New site! logo
Hey Friends!

My new home online is You’ll be able to find all my latest projects there in engineering, advocacy, writing, acting, and music. New blog posts will generally end up on Medium (I’ll link to the best ones from

I’m not getting rid of right now, as it’s still where I post my latest lyric drafts, but it’s no longer my main home online.

Anyway, check out the new site and let me know what you think on Twitter! Always happy to receive constructive criticism (or unabashed praise!).


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Make Money Online: Business Plans for Web Apps

Dilbert comic on venture capitalist stupidity

You have a great idea for an App, you’re all set to start building it, and then you realize you have no business plan. So you start asking around: “how do I make money with this idea?” If you came to me, this is what I’d say…

My first thought is that if your goal is to sell a revolutionary concept to a larger company, you may not want to make any revenue. This recent NYTimes article, while skeptical of the approach, shows how common and successful it can be to build companies with no revenue. In fact, many venture capitals specifically advise it once they’re on board (see the article for why).

But if you’re interested in building a longer-term company that is self-sustaining, I would recommend one of the following approaches:

1) The “Freemium” Model

Used by Evernote, Google Apps, and many others, these companies provide a basic, useful service to people for free and then charge for premium versions of the concept. In this model, it’s important to make the free version good enough that users are hooked to the brand. There are two types of freemium models:

A) The Power User Model

This version is employed successfully by Evernote (and Pandora, Flickr, Skype…). As the Evernote founder says: “the easiest way to get 1 million people paying is to get 1 billion people using”. Their ~2.75% turnover rate means they’re doing even better than that. To do this successfully your free product has to be extremely useful on its own. Once you have a large user base, you just need to figure out what your power users (the most committed and avid users) would need to get more value out of the service. Charge them to get it and you can start making money.

B) The Consumer Advocate Model

This version of the freemium model is used successfully by Google Apps (the suite of apps consisting of Gmail, Google Calendar, etc.) and many others. Google does not attempt to convert a certain percentage of their free Gmail users to be paid users. But by building their brand with free users, they can market their paid versions to businesses who are willing to pay and get help with this marketing from their free users. When free users attend a university or are employed by a company, they will be more likely to recommend the use of Google Apps because they know it and trust it. The big idea with this second approach is that if you can win the hearts and minds of the frugal masses, they will be more inclined to recommend your service when among those who are willing to pay.

2) User-As-Product Model

This version is employed successfully by Facebook, LinkedIn, DuoLingo and many others. The important idea here is that users create value by virtue of using the service, and you capitalize on that value by charging other people to put that value to use. While this can mean advertising, it doesn’t necessarily mean advertising (and most often, should not mean advertising).

So if not advertising, how else can you turn your users into a product?

LinkedIn is one great example.  Most of their revenue comes from recruiters and recruiting agencies. These agencies aren’t (just) advertising, but rather are taking advantage of advanced search and organizing mechanisms that LinkedIn has built to capitalize on its users’ online resumes. In fact, LinkedIn makes 20 times as much money per user as Facebook by mostly ignoring advertising. It can do this because it makes money from its users’ information even when they are not on the site (because recruiters can still search that info) whereas Facebook only makes money when users are engaged in their site (and looking at ads).

DuoLingo is another great example of user-as-product, and they have 0 advertising. They are a free language-learning site, founded by a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor. They make money by offering language-translation services to businesses around the world. From their research, they found that they could combine the translations of novice language learners and get results that are as good as professional translators’ (see the video in that link for how they do it). So, as part of the language-learning process, DuoLingo users are translating real-world text from international websites, and these websites are paying for the translations. It’s truly win-win, because their users get free language-learning tools that are as good as the leading competitor (Rosetta Stone) and websites get translations at a fraction of what it would have previously cost.

The key with building something like LinkedIn or DuoLingo or Facebook (or Craigslist…) is creating a free, attractive service where users not only get value from their use, but also add value by their use. If going down this road, it should be clear up-front to your users that they are the product. With LinkedIn, that works great because people who post their resumes online do it with the express purpose of being seen by recruiters. This works for DuoLingo because many people would prefer to translate real-world sentences, rather than made-up ones. It’s less clear how well this works for Facebook, because most users tolerate the ads, but would prefer to navigate the site without them.

