Accounting for Ripple Effects

I get emotional about accounting. That’s probably a personal problem — some sort of deep-seated issue dating far back in my history as an entrepreneur. But the more time I spend thinking about accounting in general, and tax returns in specific, the more emotional I get.

The accounting industry is having a very good year as we’re all pushing to get our tax returns completed. As an industry, accountants tend to do well and can expect repeat business. But this year is something special, as we all scramble to figure out just what the Affordable Care Act means for our personal tax returns.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic to have a way of getting health insurance that doesn’t require a marriage or an employment contract. I’m willing to spend a little more time with my accountant in exchange. But the ripple effects really drive home just how much of an out-sized impact the US approach to health insurance has on our economy. With a presidential election next year, I’m sure that we’ll see even more unintended consequences in the near future.

A New Use for Hemingway: Ghostwriting

I’ve been finding Hemingway surprisingly useful when working on ghost-writing projects lately. It’s a useful sort of a writing hack to get some quick insights when you’re trying to mimic someone else’s writing style.

Of course, Hemingway is fundamentally intended to help writers sound more like the man himself. But it does that by highlighting certain characteristics of writing:

  • passive voice
  • adverbs
  • vocabulary

By putting in writing samples from a client who I need to mimic, I can see pretty quickly how they use words. I can do that sort of analysis by hand, but it’s tedious enough that I don’t actually do so except on really well paying projects.

If you’re trying to mimic the style of someone’s writing, I suggest looking at several examples of someone’s writing through Hemingway’s lens, not just one. Getting the style right on a ghost writing project is hard enough when you’ve got multiple samples — getting style right off of just one sample is impossible.

Putting in several samples can be time-consuming, though. I do wish Hemingway had an API so that I could integrate it with some of my other writing tools, as well as automate the process of putting writing samples into the app. But I don’t absolutely need an API to keep finding new ways to use Hemingway — it’s just something that would be nice to have.

How To Level Up


Stagnation is a very real threat, especially when you do creative work every day. Clients are only ever interested in what you can already do and repeats of what you have already done. (While I can’t speak from experience, I assume the same is true of employers.)

Doing just what is expected of you is an option, I suppose. But if you’ve already decided to go out and read blog posts about creativity, you’re probably not the sort of person to be forever content with the status quo. You want to level up, preferably on a regular basis.

It’s certainly possible to force yourself to level up creatively. You need to invest some time and take some risks.

  • Force yourself to launch new personal projects on a regular basis.
  • Find a way to work on the projects above your pay grade, even if it means acting as an assistant to the primary creative on the job.
  • Tell people what you’re doing so that they’ll hold you accountable.
  • Do work that scares you (in the risk-taking sense of the word, not in the working-with-bad-clients category).

Right now, I’m gearing up to launch something that will stretch my abilities in whole new ways. It’s pretty intimidating. But I keep telling more and more people about the idea, so it will be a whole lot scarier for me if people think I’ve given up than to actually finish the work.

Image by Flickr user williamcho

Why Freelancers Should Embrace Dwolla

Payment processing is something of a pet peeve for me. Getting paid through a site like PayPal is very convenient, but I have to give up 2.9 percent of my income (plus an added 30 cent fee) on every transaction. Consider what that means I’m paying:

Income Payment to PayPal
$100 $3.12
$1,000 $29.30
$10,000 $290.30

That amount doesn’t seem like all that much, but it only ever goes up even as the expense of having a bank account remains the same. I don’t feel like I get all that much for my money, especially since PayPal doesn’t always protect service providers from scams.

The real reason I still use PayPal at all is because all of my clients are familiar with the company. They mostly have accounts already and don’t have to think about the process of making a payment. I generally ask clients to pay with a check over sending a PayPal payment, though, or use Stripe’s integrations with invoicing tools to pay with a credit card.

In an ideal world where clients are willing to try new things, though, I would ask everyone to use Dwolla. Dwolla costs 25 cents per transaction (look at that adorable flat rate!) and has real humans in charge of customer service. Unlike both PayPal and banks (including my nice, local credit union), I’ve heard almost no stories of problems and even those seem to be either resolved to the customer’s satisfaction or be the results of misunderstandings. The main exception seems to involve using Dwolla to purchase Bitcoin, so I’m not too worried. About 35,000 businesses were using Dwolla as of June, along with several state governmental agencies.

