Attention and Authenticity

Content isn't just pictures and text to fill up pages. It's the reason your audience pays ATTENTION to you. People go to your website and social media profiles to get something unique. But too often, content is thrown together haphazardly, or even just copied and pasted from some other source. The key to standing out is giving the world something they've never seen before—YOU!

Not sure how to be AUTHENTIC and professional at the same time? You're not alone—it can be a real tightrope. But Sarah Susan has been there and done that. Contact me at or call 734-707-7478 to get started with unique, memorable, and authentic content for your marketing channels.

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Virtually Guided RSW Weldability Prediction Infographic
Virtually Guided RSW Weldability Prediction Infographic
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Semantic Design Rule Management Infographic
Semantic Design Rule Management Infographic
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Design Evaluation for Reusable Medical Equipment Infographic
Design Evaluation for Reusable Medical Equipment Infographic
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Formal Model-based Design Knowledge Management Infographic
Formal Model-based Design Knowledge Management Infographic
Creating infographics for engineers took courage. But with plenty of feedback and a good dose of intuition, I pulled together this set of graphics for the team at CInDI (Computational Intelligence & Design Informatics) Laboratory.
Rendering of New CInDI (Computational Intelligence & Design Informatics) Laboratory
Rendering of New CInDI (Computational Intelligence & Design Informatics) Laboratory
The director of the CInDI (Computational Intelligence & Design Informatics) Laboratory asked me to create an illustration for a proposed engineering lab of the future. I was provided with a map covered with almost indecipherable handwriting, most of which was crossed out, and crisscrossed with arrows pointing to various geometric shapes that were supposed to represent powerful, industrial machines. Frequent Skype meetings and Googling made this illustration possible.
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Front Cover
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Front Cover
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 1
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 1
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instuctional Booklet: Page 2
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instuctional Booklet: Page 2
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instuctional Booklet: Page 3
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instuctional Booklet: Page 3
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 4
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 4
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 5
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 5
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 6
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Page 6
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How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Back Cover
How to Draw a Mean Rectangle Instructional Booklet: Back Cover
Student WorkThe pages from this booklet sum up my instructional concept for teaching the Golden Mean to elementary students—a thing I used to do. Creating entertaining characters and stories not only made for a smoother art class, it also made the lessons more memorable.
Invisible boy in a vampire cape, sitting at a table outside, reading a book about the vegan diet.
Invisible Vampire Boy
Student WorkI contorted approximately twenty photos to make this collage.
An imagined Facebook profile page set in the early nineteenth century.
Book of Fellowship
Student WorkFor this project, I first restored a heavily damaged antique photo. Then I collaged that image into a Facebook spoof. This design was based on the Facebook layout in use at the time of the project.
Digital painting of Mister Rogers with a hand puppet and a Superman 's' on his shirt.
Student WorkI wanted to show Mister Rogers's true colors in this digital painting.
Tiger shark in a coral reef with an F-20 Tigershark plane flying above it.
Tiger Sharks
Student WorkThis Photoshop assignment required the blurring of a propeller on a motionless model plane. I took things a step further by placing the vantage point underwater.
A cartoon version of Cerberus as a not-so-friendly puppy.
Portrait of a Young Cerberus
Student WorkFor this Illustrator assignment, students could only use the shape tools to construct a character of their choosing. I was inspired by the idea of Cerberus as a puppy.
On a floating and disintegrating chessboard, a one-armed toy knight confronts a roaring T-Rex from behind.
Student WorkFor this Illustrator assignment, I photographed old toys in the heat of battle as models for this piece.

Is Beauty Really in the Eye of the Beholder?

When art delivers more than ambiance, emotion, or lyric, it's probably illustration. Conveying information through art requires visual organization, prioritization of what's essential, and aesthetics that welcome.

Visual organization can be chronological—for procedures or stories, spatial for maps, categorical, semantic, or symmetrical—whatever fits the project at hand.

Once a framework is determined, the artist needs to stay on task. Unless the project is a Medieval manuscript, function should preempt decoration.

That said, presentation must catch a viewer's eye and keep it happy to the end. For that, a well-planned color scheme, compositional balance, and meaningful visual variety are essential.

