The Leanpub Blog: On Writing, Publishing, Self-Publishing and Ebooks
Leanpub Podcast Interview with Corey Haines, author of Understanding the Four Rules of Simple Design
published Apr 12, 2017
Corey Haines is the author of Understanding the Four Rules of Simple Design and other lessons from watching thousands of pairs work on Conway’s Game of Life. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Corey about his career, his book, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.
This interview was recorded on November 18, 2016.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Corey Haines. Corey’s based in Chicago, and is the co-founder and CTO at Hearken, where he works to enhance audience engagement in journalism, specifically by helping journalists interact with audiences earlier in the editorial process than they would normally.
Hearken is a powerful tool for journalists and news rooms, that engages with readers to help news providers write the stories that meet the actual interests and explicit needs of their audience - and fill the information gaps that people really want filled.
Corey is the author of a Leanpub book, *Understanding the Four Rules of Simple Design, and other lessons from watching thousands of pairs work on Conway’s Game of Life. Based on his five years of extensive interaction with developers through the Coderetreat training format, the book is focused on exploring ways to, and I’m quoting here, “build flexible, adaptable software systems by better understanding Kent Beck’s four rules of simple design.”
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Corey’s professional interests, his book, and at the very end, his experience using Leanpub, and any ways we can maybe improve it for him and other authors. So thank you Corey for being on the Leanpub podcast.
Corey: Hello, thank you, it’s great to be here.
Len: I usually like to start interviews by asking people if they could tell us their origin story. I can see from your profiles online that you’ve had a really varied career. You started out studying mathematics, and ended up in software development in various CTO roles. I was wondering if you could tell us how you got into software development from mathematics, and how you got to where you are today?
Corey: Sure. I was one of the really lucky people in the late 70’s, early 80’s. My father had gotten into programming, and so he made sure we always had a computer around. So I grew up with computers, and actually started programming when I was about 12. Mostly cheating at games, because back then we had- the source came with it, and so if you couldn’t get past a point, you could hit break, look at the source code around there. And then over time, I figured out that you could change the code, and rather than figuring out what you needed to do, you could just change the code to put a jump or a GOTO past that point. And sort of “resume line 200” or something.
And then over time I got into BBSs and found a mentor on there that helped me learn C. And then I moved into C++. Then, I had never really thought about being a programmer. And I have always wanted to be a theoretical cosmologist. So I wanted to study physics and the Big Bang and all that. And then I got into college, and found out that physics actually requires experiments.
It wasn’t really that fond of that. But I loved the math part of it. My math professor had taken me under his wing, and I switched over. Actually I took trigonometry, and found the beauty of the unit circle, which is probably a pretty nerdy thing to say. But I remember it being like, “Oh, this is something that I find beauty in.” The purity and the abstractness of it. And that shifted me over to mathematics.
I had planned on continuing on to get my PhD in math, and be a professor. But I ended up spending my last year of university in Hungary, on a program studying mathematics called the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics, and fell in love with the country, so I decided to stay. I needed to find a job and started teaching English.
And along the way, I started programming again. I mean, I had always programmed here and there in C and done this and that, and was programming, and got tired of teaching English, because I was a very bad English teacher. I went and looked for a job, and found a job in Hungary at a web studio. And I ended up - I actually started as a salesperson, trying to sell - this was in ‘96, and so I was trying to sell website development to companies in a country where I think less than 1% of the populus had internet access.
So this was ‘96, and the web was just at the beginning. Nobody knew what it was. I remember talking to one company, and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll take a half-page ad.” And I was like, “Well, you don’t really take a half page ad on the web.” This was pre being able to take a half-page ad on the web.
And so, I went through that, and ended up getting fired - unsurprisingly. But along the way, I had done a lot of Excel programming for our sales team. Half the company was leaving to start a web studio, and the person who was going to be running it, who was the lead of the sales team, he asked me if I wanted to come as their programmer. This must have been the beginning of ‘96, the end of ‘95, or so. Somewhere around there.
And so then I learned HTML, learned CSS, learned a little bit of - we were on the Microsoft stack, so this was pre-ASP, and I learned how to do that, then ASP came out. And I just kind of built up this web studio in Hungary. We ended up being the largest web studio there.
I got into like every day, writing code, and building for customers and all of that, and just sort of never looked back. It was like, “Well, this is something I love doing.” So when I came back to the States in ‘97, I found a job, and started programming. I went up through the Microsoft stack, ‘til about 2008, then switched over to Ruby for - well, still. I know a bunch of languages, but I have been doing Ruby for a long time.
Len: And that was 2008, was a year before you started the Coderetreat? Is that right? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that got started, and what that experience was like?
Corey: Yeah, so Coderetreat came about because - there were four of us, me and this guy Gary Bernhardt, and Patrick [Welsh], and a guy called Nayan Hajratwala - we were at a conference I go to every year called CodeMash. And I would say we were doing what programmers do, which is complain about other people’s code. And had this idea - why don’t people practice?
I was at the very beginning of what would end up being called the Pair Programming Tour, where I spent a year travelling around, programming with people in exchange for room and board. I took a year off of work, and just did that. And so, I was thinking a lot about practice - the software craftsmanship movement was just at the beginnings of people talking about it, and practice was a big part of it, and that was my focus.
The four of us decided just to put on a workshop, and see what happened, that was focused very much on practicing software development, rather than sort of learning a new technology. And since I was travelling around, I had the opportunity to take the ideas that we had, and some of the learning we did on the first two of these Coderetreats, and really help define them and take them around, do them in different places.
I went to Romania, did one in Romania, where a guy named Alex, and his wife Maria, they took over, and started running them in Romania. And so the two of us - or the three of us - got back together in the next year, and started really fine tuning the format. And then by 2010, we had a format for the workshop that was really solid. And then I just started travelling around doing them. And kind of seeing what they were.
They were very much focused on practicing software development, and very much focused on the sort of minute-by-minute decisions that you make while you’re writing software, during the refactoring process. So not at that high level of design patterns and some of the SOLID principles and things like that, but, how do you make your decisions when you’re refactoring?
Len: You have a couple of lines in your book, where you talk about part of the Coderetreat where you’re working on, I think, the source code for Conway’s Game of Life, and you talk about the impact of repeatedly deleting the code you’ve written, and the subsequent separation of identity from code. I found that really interesting and fascinating. I mean, it’s tied in with the idea of practicing, right? And the idea that you situate yourself psychologically in front of the code, not as something that is ever going to be used. Not as something that is ever going to be “owned” by you, or that you will ever be held seriously accountable for. And then with all that baggage out of the way, you can focus on your technique, and how you’re thinking and how you’re feeling when you’re coding. Is that right?
Corey: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, because first-time participants, often after the first session, have trouble with that deleting. But it’s part of the workshop… You just spend 45 minutes writing this code, because the format is you spend 45 minutes working on the problems. Then you delete all your code, and then we start again.
And we’re always working on the same problem, and we work in 45-minute increments. And then you always delete it at the end. And so it does free you up to try new things. Write really bad code, see what happens. This idea of just freeing yourself, and realizing that you can work for 45 minutes, and just get rid of it. You don’t have to live with that baggage.
And since, I’ve really pushed and moved even larger and do a lot of - I’m sort of an advocate of this thing called short-lived branches, where basically you have a day to finish tasks - and if you don’t finish it, then you have to delete what you did. And then you start anew the next day.
Because realistically, it’s not the typing that takes a lot of time in coding. It’s the thought of what you need to type. And so usually if you spend a day working on something, and you’re not done - it’s not the code that is the big lesson and the big takeaway and the artifact from that day. It’s all of the experimentation that you’ve done. You can generally re-type it in fairly quickly, and you’re not left with the artifacts from learning. There’s code, just bad code in there that you put in there, because you were learning, figuring it out. And if you keep it around, you have to work around it.
Len: I really found that idea to be very powerful, when I read about it in your book. And it reminded me of - there’s a practice for writing essays that some people adopt. There’s writing code, and there’s writing other types of texts, and I think a lot of your ideas would apply very well to sort of practicing and things like that. One technique for writing essays, is to write the introduction, write the rest of the essay, and then go back and rewrite the introduction. Just delete whatever you did.
Because as you’re writing - I mean, no matter how well planned your structure is, things will change, and you will learn things along the way, and actually then just clobbering what you did at the beginning isn’t a waste of time. What would be a waste of time would be to try to accommodate everything that came after your initial decision, to your initial decision - even though you’ve come up with a better solution since you started.
Corey: Yeah, and trying to shoehorn that in. It’s the same with talks. When you have to submit an abstract, and when you start building your talk - you realize that there’s other things you want to say that might not be directly related to the abstract, but they’re important. And so the thoughts can change. I think it’s [like that] with a lot of creative acts, acts of creating something. The initial idea that you start with is rarely what you truly end up with.
Len: Yeah, and the courage it might take to actually start over, to realize that completely starting over might actually result in a quicker result than trying to accommodate what you did originally, to what you’ve later realized you should do.
You write in your book also about the ping-pong pair programming style. There are two types of it, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that came about?
Corey: Traditionally, and historically, pair programming was done with two roles. There’s a driver and a navigator, where the navigator’s role was to type in the code, as well as pay attention to the sort of minute-by-minute, very small decisions that are made. Whereas now the driver was doing that. The navigator was really intended to look at the large structure of the system, where are we going. And the driver is really about making the small changes to get there.
And the problem with that is, I’ve found that you need people who are experienced pair programmers to do that. Because it can be dull to watch somebody code, if there’s not a great communication going on. And so over the years, I started really pair programming as a part of my technique, part of my process, back in 2004, which was when I was introduced to a lot of the concepts in extreme programming.
And I found, over the years, I would pair with a lot of different people, and find that when you really got into the flow and you were pairing well, then it didn’t really matter who was typing. There was a constant verbal communication going on. There was non-verbal communication going on. And you ended up just writing the code together, and both people were paying attention to things at all levels.
I don’t know exactly who introduced me to the idea of ping pong pairing. It must’ve been early on and probably when I was teaching people. I remember a couple of people that I taught, and as we were building systems, it was easiest to say, like, “I’m teaching you TDD,” test-driven development. And the easiest way I found to teach somebody, is for one of the pair to write the tests, and the other person writes the code.
And so over time, the person who is learning test-driven development has concrete examples of what tests look like. What do TDD tests look like? What form do they take? What are they focused on? But they don’t have to think about that at the beginning. They can just focus on writing the code to satisfy them. And then over time, the person learning can start writing tests.
This technique for teaching - it turns out that it’s really a great way to just pair. It keeps people active, it keeps people involved and focused on the problem at hand. And so one person writes the test, the other person writes the code, then goes back to the original person writing the next test - next code, and you bounce back and forth.
I think ping pong came up a little bit, because, well, it has that feel of back and forth. But you also were sort of passing the keyboard back and forth to each other. And that really is my preferred way, because that’s the way I found - especially for people who are new to pair programming, it’s a great way to keep everyone engaged in the process the whole way through, because the cycle should be on the order of minutes, if not even a more frequent cycle of 30 seconds or something. So it’s hard to drift off and start tweeting or something like that, if you are expected to pay attention to what they’re writing right then.
And then there’s also another form of it where what is sort of ping-ponged back and forth is the role of test writer. So you write a test, your pair writes the code to pass the test, and then your pair writes the next test, and then you write the code. So the role passes back and forth rather than the keyboard.
It also leads to things like, why do we only have one keyboard on the computer? Why not have both people have live input devices? That it becomes even less of a delineation between roles, and more into just - together, we’re using both of our minds to write the code. And over time, for the people whom I’ve paired with regularly, I have a few people that are just - we pair so well. We’ve just done it for a long time, we’re on the same page and on the same wavelength.
You bounce between these different styles. When you’re really engaged, you might be ping-ponging. And then someone has an idea, so they take over, and just start writing both the test and the code. And then you’re watching, because you’re interested in like - oh, what is their idea that they’re doing? And then it bounces back and forth and you can just sort of -there’s several different styles of pairing, but I like ping-pong sort of for the best for intro pairs.
Len: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Your particular way of focusing on, and clearly articulating the form of experience that one has when one is programming, is quite, is quite unique in my experience.
When I was researching for this interview, I saw there was a talk online where you talked about the Chicago School of Software Craftsmanship. I don’t know if you remember that, that was from some time ago, but I was wondering - you’re based in Chicago - if there is something about software engineering or programming culture there that is different from other places?
Corey: I do remember talking about those sorts of things, because there was a couple of different places, London as well, that had really active software craftsmanship communities in the early days, before it spread everywhere. A lot of it came from who were the prime people that were - honestly, who were the loudest people. Not really that they were the most - they had the best ideas. But they were the loudest in the different communities, and had maybe the most network or connections with people in other communities.
I was one of the louder people at the beginning, and got my name associated with it. But Chicago is definitely, I feel, a hub of, I guess, innovation in software development. Over time, different techniques, different ideas come out. There are people here who have strong opinions. There are people here who are experienced. They’ve got a lot of experience writing software. And not just writing software, but thinking about the act of writing software.
London is another one of those places that has this mass of people. And while we all talk to each other, there’s styles that get brought out from that. There’s a few of us here in Chicago who talk a lot about extreme programming, or work on Rails. Things like that. And so there are small differences. There’s a lot of differences in sort of the test driven development styles. There’s sort of this - partially tongue in cheek, partially not - there’s sort of the London style, and some people say the Detroit style, the Chicago style of test driven development.
They’re not in conflict with each other as much as they augment each other. So, knowing the difference - London style tends to be a lot more use of these test doubles, when you’re doing test driven development, whereas the other styles don’t necessarily. It’s funny, because I associate more with this so-called London style of software for test driven development.
I think in the beginning, the people around [in the Chicago area] and in our net of influence focused a lot on professionalism, on some of the techniques around software. And some of the other places focused a little bit more on the technical aspects of it. But it was never to the exclusion of the other aspects of software development. I was just - who were the loud people, and what were they interested in at the time?
Len: And what’s the startup culture like generally in Chicago right now?
Corey: It’s really thriving. It’s - we’ve got a lot of great companies starting up here. The difference that I’ve found is that Chicago tends to have more roots in industry and manufacturing and, I guess, making money. As revenue. So whereas a lot of the coasts, say the west coast - Silicon Valley, which is sort of the big one people talk about - there tends to be less of an emphasis on building say a revenue-based, sustainable company.
This is not to say that there aren’t some of those out there. But there’s much more of a glorification of the VC-style run from round to round to round, trying to get to the point where someone will buy you. Whereas, in Chicago - while we do have some of that, and we do have venture capitalists here - we have a very strong investment culture. A lot of the companies tend to be focused on revenue.
Len: That’s really interesting. I didn’t know about that. That’s a really interesting distinction between a Chicago style of start-up culture, and Silicon Valley.
On that note, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Hearken - what it’s mission is, and how the engagement management system works for newsrooms?
[They] started a series there called “Curious City,” which had the goal of, what happens if you ask your audience for story ideas? That’s been tried before, but just asking people “What should we cover?”… Some people don’t have ideas, some people have just vague ideas.
You also get people who are very biased. Like, “You should do a story on my company.”, that type of thing. So the innovative idea that she had was, what if you tapped into your audience’s curiosity about the place? Or about a specific topic? In hindsight, it feels fairly obvious. But that’s the way it is with all innovations.
And so Jen started this series “Curious City.” It was very popular - still is very popular. It got to the point where a lot of other newsrooms were asking her for help in starting up this style of series, or this style of audience engagement. And she was spending her lunch time and after hours working on it.
So she decided to quit WBEZ and start a company to help spread these ideas, which is really fundamentally what Hearken believes: that every individual deserves to be heard. What can we do to make it so that if you want to be heard, you have an opportunity to reach out and ask your question - or make a statement? It’s different than the idea of everybody deserves to be listened to - which I kind of say half tongue-in-cheek. But everybody does deserve an opportunity to voice their curiosity, or to ask a question. And have a place where somebody is listening, or is hearing what you’re saying.
And so, I joined with Jen. I was introduced to her in December of 2014. I was on a sabbatical learning to paint. I had quit my job, and was taking a little bit of time off. And then I met her, and she’s a very dynamic, thoughtful person that you meet and you just - you want to help her do what she does. She’s just an incredible visionary. She has wonderful ideas, and I like to think of myself not as much as a visionary, as much as a supporter. I like to find people that have these creative ideas, and help - do what I can to help those ideas come into fruition.
And so, I joined with her. We co-founded Hearken. And went through an accelerator in San Francisco called Matter that is focused on media startups. Their partners are places like KQED and Knight Foundation, some of these big media places. The Associated Press is also one of their partners. The companies that go through it all have a media bent.
So we went through that in San Francisco, then came back to Chicago. We raised some cash last fall, the fall of 2015. We have a buffer to hire some people, and really spread this out. We have nine people now, and I think somewhere around 60 paying newsrooms around the world.
The Australian Broadcasting Company is a customer. There’s a media conglomerate that has a bunch of newspapers in Hungary - newspapers and websites, and so they use us as well all across Hungary. Which was wonderful, because I have a soft spot in my heart for Hungary, having lived there.
We think of ourselves more as a technology-enabled company, rather than a technology company. The thing that we are selling is a lot of the ideas, the consulting. We have what we call “engagement coaches” for newsrooms to help them figure out, how is it that we can talk to our audience, and hear our audience, prior to putting the story out, and getting just a comments section.
Because traditionally what happens is, you do a bunch a work, you have a few people sitting around a table figuring out, what story should we do? Then you do the story, you put it out online hoping that it’s a story that people want to see. And the only feedback that you get is via the comments section. And different people have different opinions of comment sections. I don’t have a great one of them.
But as an example - NPR, National Public Radio - they took the comment sections off their entire website, and they’re trying some other, and we are working with them as well, to really engage with the audience in better ways. More one-on-one, with less [of the] conflict that comment sections often can bring about.
Not to make a long story longer, but there are generally three phases to a reporting process. There’s the pitch phase, the assignment phase, and the actual reporting - when the reporter goes out and does stuff. We have small widgets and things that you can put on your website, to elicit story ideas.
Usually the prompt is in the form of a question. “What are you curious about Chicago?” Or NPR, one of their series put out a question about, “What are you interested, or what are you curious about with regards to global disease epidemics?” And so people are asked questions around that specific topic. The assignment phase - figuring out what the stories are that you want to do - we have a module that can be embedded on a website that allows voting rounds to be done.
We’re currently working on a tool called “The Reporter’s Notebook,” which is for engaging with your superfans during the actual reporting process, so you can very quickly, on a frequent basis, send out small little dispatches to your subscribers and say, “Today I got to interview so and so.” Or, “Tomorrow I’m interviewing so and so. Do you have any questions?” And so the person can reply to it, and send in a question. Or, “I’m looking for pictures about something, about this area. Does anybody have any interesting pictures?” They can send them back in.
[We call the] question prompt a “Curiosity Module.” And the voting display - that in itself is sort of commodity technology. You can use Google forms. Or you can use poll data. You can use these things.
When Jen started “Curious City” she used these tools. But what she found very rapidly was, like almost immediately, the spreadsheets that you’ve set up to manage the engagement, manage the questions that come in, manage the votes - all of this stuff - they become completely untenable. Imagine having even 100 questions that you’re sharing with the rest of the newsroom, and you’re color coding them - who’s assigned, who’s doing this and that? It just becomes - Jen’s term is, “Spreadsheet hell.”
With - some of the presentations we’ve done, she’ll put up little pictures of it - and everyone in the room starts laughing, because everyone has experienced that, trying to manage it with spreadsheets. And so we built what we like to think is a very fit-for-purpose system, called an “Engagement Management System.”
As votes come in, as new questions come in - you’re alerted. We post them into Slack for you. You can go to this back end and categorize them. You can put them into lists. You can put other people’s names on them. You can download email addresses, things like that. And that’s really the bread and butter of the technology part of it. It’s the only system out there that is exactly focused on making it easy to manage this style of audience engagement.
Len: It’s really interesting. As soon as I started reading about Hearken, it was totally intuitive to me, it totally made sense. I think that probably comes from our experience at Leanpub, which is all about publishing early and publishing often, and getting that engagement earlier in the process than you would have otherwise.
So in book publishing, I call it the “doorstopper” model, where, on your own in your cabin in Norway, you spend years writing your book. And then you just drop it, finished. Which is a great way of doing it, if you want to do it that way. But another way to do it, and what previously has been non-traditional way of doing it, is to put something out early on, and then start getting feedback from people, and seeing if that can help you make your book better. If it can help you pivot to dealing with the issues that your natural audience really needs addressed, as opposed to the ones that you maybe thought they would need to be addressed.
One thing I was looking forward to asking you about - if you’re up for it - is there’s a pretty big controversy around the news media in the States right now, that’s happening on a number of levels [Note: this interview took place on November, 18, 2016, just after the US presidential election - eds.]. One of them is the influence of fake news, and in particular, the influence of fake news on - and I should of course clarify, although I’m sure everyone knows I’m talking about the US election that just happened - but yeah, there’s a lot of talk amongst journalists and the public at large about the impact that fake news, and particularly fake news that was presented via Facebook, may have had on the outcome of the election. And as someone who works in the media, in the States - I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about what you think about that?
