Archive for April, 2013

Right now I write for a few different content mills – enterprises whose main purpose is to produce content for the web. One was pretty good for a while, but it recently slashed compensation rates by more than 50%, and so what used to be a nice comfortable gig is now essentially a minimum wage job. It’s disappointing – they must have made the conscious decision to get worse, both in the relationship they had with their freelance writers and editors, and also with respect to the quality of the content they delivered to clients. Plus they hired so many writers, it’s hard to find any work at all!

One of the mills often has small tasks on an on-demand basis – if you’ve got a few minutes free, literally, you can knock off a few quick tasks. The pay isn’t great, but I’d rather earn a few bucks and practice my writing than sit for half an hour waiting for a job to come my way.

There’s quite a good post on a blog I visited recently.  It’s one of the first times I’ve seen honest appraisal of content mills, in many cases from the perspective of writers who have made their living at their craft, and can recognize the content mills for what they are. See, that’s where I was behind the 8-ball. Before getting these online gigs, I was really unaware that there were such things as content mills, or that I had any shot at writing more substantive pieces for websites and magazines, for significantly more substantial pay. Here’s a link to the post. Reading it, and the many replies, opened my eyes to two main facts:

1. Compared to other content mills, I didn’t know how good I had it, both at the beginning, when I was earning 7 cents per word, and later, when the pay was a flat rate of $20 per 300-word biography.

2. Compared to other gigs – magazines, websites, white papers for corporations, and other technical and professional-level writing – I had no idea how short I was selling myself, both at the beginning, when I was earning only 7 cents per word, and later, when I was paid just $20 per 300-word biography.

Now, there’s little real difference from other content mills, except for the fact that I’ve already passed the tests and gotten my foot in the door. I looked into signing up for some others, but the list of things I had to do to get on the list of approved writers – before being permitted to bid on any jobs – was ridiculous. Plus I’m not giving anyone any “writing samples” on a topic of their choosing. If you want to see how I write, visit the Georgia Yankee blog or visit WiseGEEK, where there are over 200 articles under my byline. (You can see a clickable list of those articles here!)

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Previously known as “What’s the Matter With Atlanta Drivers? – Part 4

 

What’s the fascination with traffic lights here? I understand that when traffic lights change from green to red, we’re all supposed to stop, but why is it so important to slow, sometimes to a crawl, when encountering a green light? Is this phenomenon anything akin to that of rubbernecking, where drivers slow down, against almost to a crawl, so that they can get an eyeful of anything that’s already slowing down traffic, whether it’s an accident or a road construction gang? And often, they wait so long to start after the light changes from red to green, I’m certain they’re calling their parents – or their pastor – for guidance.

Here in Atlanta, drivers have some really nice cars. I rarely see a car more than ten years old, and I usually see cars that were made within the last five years or so. So perhaps the reason people drive so recklessly is that they know they’re driving safer cars . . . But it bothers me, it really does, that with all these nice cars, none of the drivers thought to get them equipped with turn signals! Especially when they so often need to cross four or five lanes of I-75 to make their exit!

I mean, come on now. When a driver’s actions are predictable, they contribute to a safer driving environment for everyone around! If the driver ahead of you on a two-lane country road starts signaling right, it’s a safe bet he’s going to start slowing down – and you’re going to be prepared for it if you’re driving along behind him. Compare that with driving behind some clown who decides, at the very last minute, to turn right, either slowing down without warning (or apparent reason), or slamming on the brakes at the last minute. Either is much more fraught with danger than signaling a right turn, gradually slowing, and making that turn.

And if you’re tooling along the Interstate and your exit’s coming up, be proactive and slide on over to the right lane beforehand. If you find you’re in the left lane and passing your exit, don’t slam on the brakes and try to veer across four or five lanes of traffic! Instead, bite the bullet and get off at the next exit!

 Or What’s the Matter with Atlanta Drivers? Part 3

The stupid driver behaviors described here certainly aren’t unique to Atlanta, and one – the “driving hat” – is more likely to be found in other places, especially where there are plenty of retired folks. I’m not going to waste your time with the stupid driver tricks we’re all too familiar with, though, like texting, eating cereal, or reading a newspaper while driving.

