Google Reader marked for death, news junkies flee

rss icon
If you see this on a website, you can subscribe. I’m just not sure where now.

I think I cried in my coffee when I heard the news. I think. I know my mind went utterly blank. What am I gonna do now?

But the news: Google Reader is shutting down!

It’s all part of search giant/Internet gadfly Google’s spring cleaning. In the past that company scrapped Google Buzz (which needed killing because it was a total cluster), Google Wave (did anybody use it?) and iGoogle (which I kinda liked). Usually they cut products hardly anybody uses. There was speculation it might kill Feedburner, but that hasn’t happened yet. But that forced me to make a few adjustments and I’m glad I did.

But Google Reader. That one hurts. According to plan, its execution date is July 1.

To those who don’t know about such things, Google Reader is the RSS reader to end all RSS readers. Sometimes literally. As soon as Reader hit the scene, some (such as Bloglines) pretty much bit the dust. Netvibes is another that I question whether it’s even relevant. Feed Demon, a software-based (as opposed to Web-based) RSS reader, is either dead or dying.

OK, some of y’all may not know what this RSS thing is, so pull up a chair and I’ll give you the story. RSS, or Real Simple Syndication, ranges all over the Internet and pulls articles from all your favorite sites. They’re then put into your reader, and you can go from there. Most sites (including mine) are set up so you can subscribe in an RSS reader.

Think of RSS as a gigantic newspaper where you set the editorial policy.

You choose your feeds, they load any new copy into your reader, and off you go. From there you can send news items, save them, share them, bump them over to Evernote or Pocket, or put them on your to-do list. I save many links in my to-do list (in my case ToodleDo), building a pool of ideas for blog posts. I send wacky news items to my brother, and you can bet I saw those in my RSS feed first.

Since about 1995, Google Reader was the big one, and many of your smaller readers — including those on cell phones — are built as little more than a front end for Google Reader.

What’s a news junkie to do?

Admittedly, RSS has a high geek quotient and it’s not all that popular with your average Joe Mouseclicker. But to news junkies like me, it’s a wonderful timesaver.

Or a wonderful time-suck, depending on your perspective.

newspapers in a pile
RSS is like reading a whole bunch of online newspapers without having to surf for them.

Being a person with a serious news addiction and some decent chops in technical matters, of course I swear by RSS feeds. I’d tell you how many feeds my Google Reader pulls in every day, but then you’d tell me I have a major problem. I’m in denial and need counseling. You’d shake your head and try to hook me up with a 12-step program.

Newsoholics Anonymous, anyone?

My name is Eric, and I’m a news junkie (applause).

Anyway, I’m frantic right now. OK, maybe not frantic, but kinda concerned. Yeah, that’s it. Concerned.

Since I heard the news I’ve been weighing some RSS options, and most are found wanting. I’ve tried Feedly (too slow and not good for offline reading on my phone), the Thunderbird mail program (I’d rather gargle razor blades), Flipboard (beautiful, but won’t work with a marginal signal), and a bunch of pretenders. On my Android phone, where I do most of my news reading, I’ve tried numerous options. Most either drain the battery, make it run hot enough to blister my hand, gobble up tons of memory or serve as a front end for … Google Reader.

Already I think this is gonna end badly.

Folks tell me RSS is dying and Twitter is the new way to grab news, but I can’t see it. Even with a third-party program like Hootsuite it’s still way too disorganized. Twitter’s signal-to-noise ratio renders it useless. I guess Facebook can be sort of an option, and I might consider it if I didn’t despise that medium so much. I want to know the news, not what my friends are having for dinner (unless there’s an invite there somewhere).

Google-fied and frantic

This also makes me a little nervous. I use Google for so much of my work. Gmail. Google Drive (formerly Docs). The search engine. Google Calendar. Google Voice. Google Reader. Google Analytics. My Android phone, which is a Google brand. Occasionally Google Plus. Shoot, I’m totally Google-fied.

I mentioned Feedburner. I used that extensively, but when I saw that might not have long to live I took to managing my blog’s RSS feeds myself and went to MailChimp to send posts by email. I’m glad I did that, though I’m still a little chary about crapping up your email box like that. But if you want to subscribe to my stuff, that might be the way to go, hint hint.

(Note to self: Set up The Column on MailChimp, like I did with my flagship blog, creative&dangerous.)

With Google’s propensity for cutting services, you can almost set up a “dead pool” and pick what’s next to go. Maybe win whatever’s in the pot if you guess right. Hey, this might be a good office pool once everyone’s done with March Madness.

I don’t see Gmail going anytime soon. Nor Google Drive or Google Plus. That company invested too much of its reputation for those three. However, I am shifting most of my email traffic to my own Web domains and looking into other, in-the-cloud office options.

In truth, the Google project that would kill me is if Google Voice feels the nip of the executioner’s blade. So the fact Google killed off its Blackberry version in the latest sweep gives me pause.

Now, I use Google Voice as my business line, and it feeds directly into my cell phone. I also give that number to people who are not in my inner circle because it’s easy to screen calls with it. Shoot, I can make certain phone numbers go away if I needed to. If you’re hounded by bill collectors or the law, Google Voice may be your best friend.

But Google Voice going into a horrible death spiral hasn’t happened yet, and it may not. With Google, however, you never know. Not after Google Reader.

Meanwhile, I must find some alternatives to feed my news habit. It’s like my morning coffee; I get evil unless I’ve had my fix.

# # #

What say you? What do you use to read your news feeds? I’m talking about online and anything that’ll work with Android. Help a brother out.

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Do people still write? British study says not so much

You might be a dinosaur if ... you still write things down on paper. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

When was the last time you scratched a note out in longhand? I mean take a pen, pencil or pocketknife and wrote something on paper, your hand or a bathroom wall.

If some of the pundits are to be believed, handwriting is a lost art. Another casualty of the digital age. According to an article on the Daily Mail (yeah, British press), the average adult hasn’t handwritten anything in more than 40 days. Anything. And if you take away what used to be the day-to-day jottings of adults — I’m thinking of those notes to yourself, grocery lists, phone numbers on a matchbook cover — only a third of adults actually sat down to write something in the past six months.

Now there’s scuttlebutt that the schools may at some point stop teaching young people how to write. Well, it’d been a while since they stopped teaching youngsters how to think … (Eric, just shut up; you’re going to get in trouble again!)

As I recall it in grade school (and my folks would be glad to fill in any gaps in my memory), my handwriting was beyond horrible. I seemed to lack the coordination (or the interest) to form my letters well, and things did not improve much when we learned the Palmer method of handwriting in third grade. By sixth grade I largely abandoned the Palmer teachings and reverted back to printing, which by then was a lot more readable. To this day I employ a half-printed, half-cursive hand, readable in most instances and instinctive enough that I can take notes without looking at the paper and still be able to understand it later. My penmanship (another wonderfully descriptive word that no one hears any more) is far from elegant, but it’s functional.

As far as my legal signature, forget it. You can’t read it. I got that honestly; Dad’s signature looks a lot like mine, like a Volkswagen that had been hit by a train. But you’re not supposed to read it. Years ago I knew this guy from the Middle East; he spoke fluent English without an accent, was thoroughly westernized. But he signed his checks in Arabic, starting in the middle and working outward. You don’t see anyone trying to forge that, he told me.

But now, there’s little call to write anything down. Pens and pencils may soon go the way of clocks with hands and landline telephones — cool to have, but some training may be required.

Think about it. We haven’t had to write long things out if there was a computer (or before that, a typewriter) handy.

Now we have smartphones. Just tap your note on that, save it to something like Evernote. Don’t need any pen. Or paper. Or pockets, for that matter.

Don’t even need to do much scribbling when you’re dealing with a bank or signing a contract any more. An e-signature takes care of the latter (just type your name), and nearly all bank transactions are electronic these days. The only check I write each month is to my landlord, and that’s only because he’s a Luddite.

I find I’m more of an anomaly these days because I do some of my writing in longhand. Notes are taken on index cards. First drafts go on yellow lined paper. Journal entries go in a leather-bound book, written with a fountain pen.

But more and more, the tech bug creeps into my life and I’m going more to the digital tools. Can’t remember when I last wrote a real letter, and I used to write some great ones. But everything’s by email now. If it wasn’t for my rent check and a few publishers who prefer hard copy when I’m pitching a story, I wouldn’t use the postal service at all.

I can’t rightly say I keep a paperless office, though I’m moving more that direction. A blessing, considering how I am with clutter. But the stacks of index cards and 5×8 legal-pad sheets lying around my desk bear proof that I still use paper and pen.

Reckon if you still write, you just might be a dinosaur.

###

Some other tidbits, from a study by Docmail, a British stationer. Read ’em and weep:

 

  • Four in ten Brits rely on predictive text and increasingly rely on it for their spelling, with one in four regularly using abbreviations or ‘text talk.’
  • LOL (laugh out loud), U (you) and FYI (for your information) are the most regularly used abbreviations.
  • Today, creating a shopping list, taking notes in a meeting or even wishing someone a happy birthday are more often done via electronic means.
  • One third said when they do write something down, they often struggle to read their own writing when coming back to it later on.
  • And nearly half (44 per cent) said that their scribing is neither nice nor easy to read.
  • One sixth of Brits don’t even think handwriting should still be taught in schools.
  • One in three Brits describe handwriting as ‘nice’ but not something they would want to do every day.

Do tell. When was the last time you wrote something out? Let me know in the comments.

 

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Scam alert: If you get an email from the IRS, it’s not them

If you get a note from the IRS (Eternal Revenue Service), it’s usually not a good thing unless it comes with a check. But if you get an email from the IRS, you should really pay attention. It might not be them.

I got a strange one in my email box the other day, and it was a genuine head-scratcher:

* * *

Gmail Team mail-noreply@google.com
Jun 2 (5 days ago) 

to me

The message “Your Federal tax report #ID9837” from Internal Revenue Service (customer.service@irs.gov) contained a virus or a suspicious attachment. It was therefore not fetched from your account editor@ericpulsifer.com and has been left on the server.

If you wish to write to Internal, just hit reply and send Internal a message.
Thanks,

The Gmail Team

 

* * *

OK. Here’s the deal. Whoever it was sent it to my business email address, which hasn’t existed very long. See, all my emails feed directly into my gmail box, making it easier to keep track of stuff and handle all my addresses without having to log in and out and in and out. Email addresses are cheap.

Anyway, I went to my business email box:

* * *

Your Federal tax report #ID***7
From : “Internal Revenue Service” <customer.service@irs.gov>
To :
editor@ericpulsifer.com
Received :

06-02-2012 10:18 PM

Tax Refund,

The analysis of the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity has indicated that
you are entitled to receive a tax refund of $382.34
Please submit a request of the tax refund and a processing of the request will take 7-14 days.
A tax refund can be delayed by different reasons.
For instance submission of invalid records or sending after the deadline.

Please find the form of your tax refund attached and fill out it and send a report.

Yours sincerely,
Internal Revenue Service.

* * *

That’s the email, and it’s pure horse dung. I didn’t even bother to open the attachment. But as far as phishing/information mining/scamming goes, it’s an oldie but goodie.

Here’s what I got from the Internet from the Internet Crime Complaint Center:

* * *

Intelligence Note  Prepared by the Internet Crime
Complaint Center (IC3)
December 1, 2005
E-mail disguised as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) phishing for personal information
The FBI
has become aware of a spam email claiming the recipient is eligible to receive a
tax refund for $571.94. The email purports to be from tax-returns@irs.gov
with the subject line of “IRS
Tax Refund.” A link is provided in the email to access a form required
to be completed in order to receive the refund. The link appears to connect to the
true IRS website. However, the recipient is redirected to
http://www.porterfam.org/2005/, where personal data, including credit
card information, is captured.
This e-mail is a hoax. Do not follow the provided link.
Be cautious when responding to requests or special offers delivered through unsolicited
email:  Guard your personal information as well as your account information carefully. Keep a list of all your credit cards and account information along with the card
issuer’s contact information. If your monthly statement looks suspicious or you
lose your card(s), contact the issuer immediately.
If you have received this, or a similar hoax, please file a complaint at
www.IC3.gov.

* * *

Looking a little further, I checked from the jackass’ mouth itself, going straight to the IRS website. I pasted it directly in here, so it may look funky.

The upshot is, they’re not going to use email or social media to contact you:

* * *

The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email or any social media tools to request personal or financial information

What is phishing?
Phishing is a scam typically carried out by unsolicited email and/or websites that pose as legitimate sites and lure unsuspecting victims to provide personal and financial information. 

All unsolicited email claiming to be from either the IRS or any other IRS-related components such as the Office of Professional Responsibility or EFTPS, should be reported to phishing@irs.gov.

However, if you have experienced monetary losses due to an IRS-related incident please file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission through their Complaint Assistant to make that information available to investigators.

What to do if you receive a suspicious IRS-related communication

If

Then

You receive an email claiming to be from the IRS that contains a request for personal information …
  1. Do not reply.
  2. Do not open any attachments. Attachments may contain malicious code that will infect your computer.
  3. Do not click on any links.
    If you clicked on links in a suspicious email or phishing website and entered confidential information, visit our identity protection page.
  4. Forward the email as-is, to us at phishing@irs.gov.
  5. After you forward the email and/or header information to us, delete the original email message you received.

Note:
Please forward the full original email to us at phishing@irs.gov. Do not forward scanned images of printed emails as that strips the email of valuable information only available in the electronic copy.

You discover a website on the Internet that claims to be the IRS but you suspect it is bogus … send the URL of the suspicious site to phishing@irs.gov. Please add in the subject line of the email, ‘Suspicious website’.
You receive a phone call or paper letter via mail from an individual claiming to be the IRS but you suspect they are not an IRS employee … Phone call: 

  1. Ask for a call back number and employee badge number.
  2. Contact the IRS to determine if the caller is an IRS employee with a legitimate need to contact you.
  3. If you determine the person calling you is an IRS employee with a legitimate need to contact you, call them back.

Letter or notice via paper mail:

  1. Contact the IRS to determine if the mail is a legitimate IRS letter.
  2. If it is a legitimate IRS letter, reply if needed.

If caller or party that sent the paper letter is not legitimate, contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1.800.366.4484.

You receive an unsolicited e-mail or fax, involving a stock or share purchase … and you are a U.S. citizen located in the United States or its territories or a U.S. citizen living abroad. 

  1. Complete the appropriate complaint form with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  2. Forward email to phishing@irs.gov.
    Please add in the subject line of the email, ‘Stock’.
  3. If you are a victim of monetary or identity theft, you may submit a complaint through the FTC Complaint Assistant.

… and you are not a U.S. citizen and reside outside the United States.

  1. Complete the appropriate complaint form with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  2. Contact your securities regulator and file a complaint.
  3. Forward email to phishing@irs.gov.
    Please add in the subject line of the e-mail, ‘Stock’.
  4. If you are a victim of monetary or identity theft, you may report your complaint to econsumer.gov.
You receive an unsolicited fax (such as Form W8-BEN) claiming to be from the IRS, requesting personal information … Contact the IRS to determine if the fax is from the IRS. 

  • If you learn the fax is not from the IRS, please send us the information via email at phishing@irs.gov. In the subject line of the email, please type the word ‘FAX’.
You have a tax-related question …Note: Do not submit tax-related questions to phishing@irs.gov. If you have a tax-related question, unrelated to phishing or identity theft, please contact the IRS.

How to identify phishing email scams claiming to be from the IRS and bogus IRS websites


The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels.

The IRS does not …

… request detailed personal information through email.
… send any communication requesting your PIN numbers, passwords or similar access information for credit cards, banks or other financial accounts.


What to do if you receive a suspicious email message that does not claim to be from the IRS

If

Then

You receive a suspicious phishing email not claiming to be from the IRS … Forward the email as-is to reportphishing@antiphishing.org.
You receive an email you suspect contains malicious code or a malicious attachment and you HAVE clicked on the link or downloaded the attachment … Visit OnGuardOnline.gov to learn what to do if you suspect you have malware on your computer.
You receive an email you suspect contains malicious code or a malicious attachment and you HAVE NOT clicked on the link or downloaded the attachment … Forward the email to your Internet Service Provider’s abuse department and/or to spam@uce.gov.

* * *

If you’re into links, here’s the IRS announcement.

So I’m not going to open this attachment. I’m not going to bother.

I know they don’t owe me a refund, and if they did they’re not going to tell me unless I ask. What do I think they are, stupid?

(Don’t answer that!)

So if you get an email from the IRS, forget it. It’s not them.

###

 

 

 

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Are you still renting your phone? Your bill may say so

If you're paying rent on a house phone, it had better be a cool one like this. I got my first telephone in the late 70s. it was olive green, had a dial on it, came with that newfangled “modular” plug-it-in-anywhere wiring, and I bought the durned thing.

Buying a phone. This was something new then. It gave the consumer some choice, but it also released the phone company — Pacific Bell in my case — from having to maintain the handset. They didn’t have to worry about repairing or replacing your handset if you slam it against the wall in a fit of rage.

I’ve bought a lot of phones since then, but it seems quite a few people are still renting theirs from their phone companies. Like hundreds of thousands of phone users.

Renting? Didn’t that go out with the rotary dial?

Well, kinda sorta. The idea of buying your own phone started to catch on for real when Ma Bell broke up in the early 80s. But some still hung on to their old equipment, four-pronged plug and all.

I’ll say this. Much of the older gear was built. One of my parents’ extension phones was an old black metal-bodied rotary-dial number, branded by Stromburg-Carlson. Like my old Canon AE-1 camera I stubbornly held onto until it became harder to find film processors, this thing was built like a brick outhouse. Like a Sherman tank. I’ll bet if you dug it out of the garage now and plugged it in (good luck with that given the old four-prong plug) it would work just fine. There were no parts in there to screw up.

If those of us who ditched the landline in favor of cell phones are the ultramoderns, those who continue to lease their house phones are the traditionalists. Provided, of course, they a) can find that rented phone and b) it’s still in use.

But according to The Consumerist, many are still paying to rent a phone that is no longer being used. Monthly phone rentals, according to the site, range from a dollar per month to more than $20, depending on the carrier.

If that’s the case, don’t expect the phone company to bring it to your attention; only a fool would shoot a cash cow.

Anyway, check your phone bill, especially if you’ve had that service for decades (not unusual if you own your home or lived in the same place for a decade or three). Decipher it, go through all the line items. If it shows you’re still paying for a phone rental, you’ve either got one of those phones that will outlast you, or you’re more than likely being hosed.

###

 

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Who pays attention to endorsements anyway?

A good friend of mine mentioned recently that a couple of legislators we both admire — Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Tim Scott — so far are laying off on endorsing anybody in the Presidential primaries. My friend says it’s a good thing; we don’t need to form yet another bandwagon in this campaign. There are enough of those already, thank you.

My initial choice in the Republican primaries, Herman Cain, threw a major screwball in giving his endorsement. Hey, he’s having too much fun right right now, making the politico-comedic scene with Steve Colbert, to be messing with the campaign lunacy.

A candidate with half a brain (I understand that is a requirement to run for office in some states) would covet the nod from a DeMint, a Cain, or even the freshman Scott.

Politicians are funny about endorsements. When I edited a weekly paper in Arizona, a City Councilman kept bugging me about it during the election season. Somehow or other he got the idea I set the policy there — that privilege usually goes to the guy who buys all that paper and ink, and it sure wasn’t me. But the owner and I were on the same page there, so I got to make the endorsements.

In truth, though, I can’t tell you who really pays attention to those endorsements.

OK, I lied. Maybe I can:

  • The candidates themselves.
  • The ones making the endorsements.
  • The drones.

Of course the candidates are interested in endorsements. They’re in a volatile business, and their fortunes are dictated by public opinion. They’re always checking the wind. A good endorsement from a fellow politician (why did I say wind?) shows the candidate he may be on the right track and wowing the right crowd. And a media endorsement is good, too. As laughably ineffectual as the mainstream media is these days, they still have enough muscle to set policy.

The endorser also has an interest here. To a politician making an endorsement, it can be genuine respect, the making of an alliance somewhere along the line, or a favor to be called later. Like it or not, horse trading is still a big part of politics. And a news outlet has thousands of advertising dollars riding on an endorsement — not just in the political season, but after the votes are counted and the signs torn down.

But that’s small stuff. Why did I mention the drones?

The drone factor is important here. Off the election results over the past couple of decades, they may be in the majority by now. More likely they already are; they only recently discovered voting.

I’d have no problem if these drones (y’all know who you are) merely retired in front of the television, watched the newest hottest reality show, kept up with the celeb du jour, got their news from the National Enquirer or TMZ, and left the voting to those who actually care.

The drones pay attention to such stuff as endorsements, and are more likely to base their vote from an endorsement than a person who actually engages his brain every once in a while.

Here’s the straight stuff: If I vote a certain way because my favorite movie actor or athlete says so, I’m a drone.

If I vote for someone because my union/teacher/boss/spouse/authority-figure-of-choice votes a certain way, I’m another drone.  Taking advice from someone you respect is one thing, but giving that authority figure the pink slip to your vote is something else entirely.

If I vote with an eye toward what I would get out of it and screw the rest of the country, I’m the worst kind of drone.

Please.

Stay home.

Go away.

Better to handle sharp objects than a ballot.

Oh, yes. That newspaper owner I actually saw eye to eye with on endorsements: We both agreed that to make an endorsement was to insult the voter’s intelligence. I did have the privilige of writing the editorial containing our endorsements, too. After listening to all the candidates bugging me for months and stringing them along a little bit, I wrote something like this:

“Here are our recommendations on how you should vote: Make sure the paper ballot is right side up before you punch out your choices.”

Fun days. But my boss wouldn’t let me write anything urging the drones to stay home.

Oh, well. There’s always this election.

###

 

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How will the Feds cut health care costs?

I just had to share this. And no, it’s not funny. Not when you consider I’ve been eligible for AARP for four years and am a year away from various senior citizens’ discounts everywhere.

My mom, who is older than I am (obviously!) sent this along via one of those Fw: emails, which I usually don’t mess with. But here it is.

Thanks, Mom. I think.

* * *

Just saying goodbye…

Description: cid:X.MA1.1325340346@aol.com
To help save the economy, the Government will announce
next
month that the Immigration Department will start
deporting seniors (instead of illegal’s) in order to lower
Social Security and Medicare costs.
Older people are easier to catch and will not
remember how to get back home.
I started to cry when I thought of you.
Then it dawned on me … oh, crap …
I’ll see you on the bus!
###

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Blog comment shows how online writing went wrong

It's enough to make a writer want to quit and herd sheep instead.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t have even bothered running it. Blog comments of this type are usually deleted as soon as they come to my attention, and they’re marked with a spam tag to block the sender. I don’t fool around.

This comment had all the please-delete-me earmarks to it. It had absolutely nothing to do with the blog post’s subject matter. There was no indication the commentor actually read my post. It carried a link to a site that I cannot endorse. It insulted the professional writer in me.

But I kept it because it indicates exactly what is going on in the writing world. It shows where online writing went so terribly wrong. It begged for a snarkier-than-thou response, and I was only too happy to oblige.

To a short post about technical matters, I received a comment. OK. I love comments. Please, bring ’em on (keeping in mind the caveats outlined in the second graf). I prefer dialogue to monologue, so fire at will.

In this case the commentor asked if I needed any help in producing the blog, and offered a solution. Through his website he advertised a stable of third-world writers, all willing to string words together for $1 per hour. With the SEO treatment, meaning my Web content would be structured to goose the search engines, direct more eyeballs to my sites, point fingers toward the cool advertising I have, and make me a pantload of money.

Or something.

It wasn’t too long ago that the gold standard for freelance writing was better than $1 per word, and even hire-out work started at around $20 or $30 per hour. That is and always has been an on-paper number, though. We writers — in fact artists in general — are a funny lot, cognizant that “getting your foot in the door” is the common practice.

I’m doubly blessed in the creativity department, or maybe doubly cursed. Not only am I a writer, but I’m also a musician. I’ve done both for money for at least a couple of decades. While I’m not near this so-called “big time,” I have enough of a reputation in both fields that folks know I mean business. But writing and music — and probably the other arts — a practitioner has more opportunities to work for free than any of the so-called “legitimate” professions.

Let’s say you’re a car mechanic. Sure, you may do an apprenticeship or spend time tuning brake drums at a community college, but you’re not going to work for free. You don’t work for exposure. You don’t work for love. You work for that stuff that makes your checking account giggle. If you’re a doctor, you’re not going to rip out some guy’s appendix for free. Sure, the money may come from someone else’s wallet — the taxpayers instead of the patient — but you’ll still get paid. In cash, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

OK. Part of an auto mechanic’s rates, and certainly a piece of a doctor’s fee, helps to make up for that apprenticeship/schooling time. This makes sense. But a musician spends many hours mastering his instrument, breaking guitar strings, buying CDs so he can learn some technique. A writer buys books, computer software, maybe some space in a few writer’s conferences, and if he’s an old guy like me has probably burned through many typewriter ribbons and reams of paper. The apprenticeship is done in low-paying gigs to hone the chops, some pro-bono work, and — yes, working for exposure.

That’s the background. Here’s the deal: While the buck-an-hour markets are still there, a distressing amount of work falls far below that. A well-known online phenomenon among us writers is the thing called the “content farm.” There are many of these: eHow, Demand Media Studios (which owns eHow), Break Studios, Textbroker, Examiner, and a handful of others. Some, like Demand, will pay a writer as soon as a piece is published. Others, like Examiner, do what is called “revenue share,” which is a nice way of saying they won’t pay you, but if they make money (through advertising), the writer makes money too.

Of the content farms, Demand Media Studios is probably the best I’ve seen. And I’ve written for them. There’s no great trick in burping out 400-500 words for between $15 and $18; do enough of those per week and you’ll make a decent wage. For a spell I made it my main means of support, and financially didn’t do too badly. But there’s something wrong with the equation here.

A typical $15 eHow piece, checking in at 500 words, will get you three cents a word. A 400-word piece at $18 per article in one of Demand’s better content channels, still comes down to less than a nickel a word. Which, last I looked, isn’t even close to a dollar per word.

There’s more. Check out some of the job ads in writer’s online publications and job boards, and you’ll see even more depressing rates. I’ve seen prices as low as $1 for a 500-word article, and the customer wants these articles in mass quantities. Now, there are people in third-world countries that may find these great wages, and easy to pull off if you write in your native tongue and run it through a translator. All the keywords Google recognizes may be there, so the search engines (which don’t read) love ’em. Readability, though, that’s a whole ‘nother deal.

This drives down the price of words in all forums, and it gives the customer the idea that writing is nothing more than typing real fast. Not so. There’s brain work involved, and brain work does not come cheap.

Anyway, here’s the original blog comment, with the website name altered only slightly:

John says:

Admin – could you use help with your website? Through our site you can find Outsourced Workers starting at $1/hour. They speak English, work flexible hours, and pride themselves on doing a quality job. There are Article Writers, Web Designers, Virtual Assistants, Email Response Handling, SEO Workers, & more. If interested we invite you to check out wescrewwritersgood.com . Thanks :)

And here is my response. Boy, did I have fun writing it. I felt all kinds of better after hitting the SEND button:

Eric Pulsifer says:

John — No, I’m not interested. The only reason I didn’t spam/delete your comment (or charge you for advertising space, as is my other option) was because I felt the need to reply. It is “services” like this that drive the price of freelance writing down to never-before-seen levels, and I will not be a party to that.

I guess there will be a market for wescrewwritersgood.com, though. There are plenty of folks who need cheap copy, maybe with lots of SEO to game the search engines, and really don’t care whether the copy gets read by human beings. Don’t count me among them, though.

Probably not good practice to encourage idiots like this, but it needed to be said, and it was wonderful catharsis.

Working for peanuts, or even for free is all right if you know about it beforehand. I’ll do pro-bono work in writing or music for a nonprofit that I would donate to anyway. I’d consider it for a literacy organization, animal rescue or something in mental health advocacy, for example. But don’t expect me to do free work for something like the American Civil Liberties Union. If the ACLU was crazy enough to call me up with some work I’d have to gut them. I’m talking about hourly rates that would scare a trial lawyer.

It’s true I’m working cheap when it comes to this blog. I don’t make anything off it. But I own every word I write (in contrast to the content farms where the writer signs off on all rights if he’s paid by the article). The Web domain, likewise mine, bought and paid for (thank you Mom and Dad, that Christmas gift check paid for it). I’m building a platform with this work, getting exposure on my own terms, creating an online portfolio. Any advertising revenue helps offset my miniscule expenses. Job offers have come from my blogging. And if I should choose to repackage some of my better blog entries in an ebook format to sell, all I need is the author’s permission and he’s easy.

This blog may be little more than a content farm at this juncture, but it’s my content farm. But I don’t need any dollar-an-hour help.

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Firearms are hot this holiday season

What consumer item saw huge sales for Black Friday — and for the Christmas season so far?

Guns!

http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2011/12/13/firearm-sales-way-up-during-holiday-season/

It’s a definite sign of the times. Makes me wonder how gold and concentrated food are holding up so far?

(And gee, I treated myself to a smartphone. Do I need to go shopping again?)

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Citizen journalism to rule in ’12: A good thing?

The 2012 election may be the first one to be covered primarily by citizen-journalists, though whether that is a good thing is a tough call.

This development is expected, really. By the last presidential election, the mainstream media had deprecated to the point where any real journalism coming out was purely accidental, and the 2008 winner, Barack Obama, escaped the scrutiny that candidates usually get. Thanks in part to the dying press and the babbling electronic media, Americans elected someone with no discernible background. Might as well have chosen The Unknown Candidate, complete with the paper sack over his head.

This news dynamic changed even more — devolved, perhaps — since then, with velocity being the order of the day. Well, that’s always been an issue in news gathering as the media outlet that breaks the story gets the bragging rights. But in 21st Century America that lead time is cut to seconds instead of hours. We now have news as it happens, or more frequently news as it doesn’t happen. Could this be the dynamic that shapes coverage in the 2012 election?

It’s not 2012 yet. It’s not the primary season yet, not even the pre-primaries. But in the pre-pre-primaries we’ve already had enough drama to stock a whole campaign. Try a dozen debates already between Republican candidates, and at least a dozen more to come. It seems every special interest group has a debate or forum of its own, and already some very promising candidates rode the roller coaster:

  • Mitt Romney starts with frontrunner status. Herman Cain shows strength in some debates, becomes the one who can beat Obama. Rick Perry sneaks in from the south entrance with strong conservative ties. Sarah Palin bows out early, before she even gets in.
  • Cain and Perry propose specific tax plans.
  • Perry shows poorly in a debate.
  • Cain is the new frontrunner.
  • Cain is accused of sexual harassment, which could be anything from grabbing a touchie/feelie to holding a door open for a female coworker. Cain accuses the Perry camp for this, and takes a tumble in the polls.
  • Perry has the mother of all brain farts in another debate, something like 40 seconds of dead air time. By rights it should kill his campaign except that the others are trying to kill their own faster, more thoroughly.
  • Now Newt Gingrich, who hadn’t been relevant all century, is looking like he could be a front runner, if you can believe that.

Got all that?

Mind you, it’s not even 2012 yet. It’s still the pre-pre-primary.

Between the usual online news suspects and the bloggers, tweeters, user-generated news outlets, and social media dispatches, there shouldn’t be any great mystery about any of the candidates. Not this time.

By the time voters start casting ballots for real in the primaries, we should know everything about everyone running. We’ll know who was born here, we’ll know how each one did in school, and we might even know where each candidate is coming from politically. All will be throughly vetted. The trick, then, is for the thinking voter to separate the news from the nonsense, not likely to be an easy task when citizen-journalists rule public discourse.

Anytime the media is user-driven — or to put it more inelegantly, run by the rabble — there’s always a danger of being overcome by a flood of nonsensical information. It will reflect our society, which is more interested in Dancing With The Stars than real-live flesh-and-blood issues.

It’ll be interesting to see if anyone still cares, or is even awake for the presidential campaign during the primaries and general election, when it counts.

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They’re worried about fake maple syrup

I absolutely must share this. This is great.

Some background: While I’m ensconced here in the South, I have a brother who lives in upstate New York, where it snows a lot. Rick is the family’s token Northerner, and — unlike me — works for the state government. Politically, though, we’re similar, just to the right of Genghis Khan. Mom and Dad are still trying to figure which of us sits further to the right. It’s a close call.

But like me, he notices instances of government waste and, like me, he’s decided it’s better for one’s health to be amused than outraged. And he’s taken to writing about it.

So while the government seems to be going softer on violent crime and forgetting about the things that matter, Rick tells about how they’re cracking down on purveyors of fake maple syrup.

Fake maple syrup. We’re talking about the crime of the century here.

“… maybe he took the jug into the forest and showed it to a grove of maple trees. Anyway, he’s being prosecuted under current laws regarding mislabeling by the Food & Drug Administration. It is a misdemeanor … Schumer and Gillibrand want to make this a Federal felony. Ranking right up there with Madoff, DeLorean, the Five Families and Lee Harvey Oswald. Yessir, they need to save us from crappy syrup …”

Anyway, meet Rick. Read his take on the matter. Read it before breakfast, before you start pouring what you think is maple syrup on your flapjacks.

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