Corey: Yeah. I like to use the term, “lies,” rather than fake news. It’s using a euphemism for something, but a lot of it is just - it’s just lies that people put up there in the form of an article or something. I mean it is a big, big problem and I think it is indicative of the ever growing distrust of journalism in the States. I don’t really know what all of the causes of it are, but it’s -
You can go back to talking about the extreme divisiveness of, or divided nature of America. Where we really do have - I know, the Washington Post put up that wonderful thing where you can put in a topic, and it will show you side by side - they call it the blue side and the red side. So what are people actually seeing because of the Facebook algorithm? And if you can get your thing into that algorithm, it doesn’t matter. Facebook doesn’t have curators that say, “This is fact checked.”
And so a lot of it too, I think, is because we’ve moved away from knowing who our reporters are, as things have aggregated into large national papers. And there’s much less local journalism happening. It’s harder and harder for people to feel loyal. It used to be that you were loyal to the New York Times, and that’s what you read every Sunday. But nowadays with the web, it’s so easy to find any story.
You go to Google, you type in a topic. You don’t oftentimes tend to look at where you’re going. You just look, first hit. I’m going to go do it. You trust Google, or you trust Facebook to show you them.
And one of our sort of foundational principles, is that if you - we’ve moved away from really the one-on-one interactions, of knowing who that reporter is, and being a fan of a reporter. I do know people who are like, “Oh, I love reading The New Yorker,” say. And there are certain writers in there that I like. Oftentimes they’re movie reviewers, because they like the movie reviews.
But we don’t have that as much. If you go ask, just somebody, the next person you see, who their favorite New York Times journalist is, you’re probably not going to get an answer. And, can you name someone from the New York Times, or somebody from The Post, or something like that? And so as we’ve lost touch… This is all, of course, personal conjecture. But as we’ve lost touch with that sense that the news is for us, instead it’s just repetitive.
They’re just trying to [see], who can get the clicks? If you get the story out first, then you’re going to get the clicks. Because we’ve lost that one-on-one feeling, it’s easier to just read whatever and go, “I don’t have a way of saying, I trust this one, versus this one.” And if you see something shared on Facebook, and it’s from Bipartisan Report, is that trustworthy? If you see something from Breitbart, is that trustworthy? Spoiler alert, no.
But there are sort of conservative publications, which are trustworthy, and then there are more liberal publications that are very trustworthy. They may have a bias about what it is that they report, but they tend to be fairly trustworthy. But we don’t have a sense anymore of who those people are. And I think that leads to being able to have our Facebook feeds showing us things - where we don’t even know - how do you check it?
It’s to the point now where like half the people don’t trust Snopes. So you can’t go to Snopes. And if you go to a place that has a differing opinion or a differing interpretation of it, then how do you know that that’s correct? And it really leads into this - just the sort of lack of knowledge in the US, that general knowledge that people lack. Then we can talk about how our education system is bad, and things like that….
Len: That’s a really good argument about the sort of lack of connection between the information that one is receiving, and a responsible person on the other side of it. One of my personal takes on it is that - and this is a higher-level thing, where this is totally banal, where news is turned into entertainment - but it reminds me of the discourse around drugs.
One of the things that’s very curious about drug prohibition specifically, one of the really curious things about the discourse around drugs, is that you’re not allowed to talk about it being pleasurable. For some reason, when it comes to that discourse, the fact that people partly do it because they’re enjoying themselves, is something we’re not allowed to say. What we have to invoke instead is social forces and historical forces and economic forces and material forces - to the exclusion of the immediate reality that people are kind of enjoying themselves when they’re on drugs.
And I think that one aspect of news - when people talk about how news has become entertainment, they often mean that it has been diminished in seriousness or something like that. But the other side of that, is that it’s become this source of pleasure. And what could be more fun than yet another conspiracy theory?
What’s even more fun is indulging in not doing all that vigorous self-policing that one does when one is thinking, “Well, is this trustworthy? Let me apply some analysis to this. Does this correspond to other things that I’ve heard from other sources?” Instead it’s just this like riot of the passions, internally.
And I mean - to invoke one side of the election, Trump himself said on numerous occasions, “We’re having fun here, we’re having a great time here.” And if you saw videos of those rallies, and heard descriptions of them - the people, they’d have tailgate parties beforehand. It was fun for those people.
Anyway, I think that that’s also a really interesting thing about the media - the news media and what’s happened in the States. It’s become this source of enjoyment and pleasure, for people in a way that it was maybe more a source of information in the past.
Corey: And especially since, even though there’s a historically low trust in the media, and trust in journalism now, they’ve still built into us that they are supposed to be experts. And it’s a wonderful feeling when I think something, I have an idea that something’s wrong, and then I go to a news site. It says it’s a news site. And they’re saying, “You’re right. You’re right Corey, that is bad.” And you’re like, “Yeah, it’s true.” Like confirmation bias and things like that. I’m going to go to the sites. I forget which comic it was, but they said, “The way you do research - is you go to Google, type in the thing. And then sure enough, that first link - it tells you you’re right.” And it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” One of my favorite pastimes is like on Friday night, drinking scotch and going on YouTube and looking at conspiracy videos.
I love the idea that the moon is actually a hologram, and is a projection. And there’s videos out there that show scan lines going across the moon. And that’s wonderful, as are these conspiracy theories. Now imagine if I then went to Google and typed it in, and I saw a news site that said, “Yes, this is true. And here’s the things that we found. Because of course we did our research.” Instead of just going to YouTube, and seeing a video that has ominous music - it’s actually a news site that does it.
I think this goes back to why people were so easily accepting of these fake news sites putting out lies - just stories, made up things. Because we want to have news sites tell us that we’re right. I wish I, I should have names of people, but somebody had said that nowadays, the US is so divided - it used to be that we had facts, and then the different politically-leaning news sites and journalists, would interpret those facts in different ways. But we’ve gotten to the point now where the base facts that are used to build up the stories are different. They’re just wrong.
So is our unemployment rate 5%, or is it 40%? These are two facts that are put forward, and the reporting is based on that. So when you go talk to somebody who has differing opinions about our employment economy and say, “Wow, we’re doing really well. Obama has really kicked ass in our economy. Unemployment’s down to 5%.” The other person can come back and say, “Well no - the real unemployment rate must be around 40 or 45%. That’s what I’m hearing, is that there’s this real shadow unemployment rate.”
And how do you argue about that? There’s no common ground where you can get together and say, “Okay well let’s, as a pair - even though we have different sources, or different interpretations of it - let’s look at the facts together, and then come to a common interpretation of it. Trying to shed off the bias.” But when you start with different sides, just totally different facts, you can’t do that at all. And that’s why I think the division is so pronounced, and there’s no communication between us.
Len: In invoking what you were saying before about how gratifying it is to have, say, a conspiracy theory that you’ve had, or a suspicion that you have - to see it on a news site, and see it reinforced….
Really looking, and this is kind of a cliché, but looking into the facts, rigorously, is really boring.
Len: For most people, it’s no fun. It’s not exciting, it takes time. And it’s like, “Well really, I’m going to have to go read a paper written by a bunch of economists? I’d rather have someone I follow on Twitter say, ‘It’s 40%.’” Or, “There’s actually like 80 million undocumented migrants in the US, or something like that, right?”
I think that that disconnect is also really important - that one side of the activity is fun, and another side of the activity, the one that people don’t do naturally enough, is the one where you personally have to be like a journalist yourself, and go investigate and look at sources. And maybe learn a little bit of statistics. And, I mean, I don’t want to do that.
Corey: Yeah. I went and read the Republican Party Platform. After a big meeting, they establish what is the plank. And I went out and read it, and it’s dull. It’s really boring. But when you read it, you say, “Oh look, it’s important enough to them to put it in the party platform, that they want to fight marriage equality.” Or that they want to spread the so-called bathroom bills around the country.
And so you actually go read it, and you find these gems in there. And then you go read the Democratic platform, and you have to interpret certain things, and find out what it is that they value. But nobody’s going to do that, instead you’re going to find - like you said - find somebody on Twitter who says, “The GOP hates the LGBTQ community. And puts this here. And this is in their platform.”
I could’ve made it up. I could’ve just said that. Because nowadays, well - a perfect example over the last couple of days is - Trump tweeted out that, “I talked to Tom Ford, and I’ve convinced him now to not move the factory to Mexico.” [Note: This may have been intended to be a reference to claims Trump made about discussions with Ford’s CEO. This article is a good example of the way this issue was represented. The title of the piece talks about a Trump win, while the caption under the video with Ford CEO says “Ford CEO: We’d Make Same Mexico Decision Without Trump” - eds.] Well he’s been making this statement that they’re going to be doing that throughout the campaign. And the Ford Company has always said, “No we’re not. We’ve never said we’re going to do that. We’re not moving jobs to Mex– What? That doesn’t - we’ve never said that.” But yet he continues to say it.
And it’s easier to just look at the people you respect on Twitter on Facebook or wherever, and not go do the research. And if your bubble that you’ve cultivated does not include people who would be tweeting that, or even your bubble may be like that, but the Facebook algorithm has added its cultivation to your feed - you’re not ever going to see that. And so the only thing you see is people retweeting that. You look at Donald Trump’s Twitter thing, and it’s got 500,000 retweets. And you’re like, “What? 500,000 people agreed with this. So am I going to go actually look it up?” But it happens on other sides as well. Not quite as much, but it does.
Len: Do you think there’s a connection between the era of financial uncertainty in the news media industry, and the emergence of this fragmented multi-sourced news fire hose that we’re all exposed to now?
Corey: I don’t know. If anything, I would say that they’re symptoms of the same thing. Or they stem from very similar places. But I don’t - I’ve never really thought about that. So I don’t think I would have a great opinion.
Len: Do you have any thoughts about how - I mean, the media as an industry doesn’t move as one. But is there anything people can do to help change the culture away from where it’s moved towards? Which is as you say, this sort of - what The Economist called this fact-free environment.
Corey: Subscribe to your local newspaper. The media industry is struggling financially… There’s a handful of companies, Hearken is one of them, who are trying to sort of rise from those ashes to help the media industry move into what it’s like in this really super-fast digital age. But so much of it is: subscribe. Go subscribe to the New York Times. One of the encouraging things is that over the last week, The New York Times has seen a substantial rise in subscriptions. And I think a lot of the newspapers are as well.
But not even just the national ones - go to your local newspaper, and just subscribe. It’s not that expensive. And it helps them, and it says that there’s people out there who are interested in what they’re talking about. If you go to inn.com, maybe .org?
Len: Yeah, inn.org, Institute for Non-Profit News.
Corey: So what they do, is they build and host websites for a ton of non-profit news organisations - the small, focused [ones]. And they have a wonderful list of members that are doing great journalistic work, and they’re all non-profit. And so go to some of these and contributing to them, and finding ones that you enjoy reading, and just send a little bit of money to them. It’s a couple of bucks here and there every month. If enough people do it, then the news organisations that are doing good work will survive and be able to do better work, with a little bit of contributions to them. Mother Jones is one of the very large ones. There’s a lot of people who agree with them. They have a ton of great organisations. And INN is a non-profit as well, that can benefit from the support of sharing it around. They’re one of my favorites that I think is doing a great service to journalism as a whole.
Len: Thanks a lot for pointing them out, and for that suggestion for what people can do if they’re concerned about the future of media, by donations. I actually donate to organisations like the INN, and also get out subscriptions. Actually, one of the publications you mentioned I bought a subscription for, inspired by that same motivation, just recently.
Corey: Excellent. Thank you.
Len: Switching to the subject of your book, Understanding the Four Rules of Simple Design. You talk in there about the distinction between thinking about good design, and better design. I found the distinction compelling, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that distinction is, and why better design is such an important idea?
Corey: It comes about from the idea that every software design is intimately connected to the context that it’s for - and the context that it was built in. Context being - is it the first year of your company? Is it a multi-year project? Are the developers very inexperienced? Are the developers very experienced? Do you have a big mix of them?
And so all of these contexts, these outside forces influence the design choices that you make. Do you need to have everything in your code base super clean, and super beautiful? Well, if you have very experienced developers, you might be able to skimp a little bit, because they can work a little more efficiently in slightly messier code bases.
If you have a lot of beginners, then it behooves you to spend the time to keep your code clean. If you are in the first year of your company, and you don’t even know if you can sell this product - you might need to take cut a few corners. I prefer to cut features than corners in the code base. But there’s trade-offs everywhere.
And so, the idea of good design, to me, implies that there is sort of this Aristotelian concept of - in every context, this is good. Like a dodecahedron is a dodecahedron regardless of whether or not it’s red, or whether or not you’re trying to bounce it or something. So saying good design also implies that yours is the best.
Like I wrote it, I built a good design, and it may be completely bad in another context. And so, what I prefer is this idea of - if you have two designs to choose from, look at the one that best suits your context. Almost always, the context is going to make you want to be able to change your software faster. Especially when it’s early in the project, or early in the company.
And so, in general - better designs are more flexible. As you’re making your design choice, you can say, “This one is going to be a little bit easier to change in the future. It’s not necessarily the most extensible, or it’s the one that you’ve made decisions about what people are going to want to change. But I don’t want my design to calcify into this big mass, that when a new feature comes in, I can’t change it.” And so pick the design decision that will allow you the most flexibility to change it in the future. And that’s what I think is better.
Len: You draw an interesting distinction between designing code to anticipate change, and, as it were, designing code to anticipate a specific change.
Len: So often people think that preparing for the future means thinking - okay, let’s imagine what might happen under various different scenarios, and then build in advance, something that makes it easy to implement that idea, that change that you think might happen. And that’s very different from what you were just describing, right? Because instead of coding for specific things that you think might happen in the future, you code for being able to change what you’ve done now easily. It’s sort of a subtle distinction, but it’s a really important distinction, I think.
Corey: Yeah it is. Because all developers have gotten themselves into that problem where you build a really extensible system, and then somebody comes around and it turns out that they wanted to extend it in a way you didn’t foresee. That always happens. And your decisions to extend in certain ways, sort of make it so that you can’t extend it in other ways. Every design decision you make is implicitly throwing out all of the other design decisions you could’ve made.
And that always leads to trouble. But making your system where you can quickly go in, find the place that needs to be changed and make the change - that’s the goal of everything. And that’s where the four rules come in. Because the two major ones that are sort of the refactoring rules, or…. On a simplistic level, you can say “no duplication” and “good names.”
The “no duplication” says that every piece of knowledge in your system should have one, and only one, representation. So if a piece of knowledge in your system changes, you can go change it there. And it ripples throughout your system. Good names make it so that you can find where things are happening. If you look at a method, and it’s named something, you can be fairly certain that it does what it says it does. And so spending time on these two concepts makes it so that when you come back in six months, you can very rapidly find the place where you have to insert the changes.
Len: You invoked the four rules there, Kent Beck’s four rules, I think?
Len: And just sort of literally taking a page out of your book, I was wondering if you could point people to the further reading they might want to go to, if they’re not familiar with what those four rules are?
Corey: There’s a couple of places. I mean, go to Google. Type in either “the four rules of simple design,” or, “XP simplicity rules.” There is a wonderful website, where everything is sort of encoded, which is the C2 Wiki. It’s currently under the - I think maybe he finished it? He was upgrading it, Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, which is really neat. He actually is the one who created wiki. The whole idea of wiki, and C2 is one of the original ones.
It was the place where a lot of the software thought and innovation in ideas were discussed back in the day. If you go there, it ends up being this time sink. It’s almost like every idea in software is there. Not really, but it feels like it. And it was set up for the Portland Pattern Repository’s wiki, it was called, and it just has all of these wonderful discussions around this, and the four rules of simple design are there. There’s discussion around them, about what duplication means.
Another person is Joe Rainsberger. He’s written a lot about it, and he’s just really thoughtful about how he writes, how he thinks about these sorts of things. The C2 Wiki, it’s just c2.com. If you go to wiki.c2.com, that should take you to the beginning of the Patterns repository. And you can also find a lot of great discussions around software, or around design patterns. And just lots of interesting conversations that happened back in the late 90’s around these things.
Len: Thanks for that guide, that’s really interesting. I’m sure a lot of our listeners will find it really helpful to have that nice summary.
You’ve got an unpublished book on Leanpub called Fun with Lambdas: Explorations through the lambda calculus. I know you gave a talk about this, that people can find online. I imagine that your maths background probably helps you a lot in understanding the topic, and I was wondering if you could explain a little bit, for people who might not have a maths background, about lambdas and what the connection is to computation?
Corey: This book came about - I mean, I’ve been working on it for two years, I think, and I keep going in and out of working on it - so what a lambda is, at the core, is a function that takes one parameter and returns a value. And the lambda calculus came about when Alan Turing was building up the ideas of the Turing Machine, and a lot of these concepts around computability. What are the limits of computability?
Alonzo Church came up with this idea of - it ended up being equivalent - can you build up computation using this idea of these functions, that take a parameter and return another parameter, or return a value? And the lambda calculus became a lot of the foundations of a good number of our programming languages. So all the ML languages - things like that, that deal very heavily with this idea.
But if you drop back to just that core thing of, the only thing I have is a function that takes a parameter and returns a value. Where do you go from there? Ostensibly you should be able to build up all of computing. You should be able to build stuff that allows you to do everything that any other general purpose programming language can do.
And so the book is really - a lot of the books around lambda calculus are very academic. They talk about the identity function, and they talk about K combinators and B combinators and Y combinators. And they start putting them together.
My idea for the book was that whenever I talked to people about it, they either were very academic and very high level, and it was this mathematical thing. Or they were people who had told me “I’ve looked at them, but who cares? Like it doesn’t make any sense, I don’t get [what comes] out of it.”
\And so, I started talking and a friend of mine - Josh Cheek and I started playing with it. Like just in Ruby, what happens if I just start with a lambda, can I do different interesting things? And then I ended up, some time later, starting a book, where the goal is to not really talk about the academic parts. It’s to not go in. Not even go into lambda calculus, but to go in and start with a function, start with this identity function, and slowly build up programming.
One of the first things you need to do, is you have to be able to build - say you want to build numbers. You want to build a concept of numbers, but you don’t have them. All you have is this function. How can you build up a numbering system? And so we go through - well, since I do test driven development, the beginning of the book is building up a testing system. I want to be able to build tests, to test that my numbers work as I expect them to.
Well to build tests, you need to have a way of saying “true” or “false.” Well to have something that says true or false, you need to have a thing called “If.” And so we back all the way up, and then build the concept of true and false and decision. And then we come back to this tests, and we come into numbers, and we start building tests based on what are called the Peano axioms, which are a set of axioms around the natural numbers. And so we write tests that satisfy the axioms, and build code to satisfy those tests.
And so it’s really intended to be just fun, like if we were just hanging out with a computer. And I’m like, “Oh hey, let’s look at this.” And just start writing along. [There is a] lot of prose around it, but very little saying, “This is the K combinator.” So you can compose the K combinator with the identity, and that gets you the equivalent of false, whereas the K combinator is the equivalent of true.
And so, then it starts to get confusing for people. There are a couple of really great books. Another Leanpub author, Reg Braithwaite, he has a wonderful book on combinators. And it’s a joy to read. All of his stuff is a joy to read, but…
Len: Yeah, Reg is really fantastic.
Thanks for that. Actually, switching gears to Leanpub and to self-publishing, you had a lot of success with Understanding the Four Rules of Simple Design. I was wondering if there was anything special you did for marketing the book? How did you get the word out about it?
Corey: Coupons helped a lot, like setting up a coupon for - since it’s a technical book - conference season. Making the coupon, and then making it specifically to that conference, and then either asking the conference organizers - using it as some form of, almost sponsorship, if it’s a very small conference, that they can give into their bag, or just tweeting about it with their hashtag. Not being obnoxious about it, although some people probably say that I might be at times. But really aligning with that, I think, has been a huge thing.
And going on podcasts, talking - all of the sort of standard marketing things. But I think coupons have been a lot of the way that I’ve kept - I think it’s like two and a half years since I wrote it I think, 2013, maybe is when I wrote that book? So it’s been maybe three and a half years?
It goes through waves. I’ll have a burst where I sell a couple of hundred copies, and it’s generally because I keep on it. So when conference season comes around, or when something interesting happens, I’ll tweet it out, and tweet out a coupon for it. I think that’s the biggest.
Len: That’s really, really good advice. It reminds me of something. I interviewed another Leanpub author, named Phil Sturgeon, a while ago. And he talked about how one of his tactics was to use coupons to get his book into to be sort of “above the fold” on the Leanpub bookstore, like this week’s bestseller, to be in the first two rows - which is another way that coupons can help. It sort of gets you that burst. And then you’re there in a more prominent position on the bookstore.
I was wondering why you chose to self-publish, and specifically why Leanpub?
Corey: there’s a couple of reasons around the self-publishing. One is, I actually wasn’t sure if I wanted to write a book. I started writing it because I was invited to speak at the Agile India Conference in, I guess, 2013. And on the way there, on the plane - I have a 22-hour trip or something - I started writing out the talk. I was explicitly going to be talking about the four rules of simple design. And I started writing out the talk, gave the talk, and then on the flight back, kept writing it.
