Monday, September 15, 2014

Clown Hair is Funnier When it's Not on Clowns

When I started to go bald, about ten years ago, I enthusiastically bought some clippers and buzzed my hair down to near extinction, where it has remained in an endangered state, awaiting its inevitable annihilation from existence. At first, people used to say things like, "You got a haircut." No shit. I was ambivalent to the random flurries of passing innocuous commentary. But then, as time passed, the statements and conversations grew to be quite interesting when people started to say things like, "Dude, that's my greatest fear." Thanks. Sometimes comments and questions were spoken in a consoling tone; the same tone people often use when someone dies. I don't think they meant to be rude, it's just that people are more willing to share extremely personal information with those whom they perceive to have already lost everything. 

When I was younger, I never used to comb, or brush my hair. I didn't even fully understand the difference between combing and brushing hair until fairly recently. Apparently, they serve different purposes. Who knew? I'm still ignorant about this one, but it's a useless distinction for me anyhow.

If you're male and if/when, you start to lose your hair, you will start to notice many hilarious things about the many ludicrous aspects of hair-pride, and fear-of-hairlessness. Hair is more than just thousands of follicles and threads of protein that are glued to the top of your head. Hair is a statement of purpose. Long flowing hair coupled with an ample supply of wind signifies heroism and/or godliness; ponytails mean that you know karate or magic; clown hair (hair on the sides, bald in the middle) invariably means surrender; etc. Generally, people with hair tend to use hairdos to amplify their own underlying character; quirky, serious, artistic, dangerous, creepy, kidnapper-y. If you don't believe me, next time you're out in public, take notice of the congruous relationship between hair and persona. 

Over the years, I have made some observations about baldness:

  1. If you're bald, you have to make a conscious effort to smile more often than haired people, because otherwise people think you're angry and likely short-tempered; the shorter the hair, the shorter the fuse on the dynamite. Perhaps it's because of their own deep-seated fears that they think to themselves, "That guy's got nothing left to lose..."
  2. Some people think that bald people, especially young bald people, have some type of disease that stole their hair. Because, after all, it would never be a choice. Anyone with any hair would do a comb-over, or at a minimum, keep some clown-hair to show that they're still at least hanging on to the edge of the cliff.
  3.  It is difficult to guess a bald person's age. Baldness makes young people appear older, and old people appear younger; effectively expanding a person's middle-aged appearance to constitute a greater portion of their life. When I had shitty hair, in my early twenties, people thought I was in my late twenties. When I buzzed off my tuft of mangled, thinning, indignity, I subtracted a few years off my appearance.
  4. Bald people are perceived to innately possess greater physical strength, but people will often think that you're constantly angry (observation #1), and therefore threatening.
So, if you have Zeus-like hair, and you live in an abundance of wind and guitar solos, then I salute you. But on the other end of the spectrum, if you're going bald, everyone knows where your journey ends. There's no shame in accepting the inevitable.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Alcohol Fuels the Engines of Awesomeness

We all sat quietly at our desks, captivated, listening intently as the two tattered middle-aged men took turns telling us unbelievable stories about the wild party days of their youths. They both seemed to be intensely focused on digging through their respective murky, faded memories to recall their most extreme personal experiences in an attempt to exceed each other's depravity. Prior to this experience, most of us were unaware of how much fun could be had under the influence of excessive amounts of alcohol. Many of us drew the misinformed conclusion that having over-the-top alcohol stories may be necessary later in life for possible pissing contests with others in the adult world.

The intended purpose of these men's visit to our elementary school was to educate us about the horrors of alcohol abuse. The first phase of the lesson was apparently to provide examples of the awesome destructive power of alcohol, and the second phase was to show us a real-life example of the possibilities of a life of sobriety.  Needless to say, things grew even more entertaining during the second phase of their program. When the men were finally satisfied with their storytelling performances, they led us out of the classroom to the parking lot in front of our school. 

The lowest intelligence quartile of the class was immediately awestruck, in speechless disbelief,  at the sight of an enormous monster truck illegally parked halfway up on the curb in the passenger loading zone. None of us thought to ask who parked the truck there, seeing as how the only two presenters for the alcohol training program were in our classroom for the past hour. They must have parked it there earlier, insensitively blocking traffic; possibly preventing disabled children from easily boarding their parents' vehicles via the loading ramp located in the passenger zone. I can only imagine that these guys were too blinded by their newly found righteousness to concern themselves with those whom they considered to be less-awesome (kids, parents, teachers, pedestrians, anyone). 

