The Center for Rural Strategies

"The Center for Rural Strategies manages the partnerships and activities of the National Rural Assembly, a coalition made up of over 400 organizations and individuals from 47 states working at local, regional, and national levels to build more opportunity and better policy for rural communities across the country."

Check it out: The Center for Rural Strategies

Queer Codes? All about QR 2D barcodes

Have you noticed more of these strange symbols lately? These are QR codes or 2D bar codes. They store information, a lot of information. Whereas a regular barcode that is made up of lines can store 30 numbers, a 2D QR can store 7,089 numbers!

I happen to know this because of a great article on the subject that I just read: Top 14 Things Marketers Need to Know About QR Codes by fellow Search Engine Watch columnist Angie Schottmuller. This article appears in the April 26 issue of Search Engine Watch and they bill it is as: "a great crash course on tools, tactics, and best practices to confidently help you jumpstart a 2D barcode marketing campaign." And I agree wholeheartedly.

The article is also a good general introduction to the technology and why people are using it. Since one goal of this blog is to make technology more accessible I thought I would highlight Angie's article for that reason. And that makes one less article I have to write, which is good, because I know that someone, at some point, is going to ask me: Stephen, what's a QR code? Now I can simply point them in Angie's direction.

Satellite companies win stimulus funds for "broadband" to rural areas

From August of last year: Satellite companies win stimulus funds | Denver Business Journal:

"Colorado satellite companies WildBlue Communications and EchoStar XI have won nearly $34 million in federal stimulus money to supply satellite Internet access to rural areas....The RUS awards...added a competitive wrinkle for the satellite providers. The RUS awarded $58.7 million to Germantown Md.-based Hughes Network Systems for discounted satellite broadband it can offer unserved rural customers nationwide.That creates the possibility of WildBlue and EchoStar XI facing competition from Hughes for customers wanting services discounted with stimulus funding."

If you have ever used satellite Internet, which is NOT broadband, you will know it is a frustrating technology at best, and no substitute for a wire/cable/fiber connection to the Internet. So handing out close to $100 million to companies that are not wiring rural communities seems like an inappropriate use of funds. Reminds us of when the mobile home manufacturers persuaded the Bureau of Indian Affairs to hand out down payments for mobile homes.

Awesome! Electric cooperative laying fiber Internet lines along its existing electric cables

"The Ralls County Electric Cooperative has nearly completed laying fiber Internet lines along its existing electric cables. In May, it will launch the sales of super-high-speed Internet with 10-megabyte-per-second download speeds.

That company was the first in the state to receive federal stimulus funding for such a project and has been used as a template throughout the region for broadband development." Quincy Herald Whig

Of course, the electric cooperatives are themselves a consequence of the community spirit which informed American politics in the 1930s (c.f. the Electric Cooperative Corporation Act of 1937). Makes for a great "compare and contrast" study. The last time America's economy and people were in deep distress (The Great Depression of the 1930s) the reaction was to let the banks fail and help the people help themselves. Reaction to The Great Recession and Crash that capped the Bush years? Bail out the banks and let the people fend for themselves. Require telecomm companies to serve all Americans equally as we did in the 1930s? Heck no, that's Socialism!

Initiative paves the way for computer literacy in Toledo

Initiative paves the way for computer literacy in Toledo: "the telephone company also is hoping that many of the participants will become paying customers once the two-year free access period ends. But Richardson said increased Internet access is a boon to the community even if people contract with other companies."

Public News Service

Public News Service:

"A new report about broadband access in rural America says communities without it will be economically crippled, losing out on opportunities to those with high-speed connections.

Dr. Sharon Strover of the University of Texas, who compiled the new report, says that with a slow connection even basic daily functions can put a small business at a big disadvantage."

USDA lends $40 million for rural broadband projects

USDA lends $40 million for rural broadband projects, as reported by MuniWireless:
“Investment in broadband technology will create jobs across the country and expand opportunities for millions of Americans. Broadband provides the opportunity for rural Americans to receive improved educational services, health care, and public safety. These USDA broadband loans provide rural communities the level of financial assistance required to make them full partners in the digital age and keep them competitive on a local, national and global level,” said Vilsack.
This looked like great news until we realized it was $40 million and not $40 billion. The latter number is closer to what is needed, and a fraction of what the federal government lent banks at 0.25% interest in 2009. Of course, the banks used their money to buy bonds, not fund the expansion of rural businesses and job creation.

