Counting Flowers on the Wall…

Snake Oil Salesman

Caught betwixt and between leaves one a little exasperated and not a little depressed. With limited funds there are limited opportunities, this latest life-change has left me feeling a little like the old Statler Bros song lyric: “counting flowers on the wall…” I have recently left a publication which provided a “mast” to fly my flag and interact with some wonderful people. I will not name this organization, but keen-eyed followers may be able to guess the name.

Having spent about 18 months (plus) learning that I’m pretty good at interviewing celebs (that’s spelt working actors by the way and other folks in the industry) covering conventions, Victoria’s Secret events –as well as meeting some very lovely models of same – and watching a ton of newly released films and reviewing them, along with television shows, I realized a couple of things.

First of all, my abilities as a writer were better than I thought. On top of the above items mentioned as part of my personal training process, I also covered local Las Vegas events and each time the recipients of my coverage thanked me profusely for my efforts. It sort of feels like journalism is similar to riding a bike; once trained never forgotten, no matter how long the stretch…

Secondly, I found that I was in a lose/lose situation.

What started as (or what seemed to be) a great offer, soon turned into something very different. Granted, I was still under a certain amount of shock from the very invasive and “hard to recover from” operations that saved my life on August 31, 2012. *On a side note, I discovered while still in hospital, that Michael Duncan Clarke (Green Mile, Armageddon) had the exact same procedure…He did not make it.*

In my England home, I could no longer pay the rent, I owed thousands of pounds and no landlord wanted to let me lease a property with my daughter and her boyfriend. With the prospect of bankruptcy looming, no homeowner trusted me not to default on my share of the rent.

I had been working for website, since April 2013 while still living in my Kesgrave three bedroom home. I’d been released from my job as Prison Officer (ill-health retired with a tiny pension) and given a payout. Hindsight being 20-20, I should have taken less of a payout and more of the pension.

Still, I was writing professionally for a news publication that seemed to be intent on growing in both viewing figures as well as respectability. Pay was pretty dire, but it would increase as our ratings got better (I had been told) and hard work seemed to equal a pretty good payout. The owner, promised to pay his writers and editors fairly for their work.

Google News Logo

On the respectability front, the paper had sources in South Africa who claimed that in June, 2013 Nelson Mandela died, despite what was reported by the corrupt government and the world’s media. This combined with a serious approach to gathering and writing articles raised our ranking and this too felt legitimate.

After writing an article on Madiba’s death where I quoted what we had learned, (Our then World News Editor actually released the story before we could verify another source.) the website was then attacked for three days straight and I was sent to South Africa to talk to sources.

Back in those days, the site seemed to be a proper news publication trying to compete on a global scale. Meanwhile back in the UK by December 2013, I had nowhere to live and my boss then made the offer for me to come over to the USA and stay with him until I “could get on my feet.”

Desperate, I accepted. I paid for my airline tickets and to have my few remaining things shipped over. The cost of all this was covered by me selling practically everything I owned, I then flew to Las Vegas and was met by my employer.

On one hand, my joining the site in Vegas was an excellent chance for me to write for more than my personal blog in a “safe” environment and after an almost 32 year absence a return “home.” I’d been posting up to 8 articles a day for some time on my own site; all for free before working for Vegas site. This was a continuance of working professionally and, in the beginning, my stories were getting hundred’s of thousands of views and I soon joined the “million” club. (Million equaling views and not money.)

Oddly, these huge view counts virtually ended once I got back stateside. Again, making me believe that some “blackhat” techniques were being used by someone.

The money, apart from one very exceptional paycheck, was not brilliant; I was having to use up my small pension from HMPS to live and still running out. The cost of living in the US was much less than that of the UK, I was told, and this turned out to be false. Still, the fact that I had a place to stay and had use of a vehicle was a Godsend and the only real problem was  that views on my articles were steadily decreasing.

While being associated with this site gave me a chance to write for, and become “part owner” of a rising news publication, a lot of the opportunities I got for myself. Once I arrived in Vegas, I began responding to all the “invites” received by the paper to events that excited me.

Comic con, Star Trek con, et al. I began making better contacts with the local Hollywood studio reps at the screenings and became a member of the Nevada Film Critics Society. I got our invitations from the studios sorted out as we were missing a lot, apparently, and in short order I was going to around 5 to 7 screenings per week and writing reviews on the films.