And I had spent five years, however many years, four or five years, talking about the four rules during Coderetreats. And so it was all in there. And I came back, and I told my girlfriend, I said, “I think I’m writing a book.” But I didn’t want to get into the situation where there was an expectation, or a stress around it, because I have lots of friends who’ve written books. And it’s always so stressful. I’ve looked at them, and I’m like, “I don’t ever want to do that.”
And so as I was working on it, I decided that I didn’t actually want to tell anybody I was writing a book, until I was sure that it was going to be done. But it didn’t makes sense to write it, and just have it in random files. I looked around and I talked to some of my friends, who are publishers, and I didn’t want to write a long book as well.
The book itself I think is 85 pages. It’s a short, very concise thing. I wanted it to be an electronic publication, because I wanted to be able to put links out to other things. And any publishers that I had talked to, there’s expectations, there’s minimums, there’s deadlines and all of that.
And so, I looked around at some of the self-publishing platforms, because that was about when I started noticing, about 2012, it felt like there was a surge of self-publishing platforms coming out. And it may have just been that I noticed them. So that makes a surge in the universe.
It might actually be Reg that was the reason I went Leanpub initially, because I had no idea, I didn’t know anything about it. And all of them look the same. But then when I looked at some of the toolsets, I loved that Leanpub was connected to GitHub, which I use. At the time it was only the Dropbox distribution. So when you did a preview, it would come into Dropbox. And I think, at the time I had to actually explicitly say, “Make me a new copy.” And I think now you can trigger it with a push or something.
But the fact that I could write it in Markdown was important to me, because I feel comfortable writing in Markdown. The Leanpub manual was great. I read through that, and it was so clear how to do things.
Len: Well thank you very much.
Corey: Did you write that?
Len: I had a big hand in it. It’s pretty rare to get manual shout outs or compliments. So I really appreciate that.
Corey: I downloaded it and read it. And it was like, “I can write this.” I liked also at the time, the constraints of - it’s not like you could lay it out any way you want. Especially at the time, I think there’s more flexibility now than there was back then, but it was like, you write Markdown, and if you want the callout to look like this, you put this markup in there. And I wasn’t as interested in like pixel-perfect, “I need this to be here, and this,” all of that. I wanted to just get the content out. And have it come out in a way that looked good. So that was good.
Len: Thank you. That’s really interesting. Regular listeners to this podcast will know that core to Leanpub’s philosophy is the idea that, when you’re writing, except for a very small subset of projects, formatting is procrastination. When you’re done writing, if it’s very important to you, please use our InDesign export, get a book designer, do whatever you need to do.
But often - and having written some myself, you do find yourself, instead of writing, instead of thinking about what you’re supposed to be writing, you end up playing around with formatting.
I mean, people can do what they want. But one approach is to say - let’s actually try and get a lot of those ideas - just not even present them to people during the period when they’re writing. Give them what they need to quickly generate really good books, like really, really good looking books, but not, as you say pixel perfect. Don’t worry about that until the time comes.
Corey: Yeah, and being a technical book, I didn’t really need - I really was about just getting the content out there. And I would have messed around with the formatting, because writing is very - it’s a struggle for me. And so while that book actually flowed out, because I’d been saying the things for five years, or four years or whatever it was, it still is a struggle for me to write, because I just don’t have the practice around it. I’m more of a speaker than a writer. And so having those constraints where I could just… write in them. So it’s just pure text. Just [being] in there, writing - and not having to worry about all of that stuff.
Len: Did you publish it in progress, or did you publish it all in one chunk?
Corey: That book I published in - I didn’t put it out that it was even available, I don’t know what the exact term is, [you could] put your thoughts out on how much it should cost.
Len: We have a mode where you can have a landing page for your book, available to the public before you publish it. And then people can sign up and say, “Notify me when it’s published.” And they can say how much they’d be willing to pay for it, and share their email address with the author if they want to, and things like that.
Corey: Which was a great feature. I got a lot of people telling me how much they’d pay for it. Which helped me, because I had no idea. But I think I published it almost complete, if not totally complete. Because even leading up to, until it was done, I almost wasn’t sure it was going to be done. I wasn’t completely confident. And so when I was - whatever, 90% confident that I was going to complete it, that’s when I put that landing page up and started gathering that. And I think it was like two weeks after that that I published the book, and put the cost out.
And I liked how it told me all of the different statistics around the price. Of like, “If you want to make the most money, it’s this. If you want to have half the people buy it, then do this.” That was a very nice, geeky -
Len: Yeah, my co-founder Peter will be very pleased to hear that. He wrote that years ago. It’s a text you see on Leanpub, just for everyone listening, that explains at length how much you can make under different scenarios and things like that. And it’s really very nerdy and very fun, and serious at the same time.
The last question I have about your process is - you had an editor for your book, someone named James Rosen, and I was wondering, did you go into the writing process thinking - I mean, now that I know a little bit more about it’s genesis, I can see how it started out not necessarily with the intention of being a book - but did you hire, or did you get the editor at the end? Or did you have the editor helping you along the way? Was it something you expected to need?
Corey: I expected to need it. What I was very, very lucky with, with James, was when I was comfortable enough to mention to people that I was working on it, I put out on Twitter that I was looking for early reviewers. People to read it and give me feedback on it. And I got a bunch of responses, got a lot of really great feedback from people.
James stepped up and just edited the thing like crazy. It was amazing. He’s not an editor, not officially, he’s a software developer like I am. But he dove into it, and gave me such amazing feedback, and made it so much more readable, that I just kind of was just like, “Well you’re the editor, you get editor credits on this,” because he spent a lot of time and gave a lot of wonderful feedback.
I was so appreciative of him. But it was just incidental. He was somebody who I’ve met before, didn’t know him tremendously well, but he followed me on Twitter, and just kind of stepped up on it. I’ve since then bought him a couple of meals. I’ve told him that he shouldn’t ever pay for his dinner, if we have dinner.
Len: Well that’s great, generous on both sides I guess.
My last question is, if we could build a magic feature for you, what would that be on Leanpub? Is there anything that you can remember along the way that would’ve been nice to have, but you didn’t have?
Corey: I still struggle a bit with book organization, like file organization around the book. Especially around code snippets, especially with the lambdas book. I write the scripts. And then including them, keeping them up to date - I don’t know if I’m missing something, but it’s sort of a struggle to have them go along.
Because - for example - in the lambdas book, every code snippet builds on the previous code snippet. And so, it’s almost as though if you were able to say, “I want this set of code snippets to be based on this file, and go over the history of the commits on that file.” And give me a time-based, or commit-based code snippet.”
Not interactive, but just like, - snippet one is the first commit, snippet two is the second commit. And even if it took putting a SHA in there, in the little external resource thing. I think that would help me a lot. Because I struggle with that, keeping them up to date and up to sync, and making sure that they’re correct. Does that make sense?
Len: Mostly. I’ll pass it on to our team. I haven’t written a programming book myself, and I’m not a programmer. I do some programming, but I’ll definitely pass that on. That sounds like a really good idea. We do have, kind of in the hopper, designed a versioning kind of system that might have some of the features in it. And I’m not sure when we’re going to get around to building it. But it’s pretty well thought through. And it sounds like we could incorporate something like what you’re suggesting into that as well.
We do currently have a versions feature, but it’s very rudimentary, and you might not have even noticed it. You can’t name versions, you just know what date and time. But it is there, because obviously authors, their work is very important to them, and knowing there’s backups and things like that is really important.
Anyway, I wanted to thank you, Corey, for a really great discussion, I had a really good time. Thanks.
Corey: Thanks a lot.
Len: Thanks for your time, and thanks for being a Leanpub author. Good luck with Fun with Lambdas. I’m looking forward to the day when that’s published.
Corey: Yeah, me too. Thanks so much.
Len: Thank you very much.
published Mar 28, 2017
Mirela Roncevic is a writer, editor, and the Editorial Director of No Shelf Required. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Mirela about her career, and in particular about “Free Reading Zone” project, which recently openeda virtual library of books to the entire country of Croatia.
This interview was recorded on January 31, 2016.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, this is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this podcast episode, I’ll be talking with Mirela Roncevic. In addition to being a writer, editor and publishing industry consultant, Mirela’s the Editorial Director of No Shelf Required - an online resource for book industry professionals to help speed the spread of literacy and open access to knowledge, and which has a special focus on subjects related to ebooks and digital content.
Mirela is also the Founder and Director of an organization that seeks to create free reading zones, and in December 2016, turned the entire country of Croatia into an open virtual library - including over 100,000 books freely available to download, without requiring that anyone have a library card or any type of access code.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Mirela’s career, No Shelf Required, and her experience with setting up free reading zones. In addition to her work, I should mention, [in addition to work she has published] at noshelfrequired.com, you can also read content by Mirela on her website at mirelaroncevic.com, and you can follow No Shelf Required on Twitter @noshelfrequired.
So, thank you Mirela for being on the Leanpub Podcast.
Mirela: Thank you for having me.
Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your history - how you became interested in the publishing world and in the library industry as well, and some of your experiences that led you to where you are today.
Mirela: Well I always knew that I - growing up in Croatia, I was born in Croatia; I moved to New York when I was a teenager, and I always knew growing up that I would be a writer, that I would be involved with writing and books. So it was no surprise that I ended up at NYU studying literature and journalism and combining the two.
So getting that first job in publishing was a natural progression of my work at NYU as an undergraduate student, and then as a graduate student of comparative literature. So when I ended up in publishing, I was a standard editor. The first two years of my work in publishing involved classic editorial work. Simply, I worked with books.
Later I landed a job at Library Journal, where I wrote about books and reviewed them, and wrote articles about the publishing industry.
It was a very natural progression that started during my college years. And from there it just grew. And little by little I ended up on the digital side, which was a surprise. It wasn’t something I was pursuing. I fell into it.
At first I was very resistant. I was in my, at the time, mid- to late 20’s, and the job of the person who would handle ebooks at the time, was simply given to the youngest person on staff - which was me. But I ended up discovering, not only discovering the potential of ebooks to transform the world in ways we haven’t seen before, but I also became an avid ebook reader.
And so that’s where I am today, the advocate of reading in digital format, and someone who’s very passionate about - despite my traditional publishing background - as someone who’s very passionate about what digital books can do for the world. And what they can do for the world beyond libraries, beyond institutions. So this idea of one day - perhaps not in my lifetime - but one day, the world becoming an open, virtual library - is something that I’m naturally very drawn to.
Len: I’d like to talk to you about that in a couple of minutes. But before moving on, I think people might be interested in hearing about what the classic duties of an editor were in the publishing industry, and maybe how they’ve changed in your time - especially over that transition to digital?
Mirela: Well I didn’t spend as much time editing books in my career, as I did working as a book review editor for a magazine - especially Library Journal, where I spent 12 years. But I did spend a significant number of years as a classic book editor, managing editor and acquisitions editor.
How things have changed? Well, things have gotten really hectic. They’ve always been, but it does seem to me that books are produced at a faster pace, simply because books used to be printed, and now they’re printed and digitized at the same time. So there are a lot of people involved with the production of every book.
And then of course there’s the onslaught of self-publishing, which has been - it’s a phenomenon we cannot ignore. And that has challenged traditional publishing in many ways.
So in many ways, publishing is not really much different than it used to be - except that a lot more is being produced.
I think I read somewhere that over a million new titles are produced or published every year - half of them are self-published. That’s a lot of books to keep up with, and a lot of people involved in that process.
Len: And do you see that growth in ebooks, or in self-publishing, sorry - to continue along its current trajectory?
Mirela: Yes, yes. And that’s the other [thing]. If I could single out two things that I focus on at No Shelf Required, the first would be - obviously - my passion for free access to books. But the second would be my increasing interest in self-publishing - coming from a traditional editor, from someone who’s spent 12 years of her career being a book review editor, and being a firm believer that books need to be vetted, and that there needs to be a strict filtering process in place. And that no book that isn’t professionally produced inside a reputable publishing house could ever be as authoritative and as good as a book that’s published by somebody on their own.
I’ve come a long way in that thinking. I’ve really opened up. And - again - ebooks had a lot to do with that. I opened up to self-publishing in recent years, because I became more educated about it. I took my time with it, to understand what is really out there. And discovered that there is a lot of good stuff out there.
There are a lot of dedicated individuals working on various books, not all fiction - many non-fiction titles - even independent academics. People are really investing a lot of time and energy into crafting books that are worth our attention. So, we use No Shelf Required as an outlet that promotes independent publishing.
In fact I don’t like to call it “self-publishing”. I much prefer calling it “independent publishing”. There’s just something more honorable about that. Because there’s a lot of discipline involved, and the more I read about these books and the more I…. As someone who spends a significant amount of time now producing content on her own, it’s hard work, and there are a lot of people out there doing it with a lot of dignity, and we have to pay attention to that, and they will not go away. These new emerging technologies are really making it easier for them to publish their work.
And not to mention - going back to the earlier question - what is different about publishing? One of the challenging things about publishing has always been how much good stuff is simply never selected to be published in the first place. The competition is fierce, publishers can only take in so much.
So now we live in a world that allows for all of that expression. And there’s nothing to be afraid of, we simply have to embrace it, and I do believe that the good stuff finds its way to the surface - and that the world in general is pretty good at censoring, self-censoring and deciding for themselves what they ultimately gravitate towards. It’s a pretty organic process.
Len: Speaking of new-ish technologies, I suppose in the self-publishing space, the giant in the room is Amazon. I was wondering what your opinion is about the relationship that Amazon’s developed with self-published authors, and seeing where they may be going?
Mirela: This will be one of those questions I wish not to answer, simply because I don’t know much about it. I tend not to be so focused on the business aspects of self-publishing. I am more drawn to it from an editorial perspective and the freedom of it, the ideology behind it.
I don’t have any reservations about Amazon, as problematic as it’s been, its relationship with the publishing industry overall. I tend to be more focused on alternative models, and the different things that we can do beyond…. To me, Amazon is another version of - it’s just a much bigger version of how things have always been sold and packaged. It’s not radical enough, it’s not showing the true potential of the digital medium yet. I mean it’s certainly making books more affordable - I’ll give them that. But that has its own problems, doesn’t it?
Mirela: Certainly for the author. I’m not sure the solution is to devalue the book to the point where you can buy it for $2 or $3. I’m not sure what to make of that.
Len: Speaking of ideology and the radical potential that you speak of, I think I came across a bio of you on No Shelf Required, or it may have been somewhere in a blog post where you spoke about how, when you were growing up, you really didn’t have a great deal of books around. Pardon me if I’m wrong about that.
But it struck me because - one of the dividing lines I’ve found anecdotally in my experience talking to people about the potential of ebooks, is that the access people had when they were young, or when they began to thirst for knowledge - those who felt that it was limited, are often those who are much more quick to see what the potential for ebooks represents.
Mirela: Absolutely. I grew up in a very small town on the Croatian Adriatic. I did write about that, you’re right, it was in one of my blog posts. The first time I walked into NYPL in New York, and the first time I walked into the NYU library, I remember being overwhelmed. I mean just to see so many books in one place, it was - it’s one of those things you never forget in your life.
We quickly forget how many people on this planet still don’t have access to literature. How many people don’t live in urban areas, or affluent areas? How much, how limiting that access always has been with the print book, as glorious as all these urban libraries out there are.
As much as we like to worship them, and we do, sometimes I wish we would spend less time doing that, admiring the physical, and more time focusing on - okay, so if this physical [library] has to stay where it is, what can we do digitally? What can we do virtually to level the playing field?
And that’s where ebooks come in. That’s where my excitement comes in. And that’s what No Shelf Required, these days is about. We live in a world now where we already can do so much more than we do. And in that world, there are a lot of very wealthy urban libraries with unbelievably rich collections, that are not accessible to anyone beyond the right zip code.
We can do better than that. We can do much better than that. And I think libraries have to wake up to that potential as well. Even within a country like the US, there’s a lot of discrepancy between what a major urban library can offer, versus a small library in rural Texas.
So to me, that’s what ebooks are about. They’re about democratizing the written word, the way even Gutenberg couldn’t pull off. Print never really gave us that full democracy of the written word. It was always tied to the library, to the physical entity, to the city, to the affluent urban area. The ebook can be accessible to anyone anywhere, period. That holds so much potential, and it really is difficult to ignore that.
The more you get into it, the more you experiment, as I have in recent months. The more you experiment with ebooks….
But that’s the key word. You have to be willing to experiment. Publishers have to be willing to experiment, libraries have to be willing to experiment.
We don’t know exactly what the right, or if there is the right, the perfect model that can accomplish all that we want to see with ebooks. But with all due respect to all my colleagues in publishing, I don’t think as an industry we’ve done enough, because we still rely on that old mentality. We buy, we sell, we borrow, we lend. That seems to be where we’re stuck. And with ebooks, it really does not have to be about - just about buying or selling or borrowing. It requires a completely different frame of thinking.
Len: Speaking of that different way of thinking and experimenting and trying to improve things, this seems like a good moment to ask you about the free reading initiative - and how you got things set up in Croatia, and what it was all about.
Mirela: So the Free Reading Zones project actually initiated in the US, with a company called Total Boox. It’s a company that I consulted for about three years. It’s an Israeli company that entered the US market about three years ago with a brand new model for reading ebooks and I was very drawn to it from the very beginning, because it was so radical.
It wasn’t about buying or selling, but simply about paying for only for what you read. Not per page, not per view, but for what you actually read, similar to how Skype works. If you load up your balance, and you read only a percentage of a book, you are only charged for that percentage.
Total Boox became a good model for libraries, because it offered instant, simultaneous access to books, which has been a major issue with public libraries in the United States - dealing with waiting lines, all kinds of restrictions placed on reading.
So the libraries that work with Total Boox had the option to make those books available instantly in places other than libraries. For example, parks. Any physical, any geographical area could be turned into a free reading zone where - with your library card, you can read.
So it’s basically going beyond the library walls to turn public spaces into these areas where culture is abundant, if you will. And it was a great way for libraries to attract more library card holders, and encourage more reading.
And then it dawned on me somewhere along the way - why do we have to only ask libraries to sponsor this reading? Why don’t we go beyond libraries? Why don’t we make reading available to people without restriction? Even asking them to put in a library card still means that you’re preferring library patrons in a certain area, so it’s still not 100% free.
That’s where the idea was born, the idea that the next step should be free reading anywhere, where reading is welcome. If a bank wants to sponsor people’s reading, or an insurance company or any kind of government entity or organization that supports literacy - it can.
And I felt that the Total Boox model was a really good one, again, because of that instant access, because there’s no buying and borrowing, and the books simply are always available and exposed for reading. So the idea then becomes - we transfer the cost of reading from the reader to the sponsor.
The first project I did, that did not involve a library, it was actually turning a cafe into a free reading zone. And the cafe was here in Zagreb in Croatia, the capital of Croatia, which worked the same way. Any person on premises, anyone who visited the cafe could go into a virtual library bigger than the collection available at the biggest library in Croatia - the library, the National Library of Zagreb - and browse and read thousands of books in several languages. And as long as they stay at the cafe - and I think they were able to - they could also finish the reading at home through the end of the day.
But that was more of a pilot. It was more of a staging for what would come next. And what came next was what I call the project of my life, the turning of the entire country [into a Free Reading Zone] - we went from a cafe to the entire country.
The reason it happened in Croatia was really simple. I was at a point in my career, after finishing my work with Total Boox, where I was looking for a change, and I had spent most of my life at that point living in New York. There comes a point in your life, in your career when you seek a change, and you decide it will be a good idea perhaps to reconnect with the source, if you will.
So going to Croatia was a personal decision for me. I certainly, at the time, had no plans to turn the country into a Free Reading Zone. That was not on my to-do list. It was mostly to travel on trains and visit relatives that I haven’t seen in years, and just give myself and my family a year away from New York.
The cafe project was fun. I did it with a group of people, local enthusiasts who helped, and the cafe owners, who were really interested in the project, because the cafe itself was not a regular cafe. It’s kind of literary, it has a history of literary events and it’s always been like a cultural hub where people gathered to discuss arts and literature. So it was very natural, it was a very natural place to do that.
The big country project kind of snuck up on me. And I honestly - looking back, I’m not even sure at what point I decided that I was ready for it. But it all kind of fell into place. And I was fortunate enough that I had the company Total Boox backing it, they were interested in it. And I explained my idea, I explained that it would be only in Croatia.
Here’s why: it was small enough that we could pull it off. Croatia’s not a big country, it’s got less than 5 million people. More people live in Queens in New York than in this entire nation. It’s a touristy country with 15 million people visiting it a year. So that’s three times as many than residents.
So all kinds of languages are spoken all over the place. Which is good, because the collection we would expose would be multilingual. It would include thousands of books in English and French and German, Italian, etc. The smallest number of them were actually in Croatian. Because we added them at the last minute.
And then also, it’s a rural country. It’s a country of a thousand islands scattered all over the place. Very few urban areas. A country where ebooks never, never even took off. Nobody’s interested in them. Most publishers don’t even digitize their books. Those that do, many of them only have them in PDF.
Which made it perfect for this experiment, because if I’m going to prove that, if we create the right conditions for people to read ebooks, they will embrace them; and if we can prove that in a country like Croatia, then that’s going to be a powerful statement. It’s going to make all that much more believable, and it will have that much more weight.
