Don’t WannaCry? Hack-proof Your Computer

As the resident computer “guru emeritus” in our family, I often get questions from family members about computers, particularly computer security.  I’m not a Windows expert by any means, though I was briefly a Windows NT sysadmin in the mid 1990s and the Unix and GNU/Linux systems for which I was responsible had to coexist with, but independent from, Windows Server Active Directory domains throughout the first decade of this century.  As the latest hacker disaster to befall the Windows world sweeps across the planet, I got this request from a cousin:

I was wondering whether you had any advice for us Microsoft PC users and the cyber attack which they predict is rolling our way. We don’t do online banking or bill-paying. We do have a lot of pictures and documents. Most of the pictures I have on a  flash drive. Do you think they will only hit the institutions? Sounds like Europe was not prepared and was operating on an old system. Hopefully our country has a “heads up” to protect our government institutions, airports and banks.

We haven’t fired up our two Windows 10 instances since the news (one is Judy’s new laptop, which runs Linux from a thumb drive “all the time,” the other is a refurbished desktop we only use for TurboTax).  But, when we do, the first thing will be to grab the security patches from M$FT.
1) Always install Microsoft updates as soon as they are released.
2) Any machine that is directly connected to the Internet (i.e., plugged into your DSL or cable modem instead of wifi or a router) is in immediate danger.  So is any machine for which the router firewall is turned off or for which port forwarding is turned on for vulnerable ports.  The “bad guys” use bots that scan the entire Internet looking for open ports to penetrate.  The machine that handles our webcam has port 8080 (redirect to 80 internally) and 22 (secure login for me to access our systems remotely) open: the logs show hundreds of break-in attempts every day.  Naturally, we limit access to accounts that present known secret encryption keys, and don’t write web applications vulnerable to code injection.  Once an attack has gained access to an internal network through any machine, all the machines behind the firewall are vulnerable.  We got hacked last year because I reinstalled the system and didn’t disable the default accounts before putting it back on the network.  It only needs a few minutes exposure to be compromised, with the observed rate of attacks.
3) Downloaded programs, including mislabeled email attachments or web links, can deliver malware that will corrupt your machine: the ransomware currently in the news can get in through an open port without any help from the user, but also through “Trojans” (files that look like something you want or look innocent but aren’t).  A firewall won’t help if you invite them in. The most common attacks are notices that appear to be from your bank or credit card company or utility provider that require you to open an attachment or click on a link to see the notice or respond.  Since modern email apps and web browsers tend to hide the full header or complex URL it is very difficult to tell which ones are fake–misspellings and vague, non-explicit wording in the text are tell-tale, but the safe way to address these is to login to your account through the browser instead of the link in the message to check if it is legitimate.
4) Linux, OS/X, and IOS are much less vulnerable, as they are inherently more secure and a minority target (except for servers and routers, which is why our Linux gateway gets attacked so much).  Security upgrades are much more promptly distributed, as well. Android devices, which are Linux-based, but tend not to be updated regularly, have become vulnerable.  Older routers may also be vulnerable: make sure that external login/configuration is disabled.  Newer routers may be configured for automatic upgrades, but still should not allow external login.
5) As always, good passwords are essential.  Don’t use non-HTTPS web sites from a public wifi access or one that uses a web-page login rather than a wifi connection password.  Anything that is convenient or intuitive is probably not safe.  [See #9 below for more detail]
6) If you must use Windows, do keep up your virus protection subscriptions, even though the worst attacks may be undetectable.
7) If you don’t already do so, buy a USB hard drive larger than your computer hard drive and back up your computer regularly, or subscribe to a cloud service for your important files–photos and documents.  Even if you don’t get hacked, hard drives have a half-life of about 3-5 years and fail with alarming frequency.  Fans die and fry your machine, too: even if the hard drive is still OK, professional file recovery is expensive (an external drive dock compatible with your hard drives is a good investment if you know how to use it).  Keep in mind that laptop hard drives are probably encrypted, so can’t be recovered easily if removed from the computer.
8) Just say “no” to Microsoft…  I know, almost impossible.  We use iOS (iPad, iPhone) and Linux exclusively for Internet use, but still need to fire up Windows now and then and put them on the Internet for Microsoft and other vendor updates, and file taxes, so we share the same dread as everyone else, plus the other burdens of keeping servers and web apps secure.
More…
9) As the WannaCry ransomware plague becomes better revealed, it appears that the primary attack is through the file-sharing protocol used by Microsoft, SMB, or Server Message Block.  If you have enabled file sharing between computers or inadvertently have the service running even if you don’t connect with other computers on your network, you are vulnerable until patched.  Even if your network is secure, i.e., you connect through a router and the firewall is turned on, using a laptop at a public access site can expose you.  Needless to say, your own WiFi router needs to have a strong WPA2 password.  If you have old equipment that uses WEP or no security, upgrade or reconfigure your network now.  Even if guest networks (motels, restaurants, coffee shops, businesses, etc) have WPA2, you may be exposed to attack by other users (or compromised equipment) on the network.  If in doubt, use your smartphone’s data plan on the cellular network instead of your laptop or wifi on your hand-held.
10) The latest information on computer exploits, although technical, is always available on http://www.US-CERT.gov,  the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, a branch of Homeland Security.  This site will have information on severity, what systems are affected, and links to security fixes.
Lastly, if you are hacked, the only recourse is to wipe the disk, reformat, and reinstall the operating system and restore your backed-up data files.  In the event you don’t have a backup, it may be possible for a file recovery service technician to boot your machine into a safe operating system (like Linux) from an external USB drive, mount the drive as data only and recover your data files (if the drive is not corrupted or encrypted by the attack), but it is generally not possible to reliably remove the attacker’s files and restore the operating system without a complete wipe/reinstall.  If the attack is ransomware, the data is not recoverable without the attacker’s decryption key.  Even if you pay the ransom, you may recover your data, but the disk needs to be wiped and reformatted and not placed back on a network until the security fixes have been applied.
Afterword:
If you are curious about the concept of ransomware, hacking in general, and enjoy a good read, check out Neal Stephenson’s novel “REAMDE,” a techno-thriller about ransomware that attacks users of an on-line multi-user game.  The characters include a credit-card thief (briefly), the game designer, Russian mafia, the Chinese hacker, and a Polish white-hat hacker, and the action flows from Seattle to China, Canada, and Montana.  Warning:  heavy on computer and gaming cultural references.  Neal knows his stuff–it’s all realistic tech, if fantastic and wacky.

