When To Give Up Free

Photo Credit: Puzzledmonkey

When I first began dabbling in blogging, I had a free account on Blogger. It was all there really was at the time. Typepad was brand new and no one I knew knew anything about it, and WordPress was for self-hosted geeks who knew what they were doing. So when I wanted to learn about HTML/CSS, I began editing a Doug Bowman template on my blogspot.com blog.

As I learned about photography and shared photos with my family of my daughter and my new life in Indiana, I signed up for a free account on Flickr. I loved that I could quickly and easily get photos online and even post directly to my blog from within Flickr. I also loved that I could do just about anything I wanted to online and not pay for any of it.

As I started a freelance web design business and began getting a few clients, I recommended these free services to them as well, because I thought, why pay for something if you don’t have to?

The People Behind the Free Stuff

But then I started getting to know my peers in the web design and development arena. I socialized with them, pre-Twitter. That means by reading their blogs, commenting, visiting forums, and emailing now and then. As I read their blogs about code, about design, copyright, professionalism, etc. I became convicted in the face of their sweat and tears. All the late nights they talked about, about how many months and even years it took them to complete a viable web app, I felt weird using their service for free.

But that’s how the Internet works, right? People make stuff all the time and put it out there for free. They wouldn’t do it if they couldn’t afford to. Right? And aren’t they getting something in return anyway, lots of publicity, testers, new clients? That’s not doing something for nothing. Right? Right?

As I continued to justify this to myself, it occurred to me one day while working on a client’s website in a free coding app, that I had reached a point in which I was directly profiting from this free service. I felt dirty. So I looked up the website of this app and found a paid license, which incidentally gave me several new features I didn’t have access to with the free version. I felt good again.


About that same time I had a client who was writing (editing, rather) a series of books full of “chicken soup” type stories from Christians. Being a Christian myself, I thought the work she was doing was great and I wanted to help her with the new promotional website she asked me to build for her. I was jazzed for her until she came to me midway through the job and asked if I wouldn’t mind donating my services to the project. Jaw, meet floor.

We had already agreed on the scope of work and cost, and I was in the middle of coding previously approved comps when her solicitation came through my inbox. Aghast, but still committed to following through, I told her I would overlook the request and continue as agreed. A little later on, she said her publicist insisted her photo be more prominent on the page, ideally every page. I think this was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

What so turned me off here was that all of the content I was putting on this website was about God-loving people doing good and seeing good done, and often asking nothing in return. And yet on every page, it did ask for a return. It asked for $24.95 for a copy of each book for sale on the site. It asked for money for donations too, and for several other products for sale. It asked for money to pay for this woman to come and speak to you. This wasn’t a non-profit charitable organization, but a fully profiting business, and this business was now asking me not ask for money in return for my own services.

But wait. Isn’t this what I was doing, charging people for my design services while asking Blogger, Flickr, et al. not to charge me for theirs? I was a black kettle there for awhile.

If You’re Not Paying For It, Someone Else Is

Now I’ve moved away from web design over the last couple of years in pursuit of a childhood dream of owning my own shop. I sell handmade goods and curated goods from all over the country, to stores all over the world. It’s great. But it’s a business. It’s not a recreational personal thing and it’s not a charity; it’s a profiting business.

There are many other people I’ve met with similar dreams and businesses. The majority of these people appear to have started out much the same as I did, with Blogger, Typepad or another free blogging service to get them on their feet. A few here and there have moved to Squarespace and other more robust paid services, or have hired designers and developers to help them get set up with a self-hosted solution, but a huge number of independent sellers are still mooching, for lack of a better word. They’re profiting from the work of others without a return for their consumption.

As recently as last week, I was approached by a craft-related conference, running a “website” on Blogger. This for-profit organization was soliciting donations from my shop to include in their goodie bags to conference guests. Ordinarily I’m not against donating product for select events now and then, but as soon as I saw their website, I lost respect for what they were doing. To their credit, it appeared that they had hired a designer to give them something more than a template, but they might have had that donated as well. It’s hard to know. It’s easier to tell with those who clearly have put a lot of time, effort–and yes, money–into their event, such as SXSW for example.

This is in no way meant to pass judgment on anyone, but knowing as many designers and developers as I have come to know over the years (about half my twitter followers fit the bill), my heart breaks a little when I hear someone say “oh, just do such and such, it’s free.” I know as well as my friends do, it’s not really free. Every service, every piece of software, that you’re benefiting from cost SOMEONE something.

I don’t use Blogger anymore, though I’ll probably always have a Flickr account. But I switched to a paid account years ago. Every service I use, from Blinksale for invoices, to Mad Mimi for email newsletters, eChristian for my web hosting, Big Cartel for my store, even Paypal, charges a fee for their services, which I’m more than happy to pay. For what they’re giving me in return, I often feel like I should be paying more, and I’m grateful to these service providers for their help. Without them, I wouldn’t be successful as I have been.

When You’re Paid, Opt To Pay

When given the option for a free account these days, I stop and think about what it is I intend to do with the service. If it’s for business, I sign up for the paid account that fits and write it off as a business expense. If it’s for my own personal use and I don’t want any fancy features, I don’t mind using the free account. In fact, my personal blog, nataliejost.com, is run by the free service Tumblr (though I did pay for a better template). And sometimes, even for business, I’ll use the free account for a few days when testing a new service, just to make sure it will suit my needs. But as soon as it does, I flip the switch.

Again, not judging, just seeking to shed some light on this topic and hoping you’ll consider paying for (or donating to) individuals and companies who work so hard to give you these great tools, including indirectly helpful services like web magazines. ;)

Incentive To Switch To Paid Accounts

A few vendors have generously offered you a discount on services if you choose to switch to paid services.

eChristian Web Hosting – 20% off through 4/30/11 with code JOST

Mad Mimi is offering 1000 contacts free for your first month. You just need to write them and tell them you saw this article on Web Style and they’ll fix it up for you. You have 2 weeks from the date of this post. They also offer a discount to non-profit groups, so get in touch with them if you have that need.

5 Reasons Front-End Developers’ Lives Are Shorter

Photo Credit: Chris Fleming

The greater the applied stress range, the shorter the life. –somewhere on wikipedia

Maybe it isn’t a proven scientific fact, but it is common knowledge that front-end developers deals with way more stress than back-end devs do.  These people, working with CSS, HTML, JavaScript and all that is contained in a web page are becoming increasingly jealous of their back-end counterparts’ quality of life.  Here are the top 5 reasons why:

Compile time (or lack of)

This an outstanding source of stress.  When you burst out a big chunk of code, you guys hit F5 and see the result, right?  Not working? Get back to work.  Now.

Back-end developers can always rely on compile time (or more contemporarily, build time) to relax a bit.  They can soothingly peek at their EVE online character skill training queue, answer a couple of tweets, or practice their vi kung fu.

Source code management

In my experience, front-end devs aren’t at ease with SCM (subversion, Git, etc).  That means when there’s a fire, a hard drive failure or a giant dinosaur spits fire on your laptop, you lose everything.  Sure, there’s a copy on the server, but that’s not how you do things (and what if the dinosaur also ate the server?).  Lots of time lost here, lots of stress.

Web standards

Web standards are a good thing.  But web standards, as they are advertised right now, are a real joke: you still rely on browser maker’s willingness on implementing them.  You still have a lot of tweaks, hacks, and duplicated code to craft.

Standards for back-end programming (JEE, SOAP, SQL, to name a few) are well defined, and mandatory.  The developer can lean on them and blame the product company which failed to implement them correctly (and get congratulated for it because you earned your company free support time).

Have you ever tried calling Microsoft, and open a support ticket for that unsupported CSS thing in IE?

The look

Even the worst snippet of C++ code, if it works, isn’t judged by anyone.  Why?  Nobody understands it. Nobody gets to see the actual code, it’s all 1s and 0s.

On the other hand, you front-end guys have to deal with the judging eyes of everyone in the company.  You have to take all the “Meh. I still don’t like that turquoise” … even if it ‘s the best darn piece of code you ever wrote!  You literarily get stripped of all your intrinsic self-worth.

View source

What if you were in a crowd (a big one, think Tahrir square), and someone removed all your clothes.  Nobody would like that, unless you’re sexually deviant.  That’s what happens when some guy does a right-click -> view source on your code.  Guilt, doubt, fear.