The Rolling Roadblock

Ever hear of the rolling roadblock? I hadn’t heard of it until a radio fellow named Jim Gearhart up in New Jersey started complaining about them. Here’s how it works: You’re on the road, driving merrily along in the right lane at a few miles over the limit (hey, this is Atlanta!). Like many roads, this one has two lanes going your way and two coming the other way – a four-lane road. You come over the top of a hill (and there are plenty of hills in Atlanta!) and slam on the brakes – you’ve encountered a rolling roadblock. In front of you, in the right lane, is a happy motorist who’s doing precisely the speed limit, and next to him, in the passing lane, is some yutz who’s matching his speed, preventing anyone from passing.

Why do these people do this? There’s no consensus. Some folks seem to think they’re smugly self-righteous drivers who think that it’s their mission to make sure that nobody breaks the speed limit. Others think they’re just idiots. Whichever, they’re dangerous because they impede the flow of traffic. The standard was, at least when I was learning to drive, that you drove in the right lane and used the left lane only for passing, after which you returned to the right lane. I’m assured by reliable sources that the standard still exists, even though it’s usually ignored. Well, d’uh!

The Space Cadet

Related to the rolling roadblock is the moron who drives slower than the flow of traffic in some lane other than the rightmost lane. Now, if someone doesn’t want to keep up with the flow of traffic, or exceed the speed limit, that’s fine, and if I’m stuck behind them on a 2-lane road (one lane in each direction), I don’t bear any grudge. Really! I wait for a passing opportunity and move along, but I’m not going to develop a bad feeling for someone who’s obeying the law, even if they’re slowing me down in the process.

We generally use the term space cadet to describe anyone who’s so distracted by surrounding events that they’re only peripherally involved in what they’re actually doing, and it’s easy to call the right-lane dawdler a space cadet as well. At least he (or she) is following the rules, though. The people I’m calling space cadets here are those whose lack of attention to what they’re doing is putting others’ health and lives at risk. On a moderately busy road, every instance of space cadets – slower cars not in the right lane – slows down the rest of the traffic, potentially leading to congestion and accidents, and definitely leading to irritated drivers.

Driving Hats

Mentioning Gearhart reminds me of a New Jersey driving phenomenon I haven’t seen (yet) in Atlanta – the “driving hat.” This is seen with alarming frequency in South Jersey. You’ll be driving along and come up on a car – usually a Cadillac or a big Buick – where the only clue that there’s a driver is the presence of a hat where a driver’s head should be. As you pass the car (because it’s usually going about half the speed limit) you stare in wonder, because all that you can see, from any direction, is that hat! The only time you can be certain that there’s an actual person there is if you see them park and get out of the car – at which point you find out it’s a little old man or woman, apparently well into the triple digits in age, and just as frequently no more than five feet tall, if that.

Other annoying things drivers do

Well, again, where do I start? The driver who never learned about turn signals (my wife calls them indicators) or who thinks they’re unnecessary optional equipment in the car (unnecessary because he knows where he’s going). The idiot who, at twilight, turns on his parking lights only when all other drivers have turned on their headlights. Or his cousin, who doesn’t bother turning on his headlights until it’s pitch black outside, because he can see where he’s going. (Hey, stupid – it helps other people see you, you moron!) Related to these fools is the clown who leaves his lights off in the most drenching downpour, and likely for the same reason – he can see the road just fine.

I could probably go on and on, but I actually have to get back to some writing that will help pay the bills . . .

This is the second of five parts of an article I wrote in 2007 about the foibles and follies of Atlanta drivers. Despite the passage of enough time for each of them to have had the article read to them personally by me, they continue to baffle and bewilder casual observer and frightened fellow-drivers alike.

More about cellphones. We all see drivers cruising along, cellphone pressed to their ear, and we’re certain they’re pretty much oblivious to what’s going on around them. So why is it that we can carry on a conversation with someone next to us in the car, but it becomes a bad thing when we talk to someone who’s not there? That’s the reason – they’re not there. When you’re talking to someone in the same car, you’re both watching the road, and if things get interesting, the conversation dies away until the road situation’s been dealt with.

When you’re driving and talking on the phone with someone, though, they don’t see the road. Hell, they may not even know you’re in a car! I remember once talking to my boss about salaries, a pretty detailed conversation, and all of a sudden I realized, from something he said, that he was driving – in an airport parking lot! (I told him to call me back when he got to his destination and hung up.)

So what happens – often – is that the conversation takes priority and the driver is only marginally involved in the act of driving, much more so than when talking to someone in the car with you. The miracle here – again – is that there aren’t a lot more fatalities.