That last point is really important: the best user-as-product sites work because their users want to be the product, they don’t just tolerate it. This is why traditional advertising online sucks: People don’t like being distracted from what they are doing; people don’t like being tracked; and people don’t like having their private lives shared without their express permission. And yet, without doing any of these three things, traditional ads are all but useless to advertisers.

A new approach to advertising would look at how advertisements can act as a service for the user. And in fact this is already being done successfully by a number of websites. If I do a Google search for Pizza Hut, it’s nice that the first result is an advertisement for Pizza Hut’s official website. While Pizza Hut’s website is also the first result that shows up organically, that can’t be counted on. So, Pizza Hut and Google are doing me a service by ensuring I get what I’m searching for without any hassles (this could have come in handy for Facebook a couple years ago when they weren’t the first Google result for “Facebook login”). Another example of advertisements-as-a-service would be Foursquare‘s rewards program. Users get coupons for telling their friends where they are (“checking in”) and businesses get the benefits of word-of-mouth advertising. Foursquare users want to be advertised to, because that means they’re getting free stuff (or recommendations).

So how do you figure out which approach works for your business?  First, write down all the different sub-populations (make them as specific as possible) that could get value out of your idea (e.g. “recent college graduate newlyweds in the housing market” or “Small-Medium Businesses looking to expand into new cities”, etc.). On a scale from 1-5 mark down how much value each group could get from your idea (it’s easiest to do this if you have a lot of sub-populations so you can figure out relative values). Then rate each sub-population on a scale from 1-5 on how likely they are to spend money in general (income is an obvious factor here, but age is as well, and there are many others that aren’t necessarily related to how much someone has in the bank).

Now, plot the results using a scatter plot, where one access is labeled Value Received and the other is Willingness to Spend (see images, below).

Scatterplot Demonstrating the Power User Model

If the Value Received and Willingness to Spend ratings grow in tandem at a steady rate (i.e. if your graph looks like the image above), then you should go with the Power User Model. The trick with this model is to think about what value you could provide to those who are willing to spend money that you previously ignored because you didn’t know you could count on a steady revenue stream.  By doing this, you are pushing everyone to the right (everyone receives more value).  The big spenders are the first to get more value, but because they’re giving you money, you now have more money to develop the entire platform.  Think about Skype – they provide calling to phones for a cost (a value for the big spenders). And the revenue they make from this can be used to make call quality better for everyone.

Scatterplot Demonstrating the Consumer Advocate Model

If your sub-populations cluster around 5 and 1 (i.e. if your graph looks like the image above) then you should go with the Consumer Advocate Model. Here, you are looking for ways to grease the wheels of fewer but bigger sales. You know that the big spenders get a lot of value from your product, but it may not be easy to sell to them.  So if you can push the cluster of frugal people to the right (give more value to free users) you will have consumer advocates who can help you sell to the big players. The example I gave earlier was consumers advocating Google Apps to their employers, but this could just as easily be people recommending a product to their rich friends.  One way to add value is to help frugal people look smart to big spenders. For example, the fact that Google offers Gmail for enterprise customers means I get value as a free user not only from the free email services, but also because I can look like an expert to my boss when I help our company in a purchasing decision.

Scatterplot Demonstrating the User-as-Product Model

If those who get the most value are least likely to pay (i.e. if your graph looks like the image above), don’t fret, because you can still have a successful User-as-Product business. In a user-as-product business the key is figuring out how your free users can add value to your site to make it more appealing to those who are willing to spend money. Looking at the graph above, you want to use the users in the bottom right cluster to push the cluster in the top left further to the right.  If there aren’t any groups in your list who rate high on “willingness to spend” (perhaps because you assumed they’d find little value in your concept so didn’t add them) you’ll need to branch out.  Think of LinkedIn.  Originally, their users were the people posting resumes. These people do receive value from posting their resumes online (because they would show up in Google search results) but it wasn’t until LinkedIn added recruiters to their user base that they could use their free users to give value to a “willing to spend” group.