Road Trip 2017, Part 1, Stage 4: There’s No Place Like Home

Our travels through the fictional fractured former United States continue, hence the geographic references that may be unfamiliar to those readers who believe the Federation propaganda that the Republic still stands intact.  Our travels in this chapter take place in the countries of Greater California, Jefferson, and Cascadia, which extend up the Pacific coast from north of San Diego to Prince Rupert and east to the Sierras and Cascades in California, Jefferson, and the Oregon and Washington districts of Cascadia, and the Rockies in the Columbian District.  Free White Idaho extends from the Cascades to the Rockies south of the 49th Parallel.  Jefferson extends from north of Sonoma County, Gr. Cal., to the southern reach of the Willamette Valley.

[all photos by Judy unless otherwise noted]

Farm road, San Joachin Valley

Our trip became more normal with our return to the independent republics on the West Coast of North America, where Federation loyalist influence is much less, though still significant in the news.  Leaving Bakersfield, we head north through familiar place names: streets and highways named after popular country-western music artists of the mid-twentieth Century: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and others.  After our drive across the Mojave, the north-bound routes seem frantic and busy.  We soon turn off the old Highway 99 onto farm roads through the San Joaquin Valley, meandering between CA 99 and I-5, sometimes through potholed and muddy tracks  indistinguishable from the cattle feedlots that line them, as seen above.

Hills along CA 198 west of Coalinga

After a brief run up I-5, we turn off toward Coalinga, and over the mountains toward the coast, turning north up a verdant and quiet valley, joining US 101 and its heavy traffic for a run through Silicon Valley into San Francisco, where we will spend a few days site-seeing before continuing toward home.

Judy hadn’t spent time in downtown San Francisco before.  I had spent a 3-day pass from the U.S. Army there, 51 years ago in 1966, riding the cable cars, dining at Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown.  A return trip in 1983 was spent entirely at the Moscone Center in a computer conference devoted to the doomed 8-bit personal computer operating system CP/M  from Digital Research, which was supplanted by the 16-bit Microsoft knock-off MS-DOS within a few months.  We stayed a block from the China Gate and a couple blocks from Union Square this time, within walking distance of shopping and restaurants.

