When To Give Up Free

Photo Credit: Puzzledmonkey

When I first began dabbling in blogging, obesity 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, pharm and WordPress was for self-hosted geeks who knew what they were doing. So when I wanted to learn about HTML/CSS, sale 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.

Herbalism: Open Source Medicine

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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.

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, buy more about 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, nurse 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.

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, anabolics 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!

Book review: Cryptonomicon, by Neil Stephenson

A geek-a-liscious literary experience

It’s World War II and the allies have cracked the encryption of a major Axis communication codes. How can they act without revealing their access to this precious intelligence? Detachment 2702, malady a rag-tag group of soldiers and intelligence agents, human enhancement is dispatched to create believable (and hilarious) alibis to justify why German and Japanese convoys keep getting sunk.

It’s the late ’90s and the grand-children of two Detachment 2702 members are part of an IT start-up venture in the Philippines. The discovery of a sunken WWII German submarine filled with gold leads to a set of encrypted punched cards that may contain the location of an even bigger Japanese war treasure hoard.

This genre defying novel is in fact a mashup of many stories: a WWII spy action, clinic a harrowing death camp escape, a modern-day treasure hunt yarn, a philosophical mathematics treatise and a high-finance techno thriller. All of these narratives are tied together with a profound insight into geek culture and an unrestricted glee for hyperbole of hysterical proportions.

One of its many themes is the invention of the digital computer, with particular attention to its use in cryptology (encryption), communication and currency. The word “Cryptonomicon” itself refers to a fictional book summarizing mankind’s knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

Stephenson has a knack for explaining complex concepts in the most entertaining way. For instance, he’ll use graphs and formulas to describe absolutely ludicrous situations as a means to illustrate some of his more abstract themes. He will also often segue into seemingly unrelated side-stories, such as a letter to Penthouse about furniture and stockings or the tale of a wisdom tooth removal from hell. Far from being annoying, these are some of the most entertaining aspects of the book.

Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite novels of all time. Reading this 1,100 pages behemoth has become an almost-yearly ritual for me. The reason I come back to this book over and over again is because of the sheer density and enjoyability of its material. Every reading brings a smile to my face and sheds new light into its many concepts and plot points.

Beyond History

Neil Stephenson, previously known for high-tech, high-concept science-fiction novels such as Snow Crash (virtual worlds) and The Diamond Age (nanotechnology), chose the historical fiction genre for this crazy chimera of a novel. Notable historical figures featured in Cryptonomicon are: Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan. We also encounter names that have the ring of familiarity such as Electrical Till Company (ETC), a reference to IBM (Idea Business Machines), a WIRED-like TURING magazine and a scrappy Finnish open-source operating system called “Finux”.

A cornucopia of themes

I will now simply list some of the themes covered in Cryptonomicon. Hopefully, this should give you an idea of the relentless fountain of craziness and though-provoking substance of this most unusual book:

  • What is encryption and why it’s so important;
  • Cracking an encryption code
  • The autistic-like nature of nerds and geeks;
  • Start-ups, NDA’s and business plans;
  • Pen-and-paper vs computer and card-based role-playing games;
  • The impact of horniness on concentration and the relative merits of self-administered relief;
  • Information theory and all the ways that information can leak our of a communication channel;
  • Mastering UNIX and TCP/IP;
  • Customizing a Linux-like fictional operating system to its core;
  • Building a digital computer using pipes and sound;
  • Encrypting messages using a deck of playing cards
  • Setting up a data haven;
  • Creating an electronic currency;
  • The social etiquette of the military;
  • The difference between Athena and Ares, the two gods of War from Greek mythology, and how this relates to WWII;
  • The optimal way to eat a bowl of Capt’n Crunch breakfast cereals;
  • The effectiveness of publishing encryption schemes vs keeping them secret;
  • Using anonymizer proxy services to protect your anonymity;
  • Using Zeta functions to generate pseudo-random numbers;
  • Eavesdropping on the contents of a computer display by detecting its electromagnetic emissions (Van Eck phreaking);
  • Using character classes from the Lord of The Ring as a way to categorize people;
  • Genocides and mass murders;
  • The logistics of digging a hidden treasure hoard in a mountain using slave labor;
  • Libertarian paranoia and gun culture;
  • And more, more, more!!!


When Stephenson published Cryptonomicon in 1999, the Web had reached mainstream status and was just starting to impact the life of everyone. Windows NT and 95 were still widely used and cell-phones with worldwide coverage were an oddity. How well has this novel aged and is it still relevant today?

Most of the forward-looking tech stuff has since become old news. However, the adventure is still thrilling, the jokes still gut-splitting and its insight are still significant.