It’s important to remember when looking at all three of the above scatter plots that it’s much easier to push people horizontally than vertically.  That is, it’s easier to add value for your users than to change their general willingness to spend money.  What’s important then, is figuring out which users need more value and then deciding whether that value should come from your product or other users.

Have a question?  A quibble?  Let me know, below!

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Eloquent Reality: Understanding journalism as the union of science and design

Hello again. Let’s see, I left you on August 23rd, which, coincidentally lets us begin this post the same way as the last one, that is, with a TED talk…

Nice Ted talk on the power of visualizing data to discover hidden patterns from our everyday lives (not Hans Rosling)23 Aug via web

Having watched this talk again (and I recommend you go do that right now, too), it’s amazing how much its ideas have intersected my life. In fact, with the reference frame of this talk, the last 7 years of my life have really come full circle. You see, when I was in high school, I took a few graphic design courses. While I enjoyed technology and computers, my passion was design – website design, album art, Flash animations, newspaper layout design – I gobbled it all up.

In fact, I was so sure of my future in design that I had my art teacher try to convince my parents of its possibility as a stable career (something that took some persuasion) by showing them images from newspapers and magazines of design as a form of journalism – something at the heart of this TED talk. In fact, soon after that class, I jumped on board with a student-run newspaper as editor-in-chief and layout designer. Somehow, though, I looked at design and journalism as necessarily two different careers. And though I enjoyed editing the newspaper, I didn’t see journalism as my raison d’être. Instead, I was simply enthralled with the process of design – that iterative, creative pursuit, built on metaphors, which maps ideas and emotions to forms and functions.

I entered the school of design at Washington University with the intention to pursue a degree in Visual Communications – a discipline I felt epitomized my passion for design. Unfortunately, I soon learned that a design degree required not only drawing and painting skills (of which I had neither) but also the patience to memorize which paintings were from which year, which artist and which period (something I also lacked).

Fortunately, on a whim, I had also decided to take computer science alongside my art classes. After a semester-long project in comp. sci. spring of my freshman year, that ended with a twenty dollar bet to the class that no one could find a bug in my program (I kept my money), I realized that it wasn’t the esoteric artsy design process that excited me, but rather problem solving – that most basic process of the human brain that cannot be taught, but must rather be learned through experience. Yes, I enjoyed design, but, contrary to my previous perspective, it wasn’t the abstract process that I enjoyed, but rather the teleological approach of seeking a final product that provides a certain value to the human race.

As I “moved” schools to begin my computer science major (at Wash U, it’s just a dean’s signature away), I began to hunker down and get my Linux skillz a groovin’. Pretty soon, I realized that being a Computer Scientist is less about “designing things that provide value to the human race” and more about designing abstract models that show how to do the things we already know how to do, just more efficiently.

In an effort to recall the good old days of computer science when problem solving and late night coding parties were the modus operandi of the lab rats, I decided to do things a little differently junior year. Instead of a bunch of theoretical comp sci classes, I joined a research group, started writing a book, took a Learning Sciences course, and TA’ed the intro comp sci and web design classes. At the time, I didn’t have any idea how all these different pursuits would fit together, but as hindsight is 20-20, I can now say that I had finally set the stage for my return to the design dreams of my high school years.

You see, the research was in a program specifically designed to teach computer science through the creative design process…

Just got done working with the first week of campers for Looking Glass. Got some middle schoolers understanding arrays, loops, and threads!19 Jun 2009 via web

… a goal that worked surprisingly well.

The book, which started as a web design pamphlet aimed at helping a family friend I was tutoring, ended up as a handbook on understanding the production, structure and presentation of data on the web as three separate design processes. As the book evolved from web design to designing web data, I discovered the exciting worlds of Linked Data and the Semantic Web. These disciplines had a weird, but intriguing aspect to them: they had professors and PhD’s ensconced in research that was years away from being useful while at the same time, they had the web’s top players (Google and Facebook) putting them to use in their core businesses (Google’s “rich snippets” and Facebook’s “like” button).

