Monday, March 27, 2017

Using the web to stay safe on the internet

So, my family (in particular, my husband and I) have used two different web-based services this year, both of which we heard about from my campus InfoSec guru.

The first of these is LastPass, web-based app that helps us remember -- and even safely share -- a myriad of internet passwords.  I will be one of the first people to say I didn't think I needed a site like this.  I had a lovely (and highly mathematical) system for devising complicated, long (therefore more secure), hard-to-guess passwords that were unique to each site I went to.  I really got interested in LastPass because my husband used pretty much the same password for every site he used, and I wanted to try to help his side of our internet usage more secure.

But I very quickly got hooked on how much I like LastPass for myself.  For one thing, if you opt for the $12/year version, which I did, you can share passwords with other people of your choosing.  This not only meant that I could share certain passwords with my husband, but also (if I wanted) with my daughters.  I was thinking about how one of my daughters had the sad experience, a few years back, of dealing with her father's illness and subsequent death -- a list of passwords to his financial records was a big help to her and the executors.  Fortunately, I don't think I'm close to needing an executor.  But it is nice to be able to securely store information like social security numbers and credit card stuff, and have my husband be able to access that from his phone when he's at some government office trying to fill out paperwork for our sons.

Even more, I've come to love the fact that LastPass recognizes legitimate sites and does NOT recognize spam sites.  So if I get a phishing email and absent-mindedly click on a link, LastPass won't fill in my password there.  But on any legitimate site that I've signed up for, LastPass has me logged in in just a click or two of the mouse.  So even though I thought I didn't need it for myself, I've come to appreciate the convenience of it.

The other web application that we've started using is OpenDNS.  This is an application that helps to secure our home router.  (And it's free!)  According to our InfoSec guru, OpenDNS maintains a list (updated constantly) of spammy sites, and so it keeps anyone using your home's internet system from logging into those sites.  Signing up took us, I think, about 15 minutes, mostly because we had to remember our router info.

Even better, once you sign up, you can set your home's system to guard against various levels of questionable usage.  Because of various issues regarding our sons and their phones, we have our blocking set at "low" ("Protects against pornography") but we could have chosen even more filtering, all the way up to "high" ("protects against all adult-related sites, illegal activity, social networking sites, video sharing sites, and general time-wasters").

Nowadays, if we try to link to a site that OpenDNS deems as suspicious, we just get a page that looks like this:

Honestly, I wish I'd known about this site years ago, when my sons were first getting their phones.  It wouldn't have solved all of the problems they'd had with internet freedom, but it would have helped a LOT.  

Plus, we're not likely to compromise our home network by having someone click on a trojan virus link.  So I'm feeling pretty happy about that.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Miser Family Update, the good fight version

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

As I wrote last week, J-son kicked off the week with a great Saturday-night boxing match that went three rounds and ended in a standing TKO, something I didn't even know is possible.   J-son spent much of Sunday (heck, much of the rest of the week) sleeping.

N-son got to go on a cool field trip to the National Mall and Bolling Air Force Base with his ROTC.  He got to watch lots of cool competitive drill sequences.  He's been since pricing training bayonets on the internet.  

My husband got to go to a media event/rally in favor of Medicare, which he's still too young for.  Nonetheless, he spoke enthusiastically to an equally enthusiastic crowd about the benefits of widespread medical insurance/care.   Later in the week, after the non-vote by the House of Representatives, he got on a plane headed for San Antonio.  This next week, he'll be kicking up his heels (and riding a rental bike) in San Antonio, in between attending the oh-so-exciting meetings of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.  Don't be jealous, everyone. 

And me?  I did a push-up this week.  I've been doing fake push-ups (from my knees) for a while, trying to build up strength in my still-healing arm.  And I finally got to the point where I could do a real push up!  Woo hoo!

And finally, updates on the dog.  First of all, he's resuming his maiden name of "Brody".   It turns out, he's truly pitiful at living up to our wishful name of "Prewash".  He'll do a half-hearted job of sniffing and licking plates, but he leaves even little bits of stew meat on the plates he passes over.  Pitiful!  I've never seen a dog who cares so little about food; we finally decided he doesn't deserve the honor of a title he can't live up to.

