Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Desserts for Italians (with gluten free options)

Pandoro cut 01.jpg  

My family is not one that's big on desserts. For whatever reason, we never extended the Christmas traditions beyond pies, and I think birthday cake was as fancy as it got when I was younger. If you were *really* good, you got the German chocolate cake with real coconut in the frosting for your birthday. My mum made a fruitcake for my English grandfather every year, I just don't think we're a "sweet" driven kind of family - there was always more fruit in the house than anything else, and my mum would do wondrous things with vegetables, so I always wanted those first. 

But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a good dessert now and then. My husband's ice cream comes first to the list (especially the lemon/vanilla one he did a few years ago). After that, all the desserts I explored with him as we learned about my northern Italian heritage, so I hope you all don't mind indulging me in a roundup of the things I learned about Italian desserts during the holiday season.

When I started dating my husband, we started exploring the Twin Cities and found Cossetta's Restaurant in St. Paul, which became a highlight of some of my most cherished memories of that time period (and some very entertaining ones, too!). Cossetta's introduced me to tiramisu, the first wonderful and remarkably Italian dessert I had ever had, full of rich mascarpone cheese and crunchy ladyfingers. When we walked downstairs into the deli portion of the restaurant, along with the many different kinds of antipasti, pizza doughs, and pastas, we found a new product that I had never seen before, panettone. I bought a small one (I was on a high school's paycheck after all) and tried it at home with my dad. I was hooked! Light, softly flavored sweetness and bits of dried fruit for fun, the panettone was the best version of fruitcake I had ever tasted. When I discovered my celiac disease, well, I had to find a recipe for it that tasted just like I remembered that first time. Nichole from Gluten Free on A Shoestring really delivered (though I changed her fruits to more traditional ones). 

As my husband and I continued to date, got engaged, and eventually married we found other forms of tiramisu that were just as good as Cossetta's, but in different ways. Buca di Beppo's version was delightfully boozy and over the top in flavor. Franchesca's was light and fluffy with a fabulous espresso flavor. I wasn't surprised when Treviso, the province of my grandfather's family in Italy, came out in 2013 and asked for tiramisu to get a SpecialitĂ  tradizionale garantita status, giving it a heritage dating back to 1970s there. Even in the comments, the ingredients are debated and changed, depending on the family recipe that they were using. So when Udi's Gluten Free winner Bonita came out with a recipe, I didn't hesitate to try it even though it would be different than all of the other tiramisus I remember. Rich and meringue-y, it tastes different than any other version I've had. With my husband no longer drinking, the recipes will morph yet again as we change to a booze-free version of tiramisu. In all honesty, most of the time the booze was not necessary for the dessert - Buca's is really the only one that has done it well. I prefer to think about it as going back to the heritage of the dish, as the story says tiramisu is an after dinner pick-me-up that was invented to help prostitutes get back to work after long Italian meals. 

But when we actually went to Italy for our honeymoon, my world was opened to a whole new set of ideas of what my beloved Italian ancestors would have in their Christmas celebrations. Fresh torrone from the candymaker's stall at the market, stiff and chewy, full of nuts and fruit and all the things that nougat makes better :-) Naturally gluten free, it was one of the first desserts I turned to in order to remember the sweetness of the holiday. Martha Stewart's recipe is pretty decent if you want to try making some of your own, or get some from Cost Plus World Market fresh. It hardens too much if you let it sit too long and then you're liable to crack a tooth on it. 

Pandoro cut 01.jpg

Pandoro was next (the name STILL irritates me as the spelling and grammarian in me wants it to be properly "pan d'oro").Warm, sweet, and bread like, the best part of it in Venice was that they cut squares of it to serve with rich vanilla gelato and sprinkled with spicy cinnamon to create a wonderful sweet and spicy dessert. Pandoro being from Verona I was surprised to see it served there, but true to Venetian style, there was a multitude of desserts from many Italian provinces available. Schar's bread mix makes a wonderful base for this for the gluten free crowd, and their recipe is quite easy to make, Of course, you can't stay mad for long in Venice, because they're already feeding you the next amazing thing. The next item on my dessert list is a uniquely silly and Venetian thing, because only they would think to do something like make a rich creme dessert even richer. I've not found this recipe in the gluten free world yet (though when I have some free time it might be one I develop), but its good for non-gf crowds. Crema fritta all Veneta or Crema fritta alla Venezia. Fried cream. Yep - that's right! Thick curdled cream inside a delightful puff of fried dough and breadcrumbs that you serve with little bowls of more cold cream sweetened with sugar. A ridiculously simple recipe to follow (yes, it is in Italian but its easy to translate) that I'm thinking could be done using King Arthur's gluten free baking flour and any number of breadcrumbs (maybe the Schar variety?). 

panevin treviso bonfires northeast italy

With a little searching in Venice, however, we found the REALLY cool desserts. Pinza Veneta or Pinsa Veneto (depending on who you ask), is traditionally made for the lighting of the Christmas Bonfires around the Venetian province of Veneto, including Vittorio Veneto, where my grandfather's family was from. While not one of the larger fires in the province (the one above is a beautiful one from Arcade, a little over a half hour from Vittorio Veneto), there is still a small one with plenty of pinza and brule (a hot, spicy mulled wine). The panevin, as the fires are known, started out as a pagan tradition on the winter solstice and then later became known as a way to help the three wise men find their way on a cold winter's night to Bethlehem. Grandma Bruna's recipe for pinza is delightful (note: not MY grandma LOL), and Schar comes to my rescue again with a gluten free recipe for pinza (though I would add some cornmeal to it to make it more authentic to what I remember). 