I fear for you guys.  Really.  I could suggest a couple of COBOL books, or Java certification classes, but if you already have a couple of years of experience behind you, I guess it’s a little bit too late.  What might help is if you try yoga, tai-chi, or as a last resort you could try the essential works of Yanni.


Back-end developer.

The Trends Of Yesteryear And The Trends Of Today

Photo Credit: Ernest

As web developers, we live in a constantly changing world and have to keep up with the latest technologies. Recently we’ve been challenged to adapt to HTML5 and mobile, among other things. Sometimes I find this maddening, but most of the time I welcome it. It means there’s always new stuff to learn, and most importantly that I’m unlikely to get bored.

Along with ephemeral technologies themselves, there’s also ephemeral trends. Though not as fickle and ever-changing as the fashion world, us web developers have our peculiar trends that come and go.

Do you remember graphical visitor counters, web rings, guestbooks, and animated construction worker icons? When I started messing around making websites on the 2MB given to me on my AOL account around 1997, these were all the rage. Most pages in the “Geocities” era of the web had at least one of these components. If they were hip, that is.

Graphical visitor counters are still around in some shape or form, I think most prominently on sites such as eBay. But where there still exist page counters of some sort, it seems they’ve been mostly superseded by text counters (“This entry has been viewed X times.”).

Web rings were kind of like free advertising for your site. You submitted a banner advertisement of your website to be shown on other sites related to yours. The only catch was that you yourself had to embed the web ring on your site to shows ads for other sites. This is closely related to the idea of a “link exchange”.

A guestbook was simply a place where visitors could write a simple “hello, I enjoyed your page” type of message, just like a real-life guestbook. These have mostly been superseded by more sophisticated commenting systems that allow users to comment on specific articles.

I also remember frames being all the rage. When I started to learn HTML, my father also started to pick it up, and he seemed to learn the frames syntax pretty well, but it was something I never quite understood, mostly because I was afraid of the syntax and was convinced there were simpler ways to build a page. You can guess that I’ve been happy that frames are now deprecated (iframes still exist, but those are a bit different).

And who could forget animated construction workers! Before Geocities shut down for good, someone amassed a collection of these guys and entombed them in a sort of virtual mausoleum. (Ok, apologies for the overdramatic language).

Those were the trends of yesteryear, and it’s easy (and fun!) to mock them, but at one time they were taken seriously. So what are the things we’re doing today that will likely be looked back upon as passing trends?

The now fading “Web 2.0” era of the web seemed to feature sites full of rounded corners and shiny gradients. As a result we now have these built into CSS3, which is quite handy actually. We’ll certainly still see plenty of rounded corners and gradients, but but it seems to me we’re slowly getting away from the paradigm where we think of these as being the thing that makes pages “cool”.

Another relic of Web 2.0 seems to be the “tag cloud”. While it’s a cool visualization of tags and their relative importance highlighted by the text size, it seems to be a passing trend. But it still definitely exist as a buzzword.

Social media buttons have been around for a while, and personally I’ve never liked these. I guess this is my main reason for hoping this will be a passing trend. Like everything else, these can be overdone, and they have been overdone all over the web. It’s not uncommon to see an array of icons alongside an article, but it’s unclear to me why it would be easier to hunt the icon of my favorite service (Reddit, Digg, etc.) and submit it through there. Far easier, it seems, to simply copy and paste the URL.

Facebook “Like” buttons. These are now all over the web, and sometimes they’re proudly displayed next to my Facebook picture. It still shocks me while browsing CNN or any other site and seeing my mugshot appear at the bottom of the page. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I don’t like this. This is another thing I hope is a passing trend.

Give it a few years, but whatever turns out to be the passing trends will be clear in hindsight. And it will simply remind us once again that most everything is short-lived, no matter how popular it seemed at the time. Jump on the bandwagon while it lasts, but don’t overstay your welcome, and get ready to jump off the bandwagon when the time comes!

Getting Started with Illustration

Photo Credit: Chris Metcalf

Last year I shared a page in my sketchbook on how to be a good illustrator. It took me a few years away from drawing professionally to really see the forest for the trees, so I’m sharing some high level wisdom here, expanding on that page, I think will benefit both aspiring illustrators and casual doodlers.

Fledgling artists frequently focus on style, but style won’t mask awkward anatomy or poor perspective. The art you like will certainly influence your own, but that influence should appear organically, not be applied heavy handed. Ray Frenden, an illustrator I respect tremendously, has some wisdom about style on his blog: “Style wise, try not to think about it. If you’re drawing all the time, that will come naturally. You will make the marks that feel right to you. The ones your muscle memory has absorbed and saved and cataloged are the ones that add up to a style.”

Since my time in art school a decade ago, the most meaningful thing I’ve learned about illustration is that successful illustrators are not always the best artists, they are the most consistent. The best thing you can do to improve is to draw as much as possible. Forget being shy, you’re going to throw away a lot of drawings before you get a few you love. Practice can be casual or serious, I recommend a healthy blend of the two to keep things from becoming a chore.

Try checking out some figure drawing classes. Start with classes offering short poses. You’ll find figure drawing at your local college, art school or sometimes even community center or area art studio. It seems like most towns these days have a Dr. Sketchy’s once a month. If you’re a parent who can’t get out of the house, draw your kid stumbling around the living room, they won’t hold a pose for longer than 10-30 seconds so it’s not all that terribly different. Instead of trying to draw everything you see, start with some basic lines and shapes approximating the skeleton. (Spending a little time reading about anatomy will go a long way here.) You can also people watch at the park / mall / subway and draw. After the first few drawings your lines are more fluid and confident, so it’s always a good idea to start any drawing session with a few warm up drawings.

You’ll burn yourself out if you don’t include some fun. Try practicing by doing some stream of consciousness doodles in your sketchbook. Carry a sketchbook everywhere you go! Draw the first things that come to mind, and don’t spend more than a few minutes on each doodle. Draw your dog, your breakfast, your favorite book, a funny outfit someone wore. Fill up a page. You can make it a game and have a friend name random things for you to doodle. Grab a few magazines lying around the house and draw what you see inside. Old National Geographics are great for this! Try to do it without erasing any lines. Do some drawings where you never pick your pencil or pen up from the paper. Get some grey paper and experiment with using the paper as your middle tone, while drawing shadows with a dark pencil and highlights with a white one.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with technique. Maybe you don’t like markers, but you like pencil. Try colored pencil, charcoal, watercolor, pens and different types of paper. Try using a combination, maybe something that makes soft lines and something else that makes hard lines. Don’t avoid a medium just because it’s difficult, I hated gouache the first few times I used it, but once I got the swing I found it to be the most versatile paint for my color work. Try different textured papers.

Scott McCloud said “Do you know that WHAT you put in your panels is potentially far more interesting than how well you DRAW it?”

Drawing and illustration are not the same. An illustration tells a story. Picture two drawings, a baby in its crib, and a baby in its crib with a spider dangling above. These are almost the same image, but change one element and you tell a very different story. Color can change a story too, imagine a family portrait bathed in blue light. Now imagine the same portrait bathed in red light, the feeling and tone of the story changes. Try telling stories with some of your practice drawings, you can draw stories you observe when you’re people watching, or stories you already know.

Lastly, absorb as much illustration as possible! Maybe you like comics, I enjoy anthologies because they offer a wide range of styles and storytelling by artists I may not have seen before. Visit your local comic shop and tell the proprietor what you’re into, they will likely appreciate your enthusiasm and recommend all kinds of relevant books. Start reading some web comics. Illustration Magazine can teach you about the golden age of illustration. Check out some propaganda posters online. Follow some illustrators on Flickr or Dribbble. You can see how different artists solve problems, and get some ideas about line and color.

Book review: Acts of the Apostles, by John Sundman

Acts of the Apostes

A megalomaniac IT billionaire with messianic delusions and access to high-tech nano- and bio- technology threatens the very soul of humanity: our free will.

The number of the beast is a floating point processor

Set in the late 90’s, Acts of the Apostles is the tale of a computer chip designer & a software developer who suddenly finds themselves involved a conspiracy involving Gulf War syndrome, SCUD missiles, Saddam Hussein and the CIA. It also features computer chips with a mysterious bug, a Java-like computer language with peculiar limitations, nano-powered DNA manipulation, high-tech startup mergers, a ghost in the machine and a large cast of sexy female IT professionals.