It was a process, it didn’t happen overnight. I certainly put my personal life on hold for it. It had many more challenges than I expected. I exposed myself publicly, I went on national TV, which, for a writer and editor, it wasn’t exactly a natural atmosphere.
But we understood that we had to build the momentum, that we had to explain to people what was about to happen. The uniqueness of the project, the revolutionary aspect of it - that no other country really, to the best of my knowledge has ever attempted something like that. That one day in early December, they will wake up and the whole country will be an open library. And they will be able to read and go into this free app and just read for one month, and well, we didn’t say for one month, we were hoping it would last longer. But it ended up lasting for a month.
There was a lot that went into it. I certainly couldn’t have done it by myself. So I organized a group of people who helped, from IT specialists to publishing consultants, to family members who cheered me on. It was intense. It was an intense six months leading up to the big finale, which was the actual launch.
And then there was also another component, and that was speaking to potential sponsors and government officials. That was the most important and exhausting part. It wasn’t just about the pilot. We secured the funds for the first month. We knew that the reading was covered for the first month, and that would work. That would work out fine.
What I was really interested in is for somebody to pick it up, so that it would not stop - so that it would continue. So I spent a lot of my time talking to government officials, going to presentations, going into banks - all kinds of corporations, presenting the project, asking them essentially to sponsor it, but presenting it in a way that it wasn’t a humanitarian action. That was very important to me. I wanted it to come across as this exciting new way to support literacy and culture through sponsorship - advertising, if you will? But keep in mind the library itself was not going to be flooded with ads.
There was going to be a simple greeting by the sponsor upon the entry into the app, and that was it. And then the reader would be left alone. So, it was a very discreet way of branding and allowing organizations and corporations to sponsor something that I think is beyond big. Because it doesn’t involve - as I would explain to them - it does not involve, like it always does when you support a cultural event, you’re essentially supporting the organizer.
You’re supporting the author, you’re supporting the festival. So it’s always the creator. But in this project, you’re actually supporting the end user. So that is like culture at it’s highest level, benefiting everybody, complete - coming full circle.
And to make the very, very long story short - the government officials that we spoke with in the end showed the most interest. We had several meetings with the Minister of Culture here, the Ministry of Tourism, as well as education. And we are still in the process of waiting to hear from them, and hope - I really hope - that this inspires them to continue, because the project was a huge success.
Thousands of people registered within hours. Tens of thousands of people read every single minute of the day. The support was enormous. People thought it was too good to be true. The only negative comments we ever got were at the very end, when we had to notify them that the pilot was put on hold until a sponsor was ready to continue. Why a sponsor? So that we could pay publishers. Because that’s what made this so special.
Len: I’m very curious about that aspect of it. As I understand it, there was a pre-existing app - and by the way, what a wonderful story, and congratulations on your success with it - so, as I understand it, there was an app that pre-existed, and then a really big part of the work that you did, I imagine, was convincing publishers to allow their books to be distributed through that app?
Mirela: Right, that was the work I did for Total Boox, the Total Books model, the pay-as-you-read model only pays publishers for what is read. And this is a very radical concept. I spent three years of my life as a consultant to Total Boox, convincing publishers to sign. And I was pretty successful at it. We created a very robust collection, over 300 publishers represented. Very, very, very well-known brands. Brands like Lonely Planet, Berlitz, Source Books, F&W. A number of Canadian publishers too - ECW, etc.
So this model basically - the contracts that publishers signed with Total Boox, said, in a nutshell, you will get paid not for the price that you set every time somebody downloads. Let’s say it’s $20. If I download that book, but I only read $2 worth of it - I only read a few pages, we owe you $2 of it for that particular book. But we will pay you every time anyone, anywhere reads - so it’s incremental revenue.
This is a departure from what publishers are used to, because they are used to making predictions, and getting the $20 for every book they sell - whether people read or not is really not the concern. But all of a sudden with this new model, it becomes very much part of the game.
So in all honesty, many publishers are still not ready for that - that they will only be paid if people read. It’s almost like we’re holding them, in a way, responsible to earn, based on what is actually read.
So that is the model. That’s the same model that we used in Croatia. We did not have to go back to those same publishers and say, “Are you going to participate in this pilot?” Because no matter where people read inside that app, they will always be paid. The only difference is, in Croatia - this was the first time, that in Croatia it did not come from any individuals. It came directly from the sponsor.
So somebody picked it all up on their behalf. That’s basically the model that I designed. Let’s transfer the burden of paying for the reading from the reader to the sponsor - whoever that may be. And it can still be a library. Except in Croatia - and by the way, this is also something that libraries in the US may not be so aware of - libraries outside US, the vast majority of places I’ve been too, not just in Croatia but all around Europe, truly don’t have the funds to even consider working with ebooks.
Libraries in the US have made tremendous progress with ebooks. As chaotic as it’s been to us - and I’ve been critical of some of the ways things have turned out - but still, in comparison to the rest of the world, the US is in a much better shape. My point is, if we’re going to spread reading around the world, we cannot rely on libraries outside the US. They simply don’t have the means to do it. They need all the help they can get.
So in Croatia, we just used the collection that Total Boox already has, and that it already makes available for reading. It did not affect publishers. I don’t know if I’m making sense? I hope I am.
Mirela: So that’s really all we did. We used the same, exact existing app. But we gave it a new name, it was called Croatia Reads, and it looked exactly the same as the Total Boox app. The only difference was that there was no one keeping track of your balance. Inside Croatia, there was no balance for the individual user.
Len: That’s very interesting - how was the app aware of where the user was?
Mirela: There’s several ways to do it. There’s the easier way and the more expensive, more evolved way, which is through GPS, which is something I’m working on right now. The simplest way to do it, is to limit the app to a certain area or country - in this case, Croatia - in the App Store.
If you make the app only available in the App Store for certain countries, as well as in Google Play, it will only be available inside that country. But that makes it a little bit more challenging for tourists. Because in that case, if a tourist arrives from the US, he still has the US App Store in his app. So in that case, it’s - and GPS is a better option - but Free Reading Zones can work several ways. It can be via IP address, GPS coordinates, or simply by limiting the app to a certain country inside the app store.
Len: Thanks for that, that’s a very clear explanation. I think I’m getting a much richer understanding of what you’re up to. I wanted to go back to libraries again.
Len: You said some things in your blog post that I found created an original pattern, and all the reading I’ve done around ebooks and print books and libraries and things like that - and so, I’m going to quote you a little bit. This goes back also to your wonderful point about actually doing experiments, and how this Free Reading Zone in Croatia was a big experiment to see how people would respond.
And you say, quote, “Readers do not care to get ebooks through libraries. Like other digital content, they simply want to access ebooks freely and without a cumbersome process.” - end quote. You also talk about how there is no clerk keeping track of what they were borrowing or buying.
And one of the reasons I found these observations so - these results so fascinating, is that it gets at the heart of a kind of contradiction in the print/ebook discourse that I’ve seen, where, on the one hand, people will be critical of, say, big companies like Apple, or like Amazon, for gathering data on us, in order to let us know recommendations better than they would otherwise for the next book to read.
But the very same person will then argue, on the other hand, the main value of something like an independent book store, is that the staff know you personally - and know you so well that they know better than you, what you want to read. And what you’re getting at, is just, it comes from a totally different direction, which is people just want a friction-less experience.
They don’t want a clerk getting in the way. As you were saying before, the internet has figured out pretty good ways of - if you know what you’re looking for, separating from your perspective wheat from chaff. I mean, if you do know what you’re doing. And that people just really desperately want to read, and if you just get out of the way, they’ll do it.
Mirela: Right. Get out of the way. I wrote about that this morning in my post, in which I write about what books want. That one, which you’re quoting was the article about what readers want. There’s something really, really delicate about this, and that’s what I was trying to get at.
The beauty of, the wonderful thing about the word, “free,” is it’s got two meanings. Free as in free to read, no charge, no pay. But the other one, which is more important for this project - which was the freedom of reading, and the complete, no restrictions. The way you read when you are inside a virtual library, affords you the kind of privacy that - people say that everything in digital is not private. Because if it’s digital, if it’s in a virtual environment - somebody is always keeping track.
Well in this case, we keep track to pay the publishers, but it’s in aggregate. No personal information is ever revealed, and it’s not kept track of.
But what’s really special about this - there are so many books out there that people simply cannot get through libraries or book stores. In a place like Croatia, I have never in this very conservative Catholic country seen various types of books in book stores.
For example, gay fiction - we had a collection of 3,000 titles from Riptide - Riptide Publishing. And the other publisher of gay fiction - I’m forgetting the name now - those types of books are not available in bookstores. They simply are not. They’re not even available in libraries. People may, even if they were - may not be as comfortable buying them or checking them out. Or books about domestic violence. Or any kind of sensitive topic, that for whatever reason, a person wants to keep to themselves in private.
The wonderful thing about reading in a virtual environment, is that nobody stands in the way between you and the book. And I’m a big, big proponent of that. This idea that everybody gets out of the way.
And coming from a former book review editor - we need to get out of the way too. Our job is to produce, create and make available. Once we do our jobs as publishers and librarians, we all need to get out of the way. I really believe that we overthink vetting and filtering. We overthink recommendations.
One of the big, one of the most important feedbacks we received was how much people enjoyed browsing. You cannot browse like that in a physical environment. You simply cannot. And this isn’t - I don’t like to - I’ve always, since day one, believed that one format did not compete with the other, and I still believe that. I just like to focus on the strengths of those formats - print and digital.
And these are the strength of the digital format. That wonderful privacy that it gives you to explore. The way you cannot explore in a bookstore or a physical library. And going in and out of books, and reading parts of books and creating your own shelves. This was the wonderful feature of the app that allows you to build your own shelves, and then share them with others if you choose.
That exploration part, browsing - I think that all reading matters. I don’t believe that you have to read everything cover to cover. I think that we learn, even when we read in fragments - I think it all matters.
The perfect library of the future is that virtual - that river of knowledge that flows any way it wants to. And books have a way of finding readers on their own.
And so it’s a wonderful process, and I think that we don’t explore - we don’t allow for it enough. There are so many people in the middle, so many middlemen. So many. And with Croatia Reads, there was none of that. There is nothing waiting for you there, but this wonderful library. And all you have to do is download and read.
You can read and look at other people’s shelves and recommendations, but inside the library there’s none of that. People later said, “Why don’t you have the social media component, where people can discuss books?” And I said to someone, “Well I kind of like that this older app did not. Because it really was just a library.”
We live in a world where everybody’s a critic, everybody has something to say. It’s overwhelming. So there’s something really wonderful about a digital library, without the comments section. There’s the book, and there’s the shelf. And you get to go in and out of books, and that’s pretty much it. You’re on your own. It’s very quiet in there.
Len: Speaking again of being on your own, I wanted to go back - before we move onto discussing the future perfect library, which I’m very interested in hearing about - the point you made about locality. This is a concept that - and privacy - this is a concept that people often, I think, romanticize. “I should read local authors, and I should read the limited selection of books that my local bookseller chooses to make available to me.”
And I think - again - people who perhaps grew up totally in sync with their environment or, alternatively, with a sense of total abundance, and no sense of lack - are often very insensitive to what it’s like to have needs like the ones you described. Say, for a book on domestic violence, in a place where you might want to keep that private - or where those books aren’t even available in the first place in that locality. Restricting one’s self to one’s locale can actually be a kind of prison, rather than a warm and fuzzy activity.
Mirela: Right, right. Yes, I have nothing to add to that.
Len: Yeah, sorry.
Mirela: You just said it nicely, very nicely. I have all these different ways of saying it too, not just negative and sad things. Like a woman walking into a library kind of wanting to help herself. Or being in a difficult situation. But also like, the lighter - the lighter more enjoyable metaphors like - I have two PhD’s, and I’m on vacation, and I just want to read a trashy romance novel. Just wanted to sink my teeth into it.
Just allowing people to have the widest array. Because I think one of the wonderful things about the - what we can do with monitoring reading and having the data that shows, in aggregate again - very important - not what people read, but also how people read. People have the widest interests.
Would you believe me if I told you that the most popular books are not the most read? [Here are two articles on this interesting topic: If You Sell the Book, Will They Read It? & People are Not Reading the e-Books they Buy Anymore- eds.]. That the books that are the most well known in the Total Boox collection are often the most downloaded, but they are not the most read. People often download books impulsively, because they want to be part of a cultural phenomenon. This is all part of that PR machine that the publishing industry drives all over the world.
Len: I see.
Mirela: So I will frantically download, 50 Shades of Grey, because I want to read it, because I somehow have to - because if I don’t, I’m not part of this, I will not be able to keep up with the cultural dialogue. Even though really, it doesn’t interest me that much. So when I’m in that virtual environment, this is why that incremental revenue makes so much sense. Because people read all kinds of things.
They stop, they read, they start. They start reading a book, they stop. Bestselling has never meant most read. It’s just that we never took interest in that. The publishing industry has never really been interested - are people actually reading what they’re buying? And very often, they don’t. But in a virtual environment, you can take a book that’s 20 years old and discover it for the first time. And to you, that is a brand new book.
I read The Power of Now three years ago. I was at a point in my life when it started to matter to me. When it came out, I think it came out in 1996, I was still in college. I had no use for that book at that time, and at that age. So to me, The Power of Now, 20 years later was a discovery, a revelation.
This is, again, another drawback of print books. They are not available to us at the point of need. And that need comes to us at different points in our lives. So there’s that too, there’s that element of - what is new? What is old? One of the most challenging things about the publishing industry is - how did it get so impatient with books? We publish so much stuff, books age quickly - so quickly, why?
Why do they age so fast? If you don’t get it within - publishers move onto the next catalog the minute that catalog comes out. And five, six years later, those books that are not available in bookstores - and very few are bought by libraries - obviously, are nowhere to be found. I mean you can order them online, but they rarely make money off of those books. At a certain point they stop making revenue.
When you make them, when you reopen them for discovery - people will not buy a book just because it’s available on Amazon. But if you open it up to them for discovery, like is the case with Total Boox - then you allow for that reading to take place. So that’s extremely beneficial for publishers. It’s beneficial for everybody. Readers benefit because it’s right there when they want it. And publishers always have a chance to earn, based on what people read.
And I really like that balance, I think it’s important, because I think books should not age that quickly. It’s always bothered me, how quickly publishers move on to the next list. It’s very, very difficult, even for librarians. And this is what I often tell them. “You cannot keep up anymore. You shouldn’t even have to. It’s really difficult, there’s got to be a better way.”
I think the future - for libraries, certainly - does not involve creating collections and hoarding books in print format, simply because the volume is impossible to keep up with. Even the best -
Len: Speaking of a certain type of hoarding - one topic that really interests me, partly because I know so little about it really - is the concept of territorial rights, which can often be a way - just on a general theme of open access - can often be a way of restricting access to things from one part of the world, where it might be available in another.
Currently a very prominent example of that in the film world, and television world, is Netflix, which has basically said it thinks there should be no territorial rights, and there should just be one territory - which is planet earth. And that there should be no negotiating of cantonized rights, and that this is basically a rent-seeking legacy from the past. I was wondering what you might have to say about this issue.
Mirela: I couldn’t agree with it more. I think that this is something that we deal with in publishing - we deal with this issue in publishing still. There are books, there were books from that collection of 100,000 books that people could not read in Croatia, simply because the rights were not there for this particular country.
The vast majority of books, I think - as we move toward the future - do grant, the digital rights are automatically world rights. So eventually it’ll phase out. It has to. It’s really difficult. It’s just illogical. It makes no sense. Digital content cannot function otherwise. It’s restricting it in ways that makes it impossible for it to flow. And we also live in a world where people travel all the time. All the time.
The minute I set foot outside of the US, half of my apps don’t work anymore. It’s annoying, and I’m a frequent traveler. And I live on two continents. Pandora - when I’m in the US, it’s I listen to Pandora. Once I get out, the rights are not there anymore. That’s what you get when you click on Pandora. It tells you, “Sorry, rights are not available to this country.”
So Netflix, interestingly enough, is available here. And I enjoy it every day. But not the same Netflix. So even they are dealing with these rights issues, and not all movies are available in every country and every time. But that is the future - that’s that river that I - I love the metaphor of river, the flowing river of content. That’s the river of the future.
It’s like - to me, books are in many ways not different than websites. They’re containers that house content of some kind. And the same way we can go on a website, and read the content there, we should be able to eventually consume all content that way, including books in digital format.
I have to say - to give credit where credit is due, it’s getting better. It’s getting much better than it used to be. It’s not as big of an issue as it used to be. I think it was a much bigger problem 10, 15 years [ago]. As new books are released, digital rights are handled in such a way that they’re pretty much automatically worldwide.
Len: Well that’s really great news.
Mirela: Well, that’s been my experience. I do want to say that I don’t - we still haven’t worked with the Big Five. It may be more complicated with some of their books. And the only reason we don’t have the Big Five content, that we haven’t used it in Croatia, is because the Big Five - some publishers, they simply are not ready for this experiment. They are very much adhering to the traditional one copy, one user model. And I would love nothing more than for them to open their doors to us. That has not been something I’ve been able to conquer yet. But I will keep trying.
Len: Speaking of an even better future and this river - I was wondering if you could talk, just for a few minutes about what, your current vision. I mean of course, there will still be experiments to do, but what is your vision of a global open virtual library. How would it work? Would it have a sort of single, central administration or - ?
Mirela: I have visions of it. Somebody asked me in an interview, “What is the ultimate Free Reading Zone?” That was the question. I remember that was the question. And I answered, “Oh, the world is the ultimate Free Reading Zone.” So not a particular country.
But I do think for many, many reasons - we have ways to go to get there. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime.
It’s possible. It’s possible that it’ll happen sooner than we think. Is the technology already there? Absolutely. Can we make every book available to everyone on the planet right now? Absolutely. But there’s a lot at stake. There are a lot of - there’s an army of people who work in this industry, and families that need to be fed and supported. And business models to be protected. Institutions to be protected.
So the way to move forward, I think, toward that ultimate goal, is to - this is why I believe in free reading, this concept of zones, is because they are more manageable, financially speaking. They’re more manageable. So when you take a country like Croatia, you could get a lot of government entities involved to pay for its citizens to read. To take the money that they set aside for literacy and education and cultural budgets, to support what matters to them.
So when it’s community driven, it’s a lot easier to manage financially. Now, turning the United States of America into a free reading zone would be - it would be a huge endeavor, involving millions and millions and millions of dollars. So it’s not likely - it’s not going to happen. Croatia - again - is a small country. So it made a lot of sense. Many cities around the world have more people than the entire country of Croatia. But a lot of cities out there could be zones.
I think the way to get there is for libraries right now to rethink their presence. I like to say to librarians, there is tremendous power in being invisible. So this idea that if you are in the right zip code, you get to use the right library, should stay in the past. And I want to see libraries show more courage there, and more support for areas beyond the areas that they serve.
I mean it’s complex, we know it’s all tied to taxpayers’ money, etc. etc. But still I think we can aim higher. This is books, this is not Prada purses. This isn’t fashion we’re talking about. This is knowledge. This is the sharing of knowledge.
If MIT can educate millions of people for free by exposing its digital content online, without it hurting the whole physical experience on campus - I don’t know if you’re familiar, I hope you are, with MIT’s open courses online. Open to people all over the world.
Len: Yes, I’m familiar with that.
Mirela: Right. So there’s no reason that libraries cannot do something similar with books. Is this the only way to do it? Probably not. This is the way I’ve done it. This is my first attempt to try something beyond. It’s a bit of a scary phrase, but I’m starting to use it more. I notice when I speak about it. Detaching knowledge from institutions. That’s what this is about.
Detaching it not in a negative way, but in a way that it just gives it the wings to fly to wherever it needs to go. That’s what the future is about. That’s the next step for libraries. Libraries spend a lot of time - a lot of time, and this is universal, it’s not just in North America - defending the physical entity, the physical institution. This idea that you come to the building, you go where the knowledge is, is very old school to me. So the mentality there needs to be reversed a little bit, so that it becomes exciting that the knowledge goes out there. Not the other way around.
And this is my challenge. This is something that I write about. Sometimes more successfully, sometimes not so successfully. But I try to capture that. I try to capture this idea that knowledge does not want to belong. It really doesn’t. It’s the opposite from what libraries think, because it had to be guarded in printed format. But digitally, it requires a completely different way of thinking and going about it. So I challenge libraries that way. I challenge them to not be the guardians of knowledge in digital format. But to set it free.
Len: Well on that note - well no, please finish.
Mirela: That’s basically the gist of this project. This was basically at the core of it. This is what drove me to it. And I just want to say that - I said earlier, I don’t even know how it happened. And I really believe that these types of mission-driven projects have a way of finding you.
I felt at one point that this dream of free reading found me. I wasn’t going after it, I wasn’t chasing it. I didn’t have a vision in my head that it was my job or my mission to turn places into Free Reading Zones. It kind of falls into place, and it becomes a calling, and you feel that you are privileged enough and knowledgeable enough.