The ancient Greeks and Egyptians didn’t think so. They relied on a mathematical proportion dubbed ‘phi’ by the American mathematician Mark Barr. This proportion, roughly 1:1.61, is seen everywhere in nature – in the spirals of seashells, pinecones, insects, and even in our own faces and bodies!

Artists and designers have been using this proportion for thousands of years. The proportions of the Great Pyramids of Giza, Parthenon, and Mona Lisa are what make these works such marvels. This ratio is so harmonious, it’s been called the “Golden Mean.”

So how can you use the Golden Mean in your own work? First create a rectangle. Then fit a square in the rectangle that exactly matches the size of the rectangle’s short end. This will give you another rectangle. Create a new square within this new rectangle, again matching the square’s sides to the length of the rectangle’s short end. Continue embedding squares in each successive rectangle, as many times as you want. You will then have created a perfect compositional grid.

Now all you have to do is position the major elements of your design to fit the grid. And voila – you’ve just made a masterpiece!

Coloring in the Lines

Have you ever wondered why some color schemes take your breath away, while others make you want to run the other way? It’s not just a matter of preference; it’s really just ordinary physics and geometry.

Color, as you may have heard, is nothing more than white light broken up by material that makes it bend, or change direction, a phenomenon called refraction. Our atmosphere is full of these tiny refractive particles that break up all of our light into the colors we see.

So how does that help you coordinate your socks with your laptop case, you ask? It turns out, all you need is geometry. If you line up all of those sheared-off colors in wavelength order, you get a rainbow. Bend that rainbow around until you make a circle. Now you have a color wheel.

Take any color wheel and draw a straight line to the other side of the color wheel. You now have a pair of complementary colors. If you were to mix two complementary hues of light, you would end up with a perfectly neutral (colorless) shade of gray. In other words, the wavelengths of these colors precisely cancel each other out. This is the underlying idea behind all color theory.

When we see complementary colors side by side at a distance, we read the colors as gray, even though they aren’t grey at all. In larger proportions, complementary colors can activate an image — either attracting or repelling the eye. It all depends on the proportions we use. As a general rule, never use complementary pairs in a 50:50 split. Pick a dominant color from the pair and use the complement to draw the eye to the most important areas in your composition.

Are two colors too few for you? Create a triangle on your color wheel for a more complex scheme, or even a square. Even if you’re color blind, you can use simple geometry to make your colors really pop.

Taming the Turquoise Hawaiian
Taco Bar Logo

Or Why Color Matters

You love turquoise - turquoise pools, turquoise jewelry, gleaming turquoise waters lapping up white, sandy beaches in the Bahamas. Naturally, you want the logo for your new Hawaiian Taco Bar business to be turquoise. But how will consumers react when you serve up that turquoise logo? The answer is that old standby - ‘it depends.’

When choosing colors in marketing, designers need to consider two factors - the consumer and the product.

We’ll start with the consumer. Who’s going to eat your tacos? How old are they? Are they small children, young adults, and/or senior citizens? Perceptions and affinities towards particular colors vary with age. Across all ages, blue reigns supreme, but by the time we hit 70, it’s just about the only color we want to see. Under the age of three, it’s a different story - warm, bold colors appeal the most. Under the age of 18, purple is the least favored, and green is at its most popular. Between 19 and 24, red is at its hottest, while purple peaks between the ages of 50 and 69.

The next question to ask is what gender are your consumers? If most of your clients are men, you should consider cooler hues, such as blue and purple. If your market is mainly women, stick to warmer palettes. Men also like their colors bold and deep, while women prefer softer pastels. Moreover, women are able to discern far more shades of each color. Where men see ‘white’, women are likely to see ‘ecru’.

Are your customers culturally diverse? Color has different meanings in different cultures. Purple connotes wealth and power in Japan, while in Thailand, the UK, Italy, and Brazil, it’s the color of mourning and death. Here in America, purple is associated with spirituality and New Age ideas. But some colors are more stable over international borders. Blue, for example, is practically universal as signifying trustworthiness.