Now I just need to convince some clients…

HabitRPG is My New Favorite Productivity Tool

A few friends convinced me to join HabitRPG a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve become an enthusiastic convert!

The idea behind HabitRPG is that we can treat our to-do lists like a game. We can get points for knocking items off the list, level up, and even help friends defeat bigger monsters. HabitRPG offers a little motivation for the things we know we need to do.

For me, the biggest win is that I’m ‘playing’ in a group. If I let down my party — if I fail to complete my tasks, leading us to take damage as a group from whatever monster we’re currently fighting — I feel like a jerk. I definitely recommend playing with a group (preferably people you see regularly face-to-face), because the accountability HabitRPG offers is masterful. It’s even an improvement on traditional accountability models in some way, because no one else can see what your tasks are: you get the positive reinforcement from your friends without having to explain any embarrassing tasks you’re struggling with.

HabitRPG is not a task manager or a to-do list in and of itself, though. I’m using it alongside Asana (I’ve forced the rest of my household on to an Asana workspace and I won’t give that up). I would love to see an integration between the two, but I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. And that’s okay: HabitRPG excels at adding a little bit of motivation, not at nagging you about a missed deadline. I’ve found it beneficial because some of my time-insensitive work would normally get ignored, but HabitRPG treats all tasks equally.

HabitRPG is available on a freemium basis and I’m currently on the free plan. So far, I’m not feeling any great push to move over, though I expect that I’ll pay for a plan in order to support the makers. Unfortunately, HabitRPG does seem to have a lot of downtime. However, the underlying software is open source, so you can go fix it if you’re emotionally invested enough.

HTML is the New Latin


Latin is a strange language. No one speaks it as their first language and few people speak it regularly outside of Vatican City. Yet many schools still offer Latin classes and most of us know a few words (even if we aren’t always aware that we do). We still use Latin roots for forming new words, even in English with its Germanic heritage. Kids studying for the SAT or GRE learn Latin roots to score well on what may be the most important tests of their lives.

We have a certain respect for the language that united scholars and politicians across Europe hundreds of years ago. Latin provided an underlying structure that allowed key ideas to pass communication barriers. Whether or not Latin is regularly spoken in the future, it will still have a lasting impact on the words we use for centuries to come.

The digital age requires a new connective infrastructure. Markup languages, including HTML, are that communication tool. Markup languages are systems of annotating documents in a way that’s both visually different from the text itself and recognizable by computer programs. Learning at least a few HTML tags is rapidly becoming a necessary step to sharing information across borders. HTML, by the way, stands for “HyperText Markup Language.”

The Words Themselves Aren’t So Important Today

As a writer, I hate myself for even suggesting that words themselves aren’t so important. But with translation tools constantly improving, my choice to use English words is far less important than it was even a few years ago. Even the specific words I use are exchangeable for something simpler: I can drop a blog post like this into Hemingway and see where I can change my diction.

I read web pages written in foreign languages every day. Google translates those pages for me automatically. I don’t need a human to translate their work into Latin or another shared language for me to get the gist of it.

But I do need those foreign texts in a format that Google can access. They need to be web pages, written in HTML, so that a machine can access and process the information they contain. Markup languages make our work accessible to the world — the same purpose Latin served centuries ago.

Of course, machine-based translation isn’t perfect. It’s improving, however, especially as the systems handling such translation get access to more text and can learn from experience. The algorithms used to process language are improving every day. In the long-term, it’s possible that we really could have real-time translations whispered into our ears as we talk. In the meanwhile, we can make our work easier to access, both by machines and by humans.

A Little Formatting Makes a World of Difference

Formatting is crucial. When we speak, we can convey our emotions through eye rolls, upbeat tones of voice, and other non-verbal communication. But with the written word, we’re limited to sharing information through words and formatting. Boldness, bullet points, and other visual cues have to do the heavy lifting.

This sort of formatting also conveys information to non-human readers. When a machine processes a document without any formatting, it can guess what the title and topic of the piece are based on comparison to other documents. But if the writer of a document puts a couple of H1 tags around that document’s title, a computer can tell the title of the piece immediately. Doing so also helps human readers focus on the title quickly, as an added benefit.