Overall, I would still recommend it to anyone passionate about WWII, computers and Big Ideas as well as to anyone interested in learning more about the puzzling psychology of geeks and nerds.


Following Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote a prequel of a sort to this story. Published in three back-breaking 1,500+ pages volumes, this “Baroque Trilogy” (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) is set in the 17th century and deals with the same dominant themes of Cryptonomicon (currency, computers, treasure hunts, etc.). Its main protagonists include famous Historical figures, such as Isaac Newton and Louis XIV, as well as ancestors of many Cryptonomicon characters and a mysterious, long-lived Alchemist.

While its tone doesn’t attempts to be as consistently comic as Cryptonomicon, the Baroque trilogy is a hugely entertaining follow-up. If you enjoy diving deep into witty, meandering, though-provoking stories, these ones are for you!


Photo sources: Flickr and uboatarchive.net

“Jipi and the Paranoid Chip” is a science fiction short story by Neal Stephenson that appeared in Forbes Magazine’s July 7, 1997 issue. It is part of the Baroque Cycle/ Cryptonomicon universe.

Managing Your Career in the World of Web Development, Part 2

Photo Credit: Josh Westbrook

Last month I talked about how web development has become commoditzed and specialized to the point where large software shops are now as digital analogues to agricultural feedlots. Web shops are becoming vast cube farms of production where the quality of the work is sometimes secondary to the process in which it is produced. While this is less true in Canada than other countries, link make no mistake – this kind of thinking permeates today’s market where you are today.

This is a first.

In the world of cattle farming, neurologist or automotive manufacturing, healthful such a concept would long ago have been acknowledged, been dealt with and documentation consigned to the archives. Not so in web development. If you’re a web developer, or work in the world of the internet in any of its myriad incarnations, you inhabit a work environment that has no precedent. No legacy, or at least if there is one it is nascent and so by definition not significant.

And so it becomes necessary to learn how to make your way in a world where there is no previous generation to guide you. No manuals exist and no signposts grace your path. Let me offer up a few simple things to keep in mind.

It’s about your career

The first thing you have to realize is you have a career and sometimes it’s not your job. Hopefully more often than not it is, but what’s critical is that you see your career for the continuum that it is. It started when you got your first job and it ends whenever you decide, and every moment you spend on the continuum contributes to its direction and continuity. The direction of your career is yours to steer but do make an effort to have a direction in mind. It’s not necessary that your direction remain consistent (though of course there is nothing wrong if it does). What does matter is that you have one. As the aphorism goes, ‘when one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.’

Where to begin

Many people starting out today take the obvious routes and either go to an agency like Sapphire or SI Systems or go corporate–IBM, Accenture, Microsoft, Google. These large organizations all fulfill the same need for their employees–they provide clearly defined structures and processes combined with personnel to support whatever the rules and regulations are. It can be very comforting for some to know that all you have to worry about is being on time, dressing appropriately and writing code. If you buy into the cog-in-a-wheel mindset, you’re reasonbly good at your task and reasonably reliable at delivery, you can count on a reasonably successful tenure at one of these companies.

People looking for something more exciting go freelance. The pay is better (though it comes with some extra work) and you can get a broad exposure to different workplaces and work practices while building up a large stable of contacts.

The real prize in the digital world these days is landing a gig at a big digital agency–AKQA, Sapient, BBDO–these are world-wide organizations that combine (mostly) the cool of the creative world with the benefits of a large scale enterprise work force.

Whichever path you find yourself on remember the first rule–it’s about your career, not your job. In our next installment we’ll talk about how to avoid some common mistakes. We’ll also cover some techniques for keeping an eye on your career while the other is on your job.

Managing your career in the world of Web development

I used to be that guy, cheap once.

The one-man webmaster, find creator and designer and strategist and coder and sysadmin and dBA. Yes there really was a time when one person could do all that – and more. Do it for many websites. Some of you reading this were likely in grade school when this was so – the art and craft of mastering websites has evolved exponentially, to the point that even the simplest blog requires a minimum of 2 people – you and the person managing the hosting.

Back in the day it was easy to plan your career. Things fell into place easily and largely because you were one of a rare few that understood the arcana of http, ftp, gopher, IRC and you actually had a netsol ID number. (Mine is KS443 – for us old fogeys they kept some of the records alive for posterity even they don’t use them anymore ). You could command vast sums of money, work any hours you chose, get all the latest toys and have a total blast using view Source and Kai’s Power Tools. A great day in the office was downloading the newest version of Navigator.