John Sundman is a man possessed by a dystopian vision of bio-technology Armageddon and a keen sense for paranoid conspiracies. His novel describes a world on the brink of radical transformation through technology and man’s infinite lust for power.

Of course, there’s plenty of action, sex and humor, but the book also carries a dire warning about the dangers of hacking the human machine. i like to picture Sundman as a biblical prophet of old, standing at the city gate, half-naked under a lice-infested hair shirt, waiting for someone to make eye contact. Shaking bits of half-eaten locusts and spittle from his ragged beard, he harangues passersby with apocalyptic tales of high-tech doomsday, nano-beasts and biotech antichrists bent on world domination; peppering his rants with techno-babble and sharp witticisms. Sure he can be goofy and weird at times, but ignore him at your own risk!

Quoth the bio-hacker

I found the book funny and highly quotable. I was also impressed by the authentic feel of his descriptions of computer geeks and the IT industry in general. Here is a sample to whet your appetite:

  • “Todd, in his arrogance, had built very little debug time into the schedule.”
  • “Once upon a time, he would have said the meaning in his life came from taking part in the redefinition human nature.”
  • “Maybe relying on common sense & logic had been a mistake. This guy needed yelling at.”
  • “The Bonehead Computer Museum; Open Midnight to Midnight – Monday Thru Sunday and by appointment. Donations welcome.”
  • “It was good getting back home in Massachusetts, where things were allowed to get old.”
  • “The back of the device, in particular, looked like an electronic bird’s nest that had been sneezed upon.”
  • “Kali’s a hag. Just look at those saggy tits. Shiva’s tits are like Teri Hatcher’s: big and firm.”
  • “Silicon & DNA were the same thing: devices that shunted in different paths to create new information structures.”
  • “Prissy net fetishists took great offense when binary nonsense clogged up space on a discussion board, but on the Internet nobody knows if you’re a dog and you can post binaries anywhere you want.”
  • “Built into the Kali, hidden among its nearly three hundred thousand AND gates, OR gates , NANDs and NORs, was the secret recipe for making the chip upon Nick’s soul and life depended.”

A non-linear trilogy

Acts of the Apostles is book “blue” of Mind Over Matter, an ambitious three-volume work that share similar themes, characters and settings. Because these books can be read in any order, they are not numbered but instead marked by color.

  • Acts of the Apostles (Mind over Matter volume blue)
    • A techno-thriller about the abuse of nano and bio-technology.
  • Cheap Complex Devices (Mind over Matter volume red)
    • A rambling monologue supposedly written by a computer (or a mind in a vat, or a swarm of bees, or a man shot in the head and connected to a computer). The story is kind of a slow motion reboot, a person coming out of a dream, an entity that is coming to sanity, wholeness, self-awareness.
  • The Pains (Mind over Matter volume black)
    • An illustrated 1984-type dystopian featuring alternate-universe version of some key characters from Acts of the Apostles. Also included: cryogenically-preserved severed human heads and Ronald Reagan.

Each novel is told in a distinctive style and focuses on different, sometimes conflicting, point of views on the events depicted. The most conventional novel by far is Acts of the Apostles, which is told as a straightforward techno-thriller in the mold of Michael Crichton or Robert Ludlum. Fans of Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon will certainly enjoy John’s quirky and techno-savvy novel (see my of review of Cryptonomicon).

The other novels get a lot weirder with their self-referential meta-fiction, stream of consciousness rants and alternate universes.

As an example of the complex relationship between each book in the trilogy, the introduction of Cheap Complex Devices (which represents almost half of the book) claims that “Bees”, the main story of the book, is the result of a contest for computer-generated fiction. Apparently, Acts of the Apostles would be the lost manuscript from another entry in this contest but was stolen and ineptly edited by an ex-security guard. It claims that the large number of sexy women in the story and their improbable lust for an otherwise average-looking computer chip designer, as well as its many typos and cringe-inducing passages, would be proof of the theft the book and its unwelcome alterations by a lesser literary mind.

According to the author, although there are many literary references in John’s work, the main inspirations come from Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher Bach and I Am a Strange Loop; Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine; Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; and The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck. These are not your typical pop-corn blockbuster fodder but instead deeply philosophical treatises about the nature of consciousness and humanity’s relationship with technology. Readers interested in an intellectually stimulating read will be well advised to dip their mind into Sundman’s literary pools of madness and wisdom as well as to peruse its thematic precursors.

Adventures in self-publishing

Through sheer endurance and determination, Sundman has become a self-publishing icon of his own right. Despite the support of an agent at an early point of his writing career, he did not manage to find a publisher for his work so he resorted to self-publishing Acts of the Apostles in 1999. This was half a decade before self-publishing tools like lulu.com became widely available.

Nowadays, print-on-demand services make it much easier to get a book printed and, theoretically, in the hands of avid readers. Any self-deluded hack with access to the Internet can now package strings of semi-random characters together, slap a cheap clipart picture on its cover and call it a book at virtually no costs (BTW, did I mention my self-published French novel, “La Boue”?), John had to do this the hard way, with actual printers, inventory, debts and boxes of books to lug around the country.

Acts of the Apostles, mostly sold by hand and through mail-order, gained critical success, including raving reviews by geek icons Cory Doctorow and Jefferey Zeldman. Commercial success, however, was elusive and mostly constrained by John’s own capacity to manually shove books into the faces of prospective consumers in various trade shows (as depicted in this detailed logistical account form the author).

Thankfully, John has now secured a contract with a publisher and is now revising his novel for publication of Acts of the Apostles sometimes in 2011. Let’s hope this opportunity will enable the book to reach the wider audience it deserves!


Herbalism: Open Source Medicine

ointment, garlic, usnea, calendula, and apple cider

Herbalism is a low-cost, accessible, community-powered, patent-free form of medicine. It’s also under threat from the patent-driven pharmaceutical business. Could the values and struggles of open-source software proponents have much in common with herbalists?

Maybe Herbalists could benefit from working more closely with the open-source movement and learn from their experience. Web professionals could also find great value in learning more about herbalism and its benefits.

What is Herbalism?

From the Herbalism page on Wikipedia:

Herbalism is a traditional medicinal or folk medicine practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Herbalism is also known as botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology, and phytotherapy. The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts.

It’s worth noting that practitioners of other alternative medicines, like homeopathy, naturopathy, aromatherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine and traditional medical systems like Chinese medicine may use elements of herbalism in their treatments. However, herbalists do not necessarily share all of the assumptions, methods or practices of these other medical systems. It’s important to judge each system on its own merit.

Herbalism and pharmaceutical drugs

What is the main difference between herbalism and pharmaceutical drugs used by modern medicine?

Herbalists tend to use extracts from parts of plants, such as the roots or leaves. The plant’s own chemical balance is expected to provide a more balanced treatment. The more aggressive ingredients needed to fight the disease are then compensated by nourishment from the plant.

The use of plants for medicine has been practiced by humanity in one form or another since prehistory. Even animals have been known to use herbal remedies to heal themselves or get rid of parasites. So, herbalism would even predate humanity’s existence!

Pharmaceutical drugs are created by isolating single ingredients or chemicals on the grounds that dosage can be more easily quantified. Pharmaceutical medicine emerged in the 16th century when the use of active chemical drugs, such as mercury, was introduced to fight syphilis, which proved particularly resistant to traditional medical solutions.

Herbalism and pharmaceuticals may take different approaches to healing, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t work well together. Most modern herbalists agree that pharmaceuticals are more effective in emergency situations where time is of the essence. An example would be where a patient had an acute heart attack that posed imminent danger. However, pharmaceuticals can be very hard on the body, as chemotherapy patients can attest. Use of herbalism medicine can be particularly beneficial in prevention and in recovery as it helps boost immunity and provides nutritional benefits that pharmaceuticals lack.

Is Herbalism really open source?

The term “open source” was coined by software developers in the late 90’s to describe various ways to develop, share and copyright software that were emerging. Open source software such as the Linux operating system or the OpenOffice.org suite of applications allow developers to access, use and modify the source code as long as they pass along the same rights to their users.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia, where anyone can freely add to or edit its content, is another successful open source project where knowledge is freely shared, instead of code.