If you are eating la pinza on a plate instead of standing around the panevin, the BEST thing to have with it is a uniquely northern Italian condiment called mostarda. Mostarda comes in a jar that looks like this: 

but its actually better if you make your own, because then it doesn't look like some off colored mustard. Mostarda is a combination of fruits and mustard essence, and its a sweet and spicy condiment that helps clean out the cupboards while making something tasty. This recipe from Food52 makes a lovely version that's simple and requires little work (though a lot of time is involved, most of it is in non-active tasks...). And its naturally gluten free, so of course you can use it on tons of stuff, not just pinza! Pureed up more, its good with a lot of meat dishes, it can be used in the place of cranberry sauce, and its excellent with cheese and crackers. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The battle of the holidays on social media (warning: contains Elf on the Shelf)

(this really cracked me up. I love Grumpy Cat! Photo courtesy of SlapCaption)

With the advent of the season of the holiday, my social media networks across the board explode with people spouting off about the various holidays, presence or lack thereof of religion, and the creepy factor of various holiday traditions. (sorry this gets a wee bit long...)

Case in point: 
Thank you Melissa Hillier for a much cleaner photo of the little Elf than I've seen! 

There's some debate about him. Evil? Not evil? Preparing children for a police state? Creepy? Not creepy? And goodness gracious, the stream of pictures from all the folks that have to move this elf once a day in order to play by the rules of the game as written. (though I do think some of the more adult ones are kind of funny, like this one!)

Here's the thing. When I was young (which was not that long ago!), I was taught that Santa is a representation of the spirit of generosity. He might not be a real person, but as a spirit of generosity he represents the idea that we all should give to one another. I mean, even the bad kids get coal, which can be used to warm one's house, so life is not all bad! 

It was your job to honor the goodness in the world all year long or you would be put on the coal list. There was nothing in these lessons about religion, about all year long stalking, or even a requirement to call him St. Nick and not Santa Claus / Kris Kringle. So you can be Jewish or Muslim or Atheist and still enjoy festivities and just don't bother with the "Christmas" name for the holiday. 

It wasn't until I was older that I even realized that there was a religious component to Christmas in the name and the motivation behind the holiday. As usual, it is because the Christians tried to borrow from various Pagan celebrations in an attempt to gain more converts. Pieces of the holiday belong to the Romans (Saturnalia and Kalends), Druids (mistletoe sacrifice), Norse Mythology (Balder is killed by a mistletoe poisoned arrow while fighting over a female), the Asheira Cult (Christmas trees), German and Celtic pagans (the cult of Nicholas), Asian culture (Nimrod, the fire god, was nicknamed "Santa"), the Irish (the "Yule Lads" left presents and played tricks on people), and even some work in the holiday belongs to marketers (i.e. Coke's depiction of Santa Claus). This muddled mix of sources thrown together into a holiday makes it easy to pick and choose which pieces of the holiday you choose to observe. Celebrate Santa but not poison or Christ's birthday or a celebration of the slaughter of thousands of Jewish people? Absolutely you can! can also celebrate Christ's birthday. And you can also sacrifice a goat to Balder or pagan gods. That's the beauty of living in modern culture - unlike the 4th century CE when the Christian church borrowed Saturnalia to form the basis of Christmas, we have CHOICE. 

So getting me back to this little guy:

The tradition of the elves actually starts a LOT later than Christmas itself. It wasn't until the 1800s that the elves of the world were demoted into only existing to help Santa Claus do his work. Prior to this, elves were a sort of fun little creature that could help you or harm you - in Germanic and Scandinavian literature, elves were guards against evil and bringers of light and magic but if they were mistreated or you were a bad person, the elves would play tricks on you. But again, the sources get mixed. In the Netherlands, Santa travels with a sidekick named Zwarte Pieter (Black Peter), and in France, there's Père Fouettard (Father Whip) for Santa's sidekick, both of which are characters of very mixed good and evil. 

The Elf on a Shelf idea sort of brings back that idea of the "little people" or the "Wee folk" that can be good to you if you're good and bad to you if you are bad. And yes, I've always found that idea creepy. That someone or something is watching me 24/7. No person is ever going to be perfectly good 100% of the time - even sleeping people sometimes kick people in bed! So do I find Elf on a Shelf creepy? Yep. I wasn't even surprised when a Washington Post article proclaimed "The Elf on the Shelf is preparing your child to live in a future police state, professor warns"

You've probably all already seen the arguments, so I'll skip to the good part - the comments. They are a lively bunch of folks who have a range of opinions, but the most interesting delve into the WHO is buying these things. You see, there's a strong belief that its mostly young mums out there buying these because they want to validate that they are good mothers just like their friends who are posting their "Elf on a Shelf" pictures on social media. It's all a scheme for validation, and in some cases, they even do it after the children are scared off by the "Elf". 

The thing I think young mums are not remembering is that they have a CHOICE. If you are bullied into using "Elf on a Shelf" and its other overpriced products than you are in the same situation people were in the 4th century CE - being told how to behave and how to validate your celebration as legitimate. There are wonderful young mums out there who don't tolerate this nonsense and have great kids. There are wonderful young mums out there who find the whole thing entertaining and do it for fun without the "rules" and involving their children in the process. 

You always have a choice in what you choose to buy and celebrate (unless you're in a totalitarian country like China or North Korea, then...I apologize). Don't let your social media feed bully you into needing validation just like others or trying to argue for "Putting the Christ back in Christmas" or "Banning Happy Holidays" or any other such nonsense.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The cacophony of the holiday sales begins...