On top of that, I was encouraging other writers (I was an editor) to write reviews on popular television shows to increase our Entertainment area. I also worked very hard to do interviews with many actors and other people in the industry to solidify our exclusive content.

Watching the analytic performance of my articles I noticed a disturbing trend. My views were struggling to reach their previous numbers. Where my average per story was around 50,000 and up in the beginning; now all articles died out at fewer than 10,000.

Combined with penalties from Google News, the site was a member, my pay packets got smaller and smaller. I was on a pay system of (supposedly) $600 per month stipend for being an editor and for doing all the above-mentioned things to set up our entertainment section. Anything over that stipend was to come from my view counts.

The stipend money was taken to pay for my rent. As mentioned above, it was $600 pm for (in the beginning) a single room, shared bathroom and use of the communal areas. Later I got the bathroom all to myself, which had been my understanding all along, and the other bedroom as an office. I was paid between $300 and $500 for my views, but my boss was quick to point out that he was “carrying me.”

My time spent setting up our entertainment section was paying off with interview offers, event invites and despite the fall in viewing figures, we were getting pretty good reception from the industry in terms of responses to queries, et al.

There were many “questionable” things about the business that I either ignored or took at face value. Continual meetings to get money from local politicians and other deep-pocketed investors were the order of the day for most of the year and completely outside my realm of expertise.

I was more interested in writing articles, building a respectable base for the entertainment section of the paper and expanding my contacts in the industry. I also felt that despite the gratitude I’d initially felt at the offer, I was being taken advantage of.

The biggest issue was the change of direction of the publisher. When I first started writing for the paper, his goal was two-fold. To pay each writer fairly for their work and to build the site up to be able to eventually compete and stay in the top 50 news sites in the US.

This emphasis slowly changed. The site was getting a lot of malware problems, a lot of Google penalties and a lot of bad press from former writers who were leaving in droves. Furthermore, they were complaining that the owner of the site was running a pyramid scheme.

While this allegation was not true, at no time did the publisher ask for money from anyone working for the paper, he got funds from advertisers and investors and things were not adding up for a great many who worked for the paper.

There were a great many of these disgruntled folks who got caught up in the penalty issues, the site was hit several times, some were given poor information or training and others just couldn’t get the program. Still more were apparently lied to.

This was something beginning to creep into my dealings with the publisher, along with getting cast in the role of general dog’s body or servant. What started as my not minding doing the odd favor for a “friend” became an overwhelming amount of time doing things that he could not be bothered to do.

Over the time period living with the publisher, I was told about serious illnesses that he had just been diagnosed with such as cancer. A lot of promises never transpired and as things trundled along, the communication became less and less. Information was segmented and only parts were passed on. As a “late stage” co-founder and 2 percent owner of  the company, I found myself continually out of the loop and learning about important things second-hand.

As my dissatisfaction continued to grow, the relationship began to sour. This “friend” who’d made such a great offer suddenly seemed to think it was okay to yell at me in a meeting or during phone calls…it was not. After this happened for the fourth time, I realized that the mutual respect that had once apparently been there was now gone.

After being told repeatedly how it was possible to exist for $300 a month, the money kept getting smaller as were the views. As mentioned above, it began to look like the massive view counts at the beginning may have had more to do with questionable practices that probably helped to bring about the penalties.

Overall, I enjoyed the work I was doing. Meeting celebrities, watching new films and writing about things that I was addicted to, attending comic cons, and doing entertainment journalism was a dream come true. Sadly, once the trust was gone and the “scales” lifted from my eyes, I realized that things were not all as advertised.

For one thing, the site was never going to be sold, as long as money was being made by the publisher  2 percent of this company was never going to amount to anything. Another issue was the accusations of the site being a “content mill.” This allegation was, pretty much, true. The amount of articles required was staggering. I myself wrote almost 1,900 articles from the end of April 2013 to December 2014. For a year I wrote and published between 8 to 10 stories per day on weekdays and up to 15 per day on Saturday and Sunday; a total of around 70 to 80 articles per week.