Meanwhile, through my job as a teaching assistant, I was able to relearn the parts of computer science and web design I had already taken for granted. Being surrounded by novices, I rediscovered the novice mindset. That mindset that lacks muscle memory, that lacks the glue that connects all the pieces together, that stares at a foreign language andcan’ttellwhenonewordstartsandthenextbegins.

So how does all this fit together? How do we combine design, data, computer science, cognitive science and all the rest? To me, it’s all about returning to my high school design teacher (ok, if you got this far, I’ll tell you it was Geof Herman). It’s all about understanding the art of good journalism. Good journalism is not about reporting on opaque facts, events, and speeches. In the era of the web, it’s become clear that Twitter is a much better medium for relaying such things than any traditional media outlet. A journalist is not a reporter – in the sense that they are not just someone who reports on the things in front of their faces (I’m picturing those reporters who stand in front of a tidal wave and say things like “Yup, Johnny, the wind’s really bad out here”).

Instead, good journalism has to be about uncovering the hidden stories, the underlying patterns, the invisible injustices that permeate society. Good journalism is about simultaneously seeing the world holistically, as a system of systems, each with its own needs and desires, necessarily interweaving (think biodiversity vs. capitalism), while at the same time recognizing the humanity of the individual (think highways and the people whose land is taken to build them). So how do journalists find these stories? How do they discover the underlying patterns? Through data of course!

#Web founder, @TimBerners_Lee, says data analysis is the future of #journalism: #LinkedData (via @RossSheil)22 Nov 2010 via web

If you look at a journalist as a reporter, this idea seems quite foreign. After all, a reporter’s job is to stand outside of the world and comment on what they see, not to actually get their hands dirty and involved in the definition of reality. Put another way, the (physical, political, computer…) scientists who develop theories about the world are not reporters, because they’re actually responsible for defining the world that reporters are supposed to stand objectively outside of. Journalists, on the other hand, are not objective. I repeat, journalists are not objective. In fact, nobody is objective, but at least the journalist is honest about his or her lack of objectivity. The scientist is a journalist (see bottom figure), because the scientist ascribes to a certain set of beliefs and helps the human race see the world in a new and enlightening way. The scientist focuses on constructing a logical, organized reality from the messy, complex world we all perceive. Whether that reality is made up of theories in physics, politics, or algorithms, the scientist takes the world we live in and organizes it into neat equations and axioms. Data analysis, then, can be seen as the job of the scientist (or information journalist). The scientist analyzes, interprets, and organizes data of the world to come up with new understandings and new realities.

Of course, good journalism is not just about finding and understanding the world that’s hidden from your everyday Sam or Samir; it’s also about crafting compelling narratives to open the public’s eyes to these stories. Take this Water Plant diagram; while it took a scientist to track the location of the houses and the underground pipes, it took a designer to draw the compelling distinction between the race of the inhabitants with access to water and without access (click the image to see the diagram in context). In order to effect good journalism, then, it takes the design process – “that iterative, creative pursuit, built on metaphors, which maps ideas and emotions to forms and functions” – to educate and affect the affect of the public. Good journalism takes place not only in newspapers and magazines; good journalism takes place anywhere people tell stories to open a community’s eyes to hidden injustices or complex systems. In the end, good journalism is just good design – it’s a process, not an outcome. But, perhaps, the most powerful process we’ve invented, yet.

Scientists take us from the idea that intelligent design is necessary to the equations that allow for an empirical universe. Then designers write the book that can actually communicate these ideas to the public. This whole process is journalism.

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6 Months in Galway (part 1)

So… it’s been awhile. Blame Twitter; a travelogue feels a bit silly when I can record each event, as it happens. Also, I haven’t been traveling, I’ve been working. Take the day of my last blog post. What was I up to? Probably some really hard computer algorithm or something. Let’s check Twitter:

Want to smile and be inspired for 17 minutes straight? Watch Jeff Bezos’ #TED talk: Jul via web

Hmm, ok so maybe not so much work. But July 25th was a Sunday, so, you know, maybe I should get a break ;)

