Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * Is your computer safe?


Rafeal Stewart was by my office this morning to help me live safely in a dangerous Internet world.

Rafeal works for Gentoo Technologies, a Blacksburg company that provides IT (information technology) services to companies from Princeton to Salem and points between. He was in to make a full system backup of my computer onto a spare hard disk. I realized that even if I backed up my files religiously and could restore them if needed, restoring all the software and configurations would be a nightmare if they were ever lost.

“We solve computer problems for businesses,” he told me.

The company was founded by Lee Talbot. Now, Lee, Russell Shock, and Rafeal make up the entire staff, with contractors from time to time.

“Any issues a client has regarding computers or networks, we address. We see lots of malicious stuff online these days. A pop-up may say, ‘This is Microsoft. Call us at 800-whatever. You have a system error.’ Microsoft doesn’t accept customer calls. It’s to a fake company that wants your credit card. They tell you something is wrong and charge you a couple hundred dollars to fix it, even though nothing is broken. The fake IT scam is most common. You might be browsing the internet. You’ll see a pop-up that takes over your browser. It instructs you to call a number for IT support. People can solve these themselves by closing the browser, often by going to the Ctrl-Alt-Delete task manager and forcing it closed. Many of our clients will call us anyway to help them fix it. Then we can run an anti-virus and anti-malware scan to make sure nothing bad has been left on the computer.”

Making news these days is ransomware. Malicious people will send a file attached to your email. When you open it, it infects your computer and locks it up, sealing away all your files, until you send them money as ransom to open it back to you. Once this happens, if you don’t have proper backups, you’d best have some butter and jelly (or a few bitcoins), because you’re toast (as the expression goes).

I asked Rafeal how a user knows something is wrong. “First, some warning will show up on the desktop,” he said. “It will take over your desktop. It will say you have until a certain time to send money in the form of Bitcoins to a certain location or the files will be encrypted forever. The money goes through what’s called a TOR browser, which is used by people to keep locations and browsing habits hidden and anonymous. Lots of nefarious activities go on there because it’s harder to track.

“Once you pay them, they send a key in the form of a stream of characters. That is supposed to unlock your computer and give you your files back. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. And even if they do, there’s nothing to prevent them from doing it again.

“We suggest to our clients that they don’t pay them. It only keeps the scam going.”

He said the encryption was sophisticated, typically beyond what they could break. So generally these attacks were successful enough for the criminals to keep it going. A couple of months ago, a massive attack was unleashed, targeting mostly Taiwan, Russia, and Ukraine. But the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and global firms including FedEx were also under assault. Cyber-security experts have been working feverishly around the world to halt these attacks.

The malware took advantage of vulnerability in Microsoft’s Windows program. Microsoft quickly released a security patch, but unless users updated their systems, users were still vulnerable.

Rafeal thought the criminals often adjusted the ransom amount by the size and importance of the owner. When these attacks target health care organizations, their loss of data can lead to improper patient treatments and potentially even deaths. He said one of the more recent attack programs identified itself as “WannaCry,” because that’s what you want to do when you realize you’re a victim.

So what can you do?

“Backups!” Rafeal said. “Everybody should minimally keep a backup system operational that backs up all the files on his or her computer every day. That way if you do get infected by ransomware, you can restore your files. With your computer, we’ve done the additional step of making a duplicate hard disk. So if you are ever infected, we’d just put the spare hard disk in your computer, use your file backup system to restore your files, and you would be safe.

“We prefer all our customers do both these things. For most people, restoring operating systems, software, and configurations is as troublesome as restoring files. With a backup drive, that’s easy. Many people don’t even have the source CDs and would need to buy the software over again.

“(To protect yourself,) stay away from downloading files on your email system if you don’t know the source. Never open an executable file sent to you unless you requested it. The file name will be innocuous enough, but don’t be fooled. Keep your antivirus and anti-malware programs current.