Unfortunately, formatting isn’t always a simple matter. There are many ways we can share text with the world — a shared Word doc, a WordPress blog post, a plain text comment, and many more. But each of these methods brings its own formatting woes. Our reliance on rich text is to blame. Different tools implement formatting in different ways, making it difficult to copy and paste between systems. These proprietary systems don’t talk to each other as well as they could. Don’t get me wrong. The situation has improved over the past few years: You can copy text from a Microsoft Word document into a WordPress blog post without your formatting going all wonky now (provided you’re using a recent version of WordPress). But there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Writers Need to Learn Markup Languages

The need to make our work more accessible for both human and machine readers seems like a question of improving technology. Our tools are continuing to evolve. But, as a writer, choosing to learn HTML or another markup language can push your own work much further.

On the most basic level, offering an editor or a publisher a plain text file formatted with HTML can help your career. An editor can get your work published online far faster if you hand them a prepared file. You have a far better shot at being the editor’s favorite writer when you know HTML.

On a deeper level, however, the ability to correctly format your writing in HTML can increase its reach. Search engines have a harder time ranking an incorrectly formatted blog post or web page than one with correctly written HTML. You don’t have to dive too far down the rabbit hole: just being able to format your writing and add a little meta data is enough to make your work much more accessible. Adding in the right HTML is the modern day version of translating your work into Latin so that the folks in the next country over can actually find and understand your work in their library.

I’m not suggesting that you learn how to program. I may personally think that’s a good idea, but I’ve seen other writers get anxious at that sort of suggestion. Rather, writers need to be able to annotate our work to ensure our meanings are clear — we need to add formatting tags and a few other details. It’s possible to get by with using a tool that generates your HTML for you. I actually write in Markdown using a cloud-based word processor that can transform Markdown files into all sorts of other formats. But it’s worth your while to learn some HTML first, if only so you’ll notice if an automated system gets something wrong.

HTML is a Tool of the Cultural Elite

Through the seventeenth century, getting any attention at all required translating your work into Latin. It didn’t matter if you were a member of the Catholic Church or not. Latin was your only choice of languages for communicating with the cultural elite. Even Isaac Newton, who lived in the Protestant country of England, wrote his mathematical treatises in Latin.

Today, reaching the cultural elite means publishing your work online. Online doesn’t mean just tossing up an essay or an article on your blog, by the way. If you want to have any sort of reach, you need to be able to push your work on to a variety of platforms, like the Kindle. Just as writing in Latin meant that any European with a good education could read Newton’s work, marking up your own work with HTML makes spreading it easier. You can immediately push your work out to all the different platforms your readers might use. (The only way to use what Amazon refers to as ‘advanced formatting’ in a Kindle ebook, as it happens, is to format your book using HTML.)

There may always be print versions of particular work, but we’re fast reaching a point where publishers of all stripes push work online first and create a physical copy second. And since HTML, with a little help from CSS, can format text for printing, we should expect the online-first mindset to become even more common.

So Where Should Writers Start?

It’s not uncommon to meet writers who are only interested in perfecting their craft. Personally, I find that mindset to be problematic: If you want to lock yourself in a room all day to write, how can you guarantee that anyone will ever read what you’ve created? If you want to opt out of the world and focus on writing to the exclusion of all other things, though, you do have the option.

But if you’d rather ensure your work reaches an audience, there are a few easy starting points to help you learn a markup language.

  • Start by writing in a rich text editor, such as the one built into WordPress. Write as you would normally, but make a point of switching from rich text to HTML. In WordPress, you just need to click between tabs at the top of the text box where you’re composing your latest magnum opus. Once you see your HTML, you can make a point of checking your formatting against the HTML your editor generates. You’ll pick up simpler formatting, like bold or italic quickly.
  • Consider going through a tutorial or a class. There are hundreds of free tutorials online for HTML and related topics. I’d suggest searching for how to handle specific questions, like ‘how to format a block quote in HTML‘. You can also take more in-depth classes, like those offered by Codecademy.
  • Learn more about markup languages — but only if you really want to. I realize that I’m already bumping up against the limits of what the average writer cares about by writing 2,000 words about why you should care about HTML. If I went down the rabbit hole into topics like metadata, Markdown, and the wide variety of markup languages out in the world, I’d probably lose most of you who have read this far. But for the one or two of you who have an interest, there are all sorts of opportunities out there for writers who really understand markup languages.