The pharmaceutical business makes great use of the fact that single compounds can be patented in order to generate income. This practice is highly profitable and the pharmaceutical business generates hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Once a medical compound (like a drug or a particular molecule) is patented, the patent owner can exert considerable legal control over the way knowledge of this compound can be used, influencing who can create medicine from this compound, who can sell it and at what price. In this sense, pharmaceutical medicine is mostly based on a “closed-source” business model.

Herbalism, on the other hand, is based on traditional knowledge gathered over thousands of years, most of which is still freely available and patent-free. Anyone is free to use that knowledge, improve on it and share it with anyone else. No one “owns” raspberry leaves tea or garlic poultice. There are no copyright constraints to prevent you from making your own herbal medicine. You are still free to plant, harvest and share your own medicinal plant seeds (unlike farmers that use patented herbicide-resistant genetically-modified crops from companies like Monsanto.) This is why I think of herbalism as open-source medicine.

Kitchen-top medicine

Most production tools used by herbalism are also “open-source”. Herbalism uses material found in nature and uses simple processing techniques that are within the reach of even the poorest people. The ways herbalism ingredients can be processed include:

  • Used raw
  • Macerated in cold water
  • Boiled (decoctions, tea)
  • Dried (spices, tea)
  • Crushed or ground (juice, poultice)
  • Mixed with an oily substance (balms), alcohol or vinegar (tinctures) or sugar/honey (syrups)

From Wikipedia:

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population presently uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Pharmaceuticals are prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s population, half of which lives on less than $2 U.S. per day. In comparison, herbal medicines can be grown from seed or gathered from nature for little or no cost.

Herbalists also make substantial use of plants from their local area. Indeed, what most people consider weeds, such as dandelions, can have valuable medicinal uses and were used by our ancestors as their personal “pharmacy”.

Open source vs closed source medicine

Herbalism tends to be a low-key, low-cost medical solution. Because of this, herbalism is not a very lucrative business model compared to the pharmaceutical industry. This is in part why herbalism struggles to promote itself efficiently and fight the pressures applied from the closed-source world.

Because the balance of power is so overwhelmingly skewed towards commercial interests, herbalism is under constant threat from pharmaceuticals and its enablers. This is a situation that software developers can recognize.

Large software corporations like Microsoft will often raise the specter of litigation against open-source projects or lobby against open-source projects. Thanks to these efforts, it’s not uncommon to see governments and other institutions go against their own financial interests and exclude free and open-source solutions from their software purchase policies.

We find a similar situation with health care. The marketing and public relations clout of the pharmaceutical industries overshadows the means of herbalists by many orders of magnitude. This tends to create a bias against herbalism in the media as herbalists rarely have the money and the skills to promote themselves efficiently and influence public opinion on a global scale.

On the other hand, the lobbying power of the pharmaceutical industry is quite formidable. They spent $900 million on lobbying between 1998 and 2005, more than any other industry. Because of this, governments may pass legislation that will not only favor the interests of pharmaceuticals, but that can also make it harder (or near-impossible) for herbalists and other alternative medicine to practice and sell their products. These regulations are claimed to be for the public good but they usually end up simply protecting the pharmaceutical industry’s commercial interests and increase the cost of health-care.

Here are some examples:

  • Mandatory medical insurance to pay for (expensive) drugs but not for (low-cost) herbal remedies.
  • Mandatory lab testing for herbal remedies and food supplements that are prohibitively costly for most herbalists.
  • Outright bans on plants, such as the kava, on spurious grounds, such as their toxicity, even if over-the-counter pharmaceutical drugs can be just as toxic.
  • Extreme negative bias against herbalism (and outright exclusion of herbalism) from the teaching curriculum of health care professionals.
  • In some regions, Physicians are not allowed to prescribe herbal remedies even if these have been proven to be as effective, or more effective, as pharmaceuticals; often with less toxicity or secondary effects.
  • Herbalists can suffer from legal persecution from local or federal agencies attempting to prevent them from practicing or teaching herbalism.
  • Herbalism is also tied with native rights. The traditional medical knowledge of indigenous people around the world, and their local flora, are being plundered and tied with patents by pharmaceuticals, usually with little to no benefit to the local population.

Is herbalism safe to use?

The fact that herbalism can be used at various degrees by anyone looms large in the security concerns that are raised when attempts are made to regulate it. However, the benefits of protecting free access to herbalism products and knowledge should also be taken into consideration when assessing their risks.

Even if most plants used by herbalists can be used safely, some plants can produce very potent compounds which must be handled with care. Mixing medication and herbal remedies can also be detrimental in some circumstances. But this is also true for over-the-counter pharmaceutical products that people are free to purchase and use at their own discretion. Indeed the number of deaths from pharmaceutical drugs dwarfs the number of herbalism-related deaths in America.

So, yes, herbalism is a relatively safe medicine to use but it’s always a good idea to consult a trained herbalist or discuss your use of herbalism with a (open-minded) physician.

Managing freedom

How do you protect something that is meant to be free from legal restrictions? How do you manage groups of volunteers, idealists and professionals, many of which can be fiercely self-reliant, towards a common goal? Both open-source developers and herbalists have had to face these challenges and may learn from each other.

In particular, the open-source movement has found many creative and practical solutions to the logistical and legal aspects of their work which could be applicable or adapted to the context of herbalists. Some of these solutions include:

  • Collaborative repositories, like Wikipedia, where knowledge can be stored, organized, validated, debated, protected and shared.
  • Collaborative environments, such as SourceForge.net, help manage production, communication and participation of project members as well as distribute the result of their work.
  • Corporations such as the Wikimedia foundation or the Mozilla Foundation help provide funding and administrative support for open source projects.
  • Organizations like the Electric Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons help provide a legal framework, legislative lobbying and legal protection for digital rights.
  • The Open Patents movement seeks to register patents and release them to the public domain as a means of protection against litigation and undue constraints.

Coders and herbalists, unite!

Herbalism offers a simple, open, low-cost, accessible medical solution that is worth using and protecting. It’s one of humanity’s greatest treasures and heritages and should continue to be shared and practiced freely as we continue to reap the benefits of pharmaceutical medicine.

At first glance, herbalism and software development would seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact these people have a lot in common and would benefit from each other’s expertise.

Herbalism ties into the values and vision behind the open-source ideology and definitely ties into the “self-reliance” and “community” aspects of its movement. The ability to grow, process and use natural ingredients with freely accessible medical knowledge applicable in every day life should be appealing to the mindset of open-source enthusiasts.

Also, the tools and practices developed to foster open source software and protect it from closed-source threats could be applied to the herbalism world to great effect.

Here are some benefits that could arise from such collaboration:

  • Increased use of herbalism among developers, designers and marketing people in managing their health and that of their family;
  • The creation of a comprehensive, robust and multi-lingual collaborative initiative similar to Wikipedia to document herbalism knowledge and issues;
  • More effective legal and public relation strategies to promote herbalism globally and to protect it from legislative & patent abuse;
  • A wider acceptance and understanding of herbalism and its role in humanity’s health and history[C8] by the general public and by health professionals.


Are-you interested in exploring the themes covered in this article? See below for links to resources and organizations to help you become better acquainted with herbalism or the open-source movement.


If you are concerned about the legitimacy and scientific foundation of herbalism:


If you are interested in using herbalism to manage your day-to-day health and the health of your family, here are a few sites that will provide you with valuable information and guidelines:

  • Flora medicina
    A school of herbalism located in Montreal that combines teachings from science and traditions. This this article was inspired by its philosophy.
  • Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
    One of the oldest and largest herbal information sites on the web.
  • Todd Caldecott
    Medical Herbalist, Ayurvedic Practitioner
  • Christopher Hobbs – The Virtual Herbalspirit
    This virtual Herbal is devoted to honoring the plants and traditions of herbal medicine, and to the celebration of health
  • Sage Mountain
    Founded 24 years ago by Rosemary Gladstar and family, Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center & Botanical Sanctuary has become one of New England’s foremost learning centers for herbs and earth awareness.