Well, seeing as I actually do have a bunch of work to do before I head out of Galway on Thursday (and just for those potential robbers – no, that doesn’t mean my house will be empty :P), I’ll pick out some of my favorite tweets over the last few months and try to add some commentary to give a feel for what I’ve been up to…

I was interviewed for this, but alas, not quoted. Great article anyway on #eTextbooks “Only certainty is change” Jul via web

So, the story behind this one actually starts last winter. I got the following email:

I am looking for the Micah at Washington University who commented on an
article about e-textbooks on the Inside Higher Education website earlier
this year. The comments were passionate and intelligent. I am interested
because I am a journalist writing an article about the Future of Textbooks
for Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education…

Cool, right? Someone actually reads all those angry comments on forums! Anyway, the author, Don Boroughs, and I ended up having a skype conference between Madison, WI and South Africa where we discussed e-ink screens (“high resolution etch-a-sketch’s”) and the future of e-books. While he didn’t end up quoting me, it was nice to have a conversation with another person really excited about the future of technology in education.

Right, moving on…

Facebook is for friends that are now strangers. Twitter is for strangers that should be your friends. /@damnitstrue26 Jul via web

This post, which I didn’t write (but I did retweet :), is as good as any to pinpoint exactly how I got to be in Ireland in the first place. You see, most of the people I follow on Twitter, I don’t know. As Jason implies, that’s the way it is with most people. I don’t know them, I don’t necessarily like or care about them, but I do seem to be enamored with their thoughts. Yes, I’m one of those people that checks Twitter every morning when I wake up and before I go to sleep. Call me crazy, but this service, this Twitter, has done more for my future career than any career center ever could.

You see, it was almost exactly a year ago when I serendipitously spotted this tweet:

Hmm, interesting perhaps, but life changing? Absolutely. You see, that $100k Semantic Web contest, was actually a week-long workshop with Tim Berners-Lee (yeah, that Tim Berners-Lee) at MIT. I applied, got in, and headed off to Boston in early January.

While there, I did what any self-respecting Twitter user would do, I live-tweeted the presentations. Fortunately, the organizer seemed to think this was cool, which was exciting, but then TimBL was walking around during one of our workshop sessions and we shook hands and he was like “you’re the twitter guy, right?” Coolest. Moment. Ever.

Of course, meeting one of the top three “people that inspire me” wasn’t the only thing that came out of this workshop. I also met a Brazilian named André, who was a Ph.D. student at some institute in Ireland called “DERI”. Well, the rest is history, and all thanks to Dean Whitney, “a guy that should be my friend,” and Twitter.

Ever wanted to see the Digg/delicious/4chan of Web 3.0? Welcome to @usekit – highlight/notate/clip the web and share :D29 Jul via web

Plug this one under “relationship starters.” I had just found out about this UseKit company from Switzerland, and for months following this tweet, I was back and forth with their development team on email, talking about new features, user experience, business opportunities, you name it. One of those fun conversations where you get to be a part of something bigger than yourself without worrying about responsibility. It was like being a pro bono contractor with no deadlines. Actually, this reminds me, I need to get back to them (Nicolas, if you’re reading this, expect an email soon… ;)

Wikileaks To Leak 5000 Open Source Java Projects Jul via web

Ok, so this is another retweet of mine. But I figured it’s another nice story starter. So while that link is hilarious, you may have to be a techie to fully appreciate it. More to the point though, yes, Wikileaks is also on everyone’s mind in Ireland. Especially in the Semantic Web community. After all, we’re about “Linked Open Data”, TimBL even made everyone shout “Raw Data Now!” when he gave his TED Talk. Coincidence? I think not!

Either way, the new field of Web Science (another field that DERI researchers are pioneering) seems poised to finally get at all the aching questions that have lots of commentary but little rigor.

Questions like:

How are concepts such as trust and reliability represented, maintained and repaired on the Web?


To what extent are the service providers going to become the legal gatekeepers for public authorities in terms of delivering their public policy objectives e.g. Web policing for what is judged to be “illegal and harmful content”?

are only going to be more important as time goes on, so it’s cool that there’s a field of study finally attempting to tackle it. Those questions are actually pulled straight from the Web Science Trust’s website, and seem especially prescient considering the introduction of OpenLeaks, an organization like Wikileaks but who won’t verify their sources, and Wikileaks itself which has been struggling to find an internet service provider who will host them.