As we often do when visiting a large city, we bought a two-day bus tour package, and set off on a rainy morning.  The upper open deck on the buses was awash in the downpour, so we imagined the sights the guides described as we peered through the fogged-over and rain-smeared windows.  We changed buses at Fisherman’s Wharf, with a quick look around, then off to the Golden Gate Bridge, where we had a wet and blustery layover before catching the Sausalito bus.  We stopped briefly on the north end of the bridge, shrouded in mist before descending into the city by the bay for a 20-minute layover before returning over the bridge once more for another wet wait for the next bus.

Union Square, San Francisco (photo by Larye)

The next destination was Golden Gate Park and the Haight-Ashbury district, which, again, we glimpsed through the perforated sunscreens and film of rain on the bus windows.  After heading back downtown around City Hall, we disembarked at Union Square for lunch, then caught the alternate bus route back to Fisherman’s Wharf, where we toured on foot, catching the last bus back to Union Square.  On this route, the rain had stopped long enough to permit riding on the open deck, so we did get good views of Chinatown and the financial district on this tour.

Transamerica Pyramid (photo by Larye)

The next morning, we sat through the customary sales pitch at the condo office to get part of our parking fee validated.  We thought $40 a day was outrageous, but we noted that other nearby hotels charged upwards of $60 per day.  While waiting for the tour bus, we noted that most of the guests at that hotel used Uber for ground transportation.  Our hotel brochure warned against bringing a car into the city, but, being on tour, we didn’t have much choice.

A late start took us on a repeat of yesterday’s route, without the side trip across the bridge.  We had planned on taking in some of the gardens at the Golden Gate Park, but the heavy rain continued, so we declined to disembark.  Once again, we were confined to the limited view from the lower compartment in the bus, but had better seats, so we were able to see some of the attractions we missed the day before.   Back at Union Square, we marched off to the Mall, where we had lunch at the bistro in the Nordstrom department store, in solidarity with the Cascadia-based chain with which the Federation had started a trade war the day before, after the store had dropped the royal family’s clothing line.  Word from our contacts in Free White Idaho indicate that a major department store chain based in the Ozark District has taken up the slack and is enjoying exports of the royal line to the FWI as well as throughout the Federation.

The next morning, we headed north in sunshine, making sure to drive through some of the areas we had toured, but not seen, from the bus.  We had intended to head east to visit with an old friend, but the bad weather had made the roads unreliable.  Indeed, by the end of the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people living between us and them were being evacuated as the flood waters overflowed the largest reservoir to the east and threatened to breach the dam due to erosion on the spillways.  So, we headed across the bridge through Sausalito once more, finally outrunning the city traffic north of Santa Rosa as we crossed over into the Republic of Jefferson.

Palace of Fine Arts, Panama-Pacific Exhibition, 1915, a simpler but more elegant time.  I once owned a Sonora Phonograph, which won a Gold Medal at this exhibition for quality and sound, and which was a beautiful piece of furniture as well.   Sonora was taken over by its investors in 1929 and failed in 1930, a victim more of hostile takeover than the Great Depression. (photo by Larye)

We spent the night in Eureka, then headed inland at Crescent City to Rogue River for lunch with my cousin and her husband before continuing north over the mountains into our home territory of Cascadia, arriving in Eugene along the Willamette River for the next night.  We headed north on old Highway 99 in the morning in dense fog, which lifted near Junction City.  We took the west branch of 99 through Corvallis and McMinnville, then winding back roads to Hillsboro and Scappoose, then up Highway 30 to Rainier, where we crossed the Columbia and then the Cowlitz to continue home on I-5.

Avenue of the Giants, scenic route through the redwood forest.

So ended the first road tour of 2017, covering about 8000 km in three weeks.  We plan a trip to Victoria in June and an extended tour to Minnesota and Eastern Canada in September.  We may venture into the FWI sometime this summer if the borders stay open, as we still have family and close friends in the Mission and Bitterroot valleys.  We took Maximillian, our hybrid crossover vehicle, on this trip because we needed extra seating, and it was easy on fuel without the bicycle on top, burning about 6 liters per 100 km when we stuck to the lower-speed roads.  For the rest of the trips, we plan to drive the White Knight, which burns about 14 liters per 100 km, but we can camp in it and take our bicycle, and it blends in better when traveling in the interior republics.  We’ve been careful in this divided age not to display any political insignia, which may in itself raise suspicion in some districts, where patriotic displays of the majority’s ideological symbols are common and expected.  The environmental statement the hybrid vehicle makes may attract unwanted attention in those districts by itself, so the older, nondescript work vehicle may be the best choice, even if it isn’t the most efficient.

