I hope you are faring well during this holiday season.  Things have been very busy on my end, thus my sporadic newsletter as of late.

Nevertheless, I wanted to take some time to wish you happy holidays and discuss the two topics of today: Firewalls and The Return of the Light.

On Firewalls:

If you don’t know what a firewall is, now’s your chance to learn.

And if you do any online shopping or banking, you should probably understand the importance of the firewall.

So here it is.

A firewall is a service (either hardware or software-based) that acts as a gatekeeper to your computer from the outside world.

So imagine for a moment that you have a cable modem from your internet service provider and you’ve plugged your computer right into it to get online.

Now with many modern modems there is a caveat to what I’m about to say, which I’ll get to in a moment – but bear with me.

When you plug your computer into a traditional modem, your computer becomes part of the much larger network – the network of your internet service provider (ISP) – essentially, the internet.  In other words – your computer is basically visible from the outside world by even rookie hackers.  Your computer is assigned an IP address from your ISP and that IP address is analogous to a street address…with a big, wide open front door, for anyone to come waltzing in.  More accurately, it actually contains a bunch of open doors called ports – thousands of them.  And by default, many of these ports are wide open and extremely vulnerable to attack.

So what does this mean exactly?

Well, with the above example, it would mean that outsiders could quite easily get into your computer, scan the data coming into and out of it, pick up your bank account information, even read your emails if they knew what they were doing.

So let me get back to that caveat that I mentioned to help take down your likely growing level of alarm.

Most newer modems come with a built-in level of protection.  This is called Network Address Translation (NAT) or Subnetting – essentially the modem also serves as a Router.  What this means is that the IP address that your ISP assigns is actually assigned to the modem itself, and then the modem, in turn, assigns a new and different IP to your computer – an IP that can’t be directly seen from the outside.

Here’s my goofy little diagram:

If you want to check your own computer to see if this is happening, try this.  Go to your start menu and type in “cmd” in the Search/Run box.  When the black window pops up, type in “ipconfig”.  You should see a screen like this:

Ok, so that’s your computer’s IP address.  It should probably be something like 192.168.x.x.

Now, open an internet browser and type in “what is my ip” to Google.  You’ll see something like this:

So what this tells me is that my computer is on a different “subnet” than the “outside” of my router.

This is good.  If the above two addresses are the same, your front door is wide open.

Ok, so this is a good start – you should always be behind a router like this.  Failing to do this opens you up to a plethora of security risks.

But in my opinion, this isn’t really enough.

Basically, the analogy here would be a street address on an apartment building with an unknown amount of units inside.  A good hacker will still find the front door (the IP address), and, if they’re good, pick the lock (if any exists) and start probing the inside of the building to see how many units there are (internal IP address, ie: your computers), and which doors (ports) are unlocked.  This is called “port scanning”, and it’s happening constantly, all over the world.

So how then, do you protect yourself more fully from savvy hackers?

The answer is: with a good firewall.

Personally, I use the built-in firewall that comes with BitDefender Internet Security.  There’s a popular free stand-alone firewall called ZoneAlarm.  It’s been around for a long time and is very well reviewed but I haven’t used it for quite a while and thus can’t offer an in-depth review of it.

A software firewall provides another level of protection (beyond the NAT that your modem/router does) – one that, if you regularly plug in account numbers, credit card information, etc. while online – you should probably have.

Basically, what it does is scan the data coming into and out of your computer to make sure it’s all ok.  This is called “Stateful Packet Inspection”.  So now, any information that enters or leaves your computer is scanned to ensure that it’s supposed to be entering or leaving your computer (as opposed to a malicious program (virus, malware, etc.) sending your personal information out without your consent).  Make sense?

Basically, it’s a traffic cop that stops and frisks all the data entering or leaving your computer.

So the bottom line is this: If you really want to secure your connection to the internet, a firewall is mandatory.

Ok, that’s all for the geek talk today… now on to some off-topic thoughts about the changing of the light.

We’ve Made it Through the Solstice

At this time of the year we’re all supposed to feel festive and joyous, right?

Well, as best I can tell, many of us, while perhaps enjoying the festivity and joy of the season, also feel stressed and depressed.

I was recently chatting with a group of men who all conveyed that they’d been feeling a lot of sadness, frustration and fear lately.  In fact, the group was unanimous in this sentiment.

It turns out that, for many, the holiday season is a real source of stress and sadness.  There are a multitude of reasons why this is – family members who can’t be together missing each other, the challenges of holiday shopping, trying to live up to some nostalgic Norman Rockwell ideal of what the holidays are “supposed” to be, you name it.  And this year, the election cycle has clearly contributed to the stress for many.

Add to that, the diminishing light as we’ve just made our way past the solstice, and it’s not hard to see why so many have trouble with this time of the year.  I’m no exception.  I like the sun!

But here’s the deal.  Our society seems intent on telling us that our emotions can be divided into “good” ones and “bad” ones.  I think this is a mistake.  The fact is, our emotions are neither “good” nor “bad” – they just are.  Our emotions serve a purpose and I think we do a disservice to ourselves trying and suppress, reject, or ignore them, or worse yet, feel bad about feeling bad.

What I’ve learned is that if we allow our emotions to permeate through us, to process them, to examine them and acknowledge them, it’s much easier to get through to the other side.

The truth is; it’s OK to feel sad or frustrated or fearful.  In fact, it’s perfectly normal.  I think we’d all do well to forget what our society tells us about how we’re supposed to feel, and just feel what we’re feeling.

So this year, I’ve allowed myself to process through my emotions – “good” and “bad” and I’ve found I feel much better.  Sure I’m sad about the state of the world.  Sure it’s been a stressful several weeks planning around the holidays.  Sure I miss my family from afar.  But these feelings are all normal, and I’m ok with them.  Besides, there’s so much to feel GOOD about!

And now, FINALLY, we’ve made it past the solstice!  The light is returning!  Days are beginning to get longer, life goes on, and we can all get back to the lives we so enjoy, having made it through the darkest part of the year.

So I’d like to wrap this up by saying Happy Holidays to you!  And happy Solstice!  I hope you have a wonderful weekend and enjoy whatever holiday you’re celebrating (if any).  We’re just about to wrap up 2016… and that’s  a reason to celebrate!

Best wishes to you – Peace be with you.

It is in the darkest hour that we must each shine our brightest.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. 

-Desmond Tutu