Working without @Pandora_Radio makes it feel like I’m in a third-world country. #Global #Radio #Licensing #Sucks6 Aug via web

Truer words were never spoken. That is all.

@ariherstand btw, those mobile updates to the youtube videos are coming… eventually :)17 Aug via web

So, I think “stretched thin” should be an anagram for “broken promises.” Unfortunately, my brother’s mobile website is one of many things I’ve had to neglect over the last 6 months. One of the things I’m least looking forward to when I actually do start my Ph.D. is the inability to do anything else. I mean, these last 6 months have been great, I’ve had the opportunity to give an ignite talk, I’ve met the Jewish community of Dublin, I’ve started work on a book with colleagues from DERI, I’ve found a French piano cafe that gives you free crepes if you play piano… so yes, I haven’t closed myself completely off from the world. But the thing about research, is there’s always some work you should be doing instead of whatever else you’re doing. This blog I’m writing? Yeah, if I was one of those Catholics from the Da Vinci Code, let’s just say it wouldn’t be pretty. But sometimes you just gotta take time to clear your head.

BBC’s #Dimensions site is an awesome example of possibilities of #LinkedData & #geodata (via @aaronglewis)20 Aug via Twitter for iPhone

This is one of many, many (many) websites I’d been scavenging through for months for innovative data visualization ideas. You see, my first three months here were all about coming up with a new interface for browsing financial data (well, when I wasn’t writing programs to scrape financial data from websites like Reuters and Google Finance). While it was a fun project, with many late nights using multi-colored white board markers, and alternative nights learning HTML5, Javascript, and AJAX, the broad scope and lack of a team to bounce ideas off of ultimately enveloped me. Fortunately, this gave me the time to join the Green IT/IS unit, in which I’ve had the opportunity to be an integral member of the four-person team building a sustainability platform for DERI. But that’s a story for another day.

She was 17 when she wrote this. She passed away, too early, at 18. One of the most moving blogposts I’ve read Aug via TweetDeck

Again, this is just something I retweeted, but I had to share it here as it was the most affecting and poignant thing I’ve read probably since Tuesdays With Morrie. I cried at the end of both.

Eating at a café sucks without a wide variety of extra spicy hot sauces. #homesick for @cafeventana23 Aug via web

So, one of the weirdest parts of living in Ireland is just how easy it has been to make a home here. It feels like any place I’ve lived in my life – Madison, St. Louis… Everyone speaks English. There are lattés, Indian food, and movie theaters. Everything’s within walking distance. Really what’s there to miss? I’ve felt homesick for America, the country, very few times. I’d more be homesick for certain people or places… or sports.

You see, I had the weirdest feeling the other day, I was walking home from bowling with my sustainability team last week (yes, I did do America proud) and I saw two guys throwing a football. Like, an American Football. It was such an odd feeling. I’ve spent 6 months trying to speak in celsius and meters, asking bartenders for pints, making sure I receive my docket at the store, generally embracing the culture around me, taking every chance to learn about someone else or some place else, and it took something as simple as a football to realize I actually did miss that feeling of normalcy. That feeling that everyone around you speaks the same language. Yes, everyone here speaks English. Yes, that is what made it so easy to live here in the first place. But, really? They don’t speak English. Or rather, we Americans don’t speak English. We speak American. Yes, it is a truly different dialect. I recently posted the following to twitter:

I’m starting to get self conscious about English idioms, since I’m never sure if they translate to non-natives. “Front the money” etc.13 Dec via web

I soon found that not only was this English slang, but this was American slang. The Irish don’t use such idioms. (for the Irish reading this, fronting money means covering the cost of something right away, with the understanding you’ll probably get paid back – like “I’ll just front the money for the tickets, and you can pay me back later.”) The list goes on of things I’ve now had to second guess people understanding (like, upon rereading this I just realized that my definition for “front the money” used the word “covering” in such a way that might be American slang as well. Any Irish reading this that can tell me if “covering the cost” translates as “paying”?). I mean, this isn’t something that keeps me awake at night, but it just forces me to be more alert around people I used to think spoke my language.