Before I left, I was contracted to write 62 articles per month. When I began attending the Las Vegas conventions, as mentioned above, the paper was hitting the number one slot in Google News and was generating interviews and making some good contacts. While I was at the Vampire Diaries Convention (A truly abysmal experience as the entire group running the event were small-minded and elitist.) I was called during the second day by the publisher who told me that the conventions would have to go.  Telling me that our output was suffering I was informed that I needed to write more on the weekends. Not more original output, but more regurgitated stories for the readers.

Another charge of “citizen journalists” was also levied against the site and there was a lot of truth to this as well. In most cases, writers for the site were not journalists. I had been trained years ago but many who wrote for us had never been trained apart from what our boot camp gave them when they joined.

Granted not every writer was asked to produce such huge amounts of articles but the idea was to have a lot of stories for people to choose from. In other words a content mill. I did personally learn just how much I could write each day and I also found out that self-discipline was in my vocabulary after all.

Of course writing such copious amounts, with little in the way of monetary gain and little support for original output, led to me becoming  disillusioned with the job. This went a long way to my decision to leave, but I did so secure in the knowledge that my first love of writing (which really ties with acting as first love but only just) is something that I should be doing full-time. *I promise to refrain from using such long-winded sentences in future, if I do so.*

While my time with the site was a learning experience, it was also an exercise in frustration.  Despite this, I truly enjoyed my time as the head of Entertainment and only wish that I’d been more au fait with the world of online journalism.

I do not consider myself a “citizen journalist.” I did take courses years ago and apart from the beginning of my time with the paper, attempted to do unique and exclusive content for my section. Ultimately this was never going to be a winning situation apart from lip service  as volume was required, not originality.

My leaving has put me in the position of counting flowers on the wall, if there were any, as my current abode is out in the middle of nowhere with shaky Internet. While I attempt to get a better set up to continue my writing for other sites, which I am currently doing, interviews and reviews are continuing as and when a signal makes itself available.

Rest assured, I would have left my job earlier if funds were available. Unfortunately pay was kept shallow enough that it was not possible for me to make good my escape. At one rather insulting point, my benefactor informed me that he purposefully kept my pay low so I would know what if felt like to be broke in Las Vegas! I told him in no uncertain terms that I already knew what being broke felt like in a lot of different places, I needed no “teaching.”

I am currently writing more on my own blog with plans of setting it up for proper advertising and I’m working for another news site and writing my memoirs (Goodness that sound very “up my own arse” doesn’t it?), for those who are interested,  from my years working for Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

In many ways this is a cautionary tale; when you hear too many things that, ultimately, you want;  pay attention and realize that you are probably being played. Some people are very good at feeding information that you will believe because you want to.

Since leaving, my life has been hectic and full of reflection. Sort of like the Flowers on the Wall song says, “playing solitaire till dawn…” has given me plenty of time to realize that at the site, things were “okay” for so long because I wanted them to be. Apart from the money issue, I was having fun and learning that I could do so much more than I realized. Finally my end came, like so many others, because of greed and the fact that the company dream as portrayed, was not real.

As a final point: I left the publication on December 31, 2014, despite fulfilling my amount of articles and doing interviews and covering events right up till the end, I have received no money since my half-pay packet in December. So unlike the song’s message, no one is too concerned about my, or anyone else’s, happiness.

Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life As a Ramone By Marky Ramone with Rich Herschlag – Review

This glimpse behind the punk curtain of the Ramones is one that even folks who aren’t fans of the “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” group will enjoy. This trip down memory lane by Marc Bell, aka Marky Ramone, a fantastic tale a drummer and his journey through the music world…

Read the rest of the article at Viral Global News

Helix Reunion Episode Two Recap and Review

Last week’s premiere episode of Helix set things up nicely for episode two, Reunion. The time parallels at St. Germaine Island and the introduction of the mysterious Michael are followed up this week and more is learned about quite a number of things…

To read more of this review go to Viral Global News.

Vacancy (2007): Remember When?

Still from film with Beckinsale and Wilson as the Fox couple
Watching the Hitchcockian thriller Vacancy, with Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson, the first thing that springs to mind is a sort of “remember when” game. Going back a few years to a time before cell (mobile) phones became smart and a time when not every vehicle had a GPS in it. The film recalls the helplessness of travelling without those modern safety nets. Of course, at one point Beckinsale’s character goes to use her cell phone but it has no signal.