IMPORTANT: like pharmaceuticals, herbal remedies can be toxic if used in the wrong dose, for the wrong reasons and in particular if you have certain conditions (age, heart condition, pregnancy, etc.). It’s best to discuss your use of herbalism with an (open-minded) physician or a trained herbalist.


If you are a health care professional and wish to learn more about how to use herbalism in your practice:


If you are interested in the social and political aspects of herbalism:


Research support and validation for this article was provided by Caroline Gagnon, co-founder of Flora Medicina, School of Herbalism. Thanks sis!


Photo is © Caroline Gagnon

In the spirit of open source, this article is published under a Creative Commons copyright license. You are free to quote from it, reproduce it in its entirety or improve on it as long as you keep a reference to its authors and pass along the same rights to your readers.

Creative Commons License
Herbalism: Open Source Medicine by Thierry Gagnon, Caroline Gagnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 4: Return From Mordor

Photo Credit: Phillip Capper

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.
This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, and survived. Just. (Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3)

To Loop Or Not To Loop

After everything I’d been through with my first attempt at following a hiking trail—the rain, the mud, the disorientation, the bruises and grazes and cuts and falls and general despair—you may well ask why on earth I would want to open myself up for ridicule by Mother Nature one more time.

The reason I just had to explore the track in front of me was because it offered the one thing I would crave if I didn’t climb this one last (metaphoric) hill: closure. If I’d returned to Australia without having conquered this walking trail, then I’d forever feel like Nikau Forest had gotten the better of me.

I left the comfort of the sunshine, grit my teeth and plunged into the darkness.

All Your Walking Trails Are Belong To Us

As it turns out, the Nikau Forest Loop Track is, well, a bit of a joke.

Less of a hiking trail, it was more like a carefully architected artificial stroll through the countryside. The path itself was a smooth, safe concrete walkway with occasional strategically placed pebbles and handrails. This was walking at its most comfortable. It struck me as making a suitable rest stop for old people on a bus tour.

Less than three minutes later I emerged into sunlight. I was back at the entrance. That was it—I had walked the entire length of the walk in under three minutes. I scoffed at the signpost in front of me.

Ha! That’s not a track. I made my own track!

Feeling back on top of the world, I practically skipped back to the train station in Paraparaumu (being extra careful not to take any tumbles on the slippery footpath this time). I snuck onto the carriage just as it was about to depart, found a seat at the back, and warmed myself on the heating rail. Within seconds of the train lurching away from the platform, I’d fallen asleep.

The conductor woke me as we pulled into Wellington station. While my body felt groggy and fatigued, inside I was bursting with excitement—I was extremely proud of myself for cramming so much adventure into one day, and was eager to share the details of my journey with my colleagues. There was a small chance that I could still meet them in time for dinner. The only problem: what would I wear? I was wearing the only jeans and shoes that I’d brought with me, and they were completely caked in mud.

The MacGyver Guide To Speed Hygiene

While I filled the hot tub in my hotel room, I scrubbed myself clean in the shower. Once the tub was full, I eased into the lovely hot water—the side of my leg ached, and the graze was worse than I’d expected. The cuts on my arms and hands stung too, but the healing power of the hot water was immediate and welcome.

After 15 or 20 minutes of hovering between wake and sleep states, my entire body submerged with my nose poking out the top to breathe, I realised that I would really have to motor if I wanted to catch my colleagues for dinner (eating alone is never as much fun—plus any longer in the bath and I’d turn into a prune). I dug deep into my energy reserves to wrench myself from the hot tub, and donned a very fashionable hotel bathrobe.

I still wasn’t sure what I should wear, but I had a brainwave: while my hotel room lacked a washing machine, I had a ready reservoir of (mostly) clean hot water in the bath from which I’d just exited.

I dumped my jeans in the bath tub, and went at them with the hotel soap. And you know what? It worked. And to dry them? Armed with a hair dryer in one hand and an iron in the other, I managed to coerce the water from my previously mud-soaked jeans such that after another 20 minutes or so, they had become wearable. The ends were perhaps still a little damp, but they would pass.

The Perfect Finish To A Perfect Day

I bumped into the Australian FullCodePress team in the hotel lobby; we found a nearby eatery and stuffed ourselves with delicious Asian cuisine. Over dinner, I gave a full account to my friends of the events of the day: my desire to see the real New Zealand jungle, my difficulties with finding the trail, my various injuries sustained through my own stupidity, my following what I thought was a trail and getting completely lost, and finally conquering the elements and emerging victorious from the jungle.

Before visiting New Zealand, I’d heard someone liken the country to a Tonka toy. They’d joked that NZ was “My First Country”—the perfect country for beginner travellers. Unlike Australia, there were no deadly spiders, snakes or other critters of which one could fall foul; everything was shiny and safe.

As it turns out, New Zealand kind of owned me today. Sure, I’d come out of the ordeal alive, but as I inhaled my pork curry and relayed an exaggerated version of my brave dalliance with death, I knew that I’d been let off easy. Exploring on your own in the wilderness without preparation or planning is stupid, no matter which country you’re in. When you’re in a new country, with no telecommunications, no map, and no-one who knows where you are, the consequences can be very dire and very real.

My dilemma is this: if I’d done anything differently, I wouldn’t have this story to tell you. The excitement of my discoveries, the humour in my mistakes, the peril due to my lack of, well, common sense … without these elements, this story is nothing.

So while I don’t recommend you deliberately put your life in danger by embarking on an adventure without adequate planning, there’s a lot to be said for being adventurous and spontaneous in life.

Just remember to pack a second pair of jeans.

Want to Work With Me? Here’s How

Photo Credit: flattop341

The dos & don’ts of pitching yourself to a web designer

One of the phenomenona that comes with running your own web design firm is frequent inquiries from both wannabe and experienced web designers and programmers.

I love to help out folks getting started in the industry – I always appreciated it myself when I transitioned from working in film and TV production to the web sphere – but it always startles me how many people are completely clueless about the best way to approach me when they’re looking for work. I’m not alone; colleagues complain about the same pitching missteps.

Here are some practical dos & don’ts:

Don’t send me email attachments – especially when my contact page specifically begs you not to. I don’t need a 5-page PDF of your curriculum vitae, listing a chronology of your work & education; I want to see what you can do.

Do send a link to your online portfolio in the body of your message. If you’re pitching yourself as a web designer, I want to see a minimum of 5 sites you’ve worked on – ideally more – with a clear description of your role in each project. They don’t all have to be live, archived on your portfolio site is fine. (You do have your own domain and online portfolio site, right?)

Don’t call me out of the blue and not ask if I have a moment before launching into a soliloquy so fast and loud that I have to hold the phone away from my ear so I don’t damage my hearing. (Yes, this has actually happened.) The work that web designers and developers do requires focus and concentration. If you’d like to have a phone chat, tell me why in a quick email, and we can schedule a call in advance to make sure I can give you all my attention.

Do have a few people carefully proofread your cover letter before sending it. If you can’t be bothered to spell correctly and use proper punctuation, I assume you’ll be as sloppy with your coding. This is an excerpt from an actual letter I received recently:

After a stint as a pratice lawyer in insurance litigation, I decided to move on and redirect my career in a more creative, dynamic and technological fiel of study.

I’m creative, inventive. I’m also a perfectionnist, with a great sens of job well done. I am very approachable and I have a great listening sense.

I excel in writing, in both English and French.

Don’t write a generic-sounding letter. Address me by name – it’s clearly on my website, take the extra three seconds to find it. Refer to something specific about my company that explains why you want to work with me. Doing these two things alone will make you stand out among the 100 others who’ve sent me job inquiries.

Do tell me what you’re passionate about. Are you a WordPress fanatic? Enthused about e-commerce? Driven by design? Let that excitement shine through your words.

Don’t write a novel. Be brief and get to the point: what specific role are you looking for and what makes you suitable? Do I even need your services? Check out my work first – pitching me your ASP.NET database programming skills wastes both of our time.

Do get to know me first, before even sending that first intro email. Twitter is a fantastic way to get a sense of whether we’re on the same wavelength, which is essential for harmonious collaborations. Start a conversation and see if we click. If you get fed up with my tweets about cats & food and decide you’d rather work with a World of Warcraft enthusiast, I promise I won’t be offended.