Oy, so it’s late, and I have work to do. At least I got through one month of tweets (till Aug 23). I’ll finish later.


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Irish Immigration

“If you ever come back to Ireland, I won’t accept this crap again.”

The fact that this was the most hopeful (and productive) time in my four weeks of acquiring my Irish green card, has given me a bit of an understanding of the troubles with immigration around the world. Governments seem to think they’re doing you a favor by letting you enter their country, as opposed to accepting that you are the one helping their economy by adding money and intellectual capital (in the case of internships) that is desperately needed. To get an understanding of what took me to this climactic day, let’s return to June 23rd, 2010; arrival day…

Off the plane in Dublin I walked slowly along the airport corridor — a narrow hallway split into two lanes. On the left was our entrance walkway containing a carpeted floor and a muraled wall that was covered in large photos of asian boats in a floating market. The scene reminded me of what Venice might be like, with streams running through a city right up to the windows of buildings. It was both beautiful and lively – a mix of old customs and tourist’s SLRs. On the right (through a glass wall that separated the two lanes) was another mural, this one of New York City, complete with the naked cowboy and a bossy black female police officer. These two murals argued for some stark differences between the dynamics of downtown America versus the rest of the world. On the left, there was a market – a necessary place where people buy food to survive; on the right, there was an intersection of fast food restaurants and entertainment buildings. On the left, the tourists were clearly distinct from the locals both in dress and accessories; on the right, there was no clear distinction between tourists and locals. On the left, nature and humans were in harmony; on the right, nature was completely absent. On the left, people formed a network of cooperating boats in a river; on the right, a police officer was forced to direct traffic. These murals seemed to be more telling of the group that put them in place, than of the places they attempted to represent. In fact, one of my first clues as to why I thought America may be regarded as a loud, culture-less, nature-less melting pot was on this first entrance into Ireland.

After the twenty-minute crawl through this entrance-way to customs, I took out my passport and entrance letter and prepared myself for hell. You see, one of my greatest fears in preparing for my trip to Ireland was the possibility of deportation on arrival. A friend of mine who attempted to take a similar-type trip to the UK was turned away on arrival for not having proper letters regarding her stay in the country. Instead of lying and saying she was just there for holiday, she told the truth: that she would be there for an extended period of time to study and teach. When she couldn’t produce original letters of acceptance into her program, the immigration officers put her on a plane back to America. Fortunately, I was able to learn from this story and requested an original letter of acceptance in the mail from DERI — something they had, at first, told me I should just pick up on arrival. When I walked up to the customs window, I pushed my stack of papers through the window and waited. And waited. After about five minutes of tapping away on a Dell keyboard and staring at a Windows XP-infested screen, the immigration attendant genially told me that the computer was not working and that I should just go to my local Garda (police) station within a month of arrival in Galway. “Easy enough,” I thought, and I went on my way.

My second week in Galway, I set off to find the local Garda station. The accountant who had just helped me set up my AIB bank account was nice enough to draw a map for me to the local Garda station. As I didn’t yet have a bike, I set off on a 20 minute walk to begin my long journey to legalization.

On arrival at the Garda station, I noticed a few angry people sitting in chairs and two glass windows, behind which were a couple Garda officers. I stood to the side to wait my turn, not sure exactly if there was any system in place to produce a line. After a few minutes of waiting, with no one walking up to the window, I turned to a woman sitting in a chair and asked if there was a line. “No, no, you can just go ahead” she answered. (“Thanks for telling me that now…”) I walked up to the window and was met with utter confusion. Not only did the Garda officers have no ability to perform immigration functions, they had no idea if Galway even had an immigration office. One of them looked it up online and found the place, but simply told me “tell a taxi to take you to ‘Lizbin,’ they’ll know how to get there.” Not wanting to pay for a taxi if it was walkable, I asked:

“But, could I walk there?”

“Oh, it would be probably a half hour walk, I’d just take a taxi.”