Because you’ve lived enough, and you’ve worked enough in that particular industry, that you can see beyond what’s there. That’s what’s required - going beyond what seems obvious. And that is the ultimate goal. That is, detaching knowledge, and knowledge flowing outward. And librarians actually holding the key, being the key to freeing that knowledge.
Len: Well thanks very much. On that note I think our time might be about up, and it’s time for me to let you be free.
Thank you very much for sharing your passion and your story with us. And I wanted to say, once again, congratulations on your success in Croatia, and I wish you all the best in what you do in the future.
Mirela: Thank you very much. Hopefully this is the beginning, and we’ll turn many other places into free reading zones very soon.
Len: Thank you.
Mirela: Thank you.
published Mar 09, 2017
Mike is the author of three Leanpub books, Python 101, Python 201, and wxPython Cookbook. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Mike about his career, his books, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.
This interview was recorded on October 25, 2016.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub. And in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Mike Driscoll. Mike is a computer programmer, who writes the popular blog, “The Mouse Versus the Python,” at blog.pythonlibrary.org. He has been programming in Python since 2006, and has been a technical reviewer for Packt Pack Publishing since 2009. He also blogs occasionally for the Python Software Foundation.
Mike is the author of three books available for sale on Leanpub, Python 101,” Python 201, and wxPython Cookbook. *Python 101 was written mostly for beginners learning how to program in Python 3. Python 201 is the sequel to Python 101, and is meant primarily for intermediate level Python programmers. And wxPython Cookbook is full of great tips and tricks for using the wxPython toolkit.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Mike’s professional interests, his books, and his experience in self-publishing, which is really interesting. So, thank you, Mike, for being on the Leanpub podcast.
Mike: Thank you very much Len.
Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, so I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling us about your path to becoming a programmer, and the kind of work that you’ve done since?
Mike: Sure thing. When I was in high school, I decided that I really wanted to get into computer graphics. And then I realized that I wasn’t that great at drawing. So I decided that instead I’d look into computer programming. And the first two years are really rough. I took computer science in a community college, and didn’t really get it. And then in my third year, everything just started to click. And I was like, “I can do this, this is going to rock.”
And then the dot com busted, and I couldn’t find any work. So I started doing website work for an auction company, and eventually got hired by local government to work in Python. Basically I learned Python on trial by fire. They said, “Figure it out, or get fired, basically.” And I learned it and excelled at it, and that’s been my career ever since, is doing Python.
Now, while I did do the Python, I started realizing that to help me cement it into my brain, I could start writing about it. So I was using blog software - it was kind of a brain dump at first, to help me remember this is how I did something in the past - and I don’t want to forget that later on. Which frequently happens if you don’t use a library for a while.
So that’s why the blog started, and eventually my readers got to be so many and so numerous, and they just all wanted to know, “Hey, can you start turning these into books?” And that’s kind of how the book writing got born.
Len: One thing I like to ask programmers in interviews is, if you were starting out today, would you get into it the same way that you did? For example, would you go to college and study computer science now? Or would you start another way?
Mike: Well there’s definitely pros and cons to each path. I think you have a much more structured way of getting into programming if you go the college route, because you’ll get the algorithms and the math that you need, most likely. On the other hand, if you take the path of running the programming language itself, I think you’ll better understand the language fairly quickly, because you’re learning it while you’re using it.
Most of the time in the classes that I took, you had a semester to work on, really, rather lame programs or projects that really didn’t teach you a whole lot. It just taught you the concepts and the syntax, but not how to actually use the language. So, like I said - there’s pros and cons.
You definitely need the algorithms, if you’re going to get into like, [an] engineering degree. You need the math for that too. But if you want to learn a language - a lot of the time, I think just diving in and starting a couple projects to figure out the language, is probably quicker at picking up the language.
Len: And was there something that happened in your learning, in that third year, something specific that happened that helped you to turn the corner? Or was it just a gradual build of knowledge and experience?
Mike: I believe I was taking a C++ class, and something about the way that the instructor taught it just clicked with me. And I think the previous two years, all those concepts and knowledge that I was learning - everything just kind of melded together. And I became, “Oh, this is how it all works.” And I started understanding all those abstract concepts, and how to apply them.
Len: I was curious how your blog became so popular. Was it organic growth, it just started happening? Or were you promoting it various places?
Mike: Originally I believe it was just organic. I ended up joining a place called Planet Python, which is an aggregate for Python blogs. People would occasionally tweet my articles, and post on Reddit. But for the most part, I didn’t really advertise that much. And then eventually I started adding - I think it’s called TweetFeed, which is actually going out of business, unfortunately, this year. They would automatically tweet my articles for me, so I didn’t have to always remember to do that. But other than that, and a couple of postings to Hacker News, I don’t do a whole lot of advertising myself.
Len: That’s really interesting to know. You write in Python 101, near the beginning, about how learning the basics isn’t enough. And in your book description you talk about how you switch perhaps more quickly into intermediate-level content, than most beginner books might. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? About why learning the basics isn’t enough?
Mike: Sure. I’ve read a lot of Python books and a lot of programming books. But I’ve noticed in a lot of these beginner books - you learn the syntax, and then not how to apply it. So when I wrote my own book, I wanted to get past just the basics. I wanted to get into the stuff that’s actually kind of interesting. Interesting to me, and hopefully interesting to my readers.
The other thing that I noticed that was missing from a lot of these beginner books, is that they don’t tell you how to write a program, and then distribute it. So if I wanted to write a module and distribute it to the rest of the Python community, most books don’t tell you how to do that. Or I want to create a program, and turn it into an executable or an installer for Windows, for example. Most books don’t tell you how to do that either.
So I decided, I’m going to fill that gap, and show how to get into Python quickly. Show them what kind of libraries there are already in the standard libraries - you don’t have to install anything. And then show you how easy it is to install stuff, create your own modules, how to distribute them - and then create your own executable at the very end.
Len: I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about what the wxPython Toolkit is, and your involvement with that?
Mike: Yeah, so the wxPython Toolkit is a cross platform user interface. It’s a wrapper around wxWidgets, which is a C++ library, kind of like the Qt toolkit. The nice thing about wxPython, is that it typically will take the native widgets on whatever OS it’s written on, and actually use those widgets, instead of drawing a facsimile like Qt does. So what you end up doing, is you actually have the very native widget on each platform, and it looks correct. And there isn’t any kind of weird or wonky-ness you’ll sometimes see in like TkInter or Qt.
I got involved in it, because I was actually converting some VBA code - that was on top of Excel and Access into wxPython. And so I learned how to do that. Then, I worked in the community a lot, and they helped me figure out how to use the toolkit. And then I just gave back, by helping out other new people who wanted to use it as well.
Len: Helping out is a theme in the work of yours that I found online. You’ve got screencasts, for example, for your book, and videos helping people out. And your first book, Python 101, which I believe you published in 2014, had a Kickstarter campaign associated with it, and for your subsequent books. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? What was your experience like starting a Kickstarter campaign for the first time?
Mike: It was quite interesting. I’d never done that before, but I had supported some Kickstarter campaigns in the past, and it occurred to me that doing the Kickstarter campaign would be a good way to gauge whether or not my book’s contents would interest other people. So I created a table of contents, and posted that as part of my Kickstarter, and explained all the different parts I was going to cover in each Kickstarter, and why I thought they were important.
Kind of like I just told you why I wrote the first book the way I did. People really responded to that, and by far, Python 101 brought in the most backers, and the most funding of any of my projects. I really enjoyed that process. I got to learn who my readers were, what they’re interested in, and what kinds of things they might be interested in in the future. They’re always giving me feedback through my blog or by email as well.
Len: I noticed that, like many people who publish books on Leanpub, you have a section at the beginning of your book, where you include an email address for people to contact you, and you ask them for feedback. Has that method worked for your books? Do you think it’s helped improve the content in your books?
Mike: Yes, I think so. Most of the time they don’t contact me through that method. They actually contact me through my web - through my blog.
I do get contacts through those email addresses as well. And I’ve had several bug reports mentioned. Most of the time they’re just silly typos. But occasionally there’ll be an example that I just didn’t test well enough, and I have to modify. But overall, it’s been a really good way to connect with my readers.
Len: You mention in, I think the video on Kickstarter for Python 101 and for Python 201, that you intended to do some advertising with some of the funds that you raised. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experience advertising your books?
Mike: Well for, Python 101 I didn’t get to do as much advertising as I wanted. But for Python 201, I’ve done a lot of soft advertising. I’ll do promotions through my blog mostly, but also send out emails to my email list that I’ve gained over the years. And I’ve also been looking into trying to find some targeted ads, [that I could use on] Facebook or Twitter.
But my research has indicated that a lot of those methods don’t return investment very well. You have to use like less than 10%, for example. So if you had $1,000 funding, you’d want to use maybe $100 to advertise, to get any kind of return on investment using those methods. And that doesn’t get you very much advertising using that kind of quote or quotas or percentages. So I haven’t done too much that way.
But I discovered something kind of interesting last week, where I posted a promotion, where I give away my second book for free for 48 hours. And that brought in a lot of new readers.
Len: I was watching that happen. You got something like 16,000 readers in just a couple of days. It was really great to see. I wanted to ask you specifically about that. Was there a famous person who tweeted about it? Or was there something special that happened that you noticed?
Mike: I don’t believe there’s any famous people. In fact, when I originally did this, I was just going to post it on Reddit - and there’s a Python subreddit on there. So that’s where I posted it. And I think that’s where the majority of the people came from, from what little analytics I can gather through my previous publishing websites. But it just kind of organically grew from there. And then I decided to also promote it on my blog. And I do get a lot of people going through my blog. So I think the two combinations brought in a lot of readers.
Len: You also actually have print versions of your books available, or at least of your first two books. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling people how you went about making those print books? I believe they are for sale on Lulu and Amazon.
Mike: Yes that’s correct. When I wrote Python 101, I was using something other than Leanpub to create them. I had a home brewed script written in Python, that would actually generate the books into PDFs and MOBI and EPUB versions.
Well eventually, I needed to figure out a way to put the PDF up on Lulu to generate the book. And so I’d have to create versions of the book that didn’t have the cover, and sometimes other information, because Lulu doesn’t want the cover part as part of the PDF. You have to upload it separately. So I just stepped through that process with whatever book I was using. And occasionally, you had to generate the book and cut off the front, and get Lulu to process it. And then add it on on the back end.
Overall, I think it’s gone pretty well. They have a global reach program, which allows you to publish through Amazon and Barnes & Noble and a bunch of other websites, as well as internationally. And they have really stringent rules. So if you don’t put in the ISBN on the right page, they won’t accept it. There’s lots of little gotchas that I didn’t know were even there, that I’ve had to cross, and make sure that I always add it on if I recreate the book again. Just little things you don’t even think about.
Len: And what have your print book sales been like?
Mike: Not that great really. The print books usually sell a handful a month. I probably get maybe 10 to 50 the first month a book is released. And then two or three per month after that. So the bulk of my sales are obviously electronic. People want the digital versions or the Kindle versions, on Amazon for example.
Len: You’ve both written technical books, and you review them as well, and I was wondering - I wanted to ask you what your opinion is about, if you have one, about trends that you see happening in technical book publishing, going forward. Where do you think the industry’s going to be in 10 years?
Mike: The big trend I’ve noticed lately, is that the big companies like O’Reilly and Apress are going for niche markets. They’re writing really targeted books. So, for example, O’Reilly put out a SQL alchemy book, which is just for the SQL alchemy library in Python. Packt Publishing really does this a lot. Where they have all kinds of books on scientific computing, Pandas, Django - they even have a Turbo Gears book. They just have all kinds of little sub-library books, and you don’t normally see that.
Well like 10 years ago, when I was first starting this, this journey, you couldn’t just go out and buy - I want a book on this little library that has 10,000 users, or whatever. And now you can. And that seems to be the trend. Because even O’Reilly’s doing that, and some of the other big companies are trying to do that as well.
Len: Your books are available for sale through your blog on Gumroad, on Lulu and Amazon, and also on Leanpub. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about why you decided to also publish on Leanpub?
Mike: I’ve seen other authors through Planet Python that have mentioned using Leanpub successfully. And I thought that opening up another channel of revenue would be worthwhile to try. So that was my main impetus to trying them. And so far it’s worked out pretty well. And I actually like the way that Leanpub generates the books.
I think it looks a little bit more professional than my home brewed version of generating the books. So I’m probably going to start cutting Gumroad out a little bit. Just because I think Leanpub does a better job of tracking sales, and the book quality seems to be a better than what I’ve done myself.
Len: One of the techniques that our authors have for increasing sales, is to make packages on Leanpub, so they sell their books along with their videos. And that’s a trend that I’ve seen. I think O’Reilly specifically bought a company - I think in Canada, last year or the year before - which is all about making videos. And I was wondering if there’s a reason you haven’t made a package on Leanpub with your screencasts yet? Or if that’s just something you’re not interested in doing.
Mike: Actually, I was going to do a package, but I didn’t realize I could use the videos. I didn’t think the screencasts could go with… I thought Leanpub was mainly for books. I didn’t think I could combine the videos with the books.
Len: Oh, so that’s our fault for not communicating well enough. Yeah, you can actually create packages with - you can sell the book along with digital content. So that can be code samples. It can be spreadsheets. And it can also be videos. One of our very popular data science books is sold in a package that’s doing quite well, along with some very large video files, that are really popular.
This packaging together of text content and video content seems to be one thing that’s becoming quite common in the technical publishing space.
One thing that I noticed right away that you do very well in your books, is you have fantastic covers. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you managed to get such great covers? I imagine you used some of the funds from your Kickstarter campaigns to hire graphic designers?
Mike: Yes, basically. For my Python 101 book I actually funded the cover art myself beforehand. And I actually did that for Python 201 too. But basically, I went and looked for someone who could draw a design that was based on the idea of a mouse versus a python, which is my blog title. And I took that idea, and created this idea of a classroom - Python 101 - where the mice would learn about pythons.
And the first guy I used was really great. I liked working with him, and he did a good job. But then he ran through some bad - basically a bad year, and couldn’t do anymore work for me. So I actually ended up having to find some other artists for my next two books. And I think that’s actually kind of good, because it gives them kind of a fresh look, when you look at the different covers, because each book is done by a different artist.
So for, Python 201 I hired a nice Russian lady to draw the art, and she did a really good job, and got lots of compliments about that. She’s actually done work for another book of mine that’s not published yet, but I’m looking forward to announcing next year.
And then the other lady I got for wxPython Cookbook is from the Ukraine, and she also did a really good job. But as you can see, if you look at each of the covers - they’re all very different in their styles.
Len: Yeah, I’ve got them all up on my screen right now. They are very different, but they share the quality of all being excellent. Was there a specific service that you used to find them?
Mike: The first artist, I actually ended up asking my brother, because he knows a lot of artists. And he just recommended this guy. And for the other two, I went on Adobe’s website. And they run a program that you can look up artists on. I can’t remember the name of it off the top of my head. I found it, the website was called Behance, it’s an Adobe affiliate. Basically artists can go on there and show their work, and people can contact them through Behance, and find out if they’re available to do commissions.
Len: Thanks for that, that’s really useful. I’m sure a lot of the self-published authors listening will be happy to hear about a source of high-quality covers. I mean it really does make such a huge difference, I find, for sales.
My last question is - if there were one feature we could build for you, or one thing we could fix, or something we could improve, or something that we’ve missed that you would like us to do on Leanpub - what would that be?
Mike: The one feature that I’ve noticed I need for my current book is image scaling. I’m doing a lot of screenshots for the wxPython book, and doing it with restructured text, I can tell a program to rescale the image any way I want to. But there doesn’t seem to be a way currently with Leanpub, to actually scale it programmatically. So I have to find a different way to do it. And the ways that I’ve tried so far, haven’t worked very well, so….
Len: Okay, thanks for that. I’ll communicate that to the team. Images is an area where we know that there’s more work we can do to improve things, and that’ll be really good feedback.
Thanks very much Mike, for doing this interview. And for also using Leanpub to publish your books. We really appreciate it.
Mike: Well thank you for creating such a wonderful service, and for having me.
published Feb 21, 2017
Alex Lancaster is co-author of the Leanpub book Python For The Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists (you can also learn more about the book here). In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Alex about his career, his books, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.
This interview was recorded on November 7, 2016.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, this Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Alex Lancaster.
Alex is an evolutionary biologist, engineer, writer and consultant based in Boston. He completed his doctorate in Computational and Genomic Biology at Berkeley, and has worked in R&D in the broadcasting and IT industries in the US and Australia. And he’s also helped research in faculty positions in academia, including a research position at the Whitehead Institute at MIT, and a faculty position at Harvard Medical School.
Along with his colleague Gordon Webster, Alex is co-author of the Leanpub book, Python For The Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists. The book serves as an excellent introduction to computer programming for biologists, including those who have never written a line of code.
Along with the book, you also get copies of code samples that you can learn from and adapt to your own specific research.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Alex’s professional interests, his book and his experience self-publishing through Leanpub.
So, thank you Alex for being on the Leanpub podcast.
Alex: Thanks Len, happy to be here.
Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I know from your bio that you studied both physics and electrical engineering before you got into evolutionary biology, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your path through all these disciplines, and how you ended up at Berkeley?
Alex: Yeah. How long have you got?
I started life thinking I would be an astrophysicist, basically. It was where I was originally when I was an undergrad. And actually I spent about a week in a radio telescope down in Canberra - a while ago now, shall we say? Another century. And I realized that that wasn’t really going to be it for me for the rest of my life. Astrophysics has changed a lot since, but there was a lot of sitting in very quiet, desolate places, pouring over data, and it sounds very glamorous on the outside - but the reality of the day-to-day just turned out that it didn’t really appeal to me.
So, trying to figure out what to do, I decided to finish my engineering degree, which I started with. But I was always interested in evolution from a very young age, I think [from] when I picked up Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, which was written sometime in the 80s. I was just fascinated with the idea of these biomorphs, which were these little creatures that he had built evolutionarily on a Mac. It was nothing to do with real biology, but it was very - basically you could construct these creatures from this very simple genetic code. And it sort of always stayed with me.
So I always sort of followed along, thinking that if I could get training in physics, then I could move that over to biology at some point. But I didn’t want to go back to academia straightaway. So after I’d finished up my undergrad, I went and worked in the software industry for about four years.
I started as a design engineer at the ABC - which is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Australia, it’s like the equivalent of BBC - in their R&D section for a while. And I cut my teeth on coding. I did a little bit of hardware stuff, but I rapidly realized that software was where it was at. And the web was growing, and - those were very early days.
And so I basically sent myself around the world doing software contracts. I went to the UK for about a year in the mid-90s. I worked a little bit in the banking sector, a little bit in the telecommunications sector, building my tool bag. But I always had this idea that at some point I’d come back and do grad school.
And then, sometime in the late 90s, I decided - I stumbled across - well I actually I hadn’t knew about it before, this place called the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. I had been following what they’d been doing out there, and they are sort of really on the cutting edge of complex systems and biology and all that stuff. And I thought, “Well that’s a great place - I should somehow get myself a job there.”
So I ended up downloading, I think, a very early version of the Swarm software in the late 90s, and basically playing around with it. I ended up moonlighting - while I was working in a bank, on their website - building these models, computational neuroscience models, with some folks that I knew in Australia, that I had found in Australia. And back then it wasn’t as easy to find collaborators, so I had to go to conferences and chase down physical papers and stacks and stuff like that.
I helped build a bunch of models for those folks. And in doing that, I learnt this software package, called Swarm. And then it turned out there were a couple of job openings. So I applied, and I got it. And so I found myself in Santa Fe, New Mexico in ‘97, not knowing a soul, wondering quite why I’d gone there. And I was part time in a PhD program at UNM, University of Mexico in Albuquerque.
And I was doing that for a while, trying to do it part time. But I was really having a lot more fun at the job, working at the Institute. So they hired me as one of their software developers, and I was sort of able to work with a lot of researchers. That solidified my interest in biology, basically, in moving back towards the evolution side of things.
I ended up postponing my program, and then I reapplied, ended up going to Berkeley, and studying population genetics and theoretical models of biology for grad school. But all the way along, I was interested keeping up my software skill. So I always had a foot on the computational side, and a foot in the biology.
Then I ended up doing the standard academic track, of doing a postdoc. I did a couple of postdocs, and then I was faculty at medical school briefly for a couple of years. And I just decided that the way - well, a lot of things have happened since I’ve moved here, but one of the things that have happened in academia, as you may know - it’s become a very tough environment to do more “out there” research.
And in the way that I see academia going for probably a while now - it’s really accelerated in the years since the crash, I think. So I decided that it would be more interesting to try my hand at some kind of hybrid career. And at some point, Gordon and I met, and we kicked around this idea of creating this company. And we really got going about a year ago. And that’s what bought us to Amber Biology.
That’s probably an overly long-winded answer to a shorter question. But that takes us right up to the present. I’m happy to go back into any of the eddies that you found interesting there. That’s how I got here.
Len: That’s a really great answer, thanks very much for that. I’ve had a bit of a - in conventional terms, I suppose - meandering career myself. So it’s really interesting to hear from someone who follows their curiosity, where it takes them. Which is, it sounds like, what’s motivated you.
