costco discount to try out NutriSystem for 35 days. I managed to survive the first 1-1/2 days, but here it is 9PM on Day Two and I'm starving. Again. It's Friday night. It's time to put in a Netflix DVD and pop a big bowl of popcorn—in oil, of course! Oh, wait. That's not on my list of "allowed" foods. Drat. The only thing I can have the rest of the day is four servings of vegetables. Yuk. That's just not gonna cut it.

I'm not sure if I can make it a whole month and then some. Last night I was so hungry that I ended up going to bed at 9:30 just so I could sleep through the hunger. It was that or eat something and be a failure on my first NutriSystem day!

I didn't know what to expect when I ordered a month's worth of food online. Would it arrive frozen and packed in dry ice? Who knew? Boy was I disappointed when I discovered that what I got was a 46-pound box of MREs. Now I know what the astronauts get to dine on.

First of all, I don't have room in my apartment for 46 pounds of food. And secondly, I didn't know that a lot of this stuff requires that you add water and watch it grow into food in the microwave. Blech. That's no fun.

Don't get me wrong, the stuff tastes OK. But the portions are so small that you couldn't feed a bird with this stuff. I poured a little bag of cereal out into my bowl this morning and it was barely enough to cover the bottom of the bowl. I ate it in about 90 seconds. And then I was still hungry.

See, this is why I don't diet. For one thing, I can't go around hungry all day. For another thing, I don't like having my daily routine prescribed to me. And I don't like tracking everything I eat on paper. It's a pain and takes the fun out of my day. It's like organized exercise. I'm an adult; I don't want anyone else telling me what to eat or how high to jump. I like my freedom. In fact, I've been single for so long that I'm used to doing whatever I want and being spontaneous about it. If I'm in the mood for steak, I have a steak. A big spinach salad? Sure! Popcorn for dinner because I'm too tired to cook? Popcorn it is!

Those days are gone. With NutriSystem to look forward to, why get out of bed in the morning? Besides the tiny portion size, these NutriSystem meals just aren't appealing. There's a box marked "beef patty" that weighs about the same as six paper clips. I can't even look inside because I'm afraid I'll find out that I need to add water to this bun-less hamburger and call it"dinner."

Sure, I could do this for a month and probably lose 10-12 pounds. But then as soon as I go off, I'm going to want to reward myself with a big bowl of popcorn or some Giradeli triple-chocolate brownies. I'll go right back to my usual eating habits. What's the point?

I'll eat the stuff. I have to. I paid for it. But let me tell you, I don't give myself one more day of making this work. In fact, I probably won't make it through the next hour without making popcorn. I'm just not cut out for this!! Aaaaaagh!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tanless Summer

This is the first summer in my recollection that I don't have a tan. I have been indoors too much. That's what summer school (and the D.C. heat and a bad right knee) will do to you. For the Masters program that I'm in, summer session means cramming 3.5 months' work into 10 short weeks. I swear I read over 900 pages of articles about cyber Ethics in that time.

Truth is, some of the ethics stuff was pretty cool - especially an article called The Dark Art of Interrogation by Mark Bowden. Most of us fail to receive ethics training when we enter our computer careers; it should be one of the first things taught and it should be regular corporate IT training. But I digress.

So I stayed inside every single weekend this summer. I had to stop my frequent walks in late June when my right knee went out (and stayed out!) anyway, so I spent the weekends icing my knee and doing school work. I managed to swing two A's out of it, so I can't complain. I am fortunate to have a 4.0 (which isn't saying much because it's based on only one semester's worth of classes because the previous semester's grades in the forensic pre-reqs don't count toward my GPA). We'll see how long it lasts. This ain't rocket science, but it's not undergrad school either. It takes a lot more effort to get an A than I'm accustomed to.

And, needless to say, it looks like I'm going to be unemployed again soon because the contract I'm working on is going south. There's nothing like paying two different companies to do the same job. Oops. I now have clarity on the phrase "good enough for government work," which my mom used to say to me when I was a kid. Need I say more?

That's OK. I'll survive. This job wasn't "me" anyway; I really didn't like the work, which didn't last long. It's been exactly five months since I started. But the staff has basically been sitting around the past eight weeks while the government works out the contract mess they're in, and I couldn't take much more of that. It's not easy spending eight hours a day doing next to nothing.