“Ok, but can you point me toward it at least?”

“Sure, it’s up this [unrecognizable street name] and down this [unrecognizable street name].”

Realizing that I wasn’t going to get much useful information out of these officers, and that they were probably more used to dealing with Irish criminals than tourists, I quickly thanked them for their time and began to walk in the general direction they had pointed. Fortunately for me, Galway is fairly small and I soon ended up downtown. While there, I found the famous Eyre Square and asked the friendly tourist help desk for their, well, help. Very genial and peppy, the man behind the counter took out a map and drew me a line toward where I needed to head.

“You’d be better off taking a taxi there, though, it’ll be a good 20 minute walk.”
Intent on traveling without a taxi, I set off and fortunately found a bike shop on my way. I quickly bought a bike so that I could travel a bit more smoothly around the city and set sail. On arrival at the Liosban Industrial Park, I went searching for the immigration office. Hiding in the back of the complex, I found the office… closed. “Due to court appointments, our office will only be open for one hour today.” In order to not make the trip a total waste, I went next door to O’Brien’s café and treated myself to a chai.

A week later, I tried again, this time equipped with a new weapon: early birdness. While the sign outside the immigration office had said “open 7:30am – 2:30pm” I had a feeling that the earlier the better. So, I left DERI at 7:30am (I worked all night to make sure I would be awake early) and biked over to the office. On arrival at 7:45am I met a room full of immigrants and a sign that said “only serving numbers 1-19 today.” I asked the room, and yes, 19 had already been chosen. Yikes. I didn’t remember the last time 7:45am wasn’t considered early bird. (Of course, I’ve never waited in line for an iPhone…).

A few days later, I ended up in a workshop at DERI with another American who told me that my experience was par for the course at immigration. She recommended that I take a taxi (what is it with people and their taxis?) an hour or two early to make sure I was one of the first ones there. “If you get the 15th number, you’ll be waiting there all day.”

A few days later, I decided I’d just try a new tactic: use a phone. At nine in the morning, I called over to the immigration office and asked if they had any free spots left: “we do, if you get here quick” the man told me. Success. I biked right over and grabbed number 57 (that day they were serving numbers 42-59). Instead of waiting in the cramped, hot immigration lobby, I hopped back and forth between O’Brien’s and the office to make sure I didn’t lose my space. A few hours later, I popped in just in time to see number 56 getting up from the immigration window. When I sat down, the officer seemed nice enough… until I began to show him my papers…

Strike one: As I began to pass over my letter of acceptance, he mumbled “that better not be from DERI.” Of course it was, and he promptly complained to me about how only the International Student Office was authorized to accept out-of-country students. I tried to explain to him that I was not a student, but instead a paid research fellow, but I soon realized that this wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Nodding along with the “ridiculousness” of DERI’s practices seemed to be the more productive tactic, so I just began to do that.

Strike two: For proof of residence, I had two letters from two separate banks addressed and postmarked to me at my Irish address. “We don’t accept bank letters” he informed me. Scrambling, I produced another original letter from DERI stating my place of residence (mind you, this letter was proof enough for AIB to set up a bank account for me. Granted, AIB along with every other Irish bank recently collapsed in Ireland, so I probably shouldn’t take their example too highly). “This doesn’t mean anything” he argued. Knowing that speaking would just taunt the dragon, I put a confused look on my face and nodded along.

Without a strike three to use against me (and with me willing to pay the €150 entrance fee), he finally consented to take my picture, digitize my fingerprints and legalize me. Throughout the process, just to show me how frustrated he was, he warned me “If you ever come back to Ireland, I won’t accept crap like these [letters from DERI] again.”

“If I every come back to Ireland,” I thought, “I’m gonna offer to fix the Dublin airport’s computer just so I don’t have to deal with you again.”

Almost as if he could read my mind, the immigration officer complimented me on my awesome new Irish shirt as a way to lessen the tension in the room. I contemplated offering to buy him a pint, but thought better of it as I shuffled out of the room as quickly as possible.

Micah and Green Card

First Trip to Immigration
Me, my green card, and my awesome shirt!
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