You can also consider your tools. We don’t always get the option of choosing how we write. The muse may only strike when you’re looking at an entirely blank screen or even if you’ve just got a pad of paper and a pen. But if you understand your own workflow, you may be able to upgrade your tools so that you’re able to deal with HTML questions and the like with only minimal effort.

At the bare minimum, choose word processing programs capable of exporting HTML without screwing up your carefully planned formatting. Scrivener, for instance, has a much better export track record than Microsoft Word. There are any number of word processors and other tools that will help you write, as well as add HTML to your work in an efficient manner.

Right now, I’m using a tool called Beegit. It gives me a way to share projects with a team, as well as the ability to write with visible markup in my documents. However, Beegit is based on Markdown, rather than HTML, so it’s not necessarily a good switch if you’re still learning about markup languages.

Your Obligation to Experiment

The written word is becoming ever more important: We spend more time with text today than any of our ancestors ever did. But we still haven’t perfected a way of ensuring that a given document is accessible to every single person who wants to read it. Language and cultural barriers still slow down how quickly we can share new ideas, as does issues as simple as file formats.

But the more that we writers can tackle the question of accessibility on our own, the wider our own work will spread. If reaching readers is one of the reasons you bother to put words into a row, take the time to experiment with markup languages, just scholars in centuries past invested the time necessary to learn Latin.

Photo credit: iStylr

Review: Happiness of Pursuit

Chris Guillebeau’s third book, “The Happiness of Pursuit” is a perfect fit with the themes of his previous books. The logical progression of Guillebeau’s books makes perfect sense:

  • In “The Art of Non-Conformity“, Guillebeau laid out a vision of how readers can choose a more personal path. The book offers insights for deciding what your goals might be and how you might live your life differently.
  • In “The $100 Startup“, Guillebeau offered strategies for funding those different approaches to life. It’s effectively the guide for for how to afford the goals readers set in response to “The Art of Non-Conformity.”
  • In “The Happiness of Pursuit“, Guillebeau has created a guide to actually completing those goals, now that readers have a business that allows for a bigger view of life.

Guillebeau’s new book is an look at pursuing big goals, from visiting every country ontche planet to changing the world. He lays out story after story of people who set big, hairy, audacious goals and then reached them. Guillebeau highlights what those stories have in common, offering some crucial insights into how we all can complete our own quests. “The Happiness of Pursuit” makes incredibly big goals seem accessible. After reading the book (straight through), I wanted to immediately go out and accomplish something. I have a feeling I’ll reread the book when I need motivation to get off the couch. If you’ve ever struggled with motivation, I’d definitely give this book a read.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of “The Happiness of Pursuit” from the publisher.

Community-Run Conferences: The Most Bang for Your Conference Buck

Unconference Scheduling

I recently had the pleasure of attending Open Source Bridge and noticed several factors that made it an incredibly useful and enjoyable conference to attend. Open Source Bridge is an annual conference that takes place in Portland, Oregon (just like OSCON). It covers a variety of topics related to open source software, also similarly to OSCON. But while a full-access pass to OSCON runs about $2,000, a ticket to Open Source Bridge is $300. I love community-run conferences!

Full disclosure, I received a press pass for Open Source Bridge. (I’ve also received free passes in the past to other conferences I might reference in this post through volunteering, sponsorships, or client relationships.)

Community-run conferences are a much better opportunity for many people than many other types of events. Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of value to be had at mega-conferences and other types of events, as well. But considering the lower prices associated with community-run conferences, I always come away feeling like I’ve gotten so much for my money. Here’s why.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Room for Dissenting Opinions

The voices you hear at big conferences are often those speakers who are well-established authorities within their specialties. Obviously, big events need speakers who the widest possible audience will recognize in order to sell tickets. But when you have the ‘official’ opinion up on the stage, it’s harder for a speaker with a dissenting opinion to get on the schedule. The decision may be as simple as "We’re covering that topic already, so why should we have a second speaker discussing the same material?"