The Iron Chip: A good example of "biology meets computer" via microarray

Got to love hyperlinking. It takes you to so many interesting places. Like this lecture on a common genetic disorder which also explains how chips called microarrays can be made to detect biological substances, like proteins.

Prof. Martina Muckenthaler, PhD Head of Molecular Medicine University of Heidelberg
This one hour video-taped lecture from one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, Professor Martina Muckenthaler, PhD., Head of Molecular Medicine at the University of Heidelberg is a real geek-treat. What is particularly like about this video is:

a. the professor’s superb pedagogical style as she leads her audience of university students from a simple introduction to hemochromatosis to a detailed explanation of its mechanisms at the molecular level, followed by the technology she has been developing to perform her research.

b. the English subtitles, which are very well done and a great example of going the extra mile to share knowledge and information.

Even if you watch just the first 15 minutes you will get a good sense of why the world needs to know more about haemochromatosis (the British English version of the spelling is used in the subtitles). Hemochromatosis is not easy to explain and I'm speaking as one who has spent a lot of time trying to explain it (mainly because my wife has it). So I was delighted to encounter this video in my ongoing ferreting out of useful information about this debilitating, frequently misdiagnosed, and potentially fatal condition.

Every person needs to do as much self-education as possible when it comes to their health. For example, if you have learned through genetic testing that you have mutant alleles of the HFE gene (C282Y and H63D) then this video will help you understand what that means.

To watch the video, click the image above or use this direct link ( which I encourage you to share. There is also a paper here on the technology of microarrays. And Wikipedia has an entry on DNA microarrays that I found quite helpful.

April 16 Was SSDI Day: Apply for disability now, before it's too late!

That's right, April 16 was SSDI Day in America! Time to encourage any disabled people that you know to apply for disability, before it's too late!

SSDI-DaySSDI stands for Social Security Disability Insurance. If you are paid via W2 then the money to pay for SSDI is taken out of every paycheck. If you are self-employed you pay SSDI with your taxes, and tax returns are due April 15, so I figure April 16 should be SSDI Day.

Did you miss SSDI Day this year? Me too. That's because I just made it up.

But the problem that SSDI Day addresses is real. Millions of Americans who are disabled to the point where they cannot work are denied the disability pay for which they had been paying premiums. That means you can pay the mandatory disability insurance to the government for 25 years, get sick, become disabled, yet fail to get a single penny in disability payments.

How could that happen? Because you have to keep earning to stay qualified for SSDI. If you work less than 5 out of the 10 years leading up to your claim you do not qualify. In a recent unscientific poll of random friends and neighbors I got the strong impression that a lot of Americans don't know this.
This is not just a problem for people of a certain age. Studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 3-in-10 chance of becoming disabled before reaching retirement age.

That's why I thought it would be a great idea to create a Disability Insurance Awareness Day on the day after you pay your taxes. So, each year, on April 16, you should point out the problems discussed here to anyone you know who is not earning any money because they are too sick to work.

The Problems?

  • Some disability happens quickly but other disability comes on gradually.

  • Many Americans struggle on with their lives despite sickness.

  • Too many Americans fail to observe the 5/10 SSDI rule.

  • They try to get by or depend on friends and relatives.

  • When they finally apply for SSDI they are not eligible.

How do I know this? Because it happened to someone I know: My wife. She became too sick to hold down a regular office job around 2001. She turned to writing to generate income. After taking expenses into account the writing did not generate net income, partly because she was too sick to carry through with the promotion of her books. So she turned to art. She produced some great paintings and photography, but again, ran out of steam before generating any net income from this avenue.

And she got sicker. Concentration was a challenge. Episodes of aphasia complicated communication (technically dysphasia but not dysphagia). Mobility became limited and I would say she is now about 6.0 on the EDSS scale. Clearly she is unable to do anything to earn money. But her claim for disability was denied. Despite spending over 25 years in the workforce and paying into the disability fund, she had not earned enough in the years preceding her application for disability. Ironically it was her efforts to try and make money and avoid becoming a burden on the state that sank her claim.