(Poor kitty! From

Over the weekend, the holiday sales season officially began. I don't even know if we should call it the holiday season any more. By far and away, the amount of people, places and things crying out OMG PLEASE PAY ME was just ridiculous.

Did I indulge? A bit. Much less than other years. Maybe I'm getting more self control as I get older.

Mostly though, its just tiring. Why the heck does everyone need a new tv this time of year? Or yet another crock pot? Do people throw these things away on a monthly basis? I don't understand. I got a couple of movies, and some surprise packages from Julep (my husband would probably argue I do NOT need more nail polish, but...) and a pair of pants I needed to replace one that broke on vacation (duct tape no longer holds the pockets together). Oh, and some patterns (feeding the addiction, lol).

I think most of all, it really just came across as a sea of people, places, and things trying to stimulate buying, and none of it really had the effect that it would have had five years ago, even a year ago! Black Friday sales numbers were down, and I think its because of that reason - a sea of external stimuli with no way to differentiate it. Even most "deals" sites were saying the deals were bleh this year.

I think back upon Thanksgiving 1900 and wonder...what would they have thought of all this nonsense? I think they would have gone crazy from a sea of crazy around them. They wouldn't have known what to do with so many advertising messages blaring at them.

Sorry for the ramblings today but that's where my thoughts have been over the last couple days . This week to come: updates on projects completed!

If you are at your computer hiding from the madness, enjoy this cute puppy video:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Memorial to Osgood (update on the Osgood scarf)

I feel like I haven't shared an update on Osgood's scarf in awhile. She's coming along nicely. I've been weaving in the ends as I go so I love that its going to be finished when its finished.

According to my calculations I'm just under 70% complete. I looked back and I started this back in December 2013 so I think its progressing on target. In the wake of what happened to Osgood in Death in Heaven, I've been using it as anger management to get over the loss* of her character.

*Well, we all know she had a Zygon clone and we don't know where she is. And we're not sure if the thing Missy used on her is a full TCE or a miniaturization one, and well, this is science fiction so who knows, she may come back for no other reason than Moffat decides to bring her back.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Don't corrupt your dolls - A note about thinking about the image of crafting and the treatment of women

(tee hee from Quick Meme)

Those who know me know I am no prude, not by far, but some things that I've seen online recently have even made me wonder about where people's minds are heading. And the funny thing is that the things that have really been making me wonder are on their head, very innocent looking. 

I am a huge fan of amigurumi (crocheted toys of animals and dolls). I follow a lot of different fandoms including Lalaloopsy, Lalylala, Rabbiz, NerdyKnitter, etc. and so many of them are so much fun. Who doesn't want a stuffed pony dressed like Doctor Who, for example? 

As a part of this, fans create their dolls and animals and post them online for others to admire, rate and give compliments. Which is awesome that they have a place to go and do that, be it on Facebook, independent sites, Deviantart, Etsy, etc. What's giving me pause though, is the recent trend that seems to be cropped up online, in which these innocent little dolls, with their wide eyes, impossible size, and inability to stand on their own, are used to mimic pornography. 

A recent post, for example, gave the image of a little doll in a wide circle skirt with wide eyes, a tiny waist, and teeny legs that stood only by the virtue of the weight of the skirt. Then a series of photos was posted in which the doll strips down to her underwear while posing provocatively. Another post had a series of cat dolls with wide eyes and big eyelashes "mating" to make kitten dolls. Other posts feature the dolls whipping each other with yarn "whips" with hearts and stars, male and female dolls "mating", still others are in what would be considered a strip club position when real humans hold that position in place.

I can't help but think of the similarities to video games with many of these scenarios. My first thought was that these were male fans doing these poses, but that was wrong of me. Its just as many female fans doing the "naughty doll" thing. 

What does it say about us as women that we want to make our dolls handicapped versions of reality and then place them in abusive or pornographic situations? Are we so deeply ingrained as a society in the mistreatment of women that we do it to ourselves? 

I think what bothers me most about this is that they are dolls. And toys. Kids can see these things very easily - if you image search for dolls or particular brands, 25-30% of the results are images that I wouldn't want any kid to see. Heck, I don't want to see a doll getting violated and I'm in my 30s. Dolls are mini-humans, and how kids treat them will become how they will treat real humans as adults. 

We don't want to teach anyone to do this. I say we stop allowing this now.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Craft Yarn Council Survey

I'll keep this short and sweet - do this survey!

It's US focused, so sorry to the international knitters and crocheters reading this. If you are in the US, you can win a $25 gift card for filling it out. This is the annual survey that determines how popular knitting and crocheting are that the Craft Yarn Council does every year.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Think about what image represents your ancestor


I'll be honest...this is a little of a rant. If you aren't into genealogy, I understand if you come back later. I've been working on my Ancestry trees, slowly working my way through all of the hints and records that it suggests. Yes, I have issues with hints but those are for another day.

What's getting me ticked off is the number of these (above) sort of graphics being included with every ancestor in a tree that is before the age of photography. I am comfortable with my ancestors. They may be represented peacefully with a silhouette until I happen to see an image that has a relationship with them, such as a burial site, their house, or perhaps a relic of their time in a particular area, like a maple tree from their property, or an example of their masonry or silversmithing.

