Scamming writers

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Welcome to the internet. Sucker.

Scams are nothing new and at this stage neither is the internet. Whether it be someone offering to enlarge your penis – in the porn sense, the dating sense, the dysfunction sense, or the extra inch sense – or someone encouraging you to hate an out-group, the internet appears to be filled with scammers.

It was only this morning I received a very convincing looking invoice for a large order of books from a publisher I have been known to buy books from. Fortunately, I know some people in high places, like my friend the Nigerian prince, and they were able to warn me that I hadn’t actually ordered any books this week and should probably not click on the link to pay for them. Targeting readers and writers with scams are where I have to draw the metaphorical line in the metaphorical sand.

Most writers are hobbyists, writing because they love it. The handful that do get paid enough to be full-time writers are few and far between. So targeting writers with scams means that somewhere a monkey at a keyboard is not being fed today.

Let’s dissect a writing scam to see if we can spot the tricks used to part you from your potentially hard-earned money. This article was for a New, Amazing, Adjective, program that promises to give you the tools to write a 400-word article in 7 minutes. My comments are in blue.

Dear Fellow Article Writer

TA: This is a strong start. It creates kinship from a cold open. It wouldn’t read as well if they just called you a mark or sucker. Unless your name happens to be Mark. Or Sucker. But why would anyone call their child that? I mean, no offense to any Marks, but it’s a terrible name.

Did you watch the video above? It’s hard to believe so many people would send me such raving, unsolicited testimonials about my product, “How to Write an Article in 7 Minutes or Less“.

TA: I haven’t included the video but it is amazing how many unsolicited video testimonials appear to be shot with professional lighting and cameras.

If you did watch the video, you saw with your own eyes how I was able to take people who spent more than an hour writing an article down to as fast as 5 minutes per article!

TA: 5 minutes? I thought you said 7 minutes. Does this mean I get a 2 minute abs program as a bonus?

Would you like to experience the same results, without risking a penny? If so, then let me extend to you this unusual guarantee:

If you don’t cut your current article writing time down by at least 65% in less than a week after trying my methods, then not only will I refund every single cent of your purchase…

I’ll Give You DOUBLE Your Money Back!

TA: Cool, cool, cool, cool. But what if my average article writing time is 30 minutes and you only manage to bring it down by 65% to 10 minutes? Do I get 65% of my money back?

All you have to do is show me three articles you’ve written using my simple “7 minute formula” and tell me honestly that it didn’t at least increase your article writing speed by 65% while still maintaining the same quality and…

I will give you double your money back.

TA: This, folks, is called a caveat. 

Also, if for any reason at all you are unsatisfied, you can always ask me for a refund — no matter what — and I’ll promptly and quietly return every penny you paid in full.

TA: Is anyone else’s cynicsense tingling?

Either way you can’t lose.
How I Stumbled Upon the
Secret for Writing Articles Quickly!

Not too long ago I earned my keep ghostwriting for internet marketers.

If you read articles, forum posts or follow the “gurus” in anyway, chances are you’ve read something ghostwritten by me.

I have written thousands of articles for my clients, and along the way discovered a simple process for generating content quickly for almost any topic.

TA: Notice that this pitch pretty much precludes any allusions to quality writing.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Open my 3 special research sites. TA: Wikipedia? 
  2. Use my “skim and grab” research technique to find your
    3 main points (Takes about a minute).  TA: Yes, because reading comprehension is for suckers. 
  3. Outline each main point with two “sub points.” (another minute here). TA: What if there is only one point?
  4. Use the “opening paragraph” template to quickly create the first paragraph (About 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph, got it.
  5. Use the “main point” template to write paragraphs for each of your three main points. (2-4 minutes total time) TA: So, standard writing….
  6. Use the “conclusion paragraph” template to quickly create the conclusion. (another 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph at the end.
  7. Proof read your article, and then submit it to the appropriate directory. (1-2 minutes) TA: Click spellcheck and hope it doesn’t miss anything.

The cool thing about using these templates is you never have to pause to think…but… you also enough leeway so each article remains 100% unique, and of the highest quality.

TA: Yes, why would you want to actually put any thought into your writing. Highly overrated for quality content. This approach screams quality writing.

Don’t worry: My method has nothing to do with plagiarism!

TA: Of course not, copy and pasting clearly takes too long.

Anyway, you can learn all about my 7 minute article technique by reading my special report, “How to Write an Article In 7 Minutes”, and by watching the videos I made showing step by step how I do it.

But that’s not all… TA: Steak knives? Please be steak knives.

My first thought upon seeing the claim that you could learn to write an article in 7 minutes was that it was bullshit. The fact that people would find this plausible left me a little stunned, a little thirsty, and thinking about having a nap. Clearly, some people are going to be taken in by these kinds of scams. So I want to just illustrate my critical thinking process and how I avoided being scammed for $37 (I know, huge amounts of money).

Drawing from personal experience, I know that I’d spend more than 7 minutes just copying in the links to the research I’d be citing, let alone reading the 3 magic research sites. So the first check is to understand just how long certain tasks actually take you. This scam works on the idea that you don’t really measure the time it takes for common activities. You may know how long you spend on a full article or day’s writing, but not on the little parts, like one paragraph or one sentence. So when someone presents you with some figures, you are bound to think, “Well, I do spend a lot of time staring at the screen and checking my Twitter feed.” Suddenly you are partly receptive to the con.