In this world, apparently, unlike the “real world” the two people in peril do not each have a cell phone. They also rely upon an old fashioned mode of navigation, in other words, a map. The television that comes with their room (a homicidal killing room in fact) has an old-fashioned telly and a videotape machine with VHS footage of prior victims to watch.

The film itself is a sort of homage to Hitchcock type thrillers and it works extremely well. Sadly there was a sequel, but I have never watched it. The first feature works like a highly tuned orchestra and hits all the right notes. Anything else would be a pale echo of this piece and its original content.

Everything about Vacancy works. In the casting department, Wilson and Beckinsale make a believable couple as the Fox’s. Even more, the two deliver as parents who have lost a child with each handling the dilemma and their grief very differently. The underlying tension from their decision to end their marriage provides a great counterpoint to the increasing stress of the situation and a little comedy relief as well.

The hotel manager, Mason, played by Frank Whaley is perfect as the annoying ass that would lose more customers than gain with his attitude and priggish behavior. It is not really surprising that people, who end up staying in the human version of the “Raid Hotel,” are tricked into doing so. If they had a choice, the manager’s aura of obvious jerk-wad would drive them all off.

This all goes toward making us, the audience, uncomfortable with the place. On top of the manager and the reception area, everything about the room itself is disturbing. Right down to that awful green motif that did not look good in the 1970s when avocado was the winning color for most kitchen appliances.

Beckinsale’s character Amy Fox states firmly that she is “sleeping with my clothes on.” Wilson, as husband David, adds that he will be sleeping “with my shoes on.” Giving us further proof that we were not wrong to be “grossed out” and disturbed by this room. The “badness” of the place is apparent even before the giant cockroach is seen falling off the bathroom light switch.

The motel room looks like pretty standard fare. Tacky colors, questionable housekeeping standards and a slapped together style of decorating, the only thing missing is a coin operated “magic fingers” massage machine by the headboard of the bed. (Another remember when moment for me; I recall quite clearly begging my mother and father for quarters when one of our holiday hotel rooms had this marvelous contraption attached to the bed. Later, when my parents could afford more expensive motel rooms, these great jiggling machines disappeared from my young vacation life.)

During the special features of the Blu-Ray DVD, the film’s creator, director Nimród Antal talks about seeing these rundown and seemingly deserted motels by the side of the road and wondering how they managed to keep running. Sort of a real estate version of the lights being on but no one, like customers for instance, being home.

These slightly derelict inns gestated into Vacancy along with the weird, creepy and deadly guys who run the motel that the Amy and David are forced to check into. The feature also owes a lot to the myth of the “Snuff Film.”

This particular urban myth is fairly persistent and has generated a number of films and books about a movie where someone is actually murdered onscreen. A sort of ultimate thrill for the world’s sickest voyeurs and of course for as long as the rumor of these films has been around so has the insistence that they do not really exist.

A kind of cinematic version of the boogeyman, if you will, where experts (like parents) tell the public (children) that no such “monster” exists. A film type of “closet monster” which continues to be whispered about and that certain people swear really are out there to be viewed by the stubbornly curious.

By the end of the film, which also has a distinct Alfred Hitchcock feel to it, the audience is drained from all the suspense that this thriller has thrown at it. Vacancy is quite a short film at 85 minutes and it drives forward at a frantic pace. Each scene spins into the next with little respite for the film’s characters or the viewer.

But besides all the nail biting suspense, the film harks back to days when real keys opened your room door and not some sort of electronic card. Motels were these quaint one level affairs where, if you were lucky, there was a pool in front and the vending machines had a pretty good choice of snacks for way under a dollar. And of course “magic fingers.”

23 January 2015

Living in the Real Desert: Nightlife

Desert Mountain

Since being here in this popular desert oasis near the Arizona/California border, I’ve observed many things. For instance, my smartphone’s 4G from Wal-Mart’s T-Mobile does not work out in the desert, or in town for that matter. It is annoying enough that neither company will be getting any more business from this 50-something customer.