A Solution?

There are many ways to avoid this problem of being simultaneously unable to work and unable to collect disability, but they all require planning. Hence the need for awareness. Here's some helpful planning advice that I found in "Multiple Sclerosis: Your Legal Rights" By Lanny E. Perkins, Sara Perkins:
If it appears that you do not have enough work credits to qualify for SSDI benefits. perhaps because you took time out for childrearing, for education, or to deal u~th your illness. you may want to consider ways to continue working, at least long enough to meet the disability requirements. This might involve continuing your present job or finding an alternate, for example. part-time work that will allow you to go on earning the relatively small amounts required to accrue coverage credits. In some situations, it may be possible to engage in self-employment, possibly in a home-based business or in conjunction with your spouse, so that you can acquire the needed credits as soon as possible. You must be sure to pay your self-employment taxes to receive the credits!

So, there you have it. Whatever your age, whatever you current financial situation, you should be aware of these things. And one more thing. Do not assume Supplemental Security Income (SSI) will help you out. This is a government program that helps people who have a disability and very few resources. If your spouse has a good job there is very little chance you qualify for SSI.

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or an expert on federal benefits. I believe the above statements about eligibility to be correct, but feel free to correct me in a comment to this post if you think I have something wrong.)

RUS Broadband Loan Program Victim of Federal Budget Cuts; Politicians appear to be okay with that

Republicans and Democrats make it official: rural Americans are on their own. As they left the capitol, lawmakers from both parties sent an email blast as follows:
Dear Farmers of America,
Sorry, but no broadband for you or your children and schools.
Please keep growing our daily bread.
Thanks...Urban America
Here's the rest of the story:
"As part of a budget compromise reached to prevent a government shutdown, funding for the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) rural broadband loan program has been targeted for cancellation. In March, RUS announced it had begun taking steps to make loans available to support broadband deployment in rural areas across the country through its loan program. RUS was expecting approximately $700 million in program level loan authority which would be secured by $68 million in appropriations authorized under the 2008 Farm Bill. The loan authority has now been marked for cancelation by the House Appropriations Committee as part of the recent budget compromise." RUS Broadband Loan Program Victim of Federal Budget Cuts

Capping the Net: AT&T T-Mobile deal spells bandwidth caps, captive users, and rising costs

IMHO: If the AT&T purchase of T-Mobile goes through we will see a new era of rising prices for bandwidth, the expansion of bandwidth caps and captive users. I have been saying for some time that the future of the 'net is looking bleak, at least from the point of view of the average user.

The days of cheap and seemingly limitless bandwidth are coming to an end. Maybe not tomorrow, or even this year, but the writing is on the wall and it says you will have to pay a lot more for bandwidth, and you will pay by the gigabyte. No more all you can eat for X dollars per month. Try 5 gigabytes for $50 and $50 a gigabyte for overage. No rollovers, no exceptions, unless you opt for the platinum plan, a mortgage payment priced top tier of connectivity affordable only to the few.

The golden age of surfing without thinking about the bandwidth you are burning, the salad days of unlimited movie watching over the web, through your Xbox and onto your HD flat screen? It's about to end. Get ready to sit around the hearth and reminisce about the good old days of unlimited data plans and all the online gaming you could eat.

Melodramatic? Only time will tell. Set a reminder to check back here in 12 months (I use the calendar on my iPhone). But before you bet against these dire prognostications, checkout Stop the Cap, a great website that I've been watching for some years now. The have a wealth of material on many aspects of broadband pricing, service levels, and telecom lobbying:

Many companies in the broadband industry are engaged in a high-priced lobbying campaign to manufacture a “bandwidth crisis/exaflood” or “shortage,” suggesting that consumers are abusing their broadband connections at such a rate it threatens the integrity of the Internet and its distribution platform...[but]...most of the companies complaining refuse to open their records to independent verification “for competitive reasons.”