“Above all, have a good back up and be prepared to restore your computer,” he shrugged.


* * I’d like you to meet Sam, my new smart phone


I have a new phone. His name is Sam. He’s very smart. He’s a smart phone. He’s Sam, as in “Sam-I-am,” the nettlesome character in Dr. Suess’ story, Green Eggs and Ham. As in,

That Sam-I-am
That Sam-I-am!
I do not like
That Sam-I-am

I do not like Sam. At least not yet.

Sam is a hand-me-up. When you’re my age, you start getting things your kids don’t want any more. My daughter is 26 and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday she has a cell telephone surgically attached to her ear, as often as it hangs out there. The cell company told her that she was due for an upgrade and so she got a new phone. I got Sam. Sam is an iPhone 6, I think. Most people love their iPhones. I’m enthusiastically meh.

My old phone was a hand-me-up too, a charming little flip-top gizmo that I never got around to naming. I got it out of her cell phone graveyard, a drawer in the bottom of a bedside table, when my prior phone got sick after getting caught in a rainstorm. She has dozens of old phones in there. It’s like a museum. I liked that little phone. It went everywhere with me.

Sam is too big. And flat. And looks nothing like a phone. I feel funny, self-conscious, when I hold him near my cheek. But Sam is capable! Sam can do lots of things I never dreamed of, mostly things I never need doing.

My old phone basically did two things, one of which I found useful. It made phone calls and had a camera. I used the phone. I never used the camera. Nobody wants to see my pictures.

Sam’s close relationship to the Internet brings me the world at an instant right in my pocket. Email. Facebook. Text messages. GPS. Twitter. I don’t want the world in my pocket.

I’ve read that smart phones are more addictive than heroin. Sam beeps at me if I haven’t paid enough attention to him. “Hey, Michael!” he screams. “Look at me, damnit!” Studies show that people look at their cell phones 150 times a day. That’s not enough for Sam. I think Sam sends me messages telepathically when I’m asleep. “I want to enrich you, Michael. I want to make sure you never miss a moment of your life without me. I want everybody who sees you to know that you are always ready at any moment to record something insignificant and share it with the entirety of the developed world. If you’re not vigilant, there are people in your news feed that may know inconsequential information that you don’t know. There are cats around the world that are doing cute things that you are at dire risk of missing.” Sam always wants to help me that way.

“Michael,” he drones on, subliminally, “if you receive a text message and fail to return it within microseconds, do you know what could happen? Best case, they’ll consider you irrelevant. Worst case, they might think you’re DEAD! How can you ever be happy if you don’t share your smile with all your friends and share in the happiness that you know comes from knowing your friends know you’re happy?”

I walk several miles each day. Before I had Sam, I was forced to endure nature. I had to hear birds singing and the sound of the water trickling over the rocks in the nearby stream. If I got bored, I could call a friend. I hate holding Sam near my cheek. He feels like the electronic version of a nicotine patch.

I watch other walkers and they have Sam’s siblings riding their cheeks. I see pairs of young, nubile women, running together wearing jog-bras and tight, revealing shorts made of spray-on Lycra, each paying scant attention to the other, but immersed in their personal audible hyperspace, ear-budded to their phones. Walkers stop to take selfie photos to share with their Internet network of friends, many of whom I’m sure they don’t even know, asserting their pertinence. Once photos are uploaded to their social media, they watch eagerly, expectantly, hoping that others see them seeing wonderful things and feeling wonderful about people seeing them seeing wonderful things.

My generation has given birth to a new species, homo iPhonicus. Members of the species are evolutionally required to post continually, lest they cease to exist. Nobody wants irrelevancy.

Maybe I’m shortchanging the opportunity in front of me by so tightly channeling my inner Luddite. After all, Sam is smart. Sam can play music for me. But doing that chews up my data plan. When I’m traveling, Sam can help me find an address. But I ride a motorcycle and can’t see him. Sam can…  Listen, I’ve gotta go. Sam is beeping at me. I need to see what useless information I might be missing, unable to share it with others. I’ll get back to you soon. If I have time. 