Since living in the real desert, I’ve been caught out, so to speak, several times and wound up walking, or biking, back from town after dark. This habit has provided a great look at the local nightlife. As mentioned in an earlier article about this haven for the aged, one local denizen reported coming face to face with a mountain lion in their front yard. Luckily, I’ve not come into contact with this feline. Yet.

I’ve seen the tracks across the hardpan desert floor and saw more again this evening in my trip through the dusk back to the RV. The paw marks of this beast are huge. At one point the tracks showed the creature had run after something, probably one of the jackrabbits that bound through the cactus and sagebrush.

While walking to and from the town, I’ve seen a surprisingly large amount of jackrabbits, a few smaller longer eared types of bunny (this evening at dusk), a doe (the night before last actually) and something yellow, small and faster than a speeding bullet (the same night).

Getting a late start back to my temporary home, I walked the long way along the road rather than taking my “shortcut” across the desert. Remembering those mountain lion tracks made me err to the side of caution. About a quarter mile from the turn-off to the small community where the RV is located, a small deer came right up to the opposite side of the road from where I was walking.

The distance between the creature and myself could have been no more than 15 to 20 feet as it started to cross to my side of the desert. I lit her up with my small shotgun shell LED torch and seconds later a car came up and stopped. All three participants in this little tableau froze.

After a frozen second or two, the deer turned and disappeared into the darkness and the car reversed a little; looking for the animal presumably and then both the vehicle and I moved on. The doe was nowhere to be seen so she obviously changed her mind about crossing the suddenly crowded road.

Desert Road

No other living wild thing was seen until reaching the desert community where I am currently staying. Three streets away from “home,” I saw a streak of yellow shoot across the road with a burst of speed that would have turned Speedy Gonzalez green with envy.

Despite this lightening-like dash into the desert, the small creature was slow enough that a few details stood out. Its color, for one thing, and that it was covered in fur another. It had a small head so the first thing I thought was, “Weasel?”

This was immediately followed by, “What the hell does a weasel look like?” I honestly could not remember. For all I knew, that could have been a baby coyote or some other small creature. It seemed to be around 18 to 20 inches long…maybe. One thing for certain, at night all creatures look bigger, in the desert, in the dark.

Nearing the RV while pondering the recent animals sighted around the local area I thought of how tickled I’d been in England when I spied a hedgehog (my favorite small wild creature) or a wild fox. When driving for the East Anglian Times back in the 1990s there were a huge group of foxes that ran around Colchester Park on the Essex paper run. Sadly there were always a few dead ones on the side of the road, the price paid by the group for getting too close to civilization.

Hedgehogs were also seen quite a lot and not just on the Essex run. One foggy morning, around 0200, while unloading bundles of papers at a newsagents, a packet of crisps (potato chips) was spotted floating above the ground by three or four inches.

This odd sight was not caused by wind and the packet did not appear to be blown by anything. Instead, it was jerking forward and then backward before floating forward again. The chap who was teaching me the Felixstowe run reached down and snatched at the floating crisp packet. A baby hedgehog came flying along with the plastic bag. The little creature had gotten its head stuck in the thing and was walking along while trying to dislodge it.

I was thinking of both these separate incidents and briefly remembered that one thing that was not an issue in the United Kingdom was rabies. Mainly due to the country’s strict quarantine laws there has not been an outbreak for what seems a millennia. The second I had this thought, about rabies, I broke out in goose flesh.

What in the hell was I doing marching along after dark in a country where rabies was not banished from memory? What if that streaking yellow thing had been heading towards me and not across the road in front of me? Could I have reacted in time to keep a rabid animal from nom-nomming on part of my body?

Rabid rabbit image...

Having been to the ER (emergency room) and then later the hospital for a heart attack, with the end result being two emergency surgeries, I’ve had injections in my stomach. I can personally attest to the fact that these are not fun, but better than the alternative. The fact that rabies used to be treated by receiving a shed-load of injections in the navel means the shots must be pure agony.

As I’ve mentioned before, the stars in the desert seem to be just out of arms reach. The dark desert sky is full of these celestial sparks of memory. The desert itself is  full of animals that, despite the profusion of people who have flocked to the desert for the season, call this area home. Living abroad for so long, and in a country where there are more people than open spaces, helped me to forget that America is full of wild areas where civilization is just an illusion waiting to be shattered.

22 January 2015