But that process does mean that different points of view are automatically excluded. The same doesn’t hold true at a community-run conference. Because a community-run conference almost always looks to the community first to choose speakers, there are more opportunities for diverse opinions:

  • Community-run conferences are generally more welcoming to newer speakers, including those with very different perspectives from the status quo.
  • Community-run conferences don’t have to toe the sort of party lines that a company-run conference must. This might explain why all the major hacker conferences are actually community-run events. Even big sponsors only have a limited impact on what can be said at a community-run conference.
  • Community-run conferences can afford to take risks on niche topics that may only appeal to ten or twenty people out of the entire set of attendees. Big conferences have to fill rooms to make economic sense.
  • Attendees at community-run conferences are more likely to pay for their own tickets out of pocket, so they don’t have to justify a particular event to a manager who controls the company budget for conferences. In turn, that means that community-run conferences can afford to offer more sessions on non-business topics.

The sort of variety that a community-run conference offers is more fun (at least for me). I’m far more likely to wind up at a session covering something I know very little about but that will dramatically change the way I see a particular issue. One of the first sessions I attended at Open Source Bridge, for instance, was on OpenMRS — an open source software project I was entirely unfamiliar with — which offers open source medical record management software. I chose the talk because I’m interested technology and health, but I learned a great deal about the problems international open source projects face, how a project can create software that’s usable in places with limited power and internet access, and even the unexpected localization issues that a hospital in Somalia might have as opposed to a hospital in Kenya. Perhaps more importantly, I got a very different perspective on open source technology as a whole that I can already tell will influence my own work.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Opportunity for New Connections

The argument that smaller conferences are easier to meet people at than their larger counterparts seems counter-intuitive. But large conferences are overwhelming even for the most outgoing people. We’re more likely to find a few people to hang out with at a time, to provide a buffer against the thousands of attendees at a conference like OSCON. It’s a paralysis caused by too many people. Personally, at particularly large conferences, I tend to find a "conference buddy" who I cling to to make sure I don’t get washed away in the sea of humanity.

At smaller conferences, however, I’m more likely to go around and introduce myself. I noticed at Open Source Bridge that I knew a large number of attendees and, as a result, I felt very comfortable and was better able to introduce myself to new people. After all, if I were to encounter a problem, I could always retreat to talk with people who I already knew.

Those connections occur outside of the actual length of the conference, as well. Conference organizers have varying levels of passion for the events they create. On the less passionate end of the spectrum, those individuals who are paid to organize particular conferences probably care about the events they manage, but not to the point where they’re talking about their next conference constantly. In contrast, someone organizing a conference out of sheer passion is going to tell everyone they know about the next event. Even the problems will be more visible, because that organizer’s friends will get to hear every last detail about the argument with the venue staff (whether anyone wants to or not).

The community is more long-lived as a result. Rather than moving on to the next conference at their employer, the organizer of a community-run conference’s next event is likely to be either next year’s conference or a closely related event. The organizers can pull the community along, maintaining excitement throughout the year between conferences.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Room to Experiment with New Improvements

A code of conduct seems like such a simple thing. And, yet, many large conferences of every type seem to struggle with implementing such codes.

Of course, there are community-run conferences without codes of conduct still. But many are more open to the idea of adding on a code of conduct — and seem more willing to adopting an existing, proven code without feeling that they need to develop a new code entirely from scratch. Those communities who aren’t willing to add such codes, well, that information can be valuable, too.

Because a community-run conference has the ability to quickly evolve from event to event, such conferences have more opportunities to experiment with better practices. As a for instance, when attendees registered for this year’s Open Source Bridge, they each had the opportunity to choose between three colors of badge lanyards: blue, yellow, and red.

  • A red lanyard indicates that the wearer does not want their photo taken at all.
  • A yellow lanyard indicates that would-be photographers need to ask before taking the wearer’s photo.
  • A blue lanyard indicates that the wearer is comfortable with having their photograph taken at the conference.