Second of all, he's still here.  I'm not going to sugar-coat it; it's probably every other night this past week that I went to sleep thinking, "tomorrow he's going back to the Humane League."  He's been a handful and a half, between barking and crazy energy and health issues.  But N-son has been amazingly devoted and helpful, and my step-daughter keeps sending good advice.  And slowly, slowly, Brody is making progress.  He can mostly walk slack leash now, for example.  We're working hard (and making slow, but incremental progress) on the "Look at me" command.  So he's still here.  His next vet appointment is Tuesday, and we're crossing fingers that this visit will be benign for once.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reading Rest

Last week, when I was on our college's spring break, I picked up and devoured the book "Rest (why you get more done when you work less)"  by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

I'm totally a fan of pop-psychology books, especially when they drift over toward the self-help genre, so this book was right up my alley. I was probably even more interested in the topic of the book because of (a) my academic schedule this year, which is a bit over the top, and (b) a new dog, who was severely stressing me out on my one week of break.  [Fortunately, the dog situation is getting more and more stable -- future updates coming down the pike.]

Pang's main point is that we shouldn't think of rest as the opposite of work, and that we shouldn't think that rest comes about when everything else is done.  Instead, he argues these main points:

  1. Work and rest are partners.
  2. Rest is active.
  3. Rest is a skill.
  4. Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains activity.

He gives about a gazillion examples of highly productive people who set up their lives to mix intense work with copious amounts of active rest: scientists, artists, writers, and Silicon Valley moguls.  He also brings in a bunch of scientific findings, both from neurology and also from social psychology.  The mix of topics he covers, and the mix of approaches to these topics, keeps the material very readable (although perhaps a bit repetitive toward the end).

In terms of practical, take-home advice, Pang has chapters on intense four hour work, on a morning routine, on walking, on napping, on stopping when you're ahead, and on sleeping.  These, he says, stimulate creativity in the first place.

I admit I'm not a napper, but the chapters on getting going early in the morning and on stopping while ahead really resonate with me.  For example, it's usually very hard for me to get any real math done during the semester; normally I do the bulk of my research during the summer or during sabbaticals.  But this year, I've deliberately tried to do 10 minutes of math every morning.  And (as Pang recommends), I try to stop not when I'm stuck, but when I know what the next step is and I'd be excited to go ahead and do that. It's just 10 minutes, but the fact that I do it (almost) every day, and that it's early in the day and that I end with the next step already calling to me means that I keep thinking about my math all the time.  And not just thinking, but producing:  I just sent a draft of a paper to my co-authors, asking them for feedback before I send it off to a journal.  So that's making me pretty happy.

If the first set of chapters describe how to stimulate creativity, there are also several chapters on sustaining creativity over a lifetime via recovery, exercise, deep play, and sabbaticals.   His "exercise" chapter isn't just about signing up for a pilates class.  He describes how successful people (nobel laureates, authors, etc) often have really intense attachments to a particular kind of exercise: mountain climbing, competitive soccer, and running (lots and lots of marathoners).  He points out over and over again that active people very deliberately plan these kinds of "rest" into their days and into their lives.

It's a good book, a quick read.  And it's made me think about the spaces in my day a bit differently.  In fact, yesterday I found that I'd finished my to-do list early and had an hour before my next meeting, so I thought about the book and went for a walk, which was lovely.  

The one thing Pang doesn't describe, which I would have thought would be an obvious component of rest for productive people, is reading.  Diving into this book was both a real mental escape for me and also a way to make my times of labor (with my math, with my committee work, and even with my dog) more focused and productive.  It's an odd omission, so I'll just suggest that reading this book might be a great way to take a break, if you're looking for one.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Miser Family update: snow and dog health version

Life in the Miser Mom household continues to be rich and full.

The boys got to spend much of my spring break shoveling snow; we all spent much of the week working with our new dog, Prewash.

The dog is turning out to be even more of an adventure than we thought he would be, not only because he's got a lot of energy (mainly in the evenings), but also because he has quite a few health issues (allergies, a bad knee that might or might not be ligament damage, and a possible propensity to eat things that cause bad digestive issues). He was at the vet 4 different days this week; he's had x-rays and antibiotic injections and fluid replacement treatment. He's on 6 or 7 different medications, and his leg doesn't (alas) seem to be getting much better. He has a few more medical appointments scheduled for the future; we'll cross finger to see how that goes. The current total of spending on the beast is $1,711. Yoicks.

I should add that my step-daughter and my uncle, who both work with rescue dogs a lot, have been giving me good long-distance advice on caring for this pooch!