Meanwhile, I’m developing a hunger for green eggs and ham.


* * There may be a drone flying over you


Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It might be a drone!

One of the most fascinating new technologies in our world today is UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. These are aircraft that have nobody on board, with neither crew nor passengers, and are piloted remotely or in some cases by themselves. I’ve been curious about them so I tracked down a local man named Stephen Tanner who owns an assortment, and we went flying.

I met him on a windless, warm evening at the old Blacksburg Middle School site alongside downtown and he quickly removed several planes, copters, controllers, and goggles from his car and set them down on the asphalt parking lot. There were three quad-copters (with four propellers), about the size of a dinner platter, and two larger delta-winged airplanes.

Stephen is a big guy with lots of auburn hair. A Florida native, he came to Virginia Tech to study engineering, then diverted to computer science, and is now employed at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute as a software developer. The sport of drone flying seems to attract technically savvy people. He’s been here for 12 years and at VTTI for eight.

“I turned my job as an intern at the Transportation Institute into a full-time position. I got interested in drones three years ago. As a kid, I got a RC (radio controlled) rocket glider. I crashed it into a school and I didn’t fly anything until a decade later. My mom wanted to buy a toy drone for my twin cousins and asked me to do some research. I bought one myself to fly indoors around my house. My roommate and I both got the bug. We ordered two kits, radios, frames, and built quad-copter racing drones.”

One of the things that surprised me is that drone pilots don’t look at the aircraft, but from the aircraft; he sees what the drone sees. Stephen put on a set of goggles and then launched his quad-copter, seeing on tiny screens inside the goggles the image the camera on the copter radioed to him. It was bizarre, as he could have been facing anywhere, even away from it, while it was buzzing past us. And it was astonishingly fast!

“It’s totally immersive,” he explained. “I can’t see anything but the screen. It’s not what I see; it’s what it sees.”

These little machines only exist today because of amazing breakthroughs in a series of miniaturization technologies: movie cameras, motors, speed controllers, video screens, batteries, radios, transmitters, and on-board computers. Perhaps the most intriguing technology is the computer that takes radio signal inputs from the pilot and converts them to variable speeds of the propeller motors to achieve changes in direction for the aircraft. The aircraft sends video signals to the pilot and the pilot sends directional signals to the aircraft.

Hobbyists use drones for aerial viewing and movies, and for racing. Commercial applications include information gathering in mining, farming, disaster relief, hazardous environments, weather forecasting, mapping, search and rescue, and package delivery. And of course the military is pursuing drone technologies eagerly for surveillance and warfare. Someday we may no longer have piloted aircraft at all. “Pilots” sitting at military bases in the US with joy-sticks in front of them are already killing bad guys across the world, using remotely piloted UAVs. The military is experimenting with swarms of hundreds of tiny, one-pound drones that interact to avoid crashing into each other, all focused on a single target.

“Three years ago, I watched a YouTube video of people racing drones. The video wasn’t that good and the music was crappy, but the thrill of seeing this aircraft that you could physically pilot through the real world at 60-mph, whip it around a tree and bring it back, and if you crashed never hurt yourself, it was all the excitement that you could get in racing, and no risk of being hurt… how could I not want to do that? It’s fast! It stresses my mechanical brain. It stresses my programming brain. And I could afford it.”

Stephen said in three years he’s spent perhaps $5000. But someone could enter the sport for only a few hundred dollars, competing in racing for maybe $300.

I experienced some monetary perils first-hand. Stephen lost contact with his little quad-copter and it landed some distance away. He had to walk across the field to find it. Then he seriously crashed one of his delta-winged airplanes on launch and fractured the frame. No worries, nobody got hurt; back to the workbench! And then back to the field to fly again.