It’s a simple visual cue that can make a world of difference in making a wider variety of attendees comfortable with a particular event. There are a whole host of reasons that people may not wish to be photographed even if they’re at a public event. The default for most events is that everyone who happens to be carrying a camera (which you can read as all of us) can take photos and even recordings of anyone who happens to be at the event. I’m not entirely sure how this became the norm, but it’s not actually a reasonable approach. Event organizers may ask for a bulk permission to photograph or otherwise record attendees, but other attendees don’t usually take any steps to make sure that their photography subjects are comfortable with the situation.

This year’s lanyards aren’t Open Source Bridge’s first experiment in providing visual cues about appropriate behavior. Last year, the conference offered stickers for people to place on their name badges to express photography preferences

I can’t categorically state that lanyards are the best way to communicate these sorts of preferences; the only way to figure out such factors is to run an experiment or two. Community-run events seem more willing to do so, if only because the logistics of testing a new approach with a few hundred attendees is far easier than with a few thousand. Even better, most community-run events are put together by passionate people — and passion is rarely exclusive. If you are willing to do the hard work to bring information about your topic of choice to a wider audience, perhaps you’re also more willing to figure out the mechanics of running inclusive events.

Support Your Local Community-Run Conferences

I’ve always been lucky to be parts of communities where community-run conferences happen regularly. I grew up going to conventions for various bits of science fiction and fantasy fandoms. I used my student status in college to get cheap passes to all sorts of conferences (including a ton of writing events). When I started learning more about technology (especially programming), I went to BarCamps and other unconferences, as well as other small community-run conferences of a more traditional nature.

I’m happy to pay money for these sorts of conferences, but it’s also important to support them in other ways. Even small conferences take a ton of work, especially when they’re first starting up. Helping on even basic tasks like setting up chairs in a conference space is good. Open Source Bridge ran smoothly because around 70 volunteers put in their time. Some of those volunteers worked for months to handle every detail of the conference; some put in a few hours of work in exchange for a free ticket. Either way, they made the conference possible.

Especially if you come from a community that doesn’t have a strong tradition of organizing its own conferences, consider what you can do to volunteer. You never know — you might wind up organizing one of those community-run conferences yourself.

Image by Flickr user Reid Beels

Using Time Tracking Tools Effectively

One of my current projects is to more effectively track my time. While I keep decent track of the time I spend on clients’ projects, I’m not so good about watching my own time. After all, there’s less of a financial incentive at play.

The question of that financial incentive is part of the problem, though: since I’m building more projects without a client paying directly for more time, I need to know if I’m making a good investment of my minutes and hours. Tracking this time requires a mental shift. But I’m already seeing the value of even the small amount of data I’ve already collected.

Beyond the matter of mindset, the biggest difficulty is actually remembering to switch on a timer or another tracking device. I’ve had to resort to sticky notes and other visual reminders that ask if I’m tracking my time. It’s like developing a little bit of OCD on purpose. Once the habit is in place, time-tracking does get easier.

In fact, I expect that part of my work to get dramatically easier over the next few years. I can already track the websites I spend my time on with RescueTime; if I could see the particular page (like what email folder I’m spending the most time in) I might be able to translate that data into effective time-tracking pretty easily.

Why Automating Your Scheduling Is Such A Big Win

I would pay big bucks if I got an extra day a week to work. I always have more to do than I can actually squeeze in and I’m sure I’m not the only one. But while I can’t actually add more hours into my day, I have found that automating my schedule both saves me some time and makes my life easier to manage.

While there’s no way to set up a perfect schedule that you can always stick to — life likes throwing curve balls — having a general routine that you follow is useful. Meetings are the biggest curve balls in my day. I try to limit them, in general, but I’ve also taken some steps so that meetings won’t have such an impact.

I try to focus on writing work in the mornings and limit meetings to the afternoons. Since I’m on Pacific time and I work with plenty of people on the East Coast and in other time zones, I also set aside all day Wednesday for meetings, so that I can make sure there are some morning hours available for people in different places. With that sort of routine, I can narrow down a workable time with a contact without a bunch of back and forth emails. I can also say ‘no’ to meetings that don’t fit in my calendar. If my time is already committed to writing or other work, I can’t meet with people.

Further automation is possible: I’ve used appointment-setting apps in the past to coordinate meeting times without so much human interaction. I’m in the process of testing out a couple of new options, but I still haven’t found something that replaces Tungle to the full extent I’m hoping for.