N-son has unexpectedly emerged as the in-house family Dog Whisperer; he sleeps in the same room with Prewash at night. N-son also had a squash match earlier today. Because he's the captain of his squash team, he automatically plays the toughest opponent, and he was outplayed. But my husband, who went to watch him, said he had great stamina.

N-son and Prewash
J-son had a boxing match tonight. My husband drove there to cheer for him; he called back home to enthuse about how the match went.  J-son started off slow, losing the first of three rounds.  In the second round, he started hammering back, and he apparently barely won that round.  In the third round, he punched his opponent so hard, the ref awarded him a standing TKO, something I didn't even know is possible.  J-son will be getting home so late tonight that it'll be more like early morning tomorrow; I'm guessing he'll sleep most of Sunday.

In addition to my new dog duties, I've also banged my way through a bunch of paperwork in order to get ahead for when I return to teaching and committee work on Monday.  It sure is nice to be on top of my work right now!

Friday, March 17, 2017

A tiny little no-trash post

Because of the snow storm that hit the East Coast, our city posted this little announcement earlier this week:
All [Local] Waste routes have been cancelled for Wednesday, March 15, 2017. [Local] Waste will accept double the normal volume of material on your next regularly scheduled collection day for Tuesday and Wednesday pickups.
So, our family put out a trash can in January, and we haven't yet filled our next trash can.  But because twice zero is still zero, we will indeed ask our trash haulers to take twice our normal volume of material next week.

I just think this is funny.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bringing Prewash the Dog into the Miser home

I guess the first thing I should say is that this isn't a "Saving Money" post.  Getting a dog can be expensive proposition, no question. To wit, even though we found our new dog Prewash at the Humane League, we've still shelled out almost 900 bucks this week alone, and there are clearly more expenses on the horizon.
Prewash cuddling up with N-son.
He and the boys have become good buds.
We already had a lot of the infrastructure ready to go -- we have a dog door and a fenced-in dog run; we have a crate and a variety of leashes and dog bowls.  If Prewash had been our first dog, that would have added to the overall cost.  He's also neutered and came with a bunch (but not all) of his vaccinations.  The expenses so far have been $183 to the Humane League, about $550 to the vet (more on this below) and another $150 on food and training supplies (again, more on that below).  There's a LOT (for me) of driving and gas money, between going to get the dog and the vet trips (plural) and pet store runs.  There are also replacement costs on things the dog destroys and chews up; although so far those have been surprisingly low with this dog.

There's also an "expense" of time.  I am on my college's spring break this week, so I have time to stay home and watch and train the dog.  I knew this week would be an important time of transition, and that flexibility would be important.  It's not that I'm not working -- I am assiduously ticking through a giant checklist of to-do items.  But I don't have scheduled meetings, or classes to teach, or students to see all day long, so I can work around the dog this week.  Next week, that changes.

Prewash had been surrendered to the shelter because he chased cats in his old house.  He's got what people call a strong "prey instinct".  Our first night with the dog had me worried that I hadn't taken the "high-energy" part of his description seriously enough, because he was pretty whacked out, even chasing my feet as though they were squirrels.

But I discovered in a multitude of different ways, we've lucked out with this dog.  For one thing, he crates beautifully.  That is, at night he is content to stay in his crate and sleep with no barking and minimal whining.  That's a HUGE relief.  Seriously.

For another, he's shown an extraordinary restraint in destroying our property.  Our first dog, many years ago, chewed the woodwork on furniture and doors, and I had to paint all our woodwork with chili sauce to get her to stop.  Another pair of dogs destroyed everything in their path, including woodwork, furniture, any objects we left on the floor, and digging up all the grass in their dog run.  And even our recent beloved Miser Dog snacked on my underwear and my husband's expensive bike gloves.  But Prewash, aside from his first two nights here when he was hyper and searching for good toys (and then destroyed two pairs of underwear from the laundry), seems to be content to go for only his pre-approved toys.  He's ignored gloves, books, shoes, and all other human objects.  I'm sort of stunned.  

(But that does explain the second run to the pet store; I really needed to get him toys that will keep him happy).