Road Trip 2017, Part 1, Stage 3: The Southwest Zones

We continue with our travelogue of adventures in a fictional parallel universe where everything is familiar, except the United States has split into six major separate countries and several smaller independent city-states, the result of an insurmountable divide between left and right with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President of what is left of the USA, predominantly red states united in a loose federation. The independent states consist of three culturally and economically diverse nations on the West Coast, and two states in the Rocky Mountain West, based on religious conservatism on the one hand and extreme right-wing ideology on the other. Islands of blue across the eastern two-thirds of the country comprise most of the city-states, with a few in the west that don’t fit well with the surrounding territory.  We also see increased independence in the indigenous peoples’ territories. Meanwhile, we enjoy visits with family, whether or not they agree with our politics, and travel through regions where we might be considered “foreigners” in a fractured country.  And, we hope, present the reader with some thought-provoking questions about what it means to be an American: whether we are a diverse unity or moving toward a uniformity intolerant of diversity that strains our constitution to the breaking point.

Border Patrol Checkpoint between Las Cruces and Hatch — inside the borders of the old Republic, and which has existed throughout this century and perhaps for nearly 50 years.  Records are vague, but the authority for such checkpoints dates back as far as 1953,

Leaving Greater California, we crossed over into the Mountain Time Zone and into the patchwork Federation, putting up for the night in Eloy, a desolate stop with minimal services midway through the Arpaio Protectorate. We ate from our travel stash and the meager breakfast offerings at the hotel the next morning, driving 60 km to the nearest Starbucks for our morning coffee.

Old Town Bisbee

Figuring we might not have freedom to travel in the future, and eager to see places we’ve read about in books, we veered off the I-10 at Benson, driving through Bisbee, where fictional Sheriff Joanna Brady keeps the peace in the series of novels by J.A. Jance.  (We’ve also stayed at the B&B in Ashland, old Oregon, where fictional detective J.P. Beaumont stayed during one of his cases.)  Old Town was much more colorful than portrayed in the novels, which mostly take place in the more sedate new part of town and the surrounding desert.  Moving on through Douglas, we passed under the shadow of the tall prison walls that rise ominously near the Mexican border that separates Douglas from Agua Prieta, foreshadowing the rise of the Trump Wall.

We stopped for lunch in Lordsburg, where we needed to make the choice between “red, green, or Christmas” chile that is the essential part of every meal in this region.  Moving on, we find the effects of the new order fairly pronounced in the *real* universe.  Our B&B hostess in Mesilla, a transplanted Australian, was trying to sell, having lost her job and fearful of expulsion or worse as the wave of xenophobia sweeps over the land.

We spent a day in the old city of El Paso, visiting historical sites and museums with our granddaughter and son, and a few more days visiting with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren in Las Cruces before heading north for more family visits.  [The cultural diversity of the region makes it impossible to consider closing the border here, hence we find it logical to assume our alternative universe provides an extended city-state composed of two American counties in two states and a Mexican city that is surrounded by a new border, which, in many ways, already exists, and has for decades.]

Choosing the old road along the Rio Grande was perhaps not wise, as we endured a bit more grilling at the border crossing between the El Paso/Doña Ana Free State and the Southern Exclusion Zone than we probably would have traveling on the Interstate, where traffic moves through the checkpoint more rapidly. (See photo at beginning of this post.) Fortunately, we still have passports issued by the former United States, which got us through, with acceptable answers to questions about our itinerary and choice of  routing.

Lunch at Truth or Consequences (known as Hot Springs in early 20th Century maps of the old United States, before it was renamed to become the mail drop for a 1950s television quiz show) just up the road reminded us that the northern region’s cuisine has crept in, confining the southern style to the Free State to the south, where culinary influences remain influenced by Texas and Chihuahua.

Little seems changed in New Spain: Albuquerque continues to expand up the mountain and spill out west of the river, as well as grow inexorably toward the capital to the north.  At lunch the next day, I had a southern version of the Québécois poutine: hash browns smothered in chile and cheese and topped with a fried egg.