Atlanta drivers engage in all sorts of other strange behavior behind the wheel as well. We’ve all seen someone eating a burger so large there’s no way he can keep his eyes on the road (“It takes two hands . . .”), but how many have seen someone reading a newspaper or book? Or the contortionist who’s watching the television installed for the rear-seat set? Or people with laptop computers in their laps, websurfing while they drive? And women are famous for putting on their makeup while driving to work, using the rearview mirror for guidance.

NOTE: Since I published this article, another annoying behavior surfaced, one which is highly dangerous: texting while driving. I’ve seen this extremely foolish behavior on Atlanta’s roads and highways, and it’s scary as hell. In fact, I’m tempted to blow my horn at such drivers, but I’m worried I’ll startle them and cause an accident.

I arrived in Georgia in 2003, and so let the record show that I waited a good long while, learning the habits and practices of the natives, before speaking up and writing this article in May of 2007. The problem is, it was more than 2,000 words when I first published it – I didn’t know then how important brevity is in online work! So I’m presenting it here in a few different parts, to make it an easier read.

Part 1

Woodstock, GA May 9, 2007: Look, I know the technical term for someone like me is “damn Yankee.” I’m a transplant from New Jersey, been here for just over three years. But like most Georgians, I have a vested interest in staying alive. But it seems as if every time I turn my key in the ignition, I’m taking my life in my hands!

So what IS the matter with Atlanta drivers? And are these problems unique to the Atlanta metropolitan area, or are they universal? I’ll tell you what – if they drove like this where I came from, there’d be a lot more fatalities. See, I come from the New York City metropolitan area, where there are three times as many people, probably something like two to three times as many cars, and perhaps half the roadway (measured in “lane miles”). There are always accidents up north, but they usually involve injuries. Here in the Atlanta area there seems to be at least one fatality per week.

Where should I start? How about at the beginning?

Okay, getting into the car. Seems as good a place as any to start, huh? Now, I don’t hang out in people’s driveways or garages, and so I can’t testify as to how they get into their cars there, but I do see their behavior in parking lots. And I see how they get into their cars. And let me tell you, it’s scary.

If you know me, you know that of the places on earth you’re likely to find human activity, I think parking lots are among the most dangerous, and airport and mall parking lots are the most dangerous of these. Imagine – acres and acres of pavement, with vehicles of all sorts driving all over the place, looking either for a place to park or a way out of the lot. Add to this confusing mix a constant stream of pedestrians trying to remember where they parked their cars. Sounds like a place where you’d want everyone on their toes, right? So why is it that the pedestrians, upon stepping into the parking lot, immediately start looking not for their car, but for their cellphones? And those who haven’t actually dialed and gotten engaged in a conversation by the time they find their car will stop at the point of actually getting into their car, whip out their cellphone and start dialing before opening the door to get in.

Now they magically transform from pedestrians to drivers. We all know that in a mall parking lot, the road markings and signs (the ones that say things like “Left turn only” and “STOP”) are there for guidance at best. Most drivers think they’re there as landmarks (“How do I get out of the parking lot?” “Okay, run down this lane until you get to that funny-lookin’ red sign there and turn left . . .”).

Given this deadly mix, I honestly don’t know why there aren’t more fatalities in parking lots, especially mall lots.

I wrote and published this almost two years ago, but my thinking hasn’t changed since. I thought it would be nice to include it in the new effort. As they say, without further ado . . .

June 18, 2010: I went to play tennis with my gorgeous wife this morning.  The idea was hers; on Saturday morning, my first impulse is to stay in bed; upon getting up, my first impulse is to return to bed.

We’re northwest of Atlanta, and we’re experiencing a heat wave this week.  Thus, we decided that if we’re going to do something like play tennis, we should do so before it got too hot.  Joan’s idea was to get up early and be on the court by nine.

We play at public courts in Cherokee County because the subdivision we live in was built before they invented tennis.  When we got to the courts, I was surprised to see that all four courts were empty, despite it being 10:00 or so.

After playing for a while, I took a break to use the restroom, a little shed about ten yards from the courts, an ideal location.  Both the men’s and ladies’ rooms had nice, freshly-printed signs on them.  Both, alas, were locked.  I wondered about that as I wandered off to use the restrooms by the baseball fields.  After going to all that trouble to print the signs to identify the two restrooms properly, why had they been locked?  Was someone concerned that they’d be misread?