My iPhone Is Shinier Than Yours

In the tech world, it’s not about who has the biggest screen or the most RAM, it’s all about who is the first to own the newest gadget. Techies stand in lines for hours to be the first to buy Apple’s latest device (come on, how many of you in Canada know someone who has crossed the border to be the first to own the iPad).

I remember when I first got my iPhone 3G, I was so proud. I bought a few skins, added a few apps and was just so proud to be a part of the Apple family.  But the next thing I knew the 3GS was out and already I was out of the loop. Now the iPhone 4 is out and… well… I still have my 3G. Well there is a group of chic geeks out there that refuse to be outdone in the gadget department. They work at not only creating the most blinged out gadgets, but also the most expensive. So the next time you’re out and about and someone pulls out their new iPhone 4 (with that fancy plastic cover), take out one of these babies, sit back and bask in all the glory.

The iPad Supreme Gold – blinged out by a man named Stuart Hughes, Apple’s latest must-have is adorned with 22-carat gold and a logo made with 53 flawless diamonds. Want one? You’ll have to pony up $210,000!

The next time someone shows off their iPhone 4, pull out this bad boy and watch the look on their face. At a cool $20,000 it makes the regular iPhone 4 look like it’s worth pennies. White with sparkling diamonds? A chic girl’s best friend!

After the diamond rings and all those pretty things, what do you get the girl who has everything? How ‘bout a diamond iPod Shuffle! It’s only $40,000, I mean, what do you expect from an iPod made of 18-karat pink gold and 430 diamonds. Oh, did I mention that there are another 118 on the earphone.

And in the eventuality that someone at the party does have one of the above, behold the most expensive phone in the world. Another creation of Stuart Hughes, this iPhone 4 is handmade of pink gold and more than 500 individual flawless diamonds around the edges and 53 more to make the iconic Apple logo. The home button is made from one of two interchangeable 8-karat diamonds (‘cause one would just be cheap!). So if you have an extra $8 million lying around, go nuts! I wonder if you still need that plastic case for better reception.

And finally for all you BlackBerry users, even your beloved device was given some love. The BlackBerry Curve 8900 was pimped out with 4,150 diamonds mounted on 18 karats of gold. Not a bad way to spend $200,000.

Who ever said it’s what’s on the inside that counts?

Dark Chocolate and Basil Truffles

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

The holidays bring many opportunities to host and attend various potlucks, click dinners and parties. One of the eternal questions during the season becomes “What should I bring?” As it turns out, homemade chocolate truffles are a surprisingly easy, impressive and downright tasty option to have in your arsenal.

This particular truffle combines the complex, smokey and nutty flavors of a good dark chocolate with the bright herb profiles of basil. I know what you are thinking, but the combination of chocolate and basil is remarkably compelling.

Step by Step Recipe

Begin by finely chopping 12 ounces of 40 to 60 percent chocolate and 12 ounces of 70 percent or higher chocolate. You need the lower percentage chocolate to add some sweetness to the final truffle, and the darker richer chocolate for that deep smoky flavor. Put the chopped chocolate in a large bowl.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Roughly chop a large handful of basil. You do not want the basil chopped too fine, just enough to release the essential oils from the leaves. You could also use mint, tarragon or shiso depending on your mood and preferences, but chocolate and basil is an outstanding pairing, I promise!

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Add 1 1/3 cup of heavy cream to a heavy-bottomed small pan. Add the basil and salt. Bring the cream up to a boil 2 times, cooling it between the first and second boiling.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

When the cream comes to a boil the second time, strain the hot cream over the chopped chocolate, mashing any big pieces with a spoon.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Stir the mixture together in a circular pattern from the center and working your way to the edge with a wooden spoon. When you first start the stirring, the chocolate will look lumpy and almost curdled; do not freak out. The ganache will soon be smooth, glossy, and beautiful.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

When the ganache is smooth and glossy, pour the mixture into a shallow 9×12 aluminum baking dish that you have lined with saran wrap. Cover the mixture with more saran wrap, making sure that the saran wrap touches the ganache as this will prevent a “skin” from developing as the ganache cools. Place in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours until the mixture has completely chilled.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

After the ganache has chilled, remove it from the fridge and pull it out of the baking dish. Unwrap the block of ganache and place on a cutting board.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Using a very sharp knife, cut the ganache into small, bite sized pieces. Place the pieces onto a plate with sugar and roll the pieces in the sugar until they are thinly and evenly coated. Shake off any excess sugar and place the truffle pieces on a serving plate. Depending on how big you cut your pieces, you can expect between 60 to 100 pieces when you are finished.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

You can store the truffles in the refrigerator and they will keep for a week or two.

Makes about 60 to 100 truffles


This recipe can be tweaked with any number of other flavors to keep things interesting. Consider replacing the basil with any of the following:

  • Curry powder
  • Chipotle chiles
  • Tarragon
  • Espresso powder


  • 12 ounces milk or mild chocolate (40% – 60% cacao)
  • 12 ounces dark chocolate (70% or higher cacao)
  • 1 bunch of basil, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Sugar for dusting

Internet In Hotels

Photo Credit: Abigail Thompson

This topic gets discussed enough but I rarely give it much thought because most of my experiences are through business travel. The expense therefore is not mine and so the wound doesn’t cut as deep.

Plain and simple – Internet connectivity in hotels sucks!

This trip isn’t a personal one but the fact remains, Internet isn’t free and on top of that, connectivity is barley workable. We have people trying to connect to their email and waiting for 10, sometimes 12 minutes to see their inbox. If too many people connect to the wireless service in the hotel then someone else will get arbitrarily bumped off. So the speed is slow and the rules aren’t fair.We are not in a Motel 6 here either. This is a large Chateau as we call them that hosts many people and large conferences.

Staying in large hotels a few times this year it is easy to see during the week that most are there for business, be it meetings or conferences. That means that they need to be connected. Some will rely on their Blackberry but due to the corporate cost of BES servers and data; some don’t have that luxury.

It seems to me that the hotel industry needs to update their infrastructure but also needs to adopt a new philosophy. Let’s be clear – most travel these days is business related. Quite simply they need to consider their Internet connectivity as a essential service in their hotel.

More and more I am asked which hotels I recommend based on their Internet service. Nothing is more frustrating to people who organize big events than everyone complaining to them about something as simple as Internet access. They have so many other small issues to take care of, they just don’t need to be bothered by people regarding something they can’t fix.

You ask if I can give any recommendations?

  • Call ahead! Don’t wait until everyone is on site or the meeting is booked to figure this out. As a event planner this should be on the top of the list.
  • Make sure that they can handle a lot of traffic. Ask them if their system is equipped to handle every room connecting to wireless or wired Internet at the same time.
  • Check the cost. Some hotels do actually offer free access. It seems to me that they all should in 2010 but some charge $25 a day per connection or even more. If you have 100 people on a 5 day conference that can add $12,500 to your budget.
  • Let’s just say that I have never had a good experience in a hotel that has the DataValet service. I am sure they don’t want to hear that but more often than not there is a lot of trouble connecting to corporate VPNs.
  • Get a fairly competent person to test the VPN connection on site if you can. I know this isn’t always possible but perhaps you have a sales force with someone near by.
  • If you aren’t a big company or you are traveling on your own then perhaps scouting out a backup location with free Internet is a good idea in case of emergency. A Starbucks or other cafe might be the solution to this.
  • If you travel often then mobile Internet might be a better solution. At $20 a day for 5 days you have spent $100 on a week’s trip. That will offer you quite a good plan for mobile Internet, even in Canada where I live and mobile services are usually more expensive.

I think the most important thing is to educate yourself and others around you. Hotels offer inadequate service because they aren’t pressured to improve. If we make the call to the hotel and aren’t satisfied with their Internet plan, then we should tell them we are going to look elsewhere for that reason.

Of course this was all prompted by my current stay – I wrote this article while tethered to my Blackberry, not from the hotel service.

Good luck in your travels, geek on!

Becoming an Author in the iPad Era

Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith

If you’re like most folks, at one time or another, you’ve thought about taking that one great idea, hunkering down in front of the typewriter or word processor and just letting the words flow till they all come together to form The Great Novel. Many have actually done so, launching themselves head first, typing out the first few sentences of their masterpiece. But if you’re like most, you probably gave up after less than a page, never mind finishing one chapter. And from there, the numbers thin out to just the very few who somehow plug away till their book is done.