Besides, I'm ready to get out of IT work and do real forensics work. I can't wait until that day arrives. I'll have to start at the bottom and work my way up, but it'll be worth it to finally do something I'm passionate about. It's time I made my contribution to society—something beyond helping big-time corporate execs make their multi-million dollar bonuses. Ick.

It's corny, but I have a need to contribute to the greater good, not just be another cog in the corporate wheel. And I need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a job that I'm excited about. If I can work in a law enforcement digital forensics lab for the same pay I was making in 1996—which is probably the way it'll go—I'll be happy. :)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Help Eliminate Binding Arbitration Agreements

Below is the crux of a letter that I'm sending to my Congressmen this week. (I've eliminated the first paragraph that contains personal information.) For more information, see the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2009. If you want to help save the consumer against the perils of big business gone bad, there's still plenty of time to contact your legislative representatives.

A couple of years ago I decided to have LASIK surgery to correct my poor vision. I didn't know anything about "binding arbitration" then. Just before going into surgery, I was asked to sign an arbitration agreement. When I read the agreement, I thought to myself, "They can't do that. Don't I have a constitutional right to a trial?" I questioned the doctor about it; she told me "Oh, that just means you have to go to arbitration first." She indicated that it didn't mean I was giving up any rights.

I was reluctant to sign the agreement but they would not perform the surgery without it. I'm just a consumer. I don't carry a lawyer around in my back pocket. I'd already sacrificed several hours' wages to make the 45-minute drive to the surgeon's office for various appointments. In addition, a friend of mine had driven me to the surgeon's office that day and I didn't want to inconvenience her. I felt like I had to go through with it. Without really understanding my rights, I signed the document and had the surgery.

To make a long story short, the surgery was botched, leaving me with a decentered ablation in my left eye. My vision is beyond blurry – it is blotchy, inconsistent, hypersensitive to light, it has floaters, and it is not correctible by any means – not by glasses, contacts or even another surgery. I've lost a lot of work time and wages since then, seeing many doctors and dealing with the big laser vision company and all the hoops they've made me jump through. I have headaches that render me unable to function at my job where I am unable to focus on the computer all day. I can't drive a car safely or drive at night at all.

Essentially, this surgery ruined my life. I can barely do my computer job, yet I have no legal recourse. Whenever I think about arbitration agreements and the unsuspecting consumers who sign them, I question how any such contract that removes my Sixth Amendment right to a trial can be legal.

Out of justice and fairness, please vote for the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2009. Your support is appreciated by American consumers everywhere.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

New Toy for Jelly

Yesterday I went to the Pet Sage store to get cat food—they only sell the good stuff (all natural with no meat by-products).

Because Jelly is such a toy lover, I picked up two new toys. One is a wand with a dark fur band and rattle attached to the end. The other is just a little white fur band with feathers.

When I got home I put all my bags on the counter and floor of the kitchen and left to return the ZipCar across the street, a task that took all of maybe nine minutes. When I came back, I unloaded the groceries first, then I called the kitties to the kitchen, "Come see your new toys!"

I started taking the kitty stuff out of the cloth Whole Foods bag when I noticed that the feather toy was missing. I looked around for it. I thought back to when I checked the ZipCar for personal items before locking it up. It hadn't fallen out of the bag. Hmmm. Did I drop it in the parking garage? Did I even buy it to begin with?

I checked the receipt. Yup, I was charged for both toys but had come home with just one of them. So I called the store to ask if I'd left it behind on the counter when I checked out. They said they hadn't seen it but offered to refund my credit card. I took them up on it and said I'd just pick up another feather toy on my next visit.

A little later I went into my office (also known as the kitties' room). Almost immediately, I noticed the missing feather toy on the rug, half-buried in a pile of other kitty toys, the sales tag still attached. I wondered, "How did that get in here?"

A moment later I realized who the culprit was. While I was returning the ZipCar, Jelly had gone into the Whole Foods bag and retrieved only the feather toy out of the bottom of the bag, transporting it in her teeth to her toy haven. I couldn't believe how quickly she found it.

Of course, I immediately called the store and told them to cancel the credit. The woman was laughing and said of the feather toy, "Well at least we know it's a hit!"

I've never had a cat who enjoyed toys as much as Jelly. What a nut! Too bad she and Baby haven't become friends yet. :(

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Case Dismissed

In case you've been following my story here about my deadbeat ex-tenant who never paid me one dime in rent and has made a career out of cheating creditors out of their money, here's a quick update.