Just as stunning to me is that he seems to have no desire to run away.  He's mastered the dog door by now (smart dog), and he's even mastered the practice of sitting on top of the dog house, which is right outside our dining room window.  But he hasn't tried to tunnel under the fence or jump over it.  Even when he's with me in the back yard, he doesn't seem to want to leave the yard.  What dog doesn't bolt when the back door opens?  I don't know why he's different, but I'm not going to question my good luck.
Prewash sitting on the roof of his dog house,
outside our dining room window.
I've learned a bit of humility working with this dog -- I seem to be under-endowed with humility, so I can always use an extra dose.  When I was a kid, my neighbors used to pay me to help train their dogs, and I've had many dogs before, so I thought I knew what I was doing.  This week, I've been learning about clicker training, about exhausting exercise, about special dog toys, and about teaching a headstrong dog to walk on the leash.   He is indeed high energy, and I've gratefully soaked up advice from my oldest step-daughter (who deals with rescue dogs) and scoured the internet for training videos. We've come a long way already, both Prewash and me.

What else?  Oh, the health issues.  We're currently treating Prewash for allergies, including a yucky yeasty ear infection.  After the snow storm on Tuesday, he started limping, and on Wednesday the vet said that he's got a scary inflammation in his knee, for which he's taking steroidal anti-inflammatories and some pain meds.  It might be ligament damage, but we won't know until the knee inflammation goes down.  We're supposed to not let him run too much -- which is challenging, because he really is a high energy dog.  And last night, he started developing diarrhea -- so we're likely to go back to the vet for the third time today.  Oog.  

Prewash imitating a carpet.
Update: Probably this is TMI, but a pair of underwear and bits of a tennis ball just made it entirely all the way through his digestive tract.  Having those objects on the outside again might help to clear up the latest messy issues he's been suffering through.
But if we can get these health issues sorted out, I'm getting more and more optimistic about the future.  It does seem like the longer he's here, the calmer Prewash gets.  (I was really worried that the longer he'd be here, the bolder and naughtier he'd try to be, so the trend is encouraging).  Giving him a good walk in the morning and evening does seem to help a lot.  For example, I got much less nervous about heading back into the office next week when he spent much of the day yesterday imitating a carpet while I did my committee paperwork on the bed next to him.  In fact, he fell asleep while the vets were examining him -- so he can be high energy, but he can also totally nail the "relax" side, too.  Phew.  

Meanwhile, I'm getting in two or more outdoor walks each day that I wouldn't have had without him, and we've made great progress on walking without pulling (although we'll have to keep working at that).  Prewash seems to become more and more attached and devoted to me, and he seems to be getting more and more comfortable in the home.  And the boys seem to love being with him and being part of his training.  So we're off to a good start!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Miser Family update, Prewash version

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

The week started off with N-son playing drums in church, which I thought might be our most photogenic moment of the week.

But at the very end of the week (earlier today), we had an even more photogenic event, because we met, cuddled up to, and brought home Prewash, our new dog.  

He's high energy, and I'm a little bit worried that I'm in over my head . . . but as I write this, Prewash is cuddled up with N-son on his bed, making a large drool spot.  

And J-son is just a little bit jealous, and offering to watch the dog for me while I finish up bill paying and such. 
Prewash has already taken fondly to his new eponymous job, and our plates are going into the dishwasher food-free.  Good Dog!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Miser Family Update: Lenten version

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household

We ushered in Lent with our own pre-lenten celebration in the true central Pennsylvania way.  I-daughter, K-daughter, and Baby A came over for our weekly "Family Fun Night" and we had a dinner with unhealthy but yummy stuff:  bread made with white flour, homemade soup (okay, that was healthy), and dessert of fasnachts (Amish donuts made with the last lard and sugar before Lent starts).   

My husband was in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, planning for the upcoming Science march, so he missed being at his usual "Tuesdays with Toomey" protest during the excitement of the actual arrest of 11 of those protesters.  I've reassured him that he'll have further chances to get in on the fun.

J-son seems to be operating on autopilot, attending school by day and the boxing gym every evening.  I think his muscles are getting muscles.  

N-son woke up early and attended the Oh-Dark-Thirty drill practice every single school day this week; he's practicing for a ROTC drill competition.  N-son, like me, is a morning person, so he's thriving.  My husband (who drives N-son when it's icy outside) is not a morning person, but he's surviving mostly.

And as for me, for Lent I've decided to avoid all refined sugar.  On a completely unrelated note (although maybe my students would disagree), I gave back a set of midterms for my calculus class and am preparing to give a set of midterms in my geometry class.  As such, I'm getting to spend a lot of time with my students.  

In fact, N-son and I took a giant van-full of Math Club students to a Saturday matinee showing of Hidden Figures, a movie good enough that it's worth seeing twice.