After celebrating a great-grandson’s 4th birthday with an evening at the local roller rink, we headed west on our long journey home.  The pueblo regions define the area outside the modern city.  The indigenous people stand to lose even more than they already have under a regime with no regard for the environment, so they band even stronger.  In Gallup, a mosque stands at the edge of town, as yet not burned to the ground, thanks to the strong indigenous presence, and at the west edge of town, a series of hogans built with modern materials mark the core of a native religious academy.

The Raven stands watch over the ancient petrified forest.

At the western boundary of the Navajo-Hopi confederacy stands the Ryan Zinke Mineral Reserve, which we tour.  While the petrified wood formations in the reserve still stand, the town of Holbrook is surrounded by acres of stone yards stacked high with the gem-like remains of ancient trees.  We overnight in Flagstaff, where it is winter, with icy streets and piles of snow in the corners of parking lots.

The Crystal Forest

The next morning, we head westward, clearly back in the Arpaio Protectorate, noted by the broken asphalt and potholes in the main roads so common in the Federation heartlands.  Squads of police from several local jurisdictions cluster in the highway median crossovers, possibly looking for non-patriots, this far north of the Southern Exclusion Zone.  Unwilling to take a chance on being detained for scrutiny, we turn off onto the old highway, through indigenous lands once more.

Near Kingman, the largest northwestern city in the Protectorate, we drive past gated communities and full RV parks, a sprawling city not on the maps, no doubt filled with refugees from the liberal states to the west and more moderate loyalists from the north.  We continue on the deteriorating old road, which rolls up and down across the desert arroyos, fortunately dry this week, but bearing marks of recent flash floods.  The narrow track winds across the mountains, with few guard rails, through old mines and the steep main street of Oatman, sometimes blocked by wild burros.

Driving through dust storm, Mojave Desert

Finally, we reach the Colorado River and cross into Greater California, where our clearly Cascadian appearance (old Washington registration plates on a hybrid vehicle) gets us a perfunctory wave through customs at the border.  Having last filled the tank in the Navajo territory at $0.56/liter, we fill up, shocked at the $0.95/liter prices.  The difference in price is the tax burden, between countries that don’t care about the environmental impact of fossil fuels and those that do.  The price also reflects the contribution to highway maintenance from fuel taxes.  We cross the Mojave Desert and over the mountains, past wind farms to Bakersfield for the night.

Road Trip 2017, Part 1, Stage 2: San Diego Reminiscence

California Tower, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA

I’ve been visiting San Diego, off and on for 40 years, but this is the first time as a tourist.  We’re here with Judy’s brother-in-law, to see the city and visit with a cousin she hasn’t seen in many years.  We did drive through about five years ago on our way back from our first Florida bicycle tour, but didn’t stop.

The drive down from LA on Tuesday was pleasant.  A traffic check before leaving showed the I-5 jammed, so traveling east to the I-15 was just as fast.  We hadn’t been this way before, a rolling, wide freeway with light traffic.  As advertised, we encountered rain squalls near our destination, but altogether a good travel day.  We were able to check in early and freshen up before heading out for lunch and a quick tour of downtown and Coronado.

San Diego is, in my view, an all-American city (that is, stratified in the typical inequality ratios),  a scenic seaport city that is a perfect bookend to its northern counterpart, Vancouver.  As the home of a major military presence, the city-state remains loyal to the Federation, separating Mexico from Greater California, though pockets of resistance can be found. The Old Town area, near where we are staying, sits at the base of the hills where the valley opens to the east.  We threaded our way around the flash floods that still punctuate winter rainstorms here, along the rough pot-holed streets that characterize strongly loyalist cities, on our way down the bay past the downtown airport, where airliners slip between the high-rise buildings in the financial district on final approach.  Past the convention center, we swung onto the Coronado bridge for a tour of the trendy and posh city by the sea, the local bastion of the 1%, then around the bay through the grubbier city of Imperial Beach and back our lodging to settle in for the evening.

Airliners pass low over the city on approach to Lindbergh Field

I first came to San Diego in the 1970s, when I was a systems engineer, working on modernization of the U.S. Navy submarine fleet.  Our team, from the development laboratories in New England, came out to the submarine base at San Diego to certify the systems before deployment on patrol after the boats came out of the repair yards in Long Beach, Bremerton, and Vallejo with the new systems installed.  As the shipyards were relatively unfamiliar with the new technologies, we often ended up as rework and repair technicians as well as test engineers.  The biggest problem was with quality control on the hundreds of 85-pin data connectors in the new computerized systems.  As a result of our testing and evaluation, two other teams were formed, one to rework and repair all the boats as they rotated in and out of port and one to teach the shipyard cable technicians proper assembly techniques.  Visits often involved 12-on/12-off around-the-clock work shifts, 14-days straight through, so site-seeing wasn’t an option.