Once you’ve established who your customers are, you need to consider what kind of emotions you want your product to evoke. Red is universally associated with love, youth, excitement, and on the flip side, aggression. Assuming your customers are American, orange connotes good cheer, confidence, and playfulness. It’s also considered cheap. Yellow is associated with clarity, optimism, and warmth. But combined with black, yellow signifies warning. Green implies growth, health, and prosperity. In modern times, green signals environmentalism. Blue, as mentioned, is the most trustworthy of colors - connoting dependability and strength. Purple, on the flip side, is the most unpredictable color choice - conjuring mysterious processes such as creativity, imagination, as well as luxury. For the balanced neutrality of a cubicle, choose gray.

But, color is also dependent on personal experiences and associations. Sure you love turquoise, you get turquoise, doesn’t everybody? What could go wrong? Well, if your customers don’t associate your favorite shade of azure with the Hawaiian taco experience, they won’t trust anything in your taco bar. But don’t just go with dependable blue because you want people to trust your tacos. People associate both Hawaii and tacos with heat - so orange, yellow, and red would probably be the best move. The color has to ‘fit’ with the brand, and the brand has to ‘fit’ with the product.

Combining colors is your next battle. A nice warm-hued logo is great, but it might not be very noticeable in the sea of logos and signs in your local strip mall. Colors that stand out from one another are not only more eye-catching, they also increase recall - whether in text or in an image. Complementary colors - those on opposite sides of the color wheel - offer the highest color contrast. These include blue and orange, red and green, and yellow and purple. So if you can’t bear to leave out that turquoise, use it for the text on your orange taco logo, and customers will remember the logo even more.

Names for colors matter, too. If you need to name colors in your products make sure they are evocative and unusual. Consumers routinely prefer “ice blue” over “light blue,” for example.

And don’t forget that 10% of the population is color blind. If you are using color to highlight important information, make sure the dark and light contrast is sufficient. For example, if your background image is an orange and yellow Hawaiian taco, and your text is turquoise, the turquoise should be dark enough to be easily seen over the taco image, or vice versa.

Choose your colors to appeal to your customers and fit with your product, and your branding will stick out like a Hawaiian taco.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Good Samaritan Appeal 2017

With so much of our lives spent online, it’s easy to wonder where exactly our neighborhood lies. Who do we include as our neighbors? Are our friends on social media our neighbors? How about business associates we Skype with? Is our neighborhood the “contacts” list on our phones?

Jesus cut to the heart of this question with the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable suggests that we should extend compassion and aid to all who are suffering in our midst. But as we carefully choose whom to befriend as neighbors, whether online or in person, are we missing the opportunity to witness and care for those in greatest need?

At CSSW we take care of those who are wounded, neglected, and avoided, no matter what “neighborhood” they are from.

  • We counsel pregnant women in making parenting or adoption plans.
  • Our Washtenaw County Advocacy Center provides fully-integrated intervention and care for child victims of sexual abuse.
  • We provide access to physical health care for our low-income Behavioral Health Counseling Services clients through our partnership with the Packard Health Clinic.
  • Our Emergency Food Pantry at Northside Community Center feeds more than 500 low-income families annually.
  • Through our Interfaith Volunteer Caregiver Program and The Oaks Adult Day Program, we provide much-needed breaks to low-income caregivers of clients with a range of impairments, including Alzheimer’s.

We all feel terrible about the overwhelming suffering in this world. But the Good Samaritan wasn’t just moved with pity, he was moved to action. And his actions included providing resources so others were able to care for someone who was suffering.

Your gift today expands the boundaries of our neighborhoods into a community of hope and compassion. As our partner, you are the Good Samaritan for those whose lives have been shattered by mental illness, violence, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, unplanned pregnancies, and the challenges of age. We are honored and grateful to be a part of your neighborhood.

See original post on Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw website

Mental Health Support During the Holidays

Not Everyone Loves to Celebrate

For those suffering from serious mental health problems, the holidays can be a painful reminder of the peace and stability they lack. Loneliness, grief from the loss of a loved one, debilitating health conditions, poverty—all of these can contribute to and exacerbate underlying mental health conditions, especially when it seems like everyone else has loving support and a full meaningful life.

What You Can Do


Sometimes a person suffering from mental health problems will come right out and tell you he or she is in pain. Other times, he or she may pretend to be happy to avoid feeling vulnerable. If you know someone is alone, or has recently lost a loved one, or is homebound from injury or illness—ask how they are doing; share a cup of coffee; visit them on the weekends. Anything you do to stay in touch with hurting neighbors will remind them that they have options and that there are people who notice and care.