Tonight I logged into the U.S. Bankruptcy Court web site to get the latest on the case. The confirmation hearing was scheduled for July 7, and any objections to the Ch. 13 Plan my debtor filed had to be submitted by June 30. I submitted my (three-page) objection, based on bad faith, last week. I checked the web site every couple days to see if my objection was logged. Tonight when I checked, instead I saw an "Order of Dismissal."

Woo-hoo! I queried the records. Turns out, the bankruptcy case was dismissed just yesterday because the debtor didn't file her tax returns as required. Probably because she either cheated on them or lied to the court about her income. Actually, I just learned recently from the online creditor register on her case that she owes the IRS $39,000. That's in addition to all the state taxes that she owes. So she simply doesn't pay taxes—year after year.

So, I'm relieved. Not because I'll be getting any money out of her anytime soon, but because this case was a big stressor in my life that I didn't need right now. (Like anyone needs a legal suit anytime.)

The bad news is I can't garnish her wages. Today's her last day of work on her current job. I ran to Kinko's tonight (got there 7 minutes before closing) to fax the dismissal paperwork to the wage garnishment department at my debtor's employer. She probably has at least one last paycheck coming to her. If the wage garnishment department doesn't screw me (again), then I should get 25% of whatever her remaining pay is from there. We shall see.

Then I need to follow her to her next job (if anyone will hire her) and try to beat the IRS and the state comptroller to her wages. Sigh.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Kitty Conundrum

The kitties are still here, still running lukewarm and cold with each other. And even calling it "lukewarm" is a stretch. There was one sweet moment that gave me hope last week when one of the kitties licked the other, and vice-versa. But it wasn't long before Baby was chasing down Jelly and I'd find my poor chubby baby four paws up, defenseless against my vicious princess.

One minute they're sitting next to each other on the ottoman, the next it's mayhem. Tonight they were both on the ottoman when Baby reached down and licked Jelly on her back. Jelly turned, hissed, and jumped off the ottoman. Rejected again! I think Baby lashes back because she's truly made an effort to be friends, but Jelly maintains her independence. She's just not a cat person.

I'm not giving up on them, though. I just can't. It's not like Jelly is afraid of Baby. If she was, she wouldn't walk right past Baby two minutes post-attack, as if nothing ever happened. And Baby is all bark and no bite, so I'm not worried about anyone getting hurt. We'll keep giving it another week and see what happens.

One of my cat friends from King Street Cats suggested I go away for a long weekend. Chances are, I'll come home and they'll be best friends.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hello, Secret Service

There was an email at work last night about some K-9 sniffing drill going on in the parking garage this morning. I delete any emails having to do with parking, so I didn't read the whole thing.

About mid-morning I looked up from my computer and saw a couple strange men walking past my office door. The third guy to walk by had a small dog (with a big nose) on a leash. Like everyone else, I stepped out to see what was happening.

It turns out the K-9 sniff was building-wide. Our office is on the 12th (and highest) floor. Anyone who asked 'why the sniff' was told that it's just a drill.

It was about 12:50PM when a bunch of people were gathered in our kitchen looking out the window. Someone reported that Obama was coming at 1:00. We all hung out by that window for the next half hour, debating whether it was the President or his wife coming to visit. We watched local police blockade the street below our building and keep people off the street. We watched and laughed as police turned away a jogger running blindly through the plaza, headed straight for the entrance to our building intended for the presidential limo. This happened to several pedestrians beneath us.

In the reflection of the building windows directly across N. Pierce Street from our building, we could see at least two snipers, maybe three, on the roof above us. One of my colleagues took a photo in the reflection itself and emailed it to us later.

We waited. We joked. We got impatient. But we were all too excited to leave that window. Someone asked what's the charge code for frivolity. I had a Change Advisory Board meeting scheduled for 1:00 but none of us cared. Three of us raised our arms, announcing we had a quorum. Meeting over. So much for change management.

Finally, around 1:20, the suits on the street started to scramble and move into place. Secret Service. Then about 12 motorcycle cops came around the corner from Clarendon Blvd. and lined up in two-by-two formation on the street beneath our building. Several black motorcade vehicles followed, very quickly. There were two limos (one is always the decoy). The second limo pulled directly into a "tent" stood up outside the garage entrance. Then people in dark suits jumped out of all the vehicles, running under the tent. Following them were at least a dozen press personnel.

I shot pics with my LG phone and, of course, called Mom to tell her the President was entering our building. He was on the 3rd floor, which put me about 90 feet from him, as the crow flies straight up. That's probably the closest I've ever been to the President of the United States.

