A Whole New Farm

I’ve been offline and not writing over the last few months because I’ve been in the process of buying a little place of my own. For the past 13 years, I’ve been renting a small 100-year-old house on my sister’s farm. It has afforded me the chance to become debt free and to save enough to buy exactly the place that I want. About a month ago, I found it, a small 6-acre farmette and I quickly put an offer on it. Tomorrow, I sign the papers and by Wednesday, it will be all mine.

Now I just have to make updates to it, move everything and then figure out how to move my blind horse. I also need to get him a friend. Oh, the monetary outlay!

I am excited and terrified all at once.

One thing that’s almost shocking is the change in broadband options. I’m just moving a small distance, but my broadband speed is going from 11 Mb to 110 Mb. And, it’s substantially cheaper! Yes, I’m changing companies.

It’s amazing how very patchwork our interest access is around the country. Within an hour’s drive of the main Microsoft campus, and Amazon’s Seattle multiplex, there are still those without broadband. Yet in some of the most remote towns scattered across the west, you’ll find pockets of exceptional internet speed. Small companies are stepping up to try to fill the gaps, but they are limited by so many issues. The big companies can’t maximize profits across larger distances, so they don’t try.

The poorest counties in the United States all have inadequate or non-existent broadband access. The only large-sized company aggressively building out broadband access in rural places is Frontier. They have consistently met their promises to bring connectivity to their new customers. I’m sorry to leave them, but they don’t provide service at my new house.

Oh, the things I’m going to do with 110 Mbs…

Net Neutrality: There’s More to the Story

Last Thursday, the FCC voted on regulations to ensure the open internet or “net neutrality”. You’ll hear a lot about that in the next few weeks and months, much of it from those who really know very little about how the internet actually works. You’ll hear about what a catastrophe it’s going to be from some of your ISPs or, conversely, how it’s going to save us all. Neither, I believe is entirely true. It is a set of regulations to ensure that we get our internet content the same way we always have, free of bandwidth throttling or extraneous charges to content owners. It makes ISPs a utility, just like electricity.

From a rural broadband perspective, there was a much more important vote taken right beforehand. It is the Municipal Broadband ruling. This allows municipalities to provide internet services to underserved areas outside their city limits. Many states have set severe limits to what towns and public utility districts can provide, even in areas not served by an ISP. Nearly 30% of the United States does not currently have access to broadband and for-profit companies are not interested in serving those communities. Someone needs to step in.

I believe the New Yorker has some of the best writing on this subject. Enjoy!

Frugal Innovations

TTED2echnology – it’s not for just the rich anymore. Ravi Nadjou’s TED talk on Creative problem-solving has some really innovative and very low-cost tools that we, in rural America, can use right now to get our small farms and business in the red. The two that I found quite fascinating are gThrive and Be-Bound.

gThrive is a system of soil monitoring that uses basic technology to provide an amazing amount of real-time data, at a much lower cost, to farmers. It let’s you know the nutrient levels of your soil so that you can properly correct for them, instead of over fertilizing. In drought-stricken areas, understanding the moisture content of your soils could help you conserve water. Where I live, the fields are saturated with flood waters for most of the winter. Knowing when the soils are dry enough for proper germination is critical to ensuring that seed is not wasted on soggy soil.

Be-Bound frees your phone (phablet or cell-enabled tablet) from those cell dead zones. Essentially, it lets you use a number of applications, such as Twitter, from almost anywhere in the world, even when there is very little cell or Wi-Fi service. What this means for those who travel, is that you won’t necessarily have to use Verizon to get in touch with people in rural places. You may be able to go with a $35 plan and add Be-Bound. (That’s my plan, anyway.) Calls won’t work through it but texting, mail, and Twitter do. It’s currently only available for Android phones, but they are developing it for other platforms. It’s available at the Google Play store.

 

Scam-o-rama

With the many data breaches we’ve seen over the last year, people are concerned and they have a right to be. Taking just a few precautions, though, can really mitigate the impact these have on your pocket book.

  • Check your credit card statement frequently. That’s easy to do online.
  • Don’t use your debit card for purchases.
  • If you don’t have any impending loans you wish to take out, think about freezing your credit. This can be easily done through each of the credit agencies’ websites. It prevents anyone other than you from taking out a loan in your name. Just remember, you need your password in order to unfreeze your credit when you do apply for a loan.
  • Use long passwords with characters, numbers and letters in them. Change them once in awhile and don’t use the same one across multiple sites. That way if an account is hacked, none of the others will be.