Respond with affirmations, not derision. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy to be dismissive when people tell us their problems. We might react with an uneasy laugh, or comments that undermine their suffering, like, “Oh, things could be so much worse,” or “Just don’t think about it,” or “Let me tell you my problems.”

Keep confidences—your neighbor needs to trust you. But if the person makes references to suicide, get professional help right away. Get in touch with our Behavioral Health Counseling Services intake counselors, or call the National Suicide Hotline for immediate help: 1-800-273-8255.


Sometimes people are so overwhelmed with grief and crisis they aren’t able to tell you what they need. Feel free to start guessing! Shovel their driveways, bring them lunch or a special treat, babysit their children—anything you can think of. You might not guess exactly right, but you’ll open the door to finding out what might really help.

Support CSSW

Last year, we served more than 9,000 people struggling with a wide variety of social, mental, and physical impairments. And our sliding scale fee structure means nobody who comes to us for mental health counseling is turned away because of income. We believe that professional mental health care should be available to everyone who needs it, regardless of their ability to pay.

If you share our commitment, please be a Good Samaritan. Your financial gift is critical for providing the support our neighbors need.

Thank you for making our neighborhood one of compassion and hope.

See original post on Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw website

Supporting Families In Crisis

Our Neighbors Are Hurting

The holidays can be an excruciating time for children from troubled homes. While there are many challenges that can wreak havoc on families, few can compare to the devastating impact of the current opioid epidemic. From 1999 to 2016, opioid deaths in Michigan have multiplied 17 times, to 2,335 in 2016. (MDHHS). This alarming rise is driving more and more children into foster care, straining the system to the breaking point.

What You Can Do

Become a Foster Parent

In Michigan, there are approximately 13,000 children currently in foster care and 300 in need of adoption (MDHHS). Becoming a foster parent requires compassion for children, and a commitment to their care, not perfection! Learn more about our Foster Care program here: These children need caring people, just like you.

Support CSSW

top for a moment and consider the devastation parents feel when their children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care. And imagine the terror and turmoil of emotions those children experience, especially during the holidays. Through CSSW programs such as Families First, Family Time, Nurturing Families Washtenaw, and Grandparents as Parents, our caseworkers work tirelessly to teach parents and caregivers the skills they need to raise strong, happy children in a safe environment.

Your partnership will support the overwhelming needs of families in our communities. Join us in our work to keep kids safe and families secure, as a foster parent or with a financial gift. We are grateful for your help which builds resilience and hope in our neighbors who face so many enormous challenges.

May all the families in our neighborhood find peace and joy this season.

See original post on Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw website

The Industrial Revolution

Home Page Text

This is a re-write of a very dense, difficult introduction written by truly brilliant engineers. My first achievement was sort-of understanding what the original text was getting at, and then figuring out a way to contextualize it for non-engineers. I structured the piece as a progression through problems and solutions that ultimately lead to an artificial intelligence that more accurately mimics human cognition.

In the heart of downtown Detroit, Michigan, our team of graduate students and post-doctorates are forging the design engineering research. Wayne State Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering professor Kyoung-Yun Joseph Kim leads our ever-changing team of students and post-docs, but the mission stays the same: To empower engineers and designers with data.

But to accomplish our vision, we’ve had to change how we think about traditional design processes and systems. In short, we’ve had to stop thinking like machines and start thinking like humans.

Linear Vs. Relational

Our first hurdle has been to see the forest through the trees. In traditional product design, models are developed in a sequential, linear manner, based on a product’s lifecycle. However, they are not easily transposed into systems with conflicting frameworks. Moreover, it's difficult to remove a portion from the sequence without losing its context.

To address these limitations, our team applies mereotopology in the design of our systems. Mereotopology, a mathematical theory for mapping the relationships between parts to a whole, provides a framework for us to parse and employ the complex relationships between parts of a design process and the finished whole of a product. Our designs focus not on the sequences of parts, but on the relationships between them. This paradigm shift allows us to create systems that are modular, interoperable, and machine-interpretable.