He stayed an hour. I didn't watch the departure (I was too busy downloading photos from my phone). It was just 49 minutes later that the news article popped up on my Google home page. The President was there visiting Year Up, a nonprofit program that trains 18-to-24-year-olds from urban backgrounds for college or professional work.

Pretty exciting stuff!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sultry Hot Here!

The last time I was this miserable was when I lived in Maryland. It is unbearably humid here. Each morning I dread getting out of bed.

On the weekdays, I get up in the morning, spend time on the makeup and getting my thick hair all smooth and shiny with the curls finally resting in all the right places. I go outside, walk back to the corner, wait three minutes for the light to change, and walk the other direction to the Metro. Sometimes I have to run to make my train because the stupid walk light take eons.

Usually the escalator is broken at the Metro (it's a 50-50 chance). When it's out of commission, I take the two flights of stairs up to the outdoor platform and wait about six minutes in the thick hot air for the yellow train. I get into a barely air-conditioned car and start fanning myself with whatever ethics article I am supposed to be reading for class.

A couple minutes later I get off at the first stop and wait up to four minutes outdoors for the blue train. If I'm lucky there is a slight breeze. I get on board into a sometimes air-conditioned car. If I'm lucky I get a seat. By now I feel that one single droplet of sweat drip all the way down my back and into my waist band.

I fan myself. Depending on how many times the train stops and sits waiting for the platform ahead to clear, about twenty to thirty minutes later I get off at the Rosslyn station. I cross the platform and climb as far as I can up the 6-story escalator (one time I counted over 90 steps). Sometimes I stop to rest before continuing. I get to the top of the outdoor station and start walking up Wilson Boulevard to my office. I feel the hot sun searing my back.

Usually I'm carrying my purse, my eco-bag containing shoes, lunch, water bottle, etc., and my school book satchel. I hike several blocks all uphill to my office. I arrive in the un-airconditioned lobby, commiserate with the miserable security guard, and wait for one of the three slow elevators. I fan myself.

Eventually I make it to the 12th floor and go straight to the bathroom to dry off with paper towels and try to repair my hair. The back of my shirt is soaked. My underwear is soaked. The makeup is running off my shiny face - not worth fixing, so I just pat it dry. My mascara is smudged, giving me racoon eyes. My scalp is sweaty. My bangs are gone, having been replaced with curly, pointy, frizzy hair spikes sticking out from my forehead in multiple directions. My hair has doubled in size and is surrounded by a halo of frizz.

I look in the mirror and reiterate out loud how much I hate living here. I'm reminded that I have to face another eight hours on a job I hate. I walk to the office suite wanting nothing but a cool shower and a fresh change of clothes—something I won't be privy to for another 14 hours if it's a school day.

Someone says good morning and I grunt back, walking briskly to my dark office where I ensure that the thermostat is cranked down. I turn on the fan on my desk and plop myself in front of it. I put down my ethics fan and sit to change shoes. I'm so hot that all I can think about for the next 30 minutes is cooling off. Anyone who dares stop by my office and ask me to do work is immediately shunned with the fakest of smiles.

Thirty minutes later I feel a sinus infection coming on because I'm sitting in a blissfully freezing cold room in my still-damp clothes. I try to work. After about an hour my clothes are somewhat dry.

Eight hours drag miserably by, I change back into my walking shoes, and I do the humidity commute all over again.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Mean Girls

Last weekend Baby transformed into one mean girl. I think she got fed up with Jelly ignoring her after repeated attempts to get Jelly to "play" with her—the Baby version of playing, which is more like fighting than playing.

Three times I saw Baby chase Jelly down and attack her. Each time I yelled louder and made sure Baby knew that her behavior was not OK. I also stopped play-fighting with Baby (despite her requests to the contrary), something we used to do every night.

I think she got the message. She's been much sweeter to Jelly this week. I think Jelly is starting to chill a little, too. She still hisses when Baby ventures too close to sniff her, but I witnessed at least two encounters where Jelly resisted hissing. Maybe Jelly is finally starting to cave.

For a chubby little girl, Jelly sure is an active cat. She never stops squeaking at me, she loves to play with toys, and she runs around a lot. She's quite demanding of attention, constantly asking to be brushed or petted or fed catnip. And she eats twice as much as Baby

So, we're still hanging in there, despite the disastrous encounters of last weekend. We'll see what happens the coming week . . . .