Why is everyone so obsessed with putting a photo in that silhouette that they use canned clip art to show that its "their" ancestor because there's a flag or a ship? Does that have any connection to their life? Just because they immigrated, should their entire image be represented by their passage? Didn't they do something else with their life?

And if you are going to do something like this and thinking about actually making a connection to your ancestor, why not research the CORRECT flag to put into the tree? For example:
United Kingdom flag of Briton today
This flag is the flag of England AFTER 1801 (above). Before 1801, the flag looked like this (below):
Union Flag 1606-1801: combination of English and Scottish National flags
Prior to 1606 ( when James I took the throne), however, England had an even simpler flag (below):
English National flag during the reign of Queen Elizabeth: red cross on a white background

So if your ancestor immigrated the US in the 1770s, then the middle flag is correct. Not the top one, nor the bottom one. The ancestor would have had no connection to either the top or the bottom flag, which makes your graphic meaningless.

Similarly, if your ancestor came from Cologne to the US in 1774, this should be the flag:

NOT this one:

This flag was adopted after that period and so therefore, it doesn't make any sense to have your ancestor tied to a graphic that didn't exist in their time period.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, its okay to NOT have a picture of an ancestor. And if you are going to do it, at least take the time to think about the image and its context, and make sure that you get the right graphic that actually has a connection to your ancestor.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fact Checking - A philosophical discussion on approaches to genealogy

Photo snapshots from 5 days of emails.

Forgive my absence, folks, as I'm developing new ideas for the blog. I recently had an exchange with an user. I won't name him here or quote from the experience, as I think what was said and done warrants more of a philosophical thought than a direct experience. 

Over the last week I received five update emails from Ancestry on this person's tree. Each day, there were a few pictures and sources and this listing that over 100+ people have been added. I started to check the lists and yes, they were actually new people. Each day, over 100 people were being added to this person's tree. 

This naturally got me suspicious, as I find that more and more, as I check over what I am adding to my tree, I am lucky if I get through adding a family of 3 to my tree on a single day! How could he get through this many folks at once? And then do that breakneck speed for four more days?

"Blah, blah, blah - you've whined about this before, about people adding things without checking"

Aye, I have, which is why I want to go somewhere else with this post. What I thought about was that there is a fundamental difference in how people approach genealogy and that is why there is a disconnect between the two camps of folks. 

Camp 1. The experienced genealogists, the professionals, and the folks striving to get to either of these points. They tend to be the slow adders - checking each person, one at a time, adding sources, then moving on to verifying the relationships, then moving on to adding a new person to a family.
-Pro: things tend to be well sourced and easy to follow.
-Con: they miss out on new data as they are often too slowly working through existing data.

Camp 2. The newbies, the part timers, and the bucket list folks (i.e. "I must finish my genealogy to give my kids"). These folks tend to be fast adders, clicking and dragging from one family to the next, matching the names they think match, and adding anything easy to attach from and its network and sometimes FamilySearch.
-Pro: there tends to be an explosion of data available for any family. Whether its right or not, well, who knows?
-Con: an explosion of data means none of it is checked. Often there is a host of errors, and many times whole family lines are mismatched.

Which brings me to my last point - could each camp learn something from the other one? I believe the answer is yes

Camp 1 - they sometimes seem like the most hardest working folks in genealogy. The problem? It sometimes gets to be a bit too much like WORK rather than a hobby, a profession, or even dare I say - fun? (sorry James Tanner...). 

Solution? Something new that I heard about this weekend as well - "blitz genealogy". With all the technology and advice out there, practicing short spurts of searching and detective-ing with high productivity can lead to a flurry of new information to help clear up old troubles. In blitz genealogy, you set a research hypothesis that can be solved in a short period of time, say, two days. A good one might look like "I need to find marriage records for Daniel Graves in eastern Michigan from 1870-1890." Then you go out and you save every document that might meet that criteria. Lastly, you then sift through the material, holding the ones that aren't the right guy in an appropriate holding bin (I have a folder on my computer labeled "Searches by subject area" and then I add the folder number to a list that corresponds with the research problem). 

Another way to do blitz genealogy is to do tasks like this - write a one hour life history on one of your ancestors. How can that help you? By taking the time to analyze your ancestor's life as a whole, you can often spot holes in their story that are easy to fix. A missing time record, some tax records, etc. 

Camp 2 - these guys just seem like they are flurrying around with little direction or investigation of their connections. 

Solution? I've taught this technique to a few dozen folks, and they all giggle at the name "Search and Destroy". You take one family, and look through all the evidence, and weed out what doesn't fit. Then you move up the chain, each time, taking one family and looking at it. Sometimes the answer is that the whole family doesn't fit and the whole name chain can be released from the tree. I try to encourage folks to only keep the names of family they are pretty sure about and delete the rest. 

What does this do? It gives them quick focus and helps them see the importance of being sure. Note I didn't say right or wrong here - those come later. What you want to be is sure that the basics are correct. Folks have the right name, they match up to the census years, they match up to the names on the certificates (if available), that the pictures look like they came from the right era, etc. If they added things from websites other than FamilySearch and Ancestry, the documents have notes on where they came from so others can find them later. These tasks increase the quality of their genealogy very quickly, yet also helps them down the path should they want to become part of Camp 1.

A little bit quicker, a little bit slower, and both sides can increase the quality of their genealogy and still have - dare I say it? - fun in their hobby. And they can find some common ground in learning from one another, without the derision on both sides.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Its suddenly hip to be a cheap knitter or crocheter

No, I don't mean every project is going to be made out of acrylic $2.29 yarn from the big box stores. What I mean is that people are rebelling against the majority of the hand dyed/hand spun yarns being over $40 a skein. I was at the crochet guild over the weekend and one of the attendees was particularly drawn up about it, but definitely got some agreement in the crowd.