Semantics-Based Reasoning

While our mathematical approach ensures a greater level of interoperability, our semantic methodologies improve our design systems’ accessibility and performance.

Conventional, knowledge-based approaches are based on the accrual of increasing levels of expert knowledge. At CInDI, we are implementing the more adaptable system of logic that is based on semantic reasoning.

Such a transition requires an ontological system for design and engineering. Our semantics-based system addresses the reported limitations of Knowledge Formalization and Representation (KFR)—AI systems that depend entirely on the kind of extensive knowledge base only a machine can contain. Limitations of KFR systems include:

  • Challenges for individuals who aren’t logicians, either by nature or training
  • Inefficient use of code
  • Diminished interoperability with systems lacking the same levels of knowledge input.

Semantics-based systems rely not on encyclopedic knowledge, but on a few key ontological definitions combined with a capacity for contextual reasoning. Our system’s resonance with human learning promises superior levels of flexibility and adaptability than knowledge-based systems. This improvement allows us to create simpler and more efficient models that are intuitively grasped by users of the system and easily incorporated into other systems.

Real World Applications

The research we do at CInDI pays off. Right now, we are creating a breakthrough, data-driven design framework for manufacturers who use metallic assemblies. System Integrators and OEMs currently have to rely on suppliers and testing companies to physically test each new material they are considering.

Using our new paradigm of data-driven manufacturability prediction, we are developing an integrated environment that uses real manufacturing data to create accurate decisions about the manufacturability of desired materials. This application minimizes the need for expensive, time-consuming physical testing.

Training the Next Generation

While we are excited about our current projects, we are keeping the future of design and manufacturing environment our top priority. To that end, we are developing a Digital/SMART Demonstration Center (WSU D/SDC) for the high bay of the manufacturing engineering building at Wayne State University’s College of Engineering. This demonstration center will provide both students and researchers the opportunity to interact with real-time manufacturing, inspection, design/engineering data, and fully-sensored, advanced manufacturing processes.

Our team is currently establishing partnerships with various industries to advance the development of this state-of-the-art, industry-supported manufacturing environment. This center will provide a one-of-a-kind opportunity to educate, demonstrate, and research the Internet of Things (IoT), Digital Manufacturing, SMART manufacturing, and real-time manufacturing analytics.

See original post on CInDI website

Social Security Insurance

Home Page Text

I wrote this article for an attorney's website to explain the Social Security system and the related services the attorney provides.

Protecting Americans

Early in the 19th century, rapid industrialization began to push most workers out of farming and into wage-earning. To find the best jobs, Americans increasingly moved to cities, far away from the safety networks provided by their families. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness devastated those workers and their families.

Talk of increased charity and volunteerism was replaced by a more solid system after President Roosevelt was elected in 1932. He proposed a system not of welfare, but of social insurance. Instead of allowing the elderly to fend for themselves, they could draw on a system of savings they had paid into during their working years. The Social Security Act was signed into law on September 14, 1935, and it has provided a reliable safety net for Americans ever since.

Social Security Disability Insurance

Benefits You've Earned

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) pays benefits to individuals who cannot work because of severe medical conditions. These benefits continue until individuals are able to work again. The payments are reclassified as retirement benefits if these individuals reach the age of 66 years and 2 months if they were born before 1955, and 67, if they were born after 1960.

Your Work History

Any work income that you’ve paid Social Security taxes on, either through payroll deductions or self-employment, is used to determine your Social Security Administration (SSA) “work credits.” In this system, the SSA specifies a particular quantity of income as a single credit. This quantity increases each year in accordance with average American earnings.

For example, in 2019, workers will receive one credit for each $1,360 of their qualifying income. Regardless of one’s total income, the SSA caps work credits at 4 per year. Generally, you need 40 work credits to qualify for SSDI, 20 of which must have been earned in the 10 years just prior to the disability. These requirements are scaled for younger applicants with shorter work histories.

If you are currently working, your earnings must be less than $1220 a month for you to be considered disabled.