Just like locking the doors on your home, these steps make your accounts unattractive to thieves. But none of this helps if you give them your keys. Thieves are always trying old-fashioned ways to get your information: stealing your postal mail or trying to get information from you over the phone. Protect your mail by using a locked mail box and picking up your mail daily. Don’t give information to callers you don’t know, no matter where they are from.

The phone scams are particularly stressing. The callers pretend to be the Microsoft Help Desk or the IRS or the State Department or a collection agency. The try to rattle you with some urgent emergency, telling you that you owe money or your computer has a virus or that your house will be seized. Don’t fall for it.

  • Government agencies don’t call you. They send you real, paper letters.
  • Microsoft will never call you. They have absolutely no way of knowing if you have a computer virus.
  • Collection agencies have to adhere to a set of rules. Consult the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Along with the federal rules, each state has different guidelines, so check them out.

In any of these cases, don’t let them intimidate you into giving them any personal information of any kind, not even your name. A coworker of mine found that a “collection agency” was repeatedly calling company phones lines on the off chance that they could get someone to give them personal information. The “agency” didn’t have the name of who they were trying to contact, but they did have lots of questions. They were scammers.

My coworker did the right thing. She told them to stop calling, that this was a business line and that, since they didn’t know who they were trying to contact, they were not allowed to call back. They kept calling back, leaving messages in the company voice mail over and over. So, she sent all the recordings to Legal.

If this happens to you, know your rights. Consult the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Tell anyone trying to collect funds that they must submit it to you in writing. If they can’t or won’t, they are not legitimate. Don’t let scammers scare you.

One snail mail scam I keep receiving is a request to renew my magazine subscriptions. The scammers always use the same return address: PO Box 2489, White City, OR 97503-0489. If you get this request in the mail, round file it. If you aren’t sure about your subscription, just call your magazine to make sure it’s good. They sent me a renewal notice for the local paper, to the tune of $499.95. Um…no. It is less than a tenth of that. They’re getting stupidly greedy

Be careful out there…

 

So many stories…so far behind…

Yes, yes, I know. I’m about 5 or 6 entries behind in posting. I have many topics to cover and can’t get to finishing any of them just yet. Patience, patience…

A lot has happened. I’ve met some great people, encountered some beautiful farms, and dealt with tragedy in my neighborhood. I’ll tell all in the next few posts.

Oh, and there’s this little bit of news about the chaotic FCC plans for net neutrality

A Warning and a Screaming Good Deal

First, a warning: there is a nasty piece of ransomware that lately been attacking unsuspecting computers. It’s the Cryptolocker virus. It attacks your system by encrypting it and then holding your hard drive for ransom. If you get hit with this, there is not a lot you can do to recover the drive. Some sources online suggest that paying the ransom is the only way to get it back. I say no way!

Prevention is your best ally. There are three things you should always do to keep yourself safe online:

  • Make sure you backup your system to a drive not on your computer. A backup service, such as Mozy, can put your backups on autopilot. Backing up to an external hard drive works quite well, too. Both of these are reasonably priced and really beat the loss of all your data. With a backup in place, you can replace your hard drive with a new one, reload your operating system, and restore your data without too much expense, certainly less than paying a ransom.
  • Download the free version of MalwareBytes and have it run scans frequently. This program finds Trojans and other malware on your system and eliminates them before they have a chance to do their evil deeds. Add this program in addition to your anti-virus.
  • Encrypt your system yourself. This protects you from all kinds of nasty things besides just Cryptolocker. Just remember that if you lose your password to unlock your encrypted drive, there is no way to recover it. Make sure you write it down and keep it, and copies of it, available.

Now, here’s the best deal I’ve found in a long time: Republic Wireless has the best prices on cell phone coverage I’ve ever seen. It starts at $10 a month for unlimited calls, text, and data. (I know!) If you want 3G or 4G, the plans are a bit more, as much as $40. (Again, an “I know!” with exclamation points!)

There are, of course restrictions and stipulations. You definitely need to have broadband at home. You have to use their one phone, Motorola’s Moto X, which costs $299 but is a good Android phone. Over the course of two years, which is how you should always price cell plans, you would only pay $240. That’s amazing! That’s what many people pay for just two months of service.

What makes this possible is the software that Republic Wireless has pioneered. It essentially pushes everything, including your calls, through the internet, if it’s available. If it isn’t, then calls, texts, and data go to cell service seamlessly. This plan isn’t for everyone, but for those who have good access to wi-fi, there’s nothing wrong with saving some green.

 

We Have a Winner!

A short while ago, I started a contest on new ideas for sustainable entrepreneurship with the award of a book, ECOpreneuring.  I received a great reply from Stephanie at You Grow Food Aquaponics (www.yougrowfood.ca). So, she has won a copy of John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s book, ECOpreneuring – Putting Purpose and the Planet before Profit. (It’s one of my favorites.) Congratulations!