U.S. Navy Base Ballast Point

Some trips were more casual, though, so on one occasion or another, I did manage to tour the old aviation museum (before it burned and was rebuilt) and take a drive out to Point Loma.  Our work teams usually consisted of a mix of civil servants, enlisted navy personnel, and contractors, like myself, from the various systems vendors.  The non-commissioned officers liked to lunch at the many topless bars that sprang up along Rosecrans during that period.  The government employees often liked to dine at the more expensive restaurants, where they would order steaks and cocktails, then insist on splitting the bill evenly so they didn’t exceed the daily federal M&IE  (meal and incidental expense) allowance.  We contractors would order from the casual menu to make sure the shares didn’t exceed the allowance so as not to have to explain to our families why we had to spend our own money while on expense account…

Naval Air Station North Island and downtown San Diego

In the 1980s, I was working at the submarine base in Washington in combat systems life-cycle support engineering, doing operations analysis: we would get the data package from a returning boat a day or two before they arrived for refit.  A quick review would help plan the work orders during the crew turn-around and identify problem areas that might require an equipment upgrade or maintenance procedure change.  The refit facility kept a set of major electronics modules that were rotated among the boats to simplify troubleshooting and repair at sea.  Any failed units were repaired in the refit facility and returned to the kit inventory.  But, when a new boat was commissioned at the building yards on the east coast, only basic spare parts were loaded for the transit.  On one such occasion, we were notified of a problem in transit, as they passed through the Panama Canal.  As a seasoned field operative, I was assigned to meet the boat in San Diego, at the North Island facility in Coronado, and deliver part of their complement of maintenance assistance units, as well as making sure the problem was resolved.

Old Point Loma Light

In the early 1990s, I was in a test engineering contract group at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.  Part of my duties as the lead engineer was to prepare reports and presentations for the government managers to present, a task I had performed on several different assignments over the years.  From time to time, I accompanied my clients on their travels to provide additional background or updates to the material.  One of these trips was to San Diego, the first road trip on which I took a computer (my own–I operated as an employee of an East Coast contractor, but out of my home office).  This was before the Internet became ubiquitous and before laptops were common.  My system was an early and unsuccessful tablet (Pen Windows on an NCR 3125,  a 20-MHz386 non-backlit monochrome LCD system, click to see a photo) that I bought on clearance ($300, against a list price of $3000), combined with a full-sized keyboard, mouse, and external 9600-baud “portable” modem.  Getting through airport security with this junkyard laptop substitute was an ordeal, even in pre-9/11 times, when the focus was on D.B.Cooper-type ransom hijackers rather than terrorists.

My connection to the ‘Net was to dial-up my Unix workstation at home and compose email, which would be relayed later when my home system mail server scheduled a dial-up to the next link in the network.  In this way, I was able to correspond with other meeting attendees by email without violating the “speak only when spoken to” policy that applied to “briefcase carriers.”  The presentation was a project management plan I had developed for re-certifying one of the last groups of cold-war-era ships to be upgraded: my client had only the transparencies (for backup) and the new-fangled Powerpoint version on floppy disk, and I had the answers to defend the plan schedule, so I was brought along strictly as backup for any technical questions that might come up.  None did: this was the last major development exercise planned for this assignment, and I had become weary of the briefcase carrier role, so it was time to move on.   During this San Diego trip, I turned in my two-week notice: when I got home, I started work in Seattle at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under a new employer, as a contract Unix system administrator,  ending my long career supporting U.S. Navy projects, but not the end of government contracting.

Coast Guard cutter and sailboat entering San Diego Harbor

In the late 1990s, I was a network administrator, working in Washington State for a Pennsylvania company owned by the family of a PA congressman influential on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.  One of the projects was a contract with the government to train small business owners how to use the Internet to do business with the government.    When the company opened a new office in San Diego, with only a skeleton staff, I flew down to configure and install their Internet servers.  The company was in temporary offices near Hotel Circle, and I unpacked and staged the servers in the partially-finished new offices, several miles away.  The new space was being used for storage, so did not have telephone or Internet, and all the furniture was still in cartons, so it was a strange exercise, working alone in a large building in a city of 1 million.  After configuring the systems, I delivered them to the co-location hosting site on the north side of the city, and managed them from my Bremerton office.  As before, my San Diego excursion foreshadowed yet another career change: the project in Bremerton wound down, so I was in the market for another job, this time for state government. We soon moved to Montana, where I spent a couple of years working at the University of Montana.

the Lath House (Botanical Building), Balboa Park.  Judy and Ben in foreground.