Alex: Pretty much, pretty much. I’ve never been one for really mapped out career plans. And in a funny kind of way, I think the way things are moving now, that notion of the career plan is becoming somehow less relevant. But that’s something we can definitely talk about if you want.
Len: I have a doctorate myself, in English, not in biology, but I could talk about academia and things that have been happening there forever -
Alex: I’d love to hear your experience in that too.
Len: But actually I was wondering - when it comes to academia and the sciences, this is a topic that one sees in the news recently, about the difficulty that young scientists have getting tenure, and the importance that’s placed on getting published, regardless of necessarily the relevance of the publication. Is this something that you’ve had direct experience with?
Alex: Yeah. I would say that it’s more than just the people getting tenures. People getting the tenure track positions in the first place. The bottleneck is I think even greater there. And you have a lot of very highly trained, highly motivated people who are competing for a very, very limited number of slots.
The slots are certainly not increasing, and if anything, they’re probably decreasing, because universities are oftentimes cutting their budget, and they’re often looking to supplement the people that they do bring on.
It’s one of these things, it could be overstated, but I certainly think that at the level of the higher administrations, there is definitely a push towards finding sort of faculty and research areas that are sort of highly fundable, because a lot of the costs of running a university have been sort of shifted toward federal grant money, especially in United States, and so that puts a lot of pressure on those administrators. And that gets translated down into in the department. And I think now in the department levels it’s probably - the picture’s a bit more mixed, because I think that most people there really want to hire people that are doing interesting things. And I think that, in general, most people want to do the right thing, and are interested in intellectual balance, and the usual things that academia’s known for. But they find themselves under a lot of pressure.
So I think that that combination… it’s sort of a system, the pressure to publish in prestigious journals, and how they’re ranked in terms of grants, has a tendency to factor into the grant making decisions. And so that feeds back to the faculty. So there are a set of interlocking factors, you might say, that drive the system towards a setup where you want to minimize risk and maximize return.
That militates against people doing more unconventional and risky approaches. And it also militates against doing smaller scale, and actually cheaper research. Which is sort of a strange thing, because oftentimes these little side rivulets can be the things that can actually drive science forward. And you really don’t know where the next big discovery’s going to come from. So yeah, definitely the publishing part is part of a larger network of problems, but it’s definitely a big driver.
Len: It’s really fascinating to me, to watch, in North America, what I call “admin creep,” like mission creep, but happening at universities, where tuition costs are rising and rising. The cost of running a university is increasing. And yet there’s this budgetary pressure on professors and scientists, and people doing research. And so costs are going up, and yet there’s this squeeze. And it’s -
Alex: No, absolutely. And in fact, we were pretty much talking about this for almost a full day on Saturday at the Ronin Institute’s first Unconference. I don’t know if you might have seen that on my blog?
Len: Oh no, I didn’t see it, but I know what an Unconference is. Actually if you could describe that, that would be good, I think.
Alex: So the Unconference - I’d actually never done one myself before, but it was pretty cool. The idea is that the topics and the areas that get discussed, and the talks are effectively self-organized by the participants. And the way that they did it on Saturday, I was loosely involved in organizing it.
There were three seed speakers at the beginning. They spoke for about 10 minutes each. And then that generated a list of things in people’s heads, and people would write down on a piece of paper a topic they’d like to discuss. And then you put those pieces of paper around the room. And then people walk around and identify the things they’d like to discuss.
And then we proposed topics that were similar, you kind of merge. And then out of that, we got about three distinct groups. And we have a discussion for about an hour and a half, I think, or an hour or so. Really interesting group of people. And then we break for lunch, and then it’s a repeat in the afternoon, then summarize it at the end.
It makes for a really interactive kind of format, as opposed to a traditional conference, where everybody’s like half paying attention, and on their laptops and that kind of stuff. It was perfect for the kind of thing that we were trying to do, which was to really generate a robust discussion around the future of scholarship in general. And not just in sciences, but in humanities as well - to try and think about ways that we could do things that don’t necessarily involve the traditional kind of institutions that we’re using.
So that was big, that was great, because we got - there were people, as I said, from like theology and English literature. And there were a lot of biologists represented there, because they tend to be over-represented in the Boston area. But yeah, that was really interesting.
Len: That is really interesting. Do you feel that there’s a pressure building to push people to a model of education that’s not university-based?
Alex: That’s an interesting question. That may happen. I mean, I think there’s certainly room for a lot of different paths to getting knowledge, that don’t involve going through the ivory tower. I think there’s sort of a realization - I kind of get the sense, that sort of realization that, when you get a scarcity of positions, or a scarcity of - what’s the right word I’m trying to think of?
Basically a scarcity of educational good, shall we say? Everyone’s so focused on getting into sort of colleges, so they can get top jobs, and so on. And I think what happens is that people attach a sort of monetary value to that - to that luxury good. And then oftentimes, that becomes the goal rather than the education.
I always assumed for many years that that was a byproduct - that should just be a byproduct of getting education. But I do think there’s a lot of pressure to getting, sort of, credentialism, I call it. I don’t want to be the pot calling the kettle black, beause I played that game too. But I realized the limitations of that sort of thinking. And so I do think there’s a realization that maybe having everyone go to college in the standard way won’t necessarily work for everybody and may not be desirable in all cases.
Especially with the student loan thing. I feel like that’s the next bubble, that’s the next scary bubble that people haven’t really confronted - is the student loan crisis in the United States. Because if everybody’s told they have to get this kind of education, but then they go through life saddled with all this debt, that they always feel they need to get the kind of job that can support that debt. Then that cuts down on career options that people can pursue.
Len: Yeah, and very crucially, one of the interesting aspects of student loan debt in the States, which is over a trillion dollars, and greater than credit card debt, is that you can’t -
Alex: Can’t go bankrupt.
Len: You can’t go bankrupt. It’s incredible. I was listening to a podcast interview by Ezra Klein, with Joseph Stiglitz recently - the Nobel Prize winning Economist. And he was saying two of the most consequential decisions that the United States made in the last 20 or so years, is - one was that if a company went bankrupt, rather than the people working for it - having the primary claim upon the assets, it was people who held derivatives in the company.
And the second one was that if you go bankrupt as a student, you can’t clear your debts. And this can happen. It can happen where, if there’s a student debt that’s associated with a parent, the child can actually die before completing the degree. And if the parents go bankrupt, they can’t clear the debt. It’s very perverse. And when you add into that the importance that’s placed on the rank of the university that you’ve attended, and when you think about the pressures that are on someone who’s 17 or 18 - You know if you don’t get into one of these universities at this age, you can still get ahead in life, but you feel like you’re behind. And you will be, in a sense - in the conversation, behind, your whole life - you really will be, if you don’t get on that track, if you don’t go to Berkeley, or Harvard or something like that. And the pressures are extremely intense.
One of the topics that comes up on this podcast, just because of the type of people that often publish Leanpub books, is, if you want to become a computer programmer or software engineer, developer - should you go to university in 2016?
I was wondering what your opinion is about that very specific question - if your goal is not to get an education, not to become an educated person, but to be a developer and work, do you think that people in the States, should get university degrees in computer science?
Alex: It’s a good question. My sense is - not, if that’s just the one thing you want to do. Like if you know that’s the one thing you want to do, and that you can educate yourself in the areas, in other ways, then I’d say that probably - at least it shouldn’t be a necessity. I mean I do think that it’s kind of silly to force people into…. the more general answer to that is we’ve still got a kind of one-size-fits-all system, that doesn’t really take into account the nature of people’s individual, quirky career paths. There’s an expectation that there’s a set of norms that you follow. And if you’re off those norms, then you’re probably a little bit weird, and you’re probably some kind of person who’s failed.
Which is kind of weird. Because at the same time we laud all the college dropouts - like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, for starting all those things. But at the same time, they’re kind of the exception that proves the rule a little bit. I feel like, in general, I would say also - growing up in Australia, I never felt that same pressure in the same way. Partly because the culture is different. Now things have changed a lot in the 20 or 25 years since I was an undergrad. But there was never a feeling that -
There were always options, if you really wanted to do those super-professional things. But there was a sense that you could get ahead if you didn’t finish school or you didn’t go to grad school. Maybe you went to college, but you didn’t really necessarily want to build a career in whatever thing that you studied. But it was a period of your life, and it didn’t define you in the same way that I feel that it defines people here. Or at least it feels like they’re defined by that experience.
That’s a part of a cultural difference. And also the fact that we do have student loans, but they work totally differently. That’s, again, a long winded answer. But yeah, I would like to see a world in which we didn’t push people into career paths which they either don’t want, or aren’t really a necessity. Just a general openness to like people finding a different way to whatever their passion is.
Because I feel like - ultimately - that’s the thing that matters. And that’s the thing that’s going to make people productive members of society. It’s not to say you have to do it this way. But, figure out ways to support what they do - rather than sort of pre-defining it for them, and map it out. Because things are changing so fast anyway, that I feel like almost any career advice these days is going to be like five years out of date.
Len: And where did you grow up in Australia?
Alex: I grew up in Sydney, in the suburbs of Sydney. I was there until like the mid/late 90’s. And I went to the UK and I came back. I bounced around before I come to the United States.
Len: You did the walkabout.
Alex: I did the walkabout, yes. And we’re sort of known for that - we tend to like go overseas and then come back.
Len: When I was living in London, I always had an Australian roommate. Which meant I always had at least three Australian roommates, because people would always be visiting. Including parents on the couch for two weeks - that kind of thing.
Len: But I saw - who was it? Paul Rudd. Not Paul Rudd. [Note: This might be Len’s funniest gaffe ever - eds.]
Alex: Kevin Rudd.
Len: Kevin Rudd.
Len: I worked for Macquarie Bank for a couple of years in London.
Alex: Oh really? I worked for Macquarie Bank for about six months.
Len: No kidding.
Len: At 1 Ropemaker Street?
Alex: One right at the stock exchange there in Sydney.
Len: Oh, in Sydney.
Alex: Yeah Sydney, yeah not–
Len: Oh pardon me, I worked for them in London. But I had my training in Sydney. Yeah, that’s funny.
Alex: I worked on their first website ever.
Len: Oh really?
Alex: Yes, I was on the team that helped build the first Macquarie Bank website. It was about ‘96 I think?
Len: That’s fantastic.
Alex: Running Perl objects and stuff like that. Yeah, it was an interesting learning experience too. I realized that banks weren’t really my future at that point.
Len: Yeah, I realized that after two and a half years. It took me a bit longer. But it was an exciting experience. Especially working for an Australian bank, trying to make its way in London. It was quite curious.
Alex: Which side of the banking pot were you on?
Len: Investment banking. I was doing mergers and acquisitions. It was pretty interesting. In fact, actually quite a few of my colleagues - one of the curious and great things about working for Macquarie, was that people weren’t - there were fewer business school graduates than you might get at other investment banks.
Alex: Oh that’s interesting.
Len: People were - for example - one of my colleagues, who was brilliant, had done maths and had gone to London on a holiday. And the job he got was being an investment banker for Macquarie Bank, or Macquarie Group, as it came to be known.
Len: I remember the word “holiday” played a role in his passwords and stuff like that. But there were a lot of people - a chemist from Perth and people from all over, from all kinds of different backgrounds. This was in the mid-2000’s, and it was a really interesting, interesting time. I’m sure things have developed a lot since then.
I wanted to ask you about Swarm - it was one of the first open source agent-based modeling tools. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit, for people who might not know what those are, what that is, and why Swarm was important?
Alex: Swarm came originally from folks, before my time, at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. And there, there were… I sometimes call it a think tank. They don’t like to use that term. It’s a small, private, non-profit research institute that’s dedicated to what they call a science of complex systems.
And that, in practice, means people building computational and mathematical models of all kinds of systems. From natural systems, like biological systems through to model the economy. And even to things like archaeology. And so you might think of it as a sort of set of language primitives that a lot of these models are built in. Sort of in the language of agents.
Where, rather than like a lot of typical mathematical models, where you sort of have an equation that describes the aggregate behavior of a bunch of individuals, using say differential equations and things like that - you build models where you represent the actual individuals, as code. And the natural representation is - in computer science terms, is that of an object.
And so, there was basically a push. People basically found they were building code structures that were almost identical to each other. And then there was a realization that, “Well maybe we should have sort of a common platform that we could reuse, and then build our domain-specific stuff on top?” So you’d have a library that you would then write your code for your model in, that would call functions from that library.
And that’s basically how Swarm came about in the mid 90’s. It went through a number of iterations. But I wasn’t involved in the prototype. I came into the project a little later. And we were at the point then where we were now interacting. So my job was actually interacting with the scientists at the Institute, and visiting people to talk about the science, and think about how we could translate that science into the model, and then work with the other people. Building the kernel to create the right infrastructure.
So it’s kind of a bit of a translator between a lot of different disciplines. To try and sort of figure out, okay, how do we represent these things, that would work for the largest number of people, and the largest number of kinds of scientists. And then also figure out at what abstractions you would want to use, that’d be generally useful, and what abstractions that are very specific - say economics or sociology or things like that.
The fundamental notion is that you have a bunch individuals that all interact. And they have a set of rules, and they have state. It’s like SimCity or something. You set the things up, then you sort of let the thing go, and you see what happens.
So Swarm was the first tool kit to do that. It’s inspired several others. And there’s still the SwarmFest meeting, that we started back in the late 90’s, it’s still going strong. It’s been for about 20 years, and I hadn’t been for 10 years, and I went again - the first time in many years, 10 or 11 years - two years ago. It’s sort of great to see that the community is still sort of out there, trying to push the boundaries. Because it’s still, in some sense, it’s still kind of a little bit on the edge. I am surprised that it’s not more mainstream actually.
Len: And why do you think it’s not more mainstream than it is?
Alex: Probably because models are complicated. I think, there was probably some early overselling. This happens a lot in areas of science where everyone’s very excited. They start making promises that they probably can’t deliver. And so there’s been a little bit of a backlash, to complex system approaches in general and agent-based modeling is one of them. So I think that had some role.
They are more complicated to analyze than just traditional models. You don’t have the same set of tool kits you can use to do sensitivity analysis. And I think it sort of dovetails a little bit, with the problem with academia in general. There’s just not as much - I feel like there was more appetite in the late 90’s, to just try new stuff in general, in science.
It could just be that I’m getting older. Or it may be in my head. But my sense is that it’s harder to do stuff that’s a little on the edge now. People really want to see something like return on an investment, whatever that means in science.
I think it’s unfortunate. Because I still think that it’s important, for people doing stuff, to do stuff that doesn’t always work, and might fail. Just because it hasn’t worked yet, doesn’t mean it will never work.
Len: It’s interesting that the theme of stress in academia’s coming up. Because it’s something I think about a lot. I mean - Einstein goes for a walk, and sees a workman on a scaffold, and imagines him falling down, and has a great insight that changes the world. You can’t possibly quantify Einstein going for a walk.
There was something that happened a few years ago in the UK, called the Research Assessment Exercise. Where basically, an incredible amount of professors’ time was wasted in assessment of work, under the futile illusion that you can quantify research. And you end up with the people who should be doing the forward thinking, subordinated to - to put it crudely - politicians who are trying to make a point to people who are skeptical about higher education fundamentally.
It’s very cart before the horse kind of stuff.
Actually, that’s probably a bad metaphor. It’s kind of like - people who really don’t have an appreciation for what happens at higher levels of research - being skeptical about it, because they don’t see progress. And you need to give people the time to have the revelation in the shower. And to pursue paths that may actually ultimately be fruitless. Because that’s what cutting edge thinking is.
I was actually wondering, what was the work you did for your thesis, for your doctoral thesis back in the day?
Alex: I kind of switched gears a little bit away from the purely agent-based stuff when I was working in immunogenetics, or immune system genes - it was actually fairly empirical. I was looking at all these data sets coming from different populations around the world, where they would go up and genotype sets of genes called HLA genes - human leukocyte antigen. They’re basically involved in the immune system, and they’re the things that help detect - like when you have a bad pathogen that’s invaded your body. And one of the questions that have puzzled evolutionary biologists, and people who study population genetics - why this region of the human genome is incredibly polymorphic. Why are there so many alleles in different variants?
And so, I was working on trying to quantify that, that nature of that variation, and then building tools to analyze it and see if we could basically measure the strength of selection at the level, not just in the whole gene itself, but also at the level of the individual residues, amino acids in the actual 3D structure of this molecule.
So, I’m going off on a tangent here. But it’s effectively trying to figure out if we could use the population data to get at functional questions about how evolution has shaped the sort of nature of these molecules. And so there were some statistical analysis, and a fair amount of coding. I built a pipeline for that, that’s still used today, called PyPop - Python for Population Genetics.
I was also developing this methodology for figuring out like how to use things like Monte Carlo, Markov chain stuff to better analyze this data - it’s basically on that sort of interface. That is really quite classic computational biology meets evolutionary biology. It’s where I was at. And I’ve still got colleagues at projects that will probably see the light of day eventually.
But it really got me interested in the - it sort of cut my teeth on learning one specific biological system really in a lot of detail. Because the complex system stuff is great, but you can often find yourself going off into abstract speculation. So I feel like even though it’s not really what I still do on a day to day basis, I still think it was a valuable, for someone like me - I will always like to be trying new things, it’s good to have the training in one area. I think of it like the fox and the hedgehog, if you’ve heard that analogy? Which is why I call one of my blogs, “the curious foxhog”, because it’s like, I feel it’s good to have deep training in one area, but at the same time it’s good not to get tunnel vision. So yeah, that was where I came in on that stuff.
Len: And is that related to evolutionary systems biology? Which I’ve read you’re involved in - or is that something different?
Alex: It’s part of it. After I left my grad program, I started working in models of evolvability, but specifically related to prions. And it turns out that prions are this interesting mechanism for storing variation that can be released when an organism’s in a moment of stress. It’s kind of a fascinating, and I think of that as a classic example of evolution systems biology. Because systems biology, I think of it as like the mechanisms and the networks that are ultimately sculpted by evolution. And that’s why - I think ultimately, people that are trying to integrate sort of….
Evolution for a long time was very - evolutionary theory’s very abstract, and it didn’t refer to any sort of real systems. Just they would have these models about, consider these two alleles and play around with it. But now we have a lot more data, and we can say things like, “Well, now we know this trait is generated by these networks. What are the different evolutionary paths that you might take? Will the system take?” And so that’s kind of what I think of as evolutionary systems biology.
But my PhD wasn’t really in - it didn’t really exist even as a discipline. But, again, it was the training I needed to get into that area later.
Len: This is kind of a selfish question, because it’s a preoccupation of mine, but what do you think of evolutionary psychology?
Alex: I don’t really think about it a lot. I used to read a lot about it back in the day. I’m a little bit skeptical of it in general. I’m always a little bit skeptical of explanations that involve pre-defining our notion of what’s fit in the environment. And I think the problem that I see with evolutionary psychology, or some of it anyway, is that it tends to overestimate the role of competition and the survival of the fittest side of evolution.
Whereas evolution as a whole, includes all kinds of - not just competitive processes, but cooperative processes, and symbiosis and mutualisms. And all these rich dynamics that I feel with some of the evolution psychology stuff, it’s a little on the simplistic side.
It also interfaces with these arguments that come more from the political and economic side, that can easily be used to justify some of the existing power structure…. There’s always a danger when you go into nature and say, “Oh look, it’s done this in nature, so it must be - that must be right” - you know what I mean?
Alex: That’s my main problem with some of the evolutionary psychology. Having said that, I don’t have a problem in principle with studying - using evolutionary principles in all kinds of areas. In economics and psychology. I really like the stuff that David Sloan Wilson works on, which is integrating economics and evolutionary thinking, complexity thinking. I’ve been reading his Evonomics blog quite a bit lately, and that involves psychology.
But yeah - so as far as the classic evolutionary psychology stuff, again I haven’t looked at it in a while. But I felt like at least the version of it in the 90s, early 2000’s, was always a little bit iffy to me.
Len: The fundamental question I have about it, is how do you do experiments? If you can’t do experiments, it’s not science, and it seems, to put it crudely, and so you see things - like for some reason, I think probably now, the former editor of the Science and Technology section of The Economist, loved evolutionary science just-so stories. And you see this in the science press generally.
I mean to think they actually did this in The Economist once. But they said that they’ve proven that women have a preference for pink. And that this is cross cultural. And that it’s probably because when, in the olden times, in the long, long ago, women had to search for berries. And so they were selected for experiencing pleasure when seeing color in nature. And this was in like the 2000’s. This wasn’t in like 1810. This was in like 2010. [See the last paragraph of this article from 2007 - eds.] It just seems like - I mean, the stuff that surfaces in the press, is obviously going to tend towards nonsense. But how can one possibly run experiments on human psychological evolution?
Alex: That would be my problem with it too. The just-so nature of it rears its head in those circumstances. And the danger is it can easily reinforce people’s preconceptions and scientize something that really shouldn’t be scientized. To coin a term.
Len: That’s a great word. On the subject of science and programming, which is what your book is about, I wanted to ask you how important is it for scientists these days to learn how to program?
Alex: I think it’s pretty important. Especially as… the more quantitative disciplines like the life sciences are becoming rapidly…. But I also don’t think that one should assume that that’s the only thing you need, and that everything should be - that you should drop your pipettes and just do coding. I have done pipetting once but, I know that I’m never going to be a great bench biologist.