Then this Buzzfeed article got passed around again on social media. And the Loving the Freebies group on Ravelry broke out "Crafting Gadgets that aren't" with folks using everything from plumbing o-rings to paper towel holders to make due without $20+ gadgets on the knitting and crocheting market. And there's even an entire board on Pinterest devoted to DIY Yarn Swifts (again, $40+).

Maybe its just me, but it seems okay right now to let your frugal flag fly! Vendors who take notice are going to pick up business from these folks that are going to flash by the businesses that don't pay attention to the swings of the crafting market.

Perhaps it is the summer season of yarn discounting that has got everyone in this frugal mood? I'm not sure! What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 28, 2014

STOP THIEF! The Conclusion

Oh my gosh, if that isn't the cutest pirate! Photo courtesy of

Apologize for the delay with this one, it was supposed to publish automatically and did not!

Throughout this series I think its clear I've struggled with the moral aspects of piracy, theft, and "sharing" in general. And I'm not the only one. As one of the posters in the book piracy forum made clear:

"When I find an author whose work I like and want to support, if I have obtained an item at no cost, how can we make it right financially? I wish there was a no questions asked type of place where we could pay authors. // Many of us struggle with our own moral issues in this type of activity, but some read so much it is too costly to keep up the pace"

I wish there was indeed! Sometimes an author or designer I go back and repurchase items from them, because you know what, I do like their stuff and I want to see them make more! For every me, though, there's probably ten that don't.

What I've determined is that there are multiple paths towards living in a pirate world:

1. "Suffer the little children". As Jesus once said, allow them. Let them come even if they are not desirable. As we can see from the authors, they've found ways of coping with them even if they don't like the behavior. As author JA Konrath put it "You CANNOT assume that a downloaded free book is a lost sale." Read the rest of his thoughts here. They are significantly enlightening!

I think this is the only approach that genealogists really have. What we can do, however, is use the tools and technology in front of us to manage the situation. Put a citation on that photo. Insert a unique element that can only be traced to you. But at the same time, I think opening up our permissions would be a good approach as well. Why are we obsessed with copyrighting photographs of tombstones that anyone can take? I understand the work involved in getting them - I do genealogy photography myself, but I really feel that I'm giving to the karma of the community when I allow folks to use them as they will.

2. Work with your customers to give them exclusives that they can't get anywhere else.

Cameron Jace, one of my favorite authors who are alive (yes, this is a category LOL) has a Facebook group, Tweets and works with his fans to get them exclusive access to his books before they hit the marketplace, we can talk with him and interact with him making the level of connections to the story much more interesting. Would I have read his other books if I hadn't been connected to him on Facebook? Probably not.

The other way of doing this is to continually incentivize your patrons with exclusives. Rabbiz Designs is a Thai designer of amigurumi who are wildly pirated. But by giving her exclusive buys incentives to keep buying, she gives her people a reason to come back. And because the levels of entry are significant, the designer gives them a secondary layer of encouragement to not pirate her designs, because they are hard to get and much easier to figure out if pirated.

Another way to do this is to position yourself as an active member of the community, so that your customers feel as if you, as the author, as the designer, etc. is a trusted friend. Julia Trice, owner of Mind of Winter Designs to me is a great example of this. Not only is she active in her own forum, she's also active in the Anthropologie Knits group on Ravelry, but also gives away advice to other designers in the design forums. Even though I don't know her personally, we've talked back and forth several times, and that's made me think hard about sharing her patterns with others...and others have said the same thing. There's a power in interaction that I don't think people realize!

3. Educate.

Teach them, my friends. So many folks don't realize what they are doing is piracy or theft. Explain to them how to build a house of citations. Give them simple ways to understand that they have to ask politely for things.

The key here is that the exchange can't be full of "You stole it! I'm telling Mom!!!!" type interchanges. And going to social media doesn't help either. Whining to your friends that the mean man stole your photo is not helping matters.

Sometimes Americans also forget that we live in a world that is governed by a hodgepodge of laws, cultural practices, and religious rules that vary from country to country and that what flies here as theft isn't necessarily theft in other countries. Our IP rules are some of the strictest in the world, but other countries don't worry about those same protections. Or that their cultural history is one of sharing and collecting, so that's what they do online. 

4. Defend.

Here's where it gets tricky. You could spend a million and one years on defense and it would never get you anywhere, because the amount of piracy out there is just amazing. And it spreads virally, to the point that some books and designs have been pirated millions of times. I understand why some folks retreat to their house of defense, cry, and take their designs and writings offline. The natural reaction is to be super frustrated, and let me tell you - I get that totally! But there are a few ways that you can defend that are the smart way, and some that are the not-so-smart way.
--1. Send a cease and desist to Google. This link for search results and this link for Google services. Overwhelmingly, the first place people go to find things is Google. They're not brand loyal, they're looking for where it is listed FREE. Cutting down on the number of people who can find a pirate site with your content is the biggest chunk of the battle. (There are people who actually use Bing and Yahoo too, you can use basically the same letter to address them to at this link.)
--2. Let's say most of these links go to a file share network of some kind. You can get some of them to remove the file from their website by sending a C&D to them, too. Here's some helpful ones:

RYU Share:

Key here is that you're looking for sites based in the US and EU that have intellectual property laws. They will respond much faster than other sites based in countries without such laws (I'm looking at you Sweden, Russia, China, Thailand, Ukraine, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.).
--3. For the most part, most people can stop with 1 and 2. But there are a few that might head to option 3. That's engage the pirater.