Here’s what she said:

We are just in the construction phase of our new aquaponics business: You Grow Food Aquaponics (www.yougrowfood.ca).  We are four professional people who are living in the rural community of Hope BC Canada.  Hope produces no food commercially for local markets, creating a food desert.  We love where we live and we want to eat where we live too!  Aquaponics is the `How` of what we do, and food security and community  development form the `Why`of what we do.  Through tours and education we will connect kids and the community with their food sources.  We aim to be open-sourced and support and encourage others in aquaponic startups.  Most importantly, we want to provide local restaurants and local families with year round, nutritious, locally produced food!

Rudy and Stephanie in front of one of the greenhouses.

So, of course, I had to go see what their aquaponics farm was all about. (Any excuse for a roadtrip…)

Stephanie Hooker and Rudy Kehler took time from their busy schedules to show me how their process worked and what they wanted to accomplish as farmers. Their operation is small but is quickly growing as their proof-of-concept is realized.

They started with a small greenhouse and a 4 by 4 foot tank, topped with a bed of basil. That worked great. Then came two larger greenhouses with fish tanks, one large pump, and trays and trays of little plants. There are a few more tanks to add, but it’s looking extremely promising that soon there will be greens and fish year-round in the town of Hope. Their goal is to provide fresh, local food in a place where food is brought in from other places.

To see how You Grow Food Aquaponics is growing, go to their Facebook Page and Like them, or visit their web page. Oh, and Stephanie, your book is on it’s way.

She’s Geeky!

I’m freshly back from the She’s Geeky Unconference. What’s an “unconference” you may ask? It’s where the conference participants who are professionals or experts in various fields create an agenda of subjects they’d like to explore and then they explore them. At “She’s Geeky”, we had women in all aspects of STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. Because of our northwest location, most of us were in high tech, so we talked about a lot of computational fun.

One session discussed how to incorporate computers into clothing using Arduino or Lilypad with conductive thread and LED lights. Another was dedicated to working with teams of men when you’re the only women.  We talked about hacker spaces, coding group meetups, why tech t-shirts never come in women’s sizes, game developers and how to become one, awesome programs for creating websites, how to bring creativity to coding, running online classes, and breaking the glass ceiling in STEM.

As I run through my notes from each day’s sessions, I’ll share the collected wisdom with you. Stay tuned!

Staying Safe and More Cost Cutting

(For my Grange participants in yesterday’s talks…)

Yesterday, I held a couple of talks at my local Grange. They were on “Cutting Costs Online” and “Staying Safe Online”. Here are some of the resources I discussed and how to connect to them:

Cell phones:

Internet:

Television:

Security Resources

There you go! If you’d like me to present some talks to your group on online safety or how to cut costs or market your business, I’d be glad to do so. Just contact me at geek1@geekingthecountry.com.

 

Cutting Costs on Home Entertainment

(This is for Jeff…)

Here’s the deal: Cable and satellite TV are becoming too expensive. Prices are going up and that monthly charge is becoming a rediculously huge chunk of the bills. When my TV bill was increased a while ago, I realized that it was twice my electric bill and four times my phone bill. That’s entirely too much for something that is not necessary, unlike heat, food, or rent.

Now that video rental stores around the country have closed and rural movie theaters are being forced by the industry to either upgrade to digital equipment (a $60,000 requirement) or close, home entertainment is becoming more popular. For rural folks, the traditional satellite or cable televisions systems are disproportionately expensive, especially after those teaser rates have expired. And you’re stuck with a two year contract.

If you have broadband internet, however, you have new ways to get your daily dose of movies, TV shows, and other fun video entertainment. You can stream them. There are a number of devices that will capture online channels and play them on your television. Many, if not most of these channels are free and there aren’t any contracts.

Here’s what I did: I lowered my satellite TV subscription to the lowest level, just local channels and basic cable. Then I purchased a Roku box from Amazon. (The Roku 2XS. I wouldn’t go any cheaper than that one.) I plugged it into my television, signed onto the Roku program, and I suddenly had access to 500 channels. I decided to pay for Netflix ($8) and Hulu ($7.99) but everything else was free. Most content is also free of commercials, which is a welcome relief. Eventually, I may eliminate the satellite altogether as more content is streamed online.

Other devices also stream online content, including Apple TV and almost all blue ray players. They don’t have as many channels as the Roku does, however. Also, there are some disadvantages to streaming TV online, namely, the channels are not the same as what is on cable. If you must watch a certain show as soon as it’s broadcast, say, sports, for instance, you may not be able to do that. The flip side is that certain shows are only available online.

Now, go save yourself some money!