I think getting your head around, going a little bit beyond spreadsheets - I mean, we say this in the book blurb - is going to be really important. And it’s interesting actually. Especially with the SwarmFest, I’m meeting a lot of people who are not even scientists, and the digital humanities people are really picking up on the programming side of it too.
And so yeah, I think it’s important. I think also, you have to simultaneously keep in mind that programming is ultimately still just a hammer, and you don’t want to make everything a nail. So on one hand, I’m like yeah, people should get used to computational and quantitative thinking and all that good stuff. But at the same time we shouldn’t get rid of people who work in museums and that love collecting specimens.
There’s room for all of those skills and people. So I get a little bit nervous when people say, “Well everyone needs to learn to code, because everyone’s going to be coding in the future - I don’t think that’s true.
Having said that, I think another reason to code, for everybody - and scientists in general - is that it’s good to know the thinking. Because a lot of the systems that you’ll be interacting with are going to be engineered - which means knowing the fact that there’s code behind that, what does that actually mean, and what the limitations are, just to be a generally scientifically literate citizen.
There’s a great book by Douglas Rushkoff, called *Program or Be Programmed. I don’t know if you saw that? It’s really small. I always give it to people who wonder about programming, because he has a good spiel about, “Yes you should probably code, but you don’t have to. But you should definitely know what’s involved as this becomes more part of your world kind of thing.”
My position is maybe a little bit more nuanced than you might expect, just because I also realize the limitations of the data-driven, metric-obsessed kind of thing that we often can get ourselves into. But at the same time, I feel like it’s good to know those things - know how to analyze and use code, even if you don’t do it as your full time job, it’s for no other reason than you know what’s going on behind the scenes. And you know code is being deployed. So I think from that perspective, I think, yes, people should learn to code, even if it’s not their only thing.
Len: And my last question is - why did you decide to publish your book on Leanpub? I should say - by the way, Python For The Life Sciences is a really great book. A ton of work went into it. It’s really well done.
Len: I mean that. I see a lot of books. I was wondering why you chose to publish it with us?
Alex: We kicked around a lot of different things when we started our consulting firm. And one of the things that Gordon and I both agree on is, we don’t love gatekeepers. We love the idea of people doing things from the bottom up. And so we thought about approaching a publisher and proposing it. But we just felt, that’s going to add a lot of stuff in front of us, and let’s just write the damn thing and see where it lands.
And then when we started looking around - actually a friend of mine on a Slack channel that I recommend, he’s always got cool things, he writes a lot of cool things about programming and science and complex systems, his name’s Bill Tozier vaguery.com is his website - he just mentioned it in passing. I was like, “Oh, I should check this thing out.” And I went over there, and I said, “This is really interesting.”
So we were initially thinking, “Oh well, we’ll just sort of put it up and see what happens.” We really thought that… fit our general ethos. And obviously you have a really great revenue model, which I think is really good. And to be honest, looking at the way Amazon works, and the big e-publishers, they are starting to act more like rentier-type models.
Len: Like what sorry?
Alex: They’re sort of monopolizing the market now. And so they’re able to set the - like able to set monopoly prices. And I would rather support, in general, new, emerging businesses and organizations that are trying to make a way to make a living without necessarily having to create a massive infrastructure. That’s why Leanpub and self-publishing seems the way to go.
And that said - if a major publisher was to pick us up tomorrow, I guess we could continue doing both. But… for example, with our consultancy, we’re trying to build a sustainable business. We don’t necessarily want to be taking over the world. We’re not after world domination, we’re after - earn enough money to keep paying the bills, so that we can do the cool science or research or art or whatever it is that we’re doing. You know what I mean?
So that was part of it. I like it when I see other people doing cool new things. I’m always like, “I want to support that thing.” Even if it means like, okay, I don’t get the massive return in the immediate. I feel like in the long run, we’ll all be better if we do that.
Len: Thanks, that’s a really great answer. In many ways your book is the classic Leanpub book. And I mean that in the sense of books that we love to see. Because I think both your minimum and your suggested price is $34.99. It’s 304 pages. And if you’re in the life sciences or a biologist, and you’re looking to learn to code - I mean, this is a book you get great value from. Definitely worth 35 bucks.
Alex: Right, and we think so too.
Len: One of the interesting things - we’re still learning about this new model of self-publishing. But Amazon decreases the royalty rate that it pays when you go over $9.99 for a book.
Alex: Yeah, we noticed that too.
Len: I mean from 70% to 30%, right? [Note: On Amazon it’s actually 35% royalties for books over $10, not 30%–which is still terrible compared to Leanpub’s 90% minus 50 cents royalty rate - eds.] So they’re basically saying, “All ebooks are interchangeable, and the price should be less than $10.”
Alex: Right, exactly. They drive you towards that.
Len: I think that that’s probably an appropriate price point for novels. And I still think if you are writing a novel, you should have it on Leanpub as well. Because you will make more money, because it’s a 90% royalty. But if your book is worth more than $9.99, and I don’t just mean, because the price is more than $9.99. If it’s actually worth more than $9.99, you should not be publishing in a place that’s meant for novels.
Books like yours, books like so many other Leanpub books - well I mean, not specifically your book, but like for other types of books - they can change the amount you can charge people for the work that you do. Because you’ve learnt something new, and you’ve got skills that you didn’t have before. They can help increase the skill level that you have. And something like that, people are willing to pay more for. And authors should earn more from, I think.
Alex: Right. It was basically - a little under a year, I mean, not full-time, it wasn’t like a 40 hours a week, 7 days, 24/7 type-thing. But we put a fair amount of… and the other reason I liked it, the way we did it was that, because we had the freedom to do it at the pace we wanted, we could write the book that we wanted to write. Not the book that someone else had decided like fit the right market niche. So we could take our time and make it a little bit lighter, and put in jokes and things like that, that might not have passed muster, or may not have been into some other publisher’s conception of what they wanted.
So we liked the idea of having a book that has a bit of personality. Beause textbooks can be kind of on the dry side. But that was another nice thing about it. And also the iterative nature of it, because it just goes with the whole software development philosophy that we kind of use in our own consulting. The sort of Agile type thing of - release it, get feedback, improve. I feel like that’s a really good model to….
And we didn’t fully embrace it. We didn’t do chapter by chapter. But we’re certainly going to upload new versions. So I feel like that that approach is really, it’s still pretty new for the book publishing world still, I think. But you see how effective it is in software. At getting a better, more robust, if it’s done properly of course - kind of result. So that was another thing that was cool about the Leanpub thing. I liked that. I liked that idea that - doing anything creative or anything new. Get something out there, it’s not perfect. Improve it. Improve it. Do it in public. Improve it, get better. I’m learning this, just myself by taking improv classes. The same kind of thing. Like you’re not that great at the beginning, but you - when you get in front of an audience, you get better, so it’s a bit like that. I mean, just like not taking the risk, exposing yourself. People might not like every little bit of it, but that’s okay - you get better at it. So I feel like it fits with that sort of philosophy.
Len: Just before we go, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t ask someone living in the United States the day before the big election what’s the mood like in - well you’re in Arlington, Massachusetts - you were saying before we started this interview - just north of Boston, I think. What’s the mood like down there?
Alex: In the greater Boston area?
Alex: I think - what’s the thing, your acceptance, grievance, with the stages of grief. I feel like we’re at the acceptance phase now, with, just in a sense of like, whatever will be will be. Everyone’s just so over it. So much, so many - I don’t know. I can’t read anymore editorials. I can’t read fivethirtyeight.com. I feel like almost everything has been said that is going to be said, and it’s just going to be up to the voters now.
But yeah, people are concerned obviously, I think, definitely in our community. Because we’re around a lot of academics and scientists and people who - what the results will be for all of that. But that’s something I think that definitely comes up when we’re in conversation with friends and colleagues.
Len: Well thanks very much for that, that’s very well said. It’ll be an interesting artifact, because this will come out after people know the results.
Alex: Yeah what the result was. May I ask you what your - what’s the view from Canada?
Len: I could talk about that for a long time, I suppose. I think that probably most Canadians are quite concerned that Donald Trump could win, to put it straightforwardly.
Canada’s a more complicated place than Canadians pretend it is. But the spectacle over the last like two years of the campaign we have one border, right? And it’s with the United States. And to see someone who appears to be driven by no sense of responsibility, and not constrained by reason - within a hair’s breadth of being the President of the United States, is something that I think people are concerned by.
Knock on wood - when this comes out, we’ll all know.
Alex: Hopefully we will be able to breathe that sigh of relief.
Len: I think people here are in a sense, complacent. I mean, we just kind of take it for granted that Americans will make the reasonable choice. I don’t want to speak on behalf of all sorts of people who disagree with me, and generalize dramatically, but like, it’s - we’re watching. We’re always watching what’s happening in the States - we’re definitely watching now. I’m just getting a memory of when I stayed up late in 2000, to make sure that Al Gore won Florida, before going to bed. And woke up to a different world.
Alex: Yes, yes, I remember that election well. I had only been in the States for a few years at that point. And that’s when I started paying attention to politics…. I think it’s true, I gave a massive generalization, to say that academics and researchers tend to try and go about their business, to pretend that like nothing’s going to affect them. Or it’s like, it’s above them, or….
I think this election has certainly made people sit up and pay attention. Because even in the other elections of other Presidents, candidates, there’s a general agreement that probably the NIH would continue, and NSF always - they’re not about to abolish them, but sort of all bets are off with Trump. I think that’s what makes people really scared. Because it’s like, you really don’t know. It’s like a lot a lot of the things that you take for granted, just could not be true anymore.
Len: I hadn’t actually thought about that, but that’s the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation - nd I hadn’t thought about that.
Len: Thanks very much Alex. I guess–
Alex: Yeah on that cheery note!
Len: On that cheery note, thanks very much for taking the time to do this really fun interview. And thanks for publishing your book on Leanpub.
Alex: Oh, you are most welcome, it’s been really fun.
published Feb 17, 2017
Gordon Webster is the author of the Leanpub book Getting Started With Python In The Lab: An Introductory Python Tutorial For Life Scientists and co-author of Python for the Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Gordon about his career, his books, and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.
This interview was recorded on October 12, 2016.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Gordon Webster. Gordon earned his PhD in biophysics and structural biology at the University of London, and has worked with life science R&D in both Europe and the US. He’s currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He has both academic and commercial experience, and is the author of a number of patents, in addition to scientific articles. In his profile, he writes that his “career path has reflected his belief that the most interesting and potentially promising areas of research lie at the intersections between the traditional scientific disciplines,” and I’m sure we’ll get to talking about that in just a bit.
Gordon is the author of the Leanpub book, Getting Started With Python In The Lab: An Introductory Python Tutorial For Life Scientists, and more recently - along with Alex Lancaster, he is co-author of the Leanpub book, Python For The Life Sciences: A gentle introduction to Python for life scientists.
Python For The Life Sciences is a great introduction to computer programming, written with the interests of biologists in mind - in particular those who haven’t written any code before. Along with the book, you get code samples that you can learn from, and even use for your own research. The book covers topics including biochemistry and gene sequencing, molecular mechanics and agent-based models of complex systems.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Gordon’s professional interests, his books, his experience using Leanpub, and at the very end, ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors.
So, thank you Gordon for being on the Leanpub podcast.
Gordon: Oh thank you for having me.
Len: I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling us a little bit about yourself, and what I like to call an interviewee’s “origin story” - how you first became interested in biophysics and structural biology, and how you got to where you are now.
Gordon: I think my interest in biophysics started with seeing three-dimensional structures of DNA and proteins and stuff like that. I remember being very captivated by that intersection of physics and biology. And so I went into biophysics - kind of related to the thing you mentioned a moment ago, about the fact that I really enjoy things that are on the boundaries of two different disciplines.
So the idea of using physics to study biology, actually really appealed to me. There’s a sort of a certain mindset and methodology to physics that doesn’t always work, I have to say, in biology. It’s an incredibly interesting area.
The other thing that’s spurred my interest in biophysics was computers. I remember in the 1980’s, I got a home computer. I was completely hooked from the minute I started writing BASIC on a home computer. All through college, I always pursued projects and electives where I had a chance to do computing. So that’s always been a big part of my career too. Biophysics is a very computational, quantitative, numerically-intensive field, and so the computer stuff has always played a very large part in that.
Len: And what is the difference between what one might conventionally understand to be biology, and biophysics?
Gordon: I paint this picture of a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum of biology you have evolution, and field biology - studying species and animals and the way they interact, and all this kind of thing. And then there’s all the classification, taxonomy and botany and stuff. And then at the opposite end of the sort of spectrum, you have the almost atomic and molecular biology.
I call it the study of dead stuff. And it gets kind of ironic, that when you get to the very small scale in biology, down to atoms and molecules, nothing really looks like biology anymore. Because you’re essentially studying things that are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry.
And it isn’t till you get further towards that first end of the spectrum that I described, where you start to look at organisms and reproduction and survival and evolution, and populations of organisms and the dynamics of those populations - that you see anything that you could really call biology. So it’s kind of interesting that at the very small scale, a lot of the stuff that biologists study really looks like chemistry and physics.
Len: That’s really fascinating. I wanted to ask you, what was the subject of your research for your PHD at University of London?
Gordon: I studied structural and computational biology. There was a great interest at that time in finding ways of shutting off certain gene sequences. And we didn’t have the kind of technology then for developing these, like silencing RNAs and technology that’s out there now of that sort.
People were very interested in looking at drugs that could bind to DNA, and actually close down a certain gene, essentially by binding to the beginning of the gene, or the gene promoter - and shutting off that gene. The goal was always to try to be able to control gene expression, so that you could - for example - cure cancer, or other diseases that had a genetic component.
Len: I’m sure probably some of the people listening to this podcast have heard about CRISPR and how powerful that is. I was wondering, since I’ve got you here, if you wouldn’t mind maybe explaining a little bit about what that is, and why it’s so important.
Gordon: CRISPR is an interesting system - it’s sort of enzymes or a gene editing system that people have found in organisms. It’s not human made, it’s not invented. It existed in nature. And now there’s a number of companies who are trying to essentially patent it, and develop it for use as a gene editing tool.
So the former dogma of biology’s always been that once you’ve established a gene sequence in a cell, that it’s there forever and that there’s not much you can do about it. You can put things into the cell, maybe to switch it off. But then those things need to be there all the time.
The difference with the sort of CRISPR approach, is that now you’re basically going in and looking to edit the genes themselves that are in the cell, so that you’re interfering with the cell’s processes at the genetic level, which is something we’ve not really been able to do before.
Len: And what do you think some of the new applications might be, that people can make of this?
Gordon: I know that obviously people are very interested in disease. So some of the genetic diseases - there are genetic diseases where people are born, for example, without the gene that codes for a vital enzyme for example, that processes carbohydrates in the cell.
There are some people that have deficiencies in processing certain kind of chemicals that are essentially vital to growth and life. And those people often don’t live very long. They often die as children. I know that there’s a lot of interest in trying to fix those genes, whereas previously, all you could do was try to intervene with drugs and things like this.
Now there’s an effort to try to fix those kind of diseases - again - at the genetic level. So that’s something - again - that we’ve never really been able to do before. There were attempts sort of in the 90s. I mean, you probably heard about gene therapy, which was in the 90s. People were trying to do gene therapy with viruses. And viruses also have a very interesting kind of gene editing capability.
So for example, a lot of viruses, when they invade cells, they’ll splice their own gene sequences into cells, and co-opt the cell to produce more virus, instead of producing what the cell wants to produce. And so people thought that maybe viruses could be a way to do gene editing, and a lot of the gene therapy early on, was done with viruses.
And that field is still going. It’s not dead or anything. But I think that the CRISPR thing is an advance beyond that, in terms of having much more control over the way the gene is edited. The problem with the viruses, I think, is that it wasn’t always very easy to control where the virus would put the gene that you wanted into the cell.
Len: My next question is kind of personal, a little bit selfish. I lived in London for a few years working, and I studied in the UK at Oxford doing my doctorate there. And I always thought Oxford was the perfect distance from London. It was just far enough away that it took some time to get there. But it was close enough that you could still go there and enjoy London.
But I always wondered what it would be like, because there’s so many great universities in London - what it would be like to actually be a student, with all the fantastic distractions of London life around you. What was that like, studying, doing your doctorate in London?
Gordon: It was awesome. And you’re right that it was - it was sometimes not easy to - to focus on work, when you had all that stuff. But you have to also bear in mind, I mean - I was there in the 80s. So I mean this was the era when people like [The Clash])https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clash_ were playing at the Hammersmith Palais. It was an incredible time to be young, and also to be a student in London. And I absolutely had a marvelous time there. Maybe sort of too good a time, sometimes. But yeah, it was - it was fantastic. I just had a really, really great time. It’s a wonderful city.
Len: I wasn’t there in the same era you were, but like, just going to Camden any given night, you can find fantastic bands playing. It’s just so amazing.
I wanted to ask you about Amber Biology, which is the consulting firm that you have with your co-author, Alex Lancaster. When did you set up your consultancy, and what kind of work do you do?
Gordon: I created the consultancy about three years ago. Originally I had a partner who was somebody I used to work with when I was working more in the mainstream of the pharmaceutical business. He was somewhat engaged at the beginning, but he had a day job and he didn’t really want to give up his day job, and he ended up kind of becoming a silent partner. And in the end, I guess, the company was kind of moribund for a few months. In the end, I persuaded him to relinquish his partnership, so that I could work with Alex, because Alex was very interested in being actively engaged in Amber Biology. And so we had a change of partnership last year.
They finally got all the paperwork through in summer of last year, about when we started on the book as well. And then essentially, we’ve been building the business. The business had been going for three years, as Amber Biology. But Alex and I have been working together for about a year and a half now. So it’s about a year and a half we’ve been doing it together.
And the kind of work we do is all computational biology. So anything you can do in which biology can be done on computers. This includes a lot of things that are - I mean, when you talk about biology and computers, a lot of people immediately think of bioinformatics. It’s the big area that everybody’s heard of. People think about gene sequencing and genomics and gene analysis. And that’s certainly stuff that we do as well.
But both of us have a background in modeling and simulation in biology, and that’s an area that we are really keen to pursue. There’s a whole backstory here, and we can get into that if you’re interested. But I would say it’s still very early in biology for people doing modeling and simulation.
If you think about physics and civil engineering and things like that, simulation and modeling are a main stream of research. In physics, for example, people model the movement of stars and planets, using sort of gravitational models. They plug the observations from telescopes into them.
And then when you have a deviation of the model from the observations, that’s actually interesting. This is an example I like to give. Where models can be wrong, but still informative, and that is that if you’re studying a binary star system - you plug in the Newtonian Gravitational Model, and you find that it doesn’t match the observations.
What that often tells you is that there’s hidden mass there that you can’t see with the telescope, and there are one or more planets orbiting one of the stars. And so the deviation of the model from the observations, gives you a clue as to how much mass is missing and where that mass is.
And that kind of thinking, that kind of mindset of using modeling and simulation is really prevalent in physics and civil engineering, similarly. I mean, you want to build a suspension bridge. It’s going to get built in CAD in a virtual sense, before any steel or concrete gets built in the real world. And then all the pieces get tested in CAD, and there’s feedback from the physical testing of all the pieces of the bridge, back into the computer model.
That’s the kind of place that we would like to see biology go. But it’s still extremely early, and most modeling in biology right now is exclusively the confine of people doing, for the most part, theoretical biology. And those people are often people who have backgrounds, for example, in computer science, and who are doing this kind of thing that you talked about earlier - of straddling different disciplines, and bringing computer science ideas into biology. This is the area that we’re really interested in. But like I said, it’s very early in biology right now.
Len: I really liked that analogy. I found it in something that you wrote - I think - on your blog. I mean, I don’t know if you used this example specifically. But I think it was Neptune was discovered because people saw deviations from the expected movement of another planet. So they derived from the deviations, from the model they had of the way the whole system worked what must be going on. What you’re saying, I think is that biology is, given our current understanding of it, too complex, to have a whole model in the simple way -
Gordon: Right, exactly.
Len: I mean people think physics is really complicated. But even physicists will tell you in some ways that it’s very simple. And it reminded me of the story of Vulcan, which was this planet people thought existed, because they saw deviations in the movement of Mercury that they couldn’t explain. And it took centuries until Einstein, to figure out that there wasn’t - well I mean, people realized from observation that it wasn’t there. There was no planet there causing the deviation, so it must be something else. And then it actually took a fundamental change in the entire model, to understand why Mercury was moving the way it was. And I guess what you’re saying is - biology is so far from even having a kind of model of the first type, in the first place, that getting to that second step, isn’t there yet. You have a blog -
Gordon: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the other issue is that people who have not had a lot of experience with modeling, which is true for the most part in biology - they tend to think of modeling like weather forecasting. The idea is you have this very big, very complete model with, essentially, data points for everything…
All the data are very well represented, very - very complete. And then you run the model and you make predictions. This idea that an incomplete or partial model could be of any value is something that - I think most people in the biological field tend to dismiss modeling, because of these kind of fears. Because of the complexity. Well, how could you model the inside of a cell, because there’s just too many moving parts?