If you do visit Stop the Cap you will see where I got the inspiration for the graphics in this post. Anyone who wants to raise awareness of cap-creep and other net-farious telco activities is free to re-use or link to my images. However, use of these images by any telco without written permission is prohibited. (Okay, so it's highly unlikely anyone from AT&T or T-Mobile or Comcast or Time Warner or Verizon is going to read this, but I'm just saying, you've been warned, right.)

Doctors, Genes, Family Trees, Quora and Hemochromatosis

Have you visited Quora yet? It's a increasingly popular website that bills itself as "a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it." On a recent visit to Quora I saw this question:

Q. What are reasons that I should not submit my DNA to a firm like 23andMe?

You can read the question and answers here. This question caught my eye because, as regular readers will know, I did submit my DNA to 23andMe. Personally, I could not think of any reason not to do so. Apparently, not everyone shares my attitude, which is fine, but one person provided an answer that was, IMHO, wide of the mark. Here is what I submitted to Quora in response to Person X:

Me: I see no reason not to submit your DNA to 23andMe. And I have to warn you that the following assertions are, in my experience, somewhere between naïve and dangerously wrong:

"First of all, your doctor is going to notice in your family history if said disease is wreaking havoc on your family tree." - -Person X

Me: My wife's family was decimated by hereditary hemochromatosis over a period of 40 years and scores of doctors failed to notice it. My wife presented classic hemochromatosis symptoms to at least a dozen doctors herself, over a period of 15 years, before one of them connected the dots.

Her case is not just an isolated example. A landmark CDC study showed that hemochromatosis sufferers had symptoms for an average of 9.5 years and saw more than 3 doctors before being correctly diagnosed.

"Secondly, many diseases with a clear genetic linkage present themselves early in life, often when patients are still quite young." -- Person X

Me: This is not entirely untrue, but it is terribly vague. For example, women often do not get the symptoms of hereditary hemochromatosis until menopause, at which point they can have suffered serious organ damage. Indeed, it is unusual for hereditary hemochromatosis to cause symptoms before adulthood.

"You're probably not going to find a big nasty surprise buried in your genes. And even if you do find said nasty surprise, most doctors are not going to start treating you until your body actually starts showing symptoms." -- Person X

Me: There are two serious problems with this statement. First, knowing that you are a genetic carrier can help your doctor catch the symptoms sooner. For example, if you are homozygous for hemochromatosis then a simple blood iron test administered as part of a regular physical can detect elevated iron levels before they do long term damage. Since iron tests were dropped from standard blood panels in the US in 1996 [due to several cases of billing fraud by unenthical labs], many insurance companies won't cover these tests without cause, and a positive gene test is a better cause than waiting for someone to be sick.

Secondly, there are numerous nasty surprises you can find in your genetic data. I count myself lucky that I am not a carrier of Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, Bloom's Syndrome, Canavan Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Familial Dysautonomia, Factor XI Deficiency, Fanconi Anemia (FANCC-related), Familial Hypercholesterolemia Type B, Familial Mediterranean Fever, Gaucher Disease, Glycogen Storage Disease Type 1a, Hemochromatosis, Limb-girdle Muscular Dystrophy, Maple Syrup Urine Disease Type 1B, Mucolipidosis IV, Niemann-Pick Disease Type A, Connexin 26-Related Sensorineural Hearing Loss, Phenylketonuria, Rhizomelic Chondrodysplasia Punctata Type 1 (RCDP1), Sickle Cell Anemia, Tay-Sachs Disease, or Torsion Dystonia.

I am also thankful that, because of 23andMe and my own interest in my health, I know that I am not a carrier. Ignorance is seldom bliss. I don't plan on fathering any children, but if I was a younger man I would want to know about my genetic carrier status before I did. A gene test that reveals you are a carrier of something like hemochromatosis or Gaucher could make a big difference to your decisions about partners and parenthood.


Quora is an interesting website and potentially a very useful resource. I will keep visiting and answering questions when I feel I have something to offer. However, if you go to Quora you need to be careful when evaluating answers. Person X describes herself as a third year medical student, which suggests that medical schools are still teaching the AMA line on direct-to-consumer genetic tests, namely that a. they are pointless, b. consumers can't handle them. That is why the AMA is lobbying the FDA to ban them. I disagree. That's why I am asking people to sign this petition to the FDA.