It’s a nice sports complex at Hobgood Park, by the way, and the park gets a good amount of use, especially on weekends.  Today, all the baseball fields were in use by the various little league teams, and the walkways were filled with kids and their parents.  A nice scene.

Then I saw it.  On one of the gates to the complex, designed to be seen easily from the parking lot when the gates are licked, a painted metal sign: “Field’s Closed” It would have been okay if there’d been only one field, but there are three of four field’s – ahem, fields – protected by that gate. I looked around and saw a couple of other examples of misused apostrophes used in plural words.

Now, I know that many people are rolling their eyes.  What’s the big deal?  I’ll tell you the big deal – these are kids, children.  They’re in school.  They’re being brought up like good Americans, to have respect for authority.  They see the signs placed around the park, and they assume they’re properly spelled and punctuated.  And so they pick up a bad habit and perpetuate it.

My real question is this – why are these things allowed to happen?  Don’t the people in charge of signage in our public places know how to spell?  How long would a misspelled word last on a sign erected by the public library?
For years, every time I got a communication from my daughter’s school, I’d read it carefully.  When we lived in New Jersey, I’d say that about half of them contained some sort of spelling or punctuation error, or worse.  Here in Georgia, that percentage declined significantly, but every now and then there’d be something from the school that was, well, challenged.

I never contacted any school about this, though perhaps I should have.  I know that my estimation of their capabilities was affected by my realization that they cared so little for parents’ sensibilities that they would send out communications that contained errors of the sort they claimed to be teaching our children to avoid.

The same thing happens in everyday life.  I’d never walk into a restaurant with a misspelled sign in the window, and I’ve gotten up and walked out of restaurants with misspelled menu items (“bacon and egg’s”).  If you have so little respect for your customers that you can’t be bothered to spell menu items correctly, in what other ways will that lack of respect manifest itself?

So that’s today’s rant – if you’re going to go to the trouble of making a sign or printing a menu or sending a letter home to your students’ parents, take the time to express yourself clearly and make sure you spell and punctuate your words correctly.  It’s one of those things that few people will notice when you do it right, but many will notice when you do it wrong.

Employers are always looking for ways to save money. Since labor is usually one of the largest single costs of running a business, if not the largest, most employers look for savings there. One of the approaches some firms take is to reclassify some or all of their people as independent contractors (ICs), and pay them on what’s called a “1099” basis. This means that instead of withholding income and payroll taxes, the employer pays them 100% of their agreed-upon rate outside the payroll, and issues them a form 1099 at year’s end, instead of a W-2.

This can generate enormous savings right off the bat – 7.65% of wages are saved due to the elimination of payroll taxes. Most companies realize additional savings because independent contractors typically do not receive any employee benefits like health insurance.

So why don’t more employers do this? Because the law is fairly clear on the difference between an employee and an IC. In addition, the penalties for misclassifying an employee as an IC are significant, and all a misclassified employee has to do to get the IRS involved is file a simple form.

Put at its most elemental, if you’re buying workers’ time – like office or factory workers, for example – you cannot call them independent contractors because they’re not independent! On the other hand, if you’re paying someone strictly to perform a specific task, like writing content for your company web page or cleaning your bathrooms, and all you’re really concerned with is the finished product delivered on time, you might be dealing with an independent contractor. Since classifying someone as an IC is done primarily to save taxes, and since the IRS takes a dim view of misclassification, let’s see what the IRS has to say about it.

The IRS looks at control as the determinant of whether a worker is an employee or an IC. There are three sets of facts to determine the level of control:

Behavioral – to what degree does the company control the worker’s activities and how the job is performed? How much autonomy can the worker exercise to get the job done? Must the worker be on-site to do the job, and must the workers report at a particular time?

Financial – who pays the bills? Is the worker paid through a payroll account? Is the work done on the employer’s premises? Who provides tools and other equipment necessary to do the job? Does the employer reimburse the worker for expenses incurred?

Type of Relationship – are there any written contracts? How about employee-type benefits like health insurance, vacation pay, or retirement benefits?

These guidelines developed by the IRS are based on the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It identifies a few additional standards, such as the length of time a workers has worked for a company, and whether or not a worker can offer the same services to other companies. I think it’s clear, though, that there’s a big difference between independent contractors and employees, and that it’s usually not a good idea to reclassify an employee as an independent contractor, no matter mow much the employer might potentially save in payroll taxes!