Your Disability

SSDI only pays benefits for total, long-term disabilities—not partial or short-term. If your work history and income meet the above criteria, Disability Determination Services will collect information from your doctors and other medical personnel to assess your condition according to the following:

  • The Severity of your Disability
    Can you lift, stand, walk, sit, and remember things well enough to work?
  • Type of Disability
    Your disability must be included in the SSA’s list of qualifying medical conditions. If your disability is not on this list, the agency will determine if your condition is severe enough to warrant inclusion.
  • Types of work you can do
    If you can do the kind of work you’ve done previously, your claim will be denied. Otherwise, the SSA will decide if you are well enough to do some other type of work instead.
  • Length of Time You are Disabled
    You must be (or expected to be) disabled as described above for at least one year, or until death if the disability is expected to result in death.

Partial SSDI benefits are also available for individuals who are legally blind, disabled widows and widowers, veterans, and disabled children of any age who are dependents of qualified workers.

Your Payments

Once your disability has been determined, the SSA will decide on the Established Onset Date (EOD). This is the date on which the SSA believes you became disabled according to the criteria outlined above. This date may differ from your Alleged Onset Date (AOD), the date you claim on your application for benefits.

Unfortunately, your payments won’t begin until after a five-month waiting period that begins on your EOD. Once the waiting period is over, your benefit payments will reflect your earnings record, similar to the way Social Security Retirement payments are calculated. After receiving SSDI benefits for 2 years, beneficiaries are eligible for Medicare.

Sobering Outcomes

Not surprisingly, the SSA is quite strict in determining who is eligible to receive SSDI benefits and when those benefits should begin. While it varies by state, of the millions of Americans who apply for SSDI each year, 65-70% are denied. The SSA rejects claims based on their belief that:

  • You lack medical evidence to support your claim
  • You are, in fact, capable of performing some kind of work
  • You aren’t doing everything you can to get better (take medications, receive therapy, etc.)

How I Can Help

If you’ve experienced a severe injury or illness that’s preventing you from working, you are most likely entitled to SSDI benefits. And your chances for a successful claim or appeal are significantly improved by legal counsel and representation. If you are filing your first claim, I can help you:

  • Establish your AOD (Alleged Onset Date)
  • Focus your application on those aspects of your case that are most important to the SSA
  • Help you collect and submit the proper medical evidence to support your claim

If you’ve already filed an initial claim and been denied benefits, I can help you appeal the decision by:

  • Crafting a strong legal argument for the judge
  • Preparing you to testify at the hearing
  • Cross-examining a Vocational or Medical Expert


Federal law requires SSDI attorneys to charge 25% of whatever is determined to be the claimant's backpay (the time between your EOD and your actual payments), with a total limit of $6,000. You pay nothing if your claim is denied.

Get a Free Consultation

The processing time for an SSDI claim can be quite long. So the sooner you get in touch with a skilled SSDI attorney, the better. I can help speed your case through the system—especially if your situation is desperate, either financially or medically. I may even be able to request an On the Record (OTR) decision, which would allow you to receive benefits without a hearing.

You deserve a compassionate advocate who will fight for you to receive the SSDI benefits you’re entitled to. Call 301-589-4597 or email me at today for a free consultation about your disability case.

See original post on website

Cookies 2 Die 4

Student Research Paper

This is a research paper I did for a beginning coding class, so the information is a bit dated, but still mostly accurate.

It’s a cold, rainy Saturday morning. And after a long, sleepless night with a teething baby, you feel perfectly entitled to a plate full of white, refined sugar. But you know that’s wrong, so you do a very respectable online search for dessert recipes when somehow Google interprets “chocolate chip cookies” as “a nasty image I don’t want my baby’s six-year-old-sister-who-of-course-is-peering-over-my-shoulder to see.”

But big sister is still asleep, so you soldier on until you find a promising recipe on what appears to be a family-friendly site: You click on the Google link, and your computer sends a request to the cookie website through your Internet Service Provider (ISP) for a delicious recipe page written in Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML. This language, custom-made for applications called “web browsers,” is necessary because computer applications don’t speak any English at all.

The request for your cookie-recipe HTML page goes out in what is called an “IP packet,” a little bundle of data, somewhat like a Christmas card to your mother-in-law. IP, or “Internet Protocol,” is a set of rules that govern transmissions through the Internet. Just as the US Postal Service maintains rules for addressing, sending, and paying for Christmas cards, the Internet also uses a set of standards for its transmissions.