In 2005, midway through my next career, back in the federal contracting world, as a system administrator and bioinformatics programmer at the National Institutes of Health in Montana, I managed to get permission to attend the 19th USENIX Large Installation System Administration conference, held in San Diego that year.   It is very difficult for government contractors to get paid skills training, since we are supposed to be pre-trained and fully qualified, no matter how much the technology evolves during our often years-long tenure, so we funded most of the trip ourselves, as I had done for a bioinformatics conference in Arizona in 2002. At best, we can sometimes get the client to pay our hourly rate for the conference week without taking vacation, but there is never money for fees and travel.  (When I went independent in 2009, I went to conferences more often, bidding the cost into my rate negotiation, though I often had to choose limited or free venues, as reasonable training budgets were not price competitive, naturally, but my time was my own.) Judy and I flew down and took the shuttle bus to the conference hotel, no rental car budget.  I spent the entire conference in the complex, while Judy toured the city on the light-rail and bus systems, and met with a local quilting client—a Navy nurse who had sent quilt tops from Iraq to be quilted while deployed there—to justify a tax write-off for her plane ticket.   The next time I saw San Diego was a fast drive-through, Thanksgiving 2011, returning to Washington State from a bicycle tour in Florida, visiting relatives along the way.

Casa el Prada, Balboa Park

So, it’s good to be back, before the city becomes closed to us and travel to the red zone becomes problematic.  With only three days to spend, I’m sure we won’t see everything: we did stop in Old Town and explore Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument., and we spent time with Judy’s cousin, whom we hadn’t seen for a long time: she and her husband are in their 90s and don’t travel anymore, but she is an active artist and we visited her at her co-op studio in Balboa Park as well as at home.  Tomorrow, it’s back to LA and then brace for our extended excursion into solid Federation territory.

Road Trip 2017 Part 1 (stage 1): Travels In a Far Country Close To Home

DISCLAIMER: A tale of an alternate reality, in the post-factual age…  As a long-time fan of speculative fiction, one can imagine the worst possible outcome of current trends.  Hopefully, thinking through the consequences  will jar us to action to prevent such an outcome.  Here then, is a wild ride through a landscape where the nation has gone to pieces, reassembling itself in bizarre and distorted caricatures, region by region, built around our actual travels through the wonderful landscape and people that are the *real* America.

San Joaquin Valley

As is our custom, 2017 began with a major Road Trip, ostensibly to visit relatives in the Southwest of what used to be the United States. This year we’re a bit early, in hopes of returning before the new borders close. But, our trip was delayed slightly, for two reasons–a brief encounter with What’s Going Around, commonly known as “The Flu,” and some delays in our effort to refinance our home (possibly also caused by What’s Going Around, in the far-flung banking empire).  At any rate, since the mortgage department at Big Bank is located in Iowa, we surmised that the actual paper-signing could take place anywhere.  Consequently, our signing site kept moving south over several days as we finalized the transaction.

Leaving said home, near the Salish Sea in the heart of the Cascadian Confederation, on the eve of Donald the First’s ascendancy to the throne of the Federation of Trumpistan, we traveled to the first proposed (and later cancelled) refinancing site in the heart of the Republic of Jefferson.  Having a new goal farther south, in the morning we ignored the coronation festivities to press on over the mountains, stopping briefly in Yreka, Jefferson’s capital, to purchase tire chains, as we—for the first time in over 20 years—don’t have all-wheel drive on our winter expedition vehicle.

The delay brought us to the chain-up area just as the restrictions were lifted, so we pressed on at speed through slush, rain, and snow into the northern sections of the Republic of Greater California, then on to the old capital for the night, past prematurely-flooded  nut orchards and through a flooded section of roadway, having left the main highway in case roving bands of Federation loyalists were on the watch for dissidents fleeing south.