“It’s FUN! I love it. I feel it when I don’t fly for a few days,” Stephen admitted.


* * David Mullins walks on


Months back, I wrote to tell you about my friend David Mullins, a Blacksburg lawyer who is the local king of long-distance walks. He recently returned from Spain where he completed another epic jaunt, the historic Camino de Santiago. We returned from one of our frequent evening walks together on the Huckleberry Trail to talk about it.

“It’s been about five years since I did my last long-distance hike, the Continental Divide Trail,” he told me. It goes from the Mexican border to the Canadian border on the crest of the Rocky Mountains. “I felt that to keep my credibility as a long-distance hiker, I needed to do another occasionally. A friend of a friend did (the Camino) last year. It sounded unlike anything I’d done before. I researched it and it sounded like a good challenge, so I went for it.”

Unlike his other hikes along the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, the Camino is not a wilderness hike. On the others, he had to be self-sufficient, carrying tent, sleeping back, and cooking gear. He spent every night on the Camino indoors and ate almost every meal at restaurants.

“The Camino started as a religious pilgrimage. Christians walked various routes through Europe to reach Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the patron saint of Spain were supposedly found in the 10th Century. Since then pilgrims have been trekking there to prove their religious chops. There’s been a resurgence of interest in the last 50 years as it has emerged as a recreational hike.”

The most popular route begins at the town of St. Jean Pied de Port in France where the trails from throughout Europe came together to cross a convenient pass in the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. From there, it’s about an 800 kilometer (500 mile) hike to Santiago.

“Over the decades, an entire infrastructure of hostels, called albergues, has emerged to service the hikers. You sleep in a bunk bed in a communal room. There are cafes and restaurants all along the way. So I didn’t carry food, a stove, a tent, or a sleeping bag. I took a towel and a change of clothes. I carried only twelve or fifteen pounds and that made hiking much easier. It is much more civilized hiking than I’m used to.”

He said the cost was minimal, with breakfast costing $3-4 dollars, the dinner meal around $10-11, and lodging about the same. As an experienced hiker, he did more distance than most, typically covering 20 to 30 kilometers (12 to 18 miles) each day. He did the 500 miles in 27 days, and then continued another 50 miles to reach the Atlantic Ocean at Finistera. “It’s Spanish for the end of the earth, the westernmost point in the country.” He never took a rest day.

“I’m not a world traveler and had never been to Spain before. The food was different than I expected. I thought the food would be like Mexican, but it’s not. There are no burritos, tamales, or tacos. There was a lot of meat, seafood, beer and wine.

“There was a mix of hikers from Europe, North America, Australia, and a few Asians, including many Koreans. Most of the communities were small. They are used to seeing the pilgrims. It is not a luxury vacation. 250,000 people do some or all of the Camino every year. I guess no more than 25% are there for purely religious purposes. I’m not a religious man, so there were no epiphanies. My revelations were about how green Spain was and how the food and people were. I had no other expectations.”

Wearing a “VT” baseball cap, he walked from around 6:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. He met people of all types. “The best part of all the hikes I’ve done is the people I met along the way.” He walked with them, ate with them, and shared bunk rooms with them. “I met some wonderful people from all over the world, particularly the Aussies and Kiwis, who have a great outlook on life, a great sense of humor, and are fun to be around.

“I’m a solitary hiker; I’m used to that from my other walks. I’m a good planner. I bought a good guidebook and I knew what to expect. I packed well. My only regret was not speaking Spanish better.”

He has no plans for another hike, but staying home and being a better father to his son who has recently come back to the NRV and better grandfather to his grandkids. But he was always open to new ideas and new trails to walk.



* * The “Birdman of the Burgs” flies away


Bob Abraham, the “Birdman of the Burgs” flew from this living world on May 28, 2017 on the wings of an osprey, surely seeking the next adventure with the same zest and childlike enthusiasm that characterized his mortal life.