The IP packet contains a header, which is a bit like your mother-in-law’s address. Routers, special computers that connect to other computers via cable, wireless links, and satellite, inspect the packet to determine where it should go, just as a post office would.

But unlike postal employees, browsers can’t understand “CookieRecipes2Die4” because, as we’ve discussed, it’s in English, sort of. So yet another computer is needed to translate the bad English into the actual IP address for the server holding the cookie recipe. This IP address is a very computer-friendly series of numbers and periods, and it works just like a street address.

But let’s say your baby’s six-year-old sister made an adorable Christmas card for your mother-in-law, and you’re in a hurry because it’s December 23rd. You rush through your address and instead of writing “Grandma Jones, 5342 Jack Rabbit Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105,” you write “Grandma Jones, Jack Rabbit Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105.” Hopefully, the spirit of Christmas will right all wrongs, but probably, your card will come back to you with a “return to sender - address unknown” stamp. A port number in an IP address is just as vital as a street number. One domain may host several services, like both email and a website. To get a cookie recipe, you don’t want the domain’s email service, you want their website service. The port number tells the server which service you are requesting - just as in our example, the street number tells us which house on Jack Rabbit Road contains your mother in law.

Most of us can handle holiday greetings without any help, but we need our ISPs to translate domain names into IP addresses, which are unreasonable to memorize. ISPs do this with a special computer called a Domain Name Servers, or DNS. Of course, no computer can store all twenty-five trillion web addresses in existence. So pages under requested domain names are sorted by a nomenclature hierarchy. “Top level Domains,” or TLDs, are indicated by suffixes tagged onto the end of the name, like “.com” and “.edu.” The DNS that sorts through these suffixes is called a Root Server. It’s a rough sorting - like putting something addressed to Great Britain in the “air mail” slot.

The html request is then sent to “recursive resolvers,” other servers that keep sorting and re-distributing requests until a match is found on what’s called an “authoritative name server.” This is the server responsible for a specific domain name. It’s like the system theme parks use for lost children. Weeping children searching for their parents are directed to a “lost kids” building where employees take steps to locate a child’s “matching” supervisor.

Once the proper IP address is located, a connection is made to the Web server hosting the domain, and a request is issued for the chocolate-chip-cookie-recipe html page you found on Faster than Tinker Bell can can turn broccoli into marshmallows, the html page is sent to your kitchen laptop.

But let’s say that after all that effort, Cookies2Die4 turns out not to be quite the family-friendly recipe site you thought it was. And let’s say that not-a-recipe-at-all html page appears just as your baby’s-six-year-old-sister is, of-course, peering over your shoulder. Then you have no choice but to panic, slam shut your laptop (a bad thing to do), and quickly change the subject. You may even decide to skip the cookies.

But not everybody wants their laptops slammed shut, so to speak. The relative newness of the internet has posed a variety of legal conundrums. One of the most well-known challenges occurred in 1988 when a federal district court in Virginia ruled that mandatory internet filtering at a public library violated the First Amendment. As a society, we have overtly decided that our freedom of speech should be guarded at all costs. But as individuals, freedom in the context of pornography and other social ills is often patently rejected. The burden of internet filtering is on whomever wants it.

So what is an internet filter? How does it work? Let’s take a look at the various ways to avoid the cookie-crumbling disaster described above.


By Header

The request for a cookie recipe that isn’t actually a cookie recipe can be stopped as early in the process as the routers that receive your initial request. Routers can be configured to simply drop any packets whose IP headers designate an IP address on a specified blacklist. This is a broad stroke for a filter, blocking not only the “cookie recipe,” but also any other websites or email servers under a blacklisted domain.

A more refined approach is to block packets requesting blacklisted domains that are headed for a specific server port. That ensures that other services under a particular domain are still available.


Blacklisting can occur at the DNS phase as well. You simply configure an ISP’s DNS server to not accept any domain names on a blacklist. The user will simply get an error message.

By Content

Censoring headers, however, is a bit of a placebo. Nefarious websites multiply faster than enteroviruses, and keeping a complete, up-to-date blacklist for their domains is impossible. Happily, filters based on content are available at just about every juncture in the transmission path.