For the most part, the people who do this aren't your classic cartoon villain. They aren't out to steal your livelihood. They may not even have looked at your stuff before personally. They may not even realize that by borrowing the idea of the classic circle of crafting friends and using it on the international scale, they have jumped from friendly borrowing to intellectual property thievery.

So I'll start out by saying tread lightly here. Don't contact them when you're upset, angry, frustrated, hungry, tired, or in another language that you don't speak/write well. Context is extremely critical in an online environment, as its hard to tell tone. Talk to them as a bud. Tell them how you love that they love your pattern or work so much, but that you're hurt they're not directing them directly to you. Work in a conversation and explain your design principles and how you're a rocking single mom and doing this to pay for the kid's ice skating lessons (or maybe you're a dad writing down the family stories about dragons and castles you told your kids) (or maybe you're a struggling graduate student who needs the money for books).

My point by this? By engaging them civilly, you're starting up a connection with them. They may not take the post down. But they will think twice about doing it again, because you're now a friend (in the online sense of the word). You're not the big, bad company trying to take them down in a big conspiracy to make fun of, you're a nice person trying to do right. Will this approach work? Sometimes. More often than not, it won't. But for folks who have an audience in the size of dozens or hundreds, not thousands or millions, every person converted to your cause helps - and it might convert the people who see the pirates site into potential customers, because they can see how you acted with class. The thing about this is that it takes time. A lot of time. More time than most people who run a small business have (and that includes you designers and authors too!).

So there's a tradeoff - do you spend the time fighting or do you spend your time on positive pursuits like marketing to potential leads? My answer would be to spend your time marketing. Make your brand your own, and own it like no one else.

I hope you have learned something by reading my thoughts into an exploration of piracy. I don't know if its helpful to any of you to understand this, but it helped me understand my moral quandries with this world. Will I pirate in the future? On occasion, sure, it might happen when I find something really rare. Regularly? Probably not. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

STOP THIEF Part 3 - Trying to be a book pirate

Yep, I understand. Worst pirate ever! LOL (Meme courtesy of

This last part of the series I've delayed because I have, well, been the worst pirate! I tried to find some books that I didn't already own that I would actually read and couldn't come up with any. It's hard when you're a voracious reader in just about every category. I was getting desperate and even turned to the forums to try and find something. Pirate Bay and others really only carry the "usual", the "popular" etc. Dude, if you want to try and find any John Grisham novel ever written...just go torrent. 

But I was seeking the unusual. German translation of a young adult novel? Finally! None of the books really ended up being anything worth noting, but I did actually find one. Through this forum where I found my rare book I came upon a curious post by author JA Konrath. For those of you who haven't heard of him, he writes uber-cool thrillers about cops as well as short stories and a neat blog. Konrath as much as admitted in the post that file sharing is another way to get media out there in a marketplace that sometimes just isn't the right fit for a world audience.

"In some cases, file sharing is the only way to get media that is rare or out of print. It is astonishing how much stuff has never been released digitally. Stuff I'd gladly pay for, but no one will take my money because no one is selling it, except maybe on eBay for ridiculous amounts."***

I know *exactly* what he is talking about here. Books and stories and poetry I would give my eyeteeth to buy, but cannot, because of "out of print" rules or people greedily trying to sell their items for as much as possible (I mean, really. Some folks listed Alice Starmore books before her reprint deal at over $1,000 on eBay and Amazon. Come on! They weren't even signed. But I digress). 

What the post really made me think about was what several of the people later said, in thread:

"I have found some really awsome authors in genres I wouldnt normally buy, and will now be purchasing their work on a going forward basis."***

"I admit, I would not have bought your other books, unless I found one of your other books first online."***

What it said to me was, we've got some real book lovers here, but the costs of buying a book on a tight budget didn't make it especially good to make an investment in a new author. 

What surprised me though, is that all of the authors were saying the same thing!

"I've always viewed "pirating" in the same arena as a library...and every library I've ever visited allows you to take a book/CD/movie home and enjoy it for free. "***

Why is it that these authors have this figured out? Why are they so into the idea that they get it? Piracy happens. They move on. What I found so refreshing about studying this issue is that there are at least five authors here who were actively saying they were okay with pirating but asked that people start leaving reviews on major websites like Amazon, Smashwords, Goodreads, etc. so that their book doesn't languish under the weight of, well, as one author put it "dinosaur porn".

Could this be the secret? That by using the power of social interaction, they can use the sunk costs of the pirated materials to increase their revenue...almost like marketing? I find this idea fascinating. At the same time, ebook publishers have also been moving away from rights management: 

"“After discussing it with authors and readers, it became pretty clear that DRM was not much of a problem for the sophisticated pirate, but it was, however, a meaningful problem and an annoyance to many of our readers,” Doherty told the audience. “So, we went all in.”" See the article at for more details.

The quote above, from Tor Books founder Tom Doherty, makes sense. He's thinking about his customers, not the pirates. 

In that light, I found many authors with the same experiences. Many give away their books now as part of a marketing effort, helping the authors get their books up the Amazon, Goodreads, and Smashwords lists, leading to additional paying customers. They have found that working with the customer, instead of solely focusing on the pirates and the bad behavior and made their situation work. 