He left his mark on his adopted community of Christiansburg literally, his thumbprint on the top sheet of uncountable printing jobs he produced at the Christiansburg Printing, the company he founded in 1957, and with the magnificent wildlife photos that adorn walls throughout the region today.

He grew up in the suburbs of New York, before his native Long Island was overwhelmed with development and still had truck farms and fishing villages to feed the metropolis. Bob was not good at sports, was an indifferent student, and was mostly solitary. Instead, he developed a passion for nature by watching birds at the nearby beaches, harbors, and swamps.

Reaching adulthood, he struggled to find his footing at colleges in upstate New York and Idaho. But he found a niche at VPI in Blacksburg, where he earned a degree in Forestry, which nurtured his passion for ornithology. He also met his lifelong companion, Doris Sara Tatarsky, who would accompany him for 66 years of marriage and become, as he often insisted, “my better half.”

The US Forest Service sent him to Oregon and Northern California, but when his children began to arrive, he and Doris moved back East, not to Long Island or her native Richmond, but to the New River Valley, where they bought a home they’d occupy for the next 60 years.

The demands of parenting his four kids, David, Michael, Richard, and Karen, fed his playful spirit. He attended every sandlot ballgame, Boy Scout meeting and camp-out, every bar mitzvah, graduation, and wedding, and continued to actively support my siblings and me and later his grandchildren in every endeavor and accomplishment until his fading days. He taught us that life is a blessing, something to be enjoyed.

Bob was an avid fisherman, and in his retirement he took up scuba diving, and in the process lost his zeal to catch them. He was always interested in photography, and with the advent of the new digital tools, it became his greatest passion. His artistic skill was best exercised by simply going out to where nature reigned, taking lots of photos, and keeping the best.

Bob never lost his youthful spirit and everyone he touched knew him to be enthusiastic, carefree, and passionate. His laughter came in massive, volcanic outbursts of unbridled, uninhibited joy. He never lost his childlike exuberance, and even in his retirement years, he’d leave decades-younger people in his wake on his nature walks. Dad and mom did retirement well, traveling the world and living a life of exploration, integrity, and respect for nature and people from all walks of life.

We buried him on a beautiful, hot day at the Memorial Gardens of Blacksburg. I will have many lasting memories from the day he was laid to rest:

• Rabbi Cathy Cohen of Temple Emanuel officiated. Knowing that Bob endured massive suffering the last years of his life, she said he had “87 great years and 2 awful years,” and encouraged us to focus on the former.

• I’d never been part of a police escorted funeral procession before. We drove slowly from the funeral home to the cemetery, and I was surprised not that the cars in our direction and at the intersections yielded to us, but on Blacksburg’s North Main, a busy four-lane road, even the cars in the opposite direction came to a full stop. I don’t think this is a legal requirement, but instead a culturally accepted way of honoring the dignity of the recently departed. I’m going to live in the fantasy that this type of thing doesn’t happen in every town and city across the nation and that maybe it was special this time, that all those drivers subliminally sensed it was Bob.

• Along with the rest of my family, I was surprised and gratified by the large crowd of friends who chose to be with us. I will remember my brother Rick’s words, “How does one measure the value of a life? If it’s by career success, or wealth gained, or accolades earned, Bob’s was unremarkable. But if it’s by living with honesty, and integrity, and respect for people of all origins, Bob will be judged much more kindly. If it’s by being a loving father, a devoted husband, a man who was always there for his family and his community, he will be near the top of the list. And finally, if it’s by being a truly authentic person, a man who lived without an ounce of pretense or guile or rancor, who found great joy in nature and people of all walks of life, Bob was a real champion.” I was so moved to see that when a man lives a life of authenticity and charity, people around him take notice and pay homage with their respect and appreciation.

I got a message from a friend who attended. She wrote, “It was a very inspiring service. I came home wanting to live life more intentionally. I need a t-shirt that says “Be like Bob”.”

I need one, too. 

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