Let’s have a look how long writing actually takes the average person. Being a science nerd, I like to have a few figures around on writing, reading, average number of Facebook posts per hour; you know, important stats. The average person has a typing speed of 60-100 words per minute, which gives you 400-700 words written in 7 minutes. The page claims a 400-word article with 5 minutes of actual writing time. So the claim is physically possible. Just. But that is typing speed, not writing speed. Typing is just mashing a bunch of keys in the correct order, writing requires a little more thought as to what those mashed keys actually communicate.

What about editing? Nothing is perfect on a first draft, nothing! So even if this is a 400-word article written in 5 minutes, you still need to edit. Reading speed is not the same as proofreading speed, with average speeds of 180-200 words per minute. That’s another 2-3 minutes.

Aaannnddd, we’re out of time. Sorry, folks.

Just the physical act of writing and reading your new article chews up the time allocation. Unless this program comes with a Deloren or Time Turner it is unlikely to have you churning out 8 articles an hour.

But what if the program can reduce my writing time by 65%, I hear a brave new bridge owner chewing on brain pills ask.

Well then, send me $40 and I’ll send you some templates that I guarantee will improve your writing by 69%, add inches to your IQ, and make Nigerian royalty give you money. Trust me, no-one lies on the internet.

Book vs Movie: The Iron Giant – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix is all about giant killer robots learning to love.

Twenty years on and who’d have thought that two of Vin Diesel’s most memorable and acclaimed roles would have been voicing laconic characters.

This was an interesting instalment of What’s the Difference as I wasn’t aware that The Iron Giant was based upon a book. Apparently, The Iron Man was a story Ted Hughes developed to help his children deal with the death of their mother, Sylvia Plath. And obviously, grieving kids back in the 60s needed to also deal with impending nuclear war. I wonder if there will be any people left to look back in wonder at our generation’s stories and themes?

Obviously, the movie is pretty flawless*. It oozes charm and classic animated movie appeal. The existential concept of you are who you choose to be is a fantastic narrative element. Or as the director, Brad Bird, put it in his pitch, “What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?”

I think another part of the appeal of this film was that it only became successful after failing at the box office and being mismanaged in all of its marketing. There were no toy and fast-food tie-ins. No big ad campaigns. This is a movie that found success because it was a good movie. As such, it managed to retain its charm because it didn’t need to support a toy-line and limited edition drink containers at Burger-Donalds.

So when Warner Bros inevitably remakes The Iron Giant, I look forward to the mountains of crass action figures that will be available, with flashing lasers and launchable rockets.*

* He says having not watched it in the best part of two decades.

** All parts made of plastic and sold separately.

When kangaroos jump high, how do they secure their baby?

Much like any other commuter in Australia, Kangaroos have to obey certain laws and regulations. One of those laws is that all young must be restrained so that in event of an accident, say a mother Kangaroo misjudging the distance between her and a tree and slamming into it, the Joey isn’t flung about in the pouch.

See these guidelines for more.

The most common restraint for younger Joeys is a capsule, then a three-point restraint seat. See the table below.

carseat_grid

Of course, just as not every adult human wears a seatbelt, not every parent Kangaroo is as concerned with safety as others. Those terrible parent Kangaroos tend to rely on the Joey being small and the strength of the pouch muscles to hold the Joey still. They are also likely to lay off too much bouncing once the Joey gets bigger.

Usually, the final straw is when the Joey defecates too much in the pouch. Then it is time for the Joey to do its own bouncing and let mum have a rest.

Hope that helps.

This helpful answer originally appeared on Quora.

Are Aussies ashamed that they lost a war against Emus?

In answer to “Are Aussies ashamed that they lost a war against Emus” there needs to be some context to how us brave Aussies were able to valiantly defend ourselves to the last against the evil horde of emus.

First of all, as I’ve outlined in a blog post, yes, this Emu War actually happened. Roughly 20,000 emus invaded the Eastern Wheatbelt area, discovering newly cleared farmland filled with crops and watering points for sheep. They liked this supply of food and water and were ambivalent toward the soldier settler (and other) farmers’ tough run of grain prices and droughts.

They turned up their tails at the mere thought that farmers might be doing it tough. They stuck their beaks into food that wasn’t theirs – and don’t give me any of that “they were there first” and “it was their land” and “do you want to see them starve” nonsense. Take your bleeding heart elsewhere, hippy!

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Pure Evil

Since these were ex-soldiers facing ruin (from drought, grain prices, broken subsidy promises, and emus – blame the killer emus!), they liked the idea of using machine-guns (2 Lewis Guns) against the birds in the same way they’d used them against opposing infantry in WW1. They wanted to reminisce about mass slaughter, even if it wasn’t against the most deadly of game.

This didn’t go anywhere near as well as expected. Emus are faster, harder to kill outright, and generally not running straight at a machine-gun embankment like some sort of pea-brained… Anyway, their casualties were low.

Two attempts were made at an emu cull, but ultimately the government decided to offer a bounty on emus instead. Later they went with the tried and trusted move of building a fence to keep the emus out of agricultural areas (along with dingoes, wild dogs, rabbits, kangaroos – although the latter laugh at attempts to build a fence they can’t jump over).

These efforts combined with increased land clearing, increased pest species (wild dogs, rabbits, etc), and increased fossil fuel burning slowly baking the entire