If you managed to finish the first draft of your very first novel, congratulations. It’s not easy. But you like it. You think it’s good. Real good. Now you want to share it with the world.

The world of book publishing has changed. A lot. For a budding new writer, now may be the best time ever to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big players.

Consumption versus Creation
Technology has accelerated people’s ability to consume endless amounts of information and media. There is an abundance of choice today previously unknown in human history. The industrial revolution created an almost limitless supply of physical goods that consumers could buy and enhance their lives. Now with the information revolution, media content has exponentially grown to the point where no one person could ever conceivably watch, listen, read or experience everything they find enticing.

Oh. But there is a downside.

With all this consumption, individuals could miss out on the other opportunities afforded by today’s technology: content creation.

Okay. So maybe you can’t sing or play an instrument. And for most, making a movie or a television show is out of the question.

But we all have one skill that we can leverage into content: language. As long as you can string a sentence together, you can write a book. All it takes is a good idea, a computer with writing software and patience to see it through. And a good book can propel a person from obscurity to fame and fortune.

Well, okay. Rarely. But you just know it’ll be you this time, right? Right on.

Electronic Distribution
The publishing industry is a big machine with a chain made up of authors (the folks who write the books), agents (the folks who match up authors with publishing houses), publishers (the folks who print, package, market and ship the books), retailers (the folks who sell the books) and consumers (the folks who buy and read the books). Like baseball, music labels and movie studios, publishers found that they could make oodles of cash by taking raw talent and turning it into gold. And by getting as much strict control on as many links in the chain as they can, they can make sure they maximize their profits. In the good ol’ days, you needed their big machine to do all things required to print and distribute a book. They liked it this way. It’s understandable.

Now it’s different.

There’s the internet. There are e-books. There are e-readers. There’s EPUB. There are short-run book manufacturers like Blurb and Lulu who can make one book at a time that looks as professional as anything at your local bookstore. There are turnkey solutions like iUniverse. There’s the Kindle. And then there’s the iPad and iBooks. And even more to come.

You don’t have to go through the machine anymore.

Media Lessons Learned
The music industry failed to embrace digital technology from the outset and they’re paying the price. By its nature, music is a low commitment medium. It takes about four minutes to consume one distinct unit. CD players and radios are cheap. It can just hover there in the background while you mow the lawn or drive your car. The file sizes are small (thanks, MP3), so pirating piles of songs is like using up a wad of napkins at Mickey D’s that you don’t really need, but like to have around, just in case. Plus the quality can be middling for most people’s tastes. Not a good medium to stake your financial future on.

Then there’s movies and television. Bigger commitment. You need to be sitting still for between 30 and 180 minutes to consume one distinct unit. Television sets, video players and trips to the theater cost more. The file sizes are much bigger, so that stems piracy. Somewhat. They’re looking at the music industry and thinking, ‘maybe we should be a little more open to digital technology’. It’s helping. A little. But their industry isn’t been on the verge of tanking like music has. Yet.

Now, publishing. Books? Huge commitment. You really need to have your nose in front of that page. Hours, days, even weeks to consume one unit. Photocopy a book? Who has the time? If there’s no PDF floating around, who would bother ripping it off? People have a much more visceral relationship with books. Almost a sensual one. And the publishing industry, thanks to Apple and Amazon, have decided to embrace digital technology.

There’s an opportunity there.

The Writing Process
So. You want to be a fiction writer? Fire up the ol’ Word or OpenOffice and just start typing away, right? Well, that’s probably not the best way to go about it.

Introduce yourself to the concept of non-linear writing.

Word processors by the nature of their architecture presume you will begin your document in the upper lefthand corner, work your way to the right, make a carriage return and drop a line and so on till your manuscript is done.

There’s a better way.

What if you want to start a third of the way in? Then maybe write a scene near the end. Or maybe you have an idea for a prologue before the first chapter.

In the olden days, there were these small pieces of cardboard called index cards. You could write a story idea on one and just lay it out on a corkboard or table. Then you could just play with these discrete ideas and reorder them till you fleshed out your narrative.

For Mac users, there’s Scrivener. For Windows folks, PageFour and others. They will free you from the bonds of linear thinking and make your writing project that much more pleasant. If not for Scrivener, I would have never been able to finish the first draft of my first real novel.

For years, I took stab after stab at writing a book. Never could do it. I always ran out of steam very early on. A non-linear text editor like Scrivener really changed everything for me. Like the first time I put together an Ikea bookcase with a cordless drill instead of breaking my wrist with a screwdriver, doing a major project was something to look forward to, not dread like some awful chore.

Good tools make a difference.

In the process of writing my book, there were some valuable lessons I learned that every newbie writer ought to know. There are many others, but these are all pretty basic.

Show. Don’t tell. In other words, describe the scene using the senses. Don’t just report what’s happened.

Remember the rule of three acts: establish your lead character, make him or her in face ever-mounting conflicts, end off with a huge climax.

Read good authors. Learn from them.

Raise the stakes. Constantly. Keep the action juiced up with a few breathers here and there for some balance.

Finish every scene with a sentence that has an emotional touchstone or a springboard to propel the reader onward.

You can’t completely avoid using adjectives and adverbs, but use descriptive, illustrative images instead when you can.

Keep the final manuscript to between 80,000 and 120,000 words. 100,000 is the sweet spot to aim for.

Hire an editor. If you can’t, be brutal with yourself, even if it is your baby and lop off excess limbs to make it better.

Use a dictionary, thesaurus and spell checker. Watch the grammar.

Keep the drama high and the peril ominous. But don’t be preachy or melodramatic.

Avoid clichés.

Trim the dialog. Keep it punchy, quick and understated.

Expect criticism.

The first draft will be garbage. Period. Don’t worry and don’t self-edit till it’s finished. Once the first draft’s out the door, you can brutalize it all you want. Whatever you do, don’t stop in the middle and nitpick.

Wikipedia is your buddy. Hang out.

Don’t frontload your story. Let it stretch out naturally. Don’t give it all away in the first chapter. Feed the reader by the morsel.

Enjoy every minute.

The Urge to Write
They say do it for love. Not for money. That’s good advice for anything worth spending your time on. For writing, the motive should be for the pure pleasure of telling a story.

As a web designer, there is a great satisfaction in the process of starting with nothing and then creating something beautiful and functional that all the world can experience. That’s the great thing about the web. Anyone anywhere can see what we’ve made.

Creativity is what satisfies the ongoing personal struggle we all deal with when trying to decipher the hidden meaning of our existence. It is in making something beautiful out of our pure imagination that gives us as designers, programmers and authors a real sense of purpose that is tangible. In a sense, we all are storytellers in our own right.

The art of writing fiction gives everyone an opportunity to explore the sheerest heights and depths of human emotion and experience, pitting characters who represent us in the most extreme situations, putting to the test our values, aspirations and our weaknesses and sharing them with others in insightful and entertaining ways. Everyone should, at least once in their lives, write a long form story, if only for the experience.

And there’s no better time than right now.

Rock Star

Photo Credit: Tim Samoff

Justin (a fictional person for this article) considers himself to be a very good designer. He trained at a local college, discount got decent grades, and even landed a respectable job at an agency in his area. But Justin feels that he can do more with his skills as a freelancer, or perhaps move on to a more well-known studio for work. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to get the attention from those who will ultimately help him achieve his long-term goals.

Part of the problem is how easily Justin becomes frustrated when he sees work that is superior to his own. He begins hitting creativity walls and starts asking the wrong questions, like “Why can’t I be that good?”, or “Why don’t people see me for my worth?”,  or even “Do I suck at this?”.

You might be Justin, or you might know someone who is. I’ve had days where I feel just like this, and so have you. We all know these feelings, because deep down inside, we all kind of like the idea of being mini-rockstars in our own circle of what we do, yet we also have days where we feel that we don’t deserve it when seeing what our peers are up to.

The obvious response would be to tell the Justins of the world to just keep at it. “Work hard and never give up!”, “Be strong!”, and “Hang in there!”. I know I’ve heard that more than a few times in my life. And even though it’s the pure truth of what needs done, there’s so much more to it than that.