In content filtering, the entire IP packet is inspected, this time for keywords. This is not in a router’s job description, however, so extra equipment must be used, increasing the cost for the filter. Moreover, IP packets have a maximum size before they get spliced by surly Network Administrators who must minimize their IP packet SAR (Segmentation and Reassembly) times to keep web traffic flowing properly. So if the packet for your cookie recipe just rambles on and on, it will get spliced into smaller packets, forcing the router to read only one portion at a time. And what could happen is that the first portion of the packet is key-word safe, but the second portion is not, but by the time the filter figures this out, it’s too late, and the entire transmission has gone through. Or you could have a single key-word split up, and it could be the very word that would have been censored.

Content-filtered ISPs

These are ISPs that only offer limited access to the Internet based on content parameters. In this case, the ISP decides what it will or will not transmit to and from your computer.

Proxy Servers

Like ghost writers for politicians who lack the time and/or skills to write a pre-election memoir, proxy servers quietly step in between a web user and a web content provider to do the communicating for one or both of them. This is often used in the context of an internal network, like at a company. A school, for example, may wish to use a proxy server to negotiate students’ web transmissions. The server can stop and search all requests for any blacklisted keywords or headers. Complex rules prevent any transmission to the client until the packet is thoroughly inspected. Likewise, a proxy server can read transmissions from the outside and block any blacklisted content.

Client-Side Filters

This is software anybody can purchase or download for free on his/her computer. These applications are perfect for parents. It should be noted, however, that private companies that create these applications can choose to filter sites in any way they choose, according to their political and/or religious leanings, for example. A variety of popular client-side filters have been shown to block sites like the National Organization for Women, Quaker sites, Amnesty International, and The Heritage Foundation. There is no way for the government to check this power as it held in the private sector.

Browser Extensions

A browser extension is a program that enhances a browser’s abilities in some way. Extensions can be created through normal web coding which in the case of filters, are designed to block content that is blacklisted. AdBlock is an example of a browser extension filter.

E-Mail Filters

These applications search for banned content in an email’s body, header, sender, subject, and attachment.

Search-Engine Filters

These filters are available on search engines, like Google, but they must be activated. They only filter web searches, however. The URL for a known site can still be used if it is known.

Content Labeling

This is the “fox guarding the henhouse” method. In 1994, the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), developed an online questionnaire for web masters to describe the nature of a website’s content. This information was then packaged into the IP packet to be read by content-filtering software.

There are other tagging systems, but as long as they are voluntary, it’s hard to see how they could be terribly helpful. The problem isn’t the good guys - it’s the bad guys.

Denial of Service

In this not-so-civilized approach, a party who lacks the authority to filter can simply render Web sites inaccessible by overloading either the server or the network connection with an insane amount of requests. A very fast computer or a team of fast computers and a very fast connection are needed to accomplish this “filter,” better known as a Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack. Think of this as the “death-by-nagging” approach so often favored by 4th graders angling to watch Terminator movies.

Domain Deregistration

If you happen to be a ruthless dictator, this is the filter for you. Your country’s TLD, that dot-suffix tacked onto your web address, is most likely operated by you, your royal majesty! So anything subversive and/or disloyal can be deregistered right at the root servers, no problem.


Monitoring an individual’s web surfing, and threatening said individual with legal action should he/she attempt to access prohibited content, is a psychological method of filtering. There might be a few scenarios where this method could be of some use, although the individual could only be held accountable on devices where surveillance has already been set up.

Public View

Positioning computers in a library or workplace so that anyone can see what’s on anyone else’s screen is a great way to keep people off Facebook.

Server Takedown

This is where the rubber hits the road: just unplug the server holding the undesired content. If that doesn’t work... well, that’s kind of creepy.

The delicate balance of freedom of speech and civilized communication is fraught with high emotion and anxiety on both sides. As with so many of mankind’s inventions, the power of the internet forces us to sort out our priorities. What are we willing to sacrifice for safety? Or for freedom? In the end, what and with whom we communicate has never been as fully in our control as we would like to believe. It is the speed and volume of web communication that forces us to confront these questions.

Web filters cannot sooth teething babies, bake cookies, or stop your daughter from occasionally seeing something she shouldn’t. But filters are certainly worth understanding, and in many cases, using. Total control may be impossible, but knowledge is always power.