Len: You have a great blog post called, “Big Data Does Not Equal Big Knowledge”. I’m sure everyone’s heard talk about Big Data by now, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about what you were getting at in that blog post. You talk in particular about how visualizations - or the type of visualizations that people often get from data - are not necessarily as useful in the life sciences, as they might be in other fields.
Gordon: With these numerical quantitative approaches, it’s a little like the kind of demographic data mining that political campaigns and advertisers do. It’s like sort of looking at trends in the data. And I think there are lots of areas where that kind of approach works really well.
And in biology, I mean, you can do it too. I think I give the example of dose response curves and things like this. Where you have a relatively simple system with not too many variables operating under the surface. And the problem with the examples - for example, where this kind of stuff has really failed dismally is in areas like gene expression and genomics. So people were sure that once the human genome project was complete - I remember, I think it was Watson, was saying, “Oh within a couple of years of this, cancer will be a thing of the past, and we’ll have a handle on all of the disease genotypes,” and so on.
And really, what we learned from that, is that we don’t really understand the genome as well as we thought we did. So, having the human genome sequence is a bit like having the physical location of any neuron in your brain. It’s still a long way from explaining consciousness. I mean, yeah you could map the brain in the greatest detail, but it still doesn’t exactly tell you how the system works.
And I think with Big Data, what people are trying to do, is say, “Well I don’t really understand what mechanisms are under the hood here. But if I look at the data under one set of conditions, under another set of conditions, and I carefully weight the data, so that I’m not comparing apples and oranges, then basically if I can see some significant differences in the data, those may point to where the problem or where the issue is - whatever the thing is I’m trying to investigate actually lies.”
And it’s a valid approach in a lot of ways. I mean it’s not crazy. And some of the low-hanging fruit has probably been picked in that approach. But, for example, patterns of gene expression, or patterns of phosphorylation in the phenotypes of cells - those things are so complex, there’s so many different moving parts.
And it might be, for example, that what you’re looking for isn’t the biggest difference between one set of genes expressing in another, but maybe some pattern of differential expression, that might be buried in all the noise that you cut out, because you think it’s not significant. But it might be some recurring pattern of 10 different genes, all of which have very small but significant deviations when you look at them all together.
So these are the kind of things that Big Data is trying to uncover. And the visualization thing is also usually - you apply a lot of filters to the data. You try to pull out the differences in the data, in the way that a sound engineer would try to filter background out of a recording. As you were saying earlier about your software for doing audio filtering.
And I think that the problem is that, it’s an effort to sidestep the complexity of the biology. It’s partly driven by this fear that, “Well, I could build a model, but how could I ever build a complete model?” It’s always going to be a partial model at best. And so that probably isn’t going to work.
Len: You mentioned earlier, failure, and you just mentioned side-stepping. That leads me into my next planned question for you, which was - I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Theranos. I’m sure a lot of people listening have heard about this company that’s turned into a pretty catastrophic failure in the health sciences area. I know you’ve written about it on your blog, The Digital Biologist, which is the reason I’m bringing it up.
And I wanted to ask you, how can something like this - if you could explain a little bit about what Theranos is, and how it failed, and how can something like this happen in the sciences? I think it’s a question that a lot of people have. The lay person associates science with rigor. And there appears to have been this huge fraud.
Gordon: Right. I mean, I think the one thing I would say is that - yes - that lay people do tend to think of scientists as being almost kind of like Mr. Spock - that is logical, and everything is kind of decision making, devoid of all that other human baggage like emotion and ambition and greed and all that stuff.
And the truth is, it’s really still very much a human activity. And the application of the scientific method - there’s this kind of ideal view of it, if you look at the books on the philosophy of science and Karl Popper and all this kind of stuff. There’s this very idealized, sort of Platonic ideal of what the scientific method is. But when you start to combine science and commerce, then all that human stuff, it still plays a role. And honestly, it plays a role even in academic research.
There it’s not so much about money, but about prestige and ambition, and people in academic research sometimes stray because they want the result that they want, because they know it’s going to get them that Professorship, or the prize or the prestige or the recognition within the community that they want. And so, the number of cases of academics going off the rails - even over issues about prestige and standing in the community - are well documented.
And when you start to think about that in the context of the Theranos thing, I mean there, the stakes are even higher. You’re talking about ambition and prestige and standing, but also about billions of dollars and entire careers. And so the human stuff definitely plays a role in science.
Len: It’s really interesting. In particular, I remember when I first heard about the company. I looked into it, and I saw that– I mean, this is currently on its [corporate] board - but it’s also, in addition to being very human, and a business with lots of money at stake - it was extremely political.
Currently you’ve got a former Wells Fargo CEO. A company that’s also in the news these days. And a retired Marine Corps general on the board. And on its lists of Counselors, currently it includes Bill Frist, the former US Senate Majority Leader. And Sam Nunn, a former Senator - and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And incredibly, to top it all off, Henry Kissinger was involved.
Do you think that one of the reasons they could get away with their self-representation was, all of these powerful people were behind it, and that that may have deterred people from seeing the truth early?
Gordon: Yes. I liken the Theranos problem, and problems that a lot of biotech and pharmaceutical companies have, generally, with the kind of problems, for example, that NASA had. I understand that one time there was kind of a management culture - you had a lot of people managing projects who are driven by deadlines. And as you said, political considerations - who weren’t really engineers, and didn’t really understand the risks and understand the complex systems that they were building.
And the Challenger disaster was an example where this kind of management culture essentially overrode the culture that should’ve prevailed at NASA. Which is one where - in my opinion - for those kind of projects, you need engineers who understand the systems that are being built, and the risks inherent in those systems. Those are the kind of people that should be running the project.
And at Theranos - and not only Theranos, but other biotech and pharma companies too - what you often have is kind of a management mindset where you have people who maybe did an undergraduate degree in science, never really done a lot of research. I don’t want to slam MBAs here, but there’s definitely a - you see a lot of MBAs in high places in the pharmaceutical industry, driving R&D, who’ve never really done any R&D themselves.
And so I think that you have this culture now, where there’s this management culture - people go to business school, they get an MBA. They feel that it makes them qualified to oversee all kinds of human activities - whether or not they really understand the risks and the processes inherent to whatever it is that the company, or the organization is making.
And I feel like with Theranos, you have a similar kind of thing. I mean they didn’t publish any data. Everything was just like radio silence, in terms of actually validating the technology. And they held out for a really long time. I mean - obviously now, we know, thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting - that that was because, essentially the stuff didn’t work.
But it it would’ve behooved them to have taken a more rigorous approach, and known before they had gone down that path of wasting all those millions of dollars - that this technology wasn’t going to work. And somebody else might’ve intervened, or the R&D might have been done differently. Or they might have pivoted much earlier, as they’ve pivoted recently to this new thing, when they’re no longer a provider of blood tests. Now they’re going to be, as I understand it, a developer of hardware for this?
Len: It’s really interesting, what you said about MBA’s and the concept of overseeing. That subject has come up on some of the interviews that I’ve done for this podcast, repeatedly. And I think it’s partly because a lot of the people that I interview are software developers. I could talk about it for a long time. But the theory behind a lot of management, I believe is based on being able to oversee. Being able to see what people are doing. And it’s deep, it’s deep in the structure of the way MBAs are taught. So deep that people don’t even know it’s there.
For example, if you’re managing people laying bricks, or if you’re managing people building a house - you can have a kind of abstraction around watching. You can see whether people are having a pint, or laying the bricks. You can see whether people are hammering. You can hear whether they’re hammering the nails, or whether they’re playing cards.
But a scientist? I mean, you can see her at work in the lab. Or a software engineer, you can see him sitting at a desk with a computer. But you can’t see the work. Because the work is mental. And it seems to me that this is a real problem in an era where software is eating the world. We need a new way of thinking about management. And the thing that keeps coming up in these conversations is, that you need to have domain-specific expertise, in order to manage people who are doing work that involves primarily things you can’t see.
Gordon: Absolutely. And the other thing about R&D generally, is that it’s a very non-linear process. I think the management mindset has arisen out of these kind of industries where you have a production line, and you have this chain of processes from A through Z. And you go A, B, C, D. And then if there’s a bottleneck at D, you fix that bottleneck, so the thing works better. But it’s all very much a a process of box checking and crossing T’s and dotting I’s, and you have a defined process. I feel like that management mindset works really well for that.
So the kind of people who manage well in the pharma business, tend to be more, I feel, on the regulatory side. Where, once the drug gets through this sort of R&D phase, and it’s now being in development and clinical testing, I feel like the process there - t’s still not completely linear for sure. But there’s much more of that kind of production line mindset there.
But R&D - it’s iterative, it’s non-linear. You start an experiment. You see something really interesting. It can take you off in a whole different direction. No amount of management deadlines can mandate that nature is going to behave in the way that you want it to. “Well, we must have an answer from this particular cell line before December, so we can tell the investor something.” And if the cell line doesn’t want to behave as you expect it to, then you’ve got all kinds of questions you haven’t answered.
This comes back to the modeling again. I see modeling as very much an adjunct to this experimental sort of method, where you’re basically helping to determine what the next experiment is that you really ought to do, to answer the questions you need to answer.
I wrote a piece on this on LinkedIn. I likened a good R&D team to a jazz ensemble, rather than an orchestra. And I talk about this quite a lot in that thing too. I have certainly worked at companies where I have seen this kind of management decision-making going on. And it’s really based more on what the company needs to do, but without a real understanding of what the company is actually able to do.
I’ve worked quite a lot in software development too, and I’ve also seen that in software development where you have a similar kind of situation, where you have people who’ve never really written or tested code - overseeing a software development effort.
One company I worked at, I ended up having to leave, because they felt that testing was an unnecessary waste of time and money. And this was not an ideal world, I was told. And in an ideal world, we would test everything - but here, we just don’t have time to do that. And so it all turned really sour for them, because - of course - a lot of the software they were rolling out, just didn’t work - it was embarrassing, and I was embarrassed to be a part of that effort.
Len: I’ve spoken with a couple of professional testers about that very issue, and so I have a little bit of a sense of how frustrating it can be to be part of a project where people are just profoundly mishandling it under a false view of efficiency.
Speaking of writing code, I wanted to ask you - what was the inspiration for you and Alex to write, Python For The Life Sciences, which is a book devoted to helping people who haven’t coded before, to learn how to do so?
Gordon: The biggest single reason is that, well, partly it stems from what we said earlier about the fact that modeling and computational approaches are still relatively non-mainstream in biology. What that translates into is that there isn’t really much in the way of a computing component in the core life sciences curriculum. So most biologists can go through college, and pretty much avoid using computers - other than maybe for writing their articles, and maybe using Excel spreadsheets and stuff like that.
If a few of them are lucky, they may get to have some kind of training in MATLAB, or R or something like that. But for the most part, a lot of biologists graduate and start doing research. They go into grad school, or even become postdocs, without ever having really done much in the way of computational research. And what you see in labs is people doing endless calculations, still with hand calculators. People are using Excel to process all their spreadsheet data, painstakingly copying stuff into tables.
Nowadays, there’s more lab automation. So a lot of the lab instruments produce data that’s ready to be visualized in Excel. But Excel - it’s a great tool for what it is, but it’s not really the tool for most quantitative biology. There are certain things, for sure, you can do with it. But being able to write code gives you the opportunity to look at your data in ways that’s just not possible using hand calculators and spreadsheets. And so that was really our major…
So when I worked, for example, at one pharmaceutical company, I remember that the really the only numerical piece of software in the entire company that was used by everybody from the financial people in the accounts department - to the scientists at the bench, was Microsoft Excel. And that was in a company doing the kind of quantitative work that drug development is. This is the progressive aggregation of knowledge. It just - it struck me as kind of bizarre that in such a quantitative field, where data and numbers are so prevalent, and more so now than ever, that you have so many people working in that field who just have no real way of using computers to their full potential.
Len: And why did you choose to focus on Python?
Gordon: Because it’s, I think in the book we call it, the Swiss Army Knife of programming languages. It’s a wonderful language that you can just start using right away. I trained also in Java, for example. And Java requires you to use the kind of object-oriented paradigm for programming right from the outset. So there’s a steep learning curve there for anybody who’s not familiar with object-oriented programming.
And it’s also kind of a sledgehammer to crack a nut. If you just want to write some small scripts to open a file and read some data in, and reprocess the data in a different format, or find some patterns in a sequence, or something like that, you don’t really need to be writing object-oriented code all the time. So I like the fact that Python gives you that option to just jump in and start writing the procedural code that we all used to write, when we were writing in C and Basic and stuff.
Or for more complex applications, you can scale it up and use that object-orientated programming paradigm, to help you - to organize all the moving parts. And write applications in the large.
Len: You mentioned earlier, and I believe I read on one of your blog posts, that the book took you about a year to complete.
Len: Or to get to the state it did, that it’s in now. Was it your plan from the beginning for it to take a year?
Gordon: No. I think the book ended up being much bigger than we thought it would be. I think it was going to be a little 50 to 100 page thing about biocomputing with Python. And almost like a get-you-going tutorial. But then, it just blossomed, mainly based on both of our previous experiences in modelling and using Python in our own research. And, “Oh, wouldn’t that be cool? Remember when I did that stuff with the robots?” And, “Remember when I did that stuff with next generation sequencing? We should include some of that.”
And so, there was definitely - I guess in the software world, you’d call it feature creep. But we’re very happy the way it. We were glad we did it. It’s much more of a full-fledged book than I think we imagined in the beginning.
Len: It looks great. And I wanted to ask you - you didn’t use the Leanpub workflow to make your book, rather you used our “Bring Your Own Book” feature to upload your book, so you can sell it on our bookstore.
I was wondering what tools you used to make your great-looking book?
Gordon: The entire book was actually built and edited in Google Docs, because we needed a collaborative platform. And I use Macs, and I use Linux and Windows as virtual machines on my Mac. But Alex is a Linux guy. We couldn’t really use something that was primarily in the Mac world as a tool, and so we settled on Google Docs, and it worked really, really well - until we got up to about 250 pages. And then you start to see the limitations of trying to edit large documents in a web browser.
I’ve got to give the Google people credit. Google Docs is a great tool. But once we reached pretty much the maximum size that’s practical for a Google document, around the 300 pages mark, we already started to see that it was unresponsive sometimes.
And the other issues that we had were - when you create a PDF out of the Google Doc, it does some silly things. For example, all of the internal links point back to the original Google document, and not to the new PDF. So if you have a link in your new PDF to page 100, it will actually point to page 100 in the original Google Doc. Which is kind of absurd. I mean, if you’re exporting to PDF, you would hope those internal links would remain internal.
So what we ended up having to do, was to save the entire document as a .docx file in Microsoft Word format. And then we used the Mac Pages program. Well - initially, let me say - I tried using Microsoft Word 2011. Which is the version I happened to have on my Mac. And that does not preserve the links.
When we first published the book on Leanpub, all the links inside - the external links, were dead, because Word didn’t handle those properly. And when we put it into the Mac Pages program, then it did a good job of exporting the document. And also, there were some other issues with Word. The images would stray. It didn’t really know how to place images where we’d placed images in text. The images would stray into the margins of the page, and look kind of ugly. And you ended up having to go and do a lot of fixing of the positions of the images and stuff like that.
So in the end, the workflow was - Google Docs, save as .docx, import into Mac Pages, fix any kind of page formatting stuff that we needed to fix, and then export as a PDF. And that worked for us.
Len: That’s quite a journey. Thanks for all of the details.
I wanted to ask for any other self-published authors listening: both of your books have great covers. And I really like the one for Python For The Life Sciences, where the sort of strand of DNA is the snake, presumably a python.
Len: I was wondering, do you have any advice for people about how to find a source of good book covers?
Gordon: I used Keynote to make that cover. Which is kind of the Mac equivalent of PowerPoint. I find that to be a really versatile graphic design tool. I don’t claim any great expertise or knowledge in graphic design, but Keynote is actually a really great tool if you want to blend some images together, and make some simple shapes. If you look at the cover of the book, it’s all fairly simple shapes, and takes a bit of playing around with gradients and colors to get it right. But yeah, Keynote - it’s a fantastic tool for putting together designs. That cover was completely designed using Keynote.
Len: You have a section at the back of your book where you ask for readers to send you any errors or omissions they may find, and just send them to you via email. Have you had any responses like that?
Gordon: Not yet, no. But, I mean, one of the things that attracted us to Leanpub - we both have software development backgrounds. We really like the iterative publishing model. It’s liberating to be able to get a book out there. Not to have to worry that every little typo is fixed, every diagram has the right caption.
Obviously we did our very best. We didn’t want to put something out there that looked sloppy or half-finished. For our own pride, as much as anything. But it’s great to know that if - there are always errors, and it’s great to know that with the Leanpub model, you have a way to go back in, fix the errors, upload the book, and all your readers are able to benefit from that too. That’s a really nice feature, something that really attracted us to Leanpub.
Len: Do you plan to make a print version of your book?
Gordon: We actually do, so actually - here I can show you on the video. Here’s a proof copy. With the cover. I actually expanded the cover, so that we’re on the back and it has the spine. We went to a local book store. They have a machine called a Gutenberg Machine, obviously named after the old printing press. And it does a really nice job of printing books on demand. It’s a black and white copy now, so the interior of the book is black and white. The machine unfortunately doesn’t do color. But we are exploring a number of places right now, where we might be able to produce physical copies of the book.
There are people who still like physical copies of the book. And I think also for libraries and schools and things like that, there’s still a place for having a physical copy of a book.
Len: If there was one feature we could build for you, or one problem we could fix, what would that be?
Gordon: I think putting the book together and collaborating on the book is something that it would be great to have - a more fully fledged tool for doing that kind of thing. And not necessarily in a web browser. I mean it could be like an app. For example, I’ve made some photo books previously. And a lot of those photo book, online services - they have an app you can download to your desktop. And you can actually build the book in the app, and then it publishes it to the website for you. So you’re not being forced to work in a browser with all of the limitations that entails.
So I feel like it would be great to have something. And also, a tool for creating a book, that would allow you to immediately go into multiple formats. PDF, MOBI, eBook - ePub, sorry. All this sort of thing.
Len: We do have that if you write your book using Leanpub.
Gordon: Right, right.
Len: We automatically produce PDF, EPUB, MOBI, and you can make a website if you want to. But around collaboration, that’s something where, it’s this huge area, where we’re definitely going to be doing work at some point.
Gordon: I can give you some tangible examples of the kind of problems we faced. We had lists of topics and things we wanted to cover. And we’ve put them all out on this whiteboard, that’s actually behind my desk. And then you’d have things like - well, okay - I wrote the chapter. Do we introduce Matplotlib in chapter four or chapter six? Oh, I think you introduced it. So some parts of the book, we would have explanations for things, where somebody had already introduced it previously in the book. And we’d have to move the explanation back in the book.
Had we covered all the topics? It would be really nice to have almost a kind of a meta book assembler. So that you could assemble the book in a kind of outline manner, with all the topics you want to cover. And then as people are working on it, you could tick off the topics and where they first appear in the book. And all that kind of thing. It’s more of the structure of the book, like a way to collaboratively define and keep track of the structure of the book as you’re working on it.
A lot of the features of most sort of book editors, are focused very much on layout and putting images in the text, and the markup and, what’s bold and where the links are. And chapter headings and tables of contents and stuff like that. Which is great. You need all that stuff too. But I don’t see much in the way of meta kind of - do you know what I mean? I don’t know if meta’s the right word, but…
Len: I do - I do know what you mean. Thanks, that’s very clear and that’s really interesting. That’s a really great observation too. I mean, especially where there’s so much emphasis placed, in so many writing tools, on formatting - but not on structure. When presumably, when it comes to the reading of a text, or most texts for most purposes, the structure of the text is far more important than the formatting. So that’s a really good observation. Thanks for that, we’ll process that internally.
Gordon: Alex and I both used - I don’t know if you’ve ever used TeX or LaTeX? They’re these sort of markup languages for creating typeset text. But something along those kind of lines, that way, you can really define the meta structure of the book as well.
I mean, like you said - the structure of the book is really important. And then to be able to, in essence, kind of apply stylesheets, like that CSS kind of model, where you have the structure of the book, and you say, “Okay, a chapter’s going to have a header and a footer. And it’s going to have this block of content at the beginning that describes the chapter, and maybe a picture and all that kind of stuff.”
And you lay that all out, and then you can just - “Okay, let’s look at it in this style. Let’s look at in this style.” And yeah really, really decouple the content and the structure of the book from the layout.
Len: That’s a request that we’ve had from some of our best authors in the past. And it’s something that we’re thinking about. It’s really - conceptually it’s very consistent, as an idea - it’s very consistent with Leanpub’s approach to writing. Which is that - when you’re writing, you should be writing, and you should consider formatting to be a separate process.
Len: Like for 99.9% of books, that’s the appropriate approach. And separating those things too conceptually, is very important to us.
Len: Unfortunately, I think our time is about up. And I just wanted to say - thank you for a great interview, and for making such a great book.
Gordon: Oh thank you.
Len: And for being a Leanpub author.
Gordon: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure. We loved it. I’m sure it won’t be our last one.