Traveling south, this time on the main highway through the wet and verdant San Joaquin Valley, we arrived in the Los Angeles area in late afternoon, with the usual heavy, but not quite gridlocked Saturday traffic, despite the large political demonstrations downtown.

We found our relatives dry and well, and settled in for a brief respite from our travels. With the six-year drought officially over, we braved flooded streets on Sunday to replenish our food supplies at nearly-deserted stores, as the torrential downpours continued in the third wave of La Niña storm cycles in as many weeks.  The intensity of the storms across the Northern Hemisphere is, no doubt, fueled by the loss of much of the polar ice cap.  Now, two possible explanations for the disappearance of the northern sea ice in this century are either 1) as the result of man-made global warming or 2) the capricious act of a vengeful god or gods.

Either way, a large segment of humanity needs to change their evil ways, and soon, as the carbon dioxide and methane concentrations approach a runaway point with the thawing of the permafrost and shallow methane hydrates in the northern tundra and seas.  However, in the current geopolitical climate, not much promises to be done to slow changes to the planetary climate.  We need to hurry on to visit our descendants before we are all caught up in a mass extinction event not seen since Permian times, not to mention travel restrictions or economic collapse resulting from political upheaval.

Our banking business finally got settled, at least for now:  the banker was astounded at the differences between California and rural Cascadia housing values.  The transaction, started some time ago, was, of course, still in California dollars.  Cascadia has yet to convert to New Hong Kong Dollars, pending renegotiation of trade deals between the new confederacy and the world economy and pinning the new currency to the Yuan.

We are preparing to travel farther south, but not too far.  Mexico continues to keep the border closed during the Reconfiguration, to avoid further erosion of the peso in light of the shift to fossil fuel as the monetary standard in the Federation.  Checking in with our relatives in the Rockies, we find even more changes.  News was limited because of the severe winter weather and what we can assume are politically-motivated blackouts, but we gathered this:

Free White Idaho has apparently annexed lands between the Cascade Crest and the Continental Divide, except possibly the Missoula Free State.  Communications to FWI from leftist media sources within the city have been blocked.  We hear from loyalist acquaintances there who are barricaded against militant leftists and awaiting reinforcements from Wallace and Libby when the weather clears.  We can’t be sure, though: the rapid divergence in semantics between left and right has made translation of their messages nearly impossible.

There has also been no further word from Whitefish since the Brown Shirts moved against pockets of Zionists early in the Transition.   Perhaps the timeslip has healed and pulled the whole bunch back into 1930s Germany, but we fear that the opposite has happened: a large segment of the Third Reich that apparently disappeared in the mid-1940s has reappeared and fused with our timeline.  We thought perhaps that the lands of the indigenous nations would be safer, but the latest credible reports from the east are that the Federation plans to move against them militarily “real soon” as part of the Final Solution to free the remaining fossil fuel into the environment and/or economy.

We, of course, discount most of the spotty news from east of the continental divide, amid the onslaught of misinformation, cognitive dissonance, and the aforementioned semantic schism.  We are a bit concerned about traveling east.  As far as we know, the theocratic Republic of Deseret, stretching from the Salmon on the north to the Mogollon Rim on the south, remains part of the Federation, but as inscrutable as always.  Our return path next month should take us across the southern portion, as we leave the area that we assume is reverting to the old name, Nuevo España, since the hardening of the border with Mexico.

We do have to travel through the Southern Exclusion Zone and the Arpaio Coalition next weekend, and we’re not certain of the status of the region north of Chihuahua.  Traditionally, movement into the zone has been freely accessible, but return north or west has been restricted by whatever immigration authority exists.  We do have to venture into the bulwark of the Federation, Texas, but briefly, and hope to avoid encounters with authority while there.  Perhaps this will all change by the weekend, and travel will become even more interesting, if at all possible.  On the way south earlier, the border guards at the old Siskiyou checkpoint were a bit confused, passing traffic through unchecked, as the border had moved a couple hundred kilometers to the south with the inevitable emergence of Jefferson an hour or two previously, at the end of the Old Republic.

The rapidity of the current surge of reality dysfunction may signal an impending tear in the fabric of space-time itself, which may finally separate the two tangled alternate realities that are causing so much stress and confusion.  We just hope we end up in our travels in the parallel universe that has a future.  The other one appears about to collapse in on itself.

Meanwhile, the journal and journey will continue.

Namaste,

Musings on Unix, Bicycling, Quilting, Weaving, Old Houses, and other diversions

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