 I'm going to end this series tomorrow with the last section - ideas for how to handle piracy across these areas, in an attempt to learn from the experiences of the people involved in book piracy, genealogy piracy, and crafting piracy. Stay tuned!

***I really would like to cite these quotes, but I'd rather not point y'all to a pirate site. If you're enterprising, you'll be able to find it on your own using the quotes listed.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

STOP THIEF Part 2 - Trying to become a genealogy pirate

Shamus, whose father was a tree, from Family Guy. (courtesy of the Family Guy art archives)

With apologies to Shamus, above, most of us don't think about piracy and theft much when we're doing genealogy. In fact, I hadn't even thought it possible to be a pirate or a thief when doing genealogy unless I like, you know, stole something from an archives or something.

But little did I know that when I joined large Facebook genealogy groups such as RAOGK that the word thief, stole, and took would be some of the most common words used on the site, mostly in relation to and Find-a-Grave. This presented a problem for me, because I hadn't really thought about the site in that way, but then I realized they were talking about using items without permission, regardless of copyright and attribution, so its kinda like piracy, just in the nicer guise.

And I do understand the trouble with Ancestry. There are SO many layers of complication to the story with the member trees there. Bugs. Free vs. paid accounts. No attributions. Beginners vs. experienced genealogists. Group ownership of other websites, like Find-a-Grave. Those accursed shaky leaves, aka "hints".

So what I decided to do was to try and make a tree and just take everything I could find. So I did. I learned about the Pollock family, in an attempt to figure out why Jay Pollock was buried on the same stone as my Webber family with no apparent connection. [Side note: I did eventually figure this out with the help of the tree and the wonderful volunteers at Ravelry]

I added every document, every photo, every connection. I downloaded every census, and put it into the tree without a care in the world. And then I waited. Expecting that there would be angry cries, accusations of thievery and calls to burn the heathen!

Like this scene from Frankenstein (1931). Because, you know, all good angry mob scenes are in black and white, at night, and consist of walking halfway around town first.

But nothing happened. No angry cries, no threats, nothing. I can only surmise that there are five problems:

1. This family just isn't that popular. Or maybe the descendants have died out. They have become the property of the commons, without anyone taking ownership of them. (entirely possible).
2. The contributors of the documents willingly gave them out for free use on the internet (entirely possible).
3. Maybe, in an age where it is super easy to connect documents to our trees, that people have given up and just assumed it would happen. (entirely possible)
4. They couldn't contact me through Ancestry (although my email is listed in my profile just in case). (again, entirely possible).
5. Or maybe, our proof centered genealogy culture makes thievery a bit of an inevitability. (see below).

#1-4 are entirely possible. Practically a prediction, in fact. #5 though, was the one that made me think more. In discussing this case with several genealogy buddies, it came out that whenever we want to do something in genealogy, we prove it. We make copies of original documents. We take photos. We scan. We post. We do all this in an attempt to prove that we have the "real case" on our ancestor. We want to prove that our knowledge is the "right" knowledge. We even have people trying their darndest to make genealogy snobbery a thing with people claiming snobbily that they only research "the right way, in person".

Is our compulsion to collect the proofs what has encouraged a system of lazy, inadvertent theft? Perhaps. I can see where it would lead to an idea that only we can "own" our ancestors and that the other folks who develop these contents are mere caretakers. But perhaps it is because we do not understand the nature of the cloud system, and we do not trust that sites will be around to forever provide archives of our documents and photos. If that's the case, what do we do then?

Stay tuned for part 3 - learning about book piracy, and part 4 - solutions.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

STOP THIEF Part 1 - Confessions of the Reluctant Pattern Pirate

The Pride of Baltimore, a privateer ship similar to the Cygnet, ship of the reluctant pirate Charles Swan courtesy of the Wikipedia Commons.

This might get a little long, but I promise, the story is worth it. Please note, before I start here - my accounts are gone. I closed them down. I deleted any content I saw might be connected to the sites mentioned. I removed anything I shared. And I tried my best to remove any comments I had made. I've never uploaded anything that was remotely within copyright, or intellectually owned by anyone else. I've reached the end of my investigation, so that really meant I had no business interacting on these sites anymore.

Nearly 10 years ago, someone posted a message to a Yahoo group that no longer exists saying that they found this cool new site with tons of knitting and crocheting content. Excitedly, my friends and I visited the site and discovered that it had a lot of cool books and other foreign patterns on it that we had never seen before, and it blew our minds with the horizons that had already been passed in Spanish, Russian, and Japanese knitting. 

Then I started to see our English designs go up on there. Not just the big corporate ones, but small designers who were just starting out, designers that who were the beginning of the vibrant marketplace at Ravelry. And I was horrified. 

What kind of person would do that? And then I realized - my friends, chatting back and forth about this resource, were in effect, becoming part of this virtual stitching circle that was quite honestly, clearly violating international copyright law. 

It took a little convincing (well...maybe a lot) but we STOPPED. We deleted everything. And we started reporting the places on the site that violated the copyright of the people we knew. And then we started reporting the corporate violations to the companies, like Rowan, Alan Dart, Martingale Press, Crochet Today, Interweave, Vogue, etc. 

And we saw progress. The violators were punished, while leaving the rest of us alone to chat about the aftermath, and our own stitching. And so things were quiet. Then another site cropped up. So we collectively reported it. And it went down. Then we learned about this new thing called torrents. So we started quietly policing those too, getting people to take torrents down and manipulating the seeding process to make the torrents unusable. 