An Analogy

Let’s say that there’s a chef who is looking to really make a culinary impact on his city. To make something that people would want to come to his restaurant for. He makes a killer dish, but his food turns out tasting much like that prepared by 40 other chefs in his area. So, he has an idea: to alter his recipe into something that few other chefs are doing. He creates his own blend of flavors.

At this point, something very interesting happens – his audience begins to divide into two primary groups: Those who criticize his cooking skills, and those who rave about it. All eyes (and taste-buds) turn to our chef to see what he’s been up to. Even people reading the critics turn up, generally out of curiosity – because most people are a little nosy. The raving reviews even earn him a couple of mentions in the local newspaper, which he appreciates.

Now, our chef is becoming locally famous, is bringing attention to his area (and his restaurant), and is beginning to make some of his dreams really come true, all because he stopped trying to make everyone happy, and started specializing in something truly unique. By altering his recipe just a tiny bit, he was able to move forward in his career.

Back to Justin

The one thing that keeps Justin from “good” versus “great” at this point is being afraid of creating something that some people will not like, by trying to make something that everybody will like. It’s nearly impossible to pull this off, but yet there he is, over and over again, creating designs that look like everyone else’s because trying something different is too high risk.

Justin probably has one thing in his skill set that he’s good at, more than anyone else, because it’s something he loves personally. By learning to focus his attention on this, channelling his design energy into that skill, he will, in point of fact, be creating his own chef’s recipe.

If we all learn one thing from Justin, it’s that we can’t be afraid of creating something that may potentially not be liked by everyone. When we design with our hearts, with passion, people recognize that, and follow you on your own path to greatness. We don’t need to be better than everyone else, we just need to be better than ourselves.

Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 4 of 6)

Photo Credit: Jérôme Decq

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read parts one, two and three.

In the last article of this series we talked about surviving the flight and staying sane at the same time. Now you should be outside the plane and try to find your way to immigration and baggage retrieval. If you have no luggage other than hand luggage, you can start hurrying not to be stuck in the queue at immigration. If you have bags to collect, there is no point in hurrying as most likely you will stand at the luggage belt a long time waiting for your bags to arrive. So, keep calm and walk with purpose but without pushing.

You probably will want to use a washroom after the flight. Skip the first one you encounter as this one will be rammed with people with children and others that needed it very quickly. On average there are at least two washrooms until you get to immigration so go for the second.


The main thing to check is that you have all the papers to get out – your passport and boarding pass – and that you filled out all the necessary forms to be allowed outside.

This differs from country to country. For example in the US you have visa voucher applications (which used to be on paper but now are actually to be filled out and paid for online at this incredibly beautiful and usable web site) which have interesting questions on them like “have you been involved in espionage in the time period of 1939 to 1945”. I always wondered what I did back then–probably being -30. You will also have to have a customs voucher declaring that you have less than $10k cash on you and that you are not bringing in any plants or animals.

These forms can be tricky to fill out – be sure to check front and back and that the addresses and dates are in the right format. There is nothing more annoying than having queued up for half an hour just to delay the rest of the waiting people even more or–even worse–being sent back to the end of the line.

Funnily enough a lot of airports don’t allow you to use mobiles or ipods whilst waiting for your turn with the immigration officer – I normally read a book in the queue.

If you travel a lot from London Heathrow, sign up for IRIS. This is a retina recognition system that basically means you can smugly strut past the people queueing up, look into a box and get a computerised “Thank you”. You walk out in a matter of minutes. If you are like me you hum the James Bond Theme while you do it as it is quite Science Fiction if you think about it.


Immigration can be daunting or quick, depending on the country. Again, this is something you have no choice but just to deal with. Be friendly, state the truth and you’ll be out fast. You might get stuck behind people who do not do the same. In this case, roll your eyes and look helpless and some official normally points you to an alternative booth with another official.

The baggage belt – meet the Mensa club

After immigration you will get to one of the things that always fascinates me – no matter how often I encounter it. Baggage belts are the things that illustrate the difference between greedy cavemen and people who in their ancestry went through a period of enlightenment. Here is the task: identify and pick your luggage from a long moving belt that gets the luggage in random order.

Less enlightened people do the following: move as close as possible to the belt and be ready to pounce like a very hungry tiger onto anything that remotely looks like your luggage. Also bend over and peer down the belt as if you can manage the Force and bring your luggage to you faster that way. The effect of this is that these people are in the way of others who stand by and try to just pick their luggage.

Those worthy of not being displayed in museums next to Mammoths all take one step back and calmly wait until their luggage is in front of them and then quickly grab it. That way nobody is in each other’s way and you don’t need to budge through people to get your suitcase.

The fun thing is that airports encourage that kind of behaviour by, oh, paint an area of the carpet around the belt differently or display a line. The following shot taken at the SFO airport shows what I mean and the labels explain my take on the subject matter:

The difference between obstacles and clever people

Regardless of your approach, sooner or later you’ll get your luggage. If it doesn’t show up and the belt stops moving – that’s a bad sign and you should contact the airline. Sometimes lost luggage is actually quite cool as it means the airline will deliver it to your place and you don’t need to lug your massive suitcase around. If it genuinely is lost then it is really annoying as the replacement money you get from airlines is not really enough to make up both for the lost clothes and the memories or hardship of finding just the right pair of trousers.

If your luggage is damaged, complain immediately. Preferably to an airline official rather than people next to you or people who offer to carry your luggage. Which reminds me: in India you will find a lot of these and sometimes it is a great idea to take their offer as your journey and communication attempts with official security staff at the door will be accelerated if someone speaks the local tongue. Back to the damaged luggage: I had a handle broken on a brand new bag once and asked for replacement. BA replaced the whole bag with a smaller bag of different make as that is their policy. This will happen, so don’t get emotionally attached to your suitcase.

Leaving the airport and choosing a mode of transport

Once you got past customs – which always means choosing the “Arrivals from the European Union” or “Nothing to declare” channels and looking very relaxed and in-suspicious (remember, always remove the packaging of new Apple hardware and use it in your hand luggage – even when you bring it as presents) you get to the outside of the airport. There you have a few choices of transport.

  • You get picked up – kiss the person if you are in a relationship or thank the official drivers for picking you up (kissing is only allowed in very rare edge cases). Also be prepared to decipher various mis-spellings of your name and company or conference names to pick your driver. One time in Bangalore it took me 20 minutes to pick my driver from around 100 waiting ones as Mr. Kahl Ehliman was on the adventurous side of transcription.
  • Be prepared to travel and queue to get your rental car – most pick-up locations are a bit outside the airport, either connected with a train (SFO, for example) or by coach shuttle (Lyon, France). As everybody will pick up their cars at the same time there will be a queue – get a coffee to avoid it.
  • Take a train from the airport – if you travel light and you have to go to a Hotel in the centre of the town this is normally the best option. A lot of airports have great fast trains taking you directly where you want to go – London, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Oslo are great examples.
  • Get a cab to get you to where you need to be – always take official cabs, it is dangerous and almost always much more expensive to go with “need cab, sir” people who approach you directly. There is always an official place where cabs stop – go there.

In any case it is a good idea to have the address of your hotel as a printout or on your smart phone. That way you can just hand it to any driver or ask about it. On the smart phone you also have the benefit of translating it into other languages. In Taiwan for example I found it pointless to show English addresses to cab drivers. Maybe also ask your office or the conference organisers in the other country to provide you with a local version.

Checking in and finding your bearing

Once arrived in the hotel check in. If you have to wait a while for the room to be ready ask them to keep your luggage and go exploring the immediate area. I found for example that a coffee outside the hotel is always significantly cheaper and you already get your bearings of the area. Of course check beforehand that the area is safe.

Once in the room I either go to the gym of the hotel to sort out my stiff back from the flight and fight jetlag or have a shower to do the same. I then go outside and deliberately lose my way to force myself to ask the way back to the hotel and gain a bit of independence in my travels that way. If you are on a very tight schedule you might already have a speaker’s dinner or something lined up so that’s the evening planned. The best way to avoid jetlag to me is to immediately get into the time zone of the place you visit – if that means staying up 27 hours, do it. Sleeping as the first thing will only mess you up for the next few days. Thankfully arriving in a strange new town or re-visiting one I enjoyed beforehand always gives me an adrenaline rush that makes this easy.