Nowadays, not so much. In fact, it’s fair to say the current generation of web workers (web developer is too limiting a box) has become commoditized. Technical schools, arts colleges, even some Universities now have programs designed to compress 20 years of whirlwind innovation into 2 or 3 years of specialized training and spit out an unending stream of assembly line workers. We have hierarchies and R&R documents.  We have Architect, Front End, Back End, Middleware, User Experience, Strategy, Rich Media – all of whom are good at one thing and familiar with a couple more and fully expect to work in a team environment where artifacts of their labour get passed around like so many auto parts waiting for final assembly.

Sound familiar? I’m not surprised. It’s a case of the pendulum having swung to the other side and while I am sanguine to know it will cycle back to normalcy I am both impatient for that time and struggling with my own contributions to its kinetic energy. I am spending a lot of my time recently interviewing candidates for various positions within our company and I see daily evidence of what I speak. And I ask myself time and time again ‘how are these people ever going to get out of the assembly line?’.

In our next installment, and at the risk of sound patronizing, I am going to offer some tips on how to manage your career in the coming years. And in a third and final episode I will offer some tips on how to avoid the pitfalls of ambition in the world of Web development.

We Value Your Privacy

They say truth is stranger than fiction.

One afternoon at a now defunct payment processing company, sale while moving my coding fingers as quickly as possible, pulmonologist the programmers’ farm erupted in exclamations of “check your mail!” and gasps of terror.

An email had been sent to everyone in the department. It contained an attachment that clearly laid out our main (private) database schema in a much more clear manner than anyone had ever managed to document internally.

The mail’s body read like a ransom note. I don’t remember the exact words, patient but the gist was “Your web application is full of holes. I’ve exploited your code, and I’ve attached proof in the form of a schema diagram. If you don’t send me £50,000, I will start exploiting your customers.” It went on to give detailed instructions on how to pay our new extortionist friend.

We knew the problems were there. SQL injection as far back as CVS could remember. Most of us wanted to plug the holes, but we were never given the opportunity to do so. We attempted to take the opportunity a few times, but were unsuccessful in convincing management that a “trivial” problem like SQL injection could ever be more than an inconvenience.

As soon as this horrifying realization set in, we low-on-the-corporate-hierarchy-programmers gathered together and started forming a plan for how we’d crush these problems. We’d fix the low-hanging fruit first, and then we’d systematically go through the rest of the code to rid ourselves of this plague, once and for all. A back-of-napkin plan was in place within 15 minutes, and we dutifully started a commit storm of heroic measures to save the company.

By then, the news had trickled up to the CEO. We expected him to be livid, but we all knew there was no time to worry. We’d called our families and cleared our social calendars. It was time to pull an all-nighter; maybe two.

There was no yelling. No immediate firings. No faux-motivation speeches. Instead, the CEO (who normally had a short fuse) feigned tranquility and gathered the entire audience of the aforementioned email together for a short but simple talk.

“I understand you’ve all received a disconcerting email regarding the security of our systems. I want you to know that this situation is under control, and it requires no action on your part. Go back to your normal duties. None of you are to ever speak of this outside of this room. If you are caught doing so, you will be terminated immediately. The NDA you’ve all signed will see to easy termination, should it become necessary.”

No one ever asked for my help in wiring £50,000 to Russia, and that was the last any of us heard of this particular problem. If the company hadn’t flopped a year later (presumably due to unrelated circumstances), I’d expect those security holes to still be in play.

Roll Your Own Payment Processing

If you’re smart enough to build a web or mobile app, endocrinologist you’re smart enough to roll your own payment processing. I love companies like Fastspring, e-Junkie, and the like, but you should never leave margin on the table. It’s easier than ever to integrate with the credit card processors directly.

If you have an app that has one-time purchases, you should shop for the cheapest merchant account and use whatever gateway is included. The larger providers, such as Chase Paymentech, have their own gateways (in Paymentech’s case, it’s Orbital). The smaller guys generally resell something like Authorize.net‘s offering. The merchant account merely is permission to get credit card sales deposited in your existing merchant account. If you’re doing one-time billing, you have no need to know what credit card was used to buy your product.

If you’re doing a subscription app, you really want to use something like Recurly or Chargify. They handle all the weird exception cases (cancellations, upgrades/downgrades, partial terms, etc.) and both integrate with all the major gateways. Plus, they have their own integrations with the gateways. You just want to make sure that you can change providers without inconveniencing users. I’ve always recommended using TransFS to find a merchant account, and now you can screen by preferred gateway on their platform.

Not only do you need to make something people want, you need to make it easy for people to pay. If you spend the time to roll your own payment processing integration, you can clear thousands of extra dollars a month. It’s totally free money; it’s just up to you to do the work to make it happen.