But the sites keep coming. And increasingly, they are in Russia and China, where it is increasingly hard to defend intellectual property. So we started talking to copyright lawyers and intellectual property lawyers. Their work got a few more sites down.  

But of course, another site came up. So this time, filled with indignation, I joined. All these designers' generosity was being repaid by these jerks who were charging for their designs! And the charged money for the privilege! So I decided to study the system, and see how it worked. Basically, the design of this site and clones is that you earn a currency (mostly called coins) and you earn status to move up in rank. The sites are in multiple language, with the one pictured above requiring participation in English with members from all over the world.

Without rank, you can't do much. You can look at a limited amount of items, and you can participate in text messaging and games and chats, so the site automatically encourages people to "share" patterns with others in order to earn more currency and more status. As long as you don't share something duplicated elsewhere on the site, your work will get approved. Usually it requires minimum work to upload it, naming the designer, the type of file, the language and an image of the pattern. 

So the more currency you earn and the more rank you have, the more you can download and see on the site (as certain things are limited to folks of a certain rank). 

You can see the problem in this - basically, it encourages people to upload whatever they have, no matter if it is paid, free, theirs, not theirs - inadvertent theft still is theft. And its all free to those who want to spend the hours.

At first, I couldn't get the users to engage. It was impossible to stand out as a beginner. After a bit I arrived at the solution.

I could pirate my own work.

So I did. And that got me enough points to be able to move throughout the forums. At first, I tried pointing out that the patterns are free elsewhere. I mean, why spend money to get the currency for the site when the items were free elsewhere? It didn't make sense in my head.

And I got friends to help me. One by one, they were banned by their IP address, making them unable to access the website in question. But somehow my account endured. So I kept posting. Finally people started warming up and explained that they could earn the currency needed without worrying about buying currency. And then they said they were smart enough to go get the items from the site they were free from, because they were members there too.

Which got me thinking: who are these people? I had this stereotypical vision of the angry Chinese hacker, stealing from our American designers and posting them for free for their people. It made me sad and ashamed that I stereotyped people in this way. :-(

So I kept at engaging them. When one site had a bit of a meltdown, another site was born, and folks invited me there. So I went with them. And watched the site grow as people shared multitudes of craft instructions ranging from cross stitch patterns, knitting patterns, crocheting patterns, and fifteen other crafts. 

The benefit of this, of course, was that I could get to know these folks from the very beginning. I could learn the inner workings of the folks at the beginning of the setup of the site. So I started pirating far vintage patterns, very far out of copyright, intellectual property long since forgotten and not owned by anyone currently (I intend to write a blog series in the future, talking about this investigation process!), trying to make me a high ranking member of the site. And I succeeded. 

The higher my rank got, the more trusting people became. 

I learned that fully half of the people on the site were Americans. The rest were folks around the world, with issues getting access to crafting patterns, trying to practice their English with us. Most of them were older, many on a fixed income doing their crafts in retirement. They view the site as an extension of their stitching circle. At least half are not computer savvy but liked networking with other stitchers. They found the site through Google or by word of mouth. They didn't think about aspects of the site that I thought about, like ethics of depriving designers of web traffic, or if what they were doing was theft. After all, it was just exchanging between friends, right?

Except it wasn't. The site we all came from? It hit 65,000 members. The "new" site? Hit 2,000 members. Can one really legitimately argue 2,000 people are your best friends? 

But I just kept talking to them, trying to understand the actions, because it didn't make sense to me. Then it started to roll in. Multiple people said they were just passing along something their other friend sent them. That friend got it from another friend. At this point, they felt there was little harm in sharing something that had been shared eighty billion times before. They viewed it as building karma in the community, not stealing.

The other curious thing that came about on the site was that these people were still BUYING things. many of them stating they had craft budgets of $15-20 a month to spend on patterns and other materials, and mentioned that the site increased their pattern buying, because they became a fan of this designer or that designer because they had tried out a pattern on the site. This didn't jive with what else I learned, because it didn't make sense - if you're going to buy patterns, then why bother with this crazy site and getting more patterns that you didn't need? 

Then I came upon a post by John Brownlee over at the Cult of Mac blog. And now I get it.

These folks don't appreciate the patterns that they have. Brownlee's quote here says it best: "It’s clear to me, in retrospect, that my piracy was mostly mere collecting, and like the most fetishistic of collectors, it was conducted with mindless voracity".

These folks aren't really dedicated stitches, stitching hundreds of pieces a year. They're mindlessly collecting things because they can. They know artists like Laura Aylor, Heaven and Earth Designs, Lydia Tresselt, and more are amazing, and therefore want to "admire" their work by collecting it. 

One of the funniest episodes I've ever seen that has an amazing allegory about collecting and hoarding, check out the episode from Season 4 of South Park "Trapper Keeper" (still shot above courtesy of South Park Studios).

Except they aren't really admiring or collecting, they're hoarding. They have the digital equivalent of a house on Hoarders, filled with patterns and sharing more patterns, making this monster up that they will never, ever make, never making those patterns blossom into real things. The intangible, always to stay intangible, never moving forward.

Are designers losing money due to piracy? Yes. Are they losing opportunity to sell to these folks? No. It's an important distinction. Should designers be chasing these people? Well...defending your intellectual property is important, but the amount of time and money involved in doing so can make such actions cost prohibitive. And considering that these people don't represent future opportunity, because they'll never make your pattern and convert to a paying might not be worth it. 

Stay tuned for part 2 - trying to be a genealogy pirate, part 3 - learning about book piracy, and part 4- what can be done about pattern, book, and genealogy piracy.