We stood a safe distance away, patiently waiting for something cool to happen. One of the men carefully scaled a gigantic 6-foot-tall tire, and leapt into the driver's seat. The other man stood between the crowd of children and the truck, and spouted off some forgettable closing statements about how sobriety made their dreams come true; apparently, their shared dream was to drive a shared monster truck. Eventually, the man on the ground realized that his words of wisdom were being completely ignored, and finally trailed off mid-sentence and stopped talking. No one noticed. After a few moments of breathless silence, something childishly cool finally happened.

"Yeeeaaaaahhhh!" The man on the ground shrieked as the thunderous roar of the monster truck engine unexpectedly shook our 11-year old souls. The man in the drivers' seat revved up the engine, and it screamed  even louder. In reasonable fear of an explosion, as a result of their possible insobriety, we collectively took a step backward. They continued to run the engine for several minutes, until their wine turned into the vinegar of bored children waiting for a nonexistent follow-up act.

The last thing I remember about their educational program was that the man on the ground yelled over the booming engine sounds to inform us that the monster truck engine [also] ran on alcohol. So in sum, in all its glory, alcohol makes for very entertaining stories about extreme partying and/or regret, and it powers monster trucks. Yeeeaaaaahhhh!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Demands From an Independent Author

Over the past few decades, independently owned brick and mortar retailers shuddered when places like Walmart Supercenters, Targets, Kmarts, etc. rolled into town, creating an environment of impossible price competition. Many small retail business owners exhaled their collective dying breath as they watched their impending doom approach like a rapidly growing tsunami. Then they were subsequently, and quickly swallowed into the abyss; relegated to relics of a bygone era of 'main street' American entrepreneurial opportunity. Surrounding communities somewhat involuntarily accepted the transition as their low-wage, increasingly impoverished existences could only sustain a life sourced by the impossibly low prices offered by corporate retail chains. With most American manufacturing jobs already departed during the previous wave of corporate exploitation (outsourcing), local economies became increasingly dependent upon the minimum wage offerings of corporate giants, and many of us stepped off the cliff together and descended in a freefall into a slightly deeper ring of hell; heading toward serfdom. Ultimately, what happened was that the long distance exploitation (e.g. outsourced sweatshop manufacturing) that enabled corporate retail giants to offer unsustainable prices came home, and we were incorporated into the corporate exploitation model once again. This should not be a surprise to anyone, because corporations are accountable solely to shareholders, and therefore must perpetually increase earnings to satisfy their appetite for increased wealth. Exploiting locals [again] was the next, obvious method to sustain continuous profitability. However, this scenario is rapidly transforming as the agents of exploitation must develop new methods in their never-ending pursuit of elusive profits.

Presently, there need not be a corporate encampment in our towns to sap the life out of us, because the corporate planners are slowly realizing that an actual physical presence is relatively expensive. The new strategy is to migrate the exploitation model to an online environment, because by being online, corporations can be omnipresent. There are fewer jobs 'created' in exploited communities, and economies can be savaged, remotely. For example, a corporate department chain can build stores in one small town after another, draining the lifeblood out of individual communities, but online retailers need not ever be physically present; they are already present by virtue of being online entities.

Concerning e-books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, and a few others have implemented systems that are driving professional independent authors into extinction. The primary component causing this effect is marketplaces where authors can directly price-compete with one another. The result of these environments is a veritable race-to-the-bottom, with the victor being, obviously, the owners of the marketplaces themselves; Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, etc. Of course, participation in these marketplaces, and competing on price is a choice, but with the established oligopoly, independent authors have very few options for other online locations to retail their e-books if they are to achieve a temporarily survivable level of exposure. The alternative to the dominant distribution channels is to launch a new website, which is a lot like opening a brick and mortar bookstore in an uninhabited desert; hopelessly futile.

The Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) marketplace is a relatively new method of pitting peasants against one another. With KDP, authors write, edit, format, upload/publish, and market their own works. Like the aforementioned distribution channels, the KDP marketplace allows authors to price-compete with one another, with a minimum retail price of $0.99 (at this price, authors receive 35%; ~$0.35 USD). The KDP platform is unique in that it has a program called "KDP Select", which allows authors to give away an e-book free for 5 days for every 90 days of said title's enrollment. This feature is a powerful and effective tool for reaching a large audience of potential readers. Its purpose is to allow authors to gain exposure in hopes of converting free downloaders into future purchasers of other works. Unfortunately for authors, the overwhelming abundance of e-books enrolled in the KDP Select program has resulted in a bottomless buffet of free e-books, and resultantly fewer paying customers. I must confess that I am guilty of regularly using the free book giveaway feature to gain exposure for many of my titles, and many of the feature's other critics do as well. However, as long as this feature exists, it's use will be widespread, and therefore must be implemented by most independent authors who wish to remain visible.

Aside from the obvious, inevitable doom that authors will meet on the course set by this model, there is another issue of acute concern that I have observed in discussions among authors/publishers. It is that the e-book sales reporting tools are inconsistent, some sales do not seem to register (even when authors test the system by purchasing their own books), some sales mysteriously disappear (not returns/refunds), and sales for individual authors are in precipitous decline. With tangible goods, retailers monitor their inventory, sales, payments, etc. However, with digital goods that are sold in a system that is enshrouded in secrecy, accountability to, and responsibility toward, the producers is virtually nonexistent. In other words, not only does the nature of the system contribute to the extinction of writers due to financial de-incentivization, many authors are becoming increasingly suspicious of the sales reporting practices of e-book distribution channels and are beginning to think that the distributors are simply not paying them for their e-book sales. When I first read discussion board posts written by concerned authors, I dismissed their complaints as slightly paranoid, or as impatience with the sales reporting systems. However, as time passed, I observed the frequency of these concerns increasing, even among well-established authors. It seems that notwithstanding the overt extinction-inducing features (i.e. free book giveaways, extreme price competition, etc.), the combination of the sheer number of e-book reading devices sold and the ever-expanding international e-book marketplace should not lead to the precipitous e-book sales declines for independent authors that my peers and I are currently observing.

Many large corporate retailers have well-documented histories of selfish, inhumane, dishonest, and ruthless trade practices. It is not inconceivable to entertain the possibility that these same monsters are continuing to behave in a pattern in accordance with their established characters. However, this is post is not an indictment. It is a demand for increased transparency. As authors, we are the brick-cutters in a modern pyramid building scheme. At a bare minimum, we require adequate transparency and/or oversight to assuage our concerns that the system is less fair/honest than it is purported to be.
As a start, I would like to see the following:
  1. Establish a processing time from the time of purchase to actual sales reporting. This will ensure that authors can verify sales.
  2. Establish a royalty rate at >= 50% of the retail price for all price bands. Currently most systems allow authors to receive a dismal royalty percentage for the lower price bands, i.e. 35% if the price is less than $2.99, and up to 70% if the price is >=$2.99.
  3. Make page view statistics for individual e-books available to authors/publishers.
  4. Disclose Kindle, Nook, and other e-reader device sales data.
  5. No free book giveaways

No More Coffee-Making Dreams

I was recently invited to an interview for a highly un-lucrative, part-time job opportunity to make coffee for a large coffee retail giant at a location embedded within a large grocery store. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation. And while I did not spend last night in sleepless anticipation, it was nice to receive an invitation to a job interview. 

I arrived on time, and was initially unsuccessful at locating my interviewer, a store manager. After chatting it up with the presently-employed, friendly, and helpful baristas at the coffee stand, one of them dispatched the manager to the coffee area via the store intercom. After a few minutes, the manager eventually materialized and acknowledged my existence (+1 point), and told me to be patient while she attended to another non-urgent matter; talking to a random employee about training someone on a cash register (-1 point). After about 10 minutes had lapsed, the manager finally approached me again and told me to follow her to the interview room. We walked through the store, through the meat department, and eventually up the stairs to the employee break room.

She produced a 3-page set of standardized interview questions, and started firing away. The interview itself was fairly straightforward, until she asked me to pretend like she was a customer and to persuade her to buy a beverage; "It's cold outside, I want a beverage that is warm, and not too sweet." This was difficult, mostly because I don't really care if someone wants to buy coffee or not, and shitty because I didn't have time to prepare a believable pack of lies prior to my interview. I replied with a fragmented series of disconnected phrases about why I like coffee so much. I have no idea how my answer passed this test, but it did. Note: If you find yourself in this scenario, just remember that it does not make a damn bit of difference what you say as long as you smile. 

The manager completed the set of interview questions, and determined that my answers were somehow satisfactory enough to proceed to the next phase of the hiring process. She retrieved a foil-wrapped canister from a nearby table and opened it. Then she informed me that there was an required pre-employment saliva-based drug test. Then she read a script about the nature of the test. At first, it seemed legitimate. However, toward the end of the script she said something about how the results of my test may be shared with other health databases.

I responded by saying that I felt that drug testing was not necessary to successful coffee-making, to which she assured me that most jobs require this type of testing. My entire professional life quickly flashed before my eyes, and I only recalled one prior instance of this happening to me at a large grocery chain, where I passed the ten-minute saliva test in front of a panel of four judging interviewers. However, this time I argued, explaining that this was not standard for most jobs and that despite being drug free, I was not comfortable completing a pre-employment drug test because I felt like it was a violation of my privacy. I quickly realized the futility of further pressing this point, and slightly changed the subject by asking which health databases these results could potentially be shared with. She said that she did not know. Then I asked what they are testing for, which she also said she did not know. Then, I finally asked, "Are you administering tests for unknown substances, and potentially sharing the results with unknown parties?" She said, "Yes." Finally, I asked if she knew if they were testing for legal substances, i.e. alcohol, nicotine, etc. Once again, she did not know. 

Her ignorance regarding the tests was shocking to say the least. I felt disappointed in myself for my momentary acceptance of the test. Had she not said anything about 3rd party health databases, I may have voluntarily subjected myself to it. I was thankful that she jolted me back to reality with the particularly scary finale of the script. However, I decided to end the interview by politely thanking her for her time, saying goodbye, and exiting the room.

I must admit that I am not familiar with statues pertaining to hiring or health-insurance discrimination based on the use of legal substances, but that is beside the point. The point is that participating in tests for the presence of undefined [possibly legal] substances is a terrifying prospect for the working class. Why are the substances unstated? Why do the parties administering these tests now know where the data is shared? Don't get me wrong, I am not entirely against drug testing for some jobs, such as operating heavy machinery, shooting at things, or nuclear reactor maintenance, etc., but the substances being tested for should be identified, and the data-sharing policies should be clear, otherwise we have no idea to what we are subjecting themselves. This is a slippery slope, and it is especially important to act on principle in this era of rapidly diminishing privacy. 

I now realize that my coffee-making dream-fantasy has ended and I've awakened in the sad reality where I only make coffee at home. However, making a principled decision to not submit myself to ambiguous substance use screenings is much more satisfying than persuading someone to buy overpriced coffee that they don't need. 

Have you had a similar experience?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Cheating at Sports

Another widespread scandal in professional sports involving Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED's) is filling up the headlines again. Once again,  the suspects have been labeled as "cheaters" and vilified by the media. But, I'm not on board with all this finger-pointing, and I'll tell you why.

The popular belief is that if only everyone would just NOT use PED's, sporting events would consist of evenly matched competitors, pitted against one another in an open and fair competition based on athletic skill. This is a nice, idealistic premise, but it is overly generalized and simplistic. It is rooted in the idea that all players begin with the same abilities, and if or when a player gains a perceived advantage through the use of pharmaceutical enhancements, they are able to outperform their opponents and ultimately win by this specific advantage. The truth of the matter is that in the absence of PED's, not all players have the same innate talents. Some people are faster than others; some are taller; some are stronger; and so on.

This strikes at the heart of the American myth that hard work is what leads to success and/or victory, and perhaps that is why it is such a controversial issue. While it is true that athletic champions work incredibly hard for their accomplishments, it is not necessarily true that they work harder than their less-than-champion counterparts. Teammates who run the same drills at the same team practices possess dramatic skill disparities between one another.

If you watch sports and think to yourself, "Wow, if I just ran a lot, lifted a lot of weights, and practiced basketball drills for the last twenty years, I would be as good as ____". Think back to grade school physical education. Some kids were naturally faster; some were taller; some were stronger; and so on. In the sense of 'fairness' that all players start with the same toolkit and their outcomes were based solely on work ethic, it was never 'fair' or 'equal' from the beginning.

So, is it unfair for a 40-year old baseball player to use PED's that give him an even playing field with a fresh 20-year old competitor? If not, then why not? Furthermore, because it has not been proven that the losers/victims/opponents/teammates are in fact innocent of the same accusations, then prosecuting "cheaters" for their use of PED's is unfair, imbalanced, and absurd.


If we entertain the fantastical notion that all players begin equally, then the only way to achieve fairness is to allow all players to use PED's so that "cheaters" cannot gain an advantages over "non-cheaters" by using drugs in secret. However, if it is true that players do not have an equal foundation of athletic abilities, then we must acknowledge that sports were never 'fair' or 'equal' from the start, and allowing specific disadvantaged players to use PED's could effectively equalize players' strengths in some respects, and "level the playing field".

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hijacking Your Voice

When I log into Facebook and look at my news feed, I see a lot of pictures with funny captions, some 'likes', a few embedded YouTube videos, and random cries for help. I'm not sure if it's a perceived relative lack of action in our lives that we feel that we have to make up for it by providing our friends with substitute action stories (Note to self: make up false action stories featuring myself). But, the 'why' doesn't really matter. The point is that we increasingly rely on using digital media artifacts to represent ourselves. This is a step beyond wearing name-brand clothing to augment social status in the real world; it is to poke a hole through ourselves, and encourage our friends to look through that hole at something, or someone, other than ourselves and exclaim, "That represents me!"  

Recently, I read a study that tried to explain why Facebook is SO depressing. The basic conclusion was that most users post happy pictures and funny cartoons/memes, giving the false impression that they are having the time of their lives— every day. When other users see this, they feel like their lives are boring, uninteresting, and relatively shitty, leading to inevitable depression and possible doom. In other words, Facebook is the digital embodiment of smiling-through-your-teeth-even-though-you-are-miserable corporate culture. I believe that this is definitely a factor contributing to the overall miserable experience that is Facebook, but it is only a small part of the problem. These types of studies are typically conducted by social media 'experts', who probably do not consider the underlying social ramifications that are inevitable as a result of large-scale social media supplantation of in-person communication. In my opinion, these studies serve to improve the social media experience, but are too cowardly to dare deny social media's benevolent potential in the first place. Personally, I think social media is worthless with regards to social fulfillment, but tackling that argument is beyond the scope of this post.

Thus far, I've only discussed voluntary participation in social media, but the real danger is in the ways that our voices are hijacked. Facebook has introduced a new feature for advertisers called 'Sponsored Stories'. The 'Sponsored Story' tool allows me to inject posts into your friends' timelines, in which you unwittingly parrot my status updates. What this means is that I can launch an advertising campaign, targeting all of your friends, excluding you (So you don't know about it- hehe).

Basically, anything that you 'like', can be leveraged to exploit you as an unwitting endorser to all of your friends. As it is right now, Sponsored Stories, are marked as 'Sponsored', and they are quite obvious, but that's only because they are a new concept for advertisers. They haven't yet found seamless ways of making their advertisements appear to be coming from your voice, but from my observations, they seem to be learning very quickly and we are making it much easier for them.

As we increasingly use silly images, embedded YouTube videos, and other reality-substituting content to represent ourselves online, using our 'likes' to hijack our voices will ultimately be an effortless, silent victory for advertisers. Let me illustrate this with an example. Say you like 'cats', and you post cat pictures on your wall every day. I'm an advertiser, and I hijack your voice, and post sponsored stories of cat pictures for all of your friends to see, using your voice. However, the difference is that my photos serve my selfish motives. But, your friends won't know the difference, because you post cat pictures every day, and they don't realize that I've totally hijacked your voice. 

In conclusion, we may be able to temporarily mitigate the social damage of the sponsored story attack if we revert back to sharing our actual lives instead of relying on reality-substituting content.  Think about this, if you post hilarious photos and videos every day, and then one day you have actual news in your life, no one will give shit because the photos and videos were more entertaining than you. Your real news will be the fresh apple slices on the Wendy's drive thru menu, relatively flavorless, hopelessly alone, and perceivedly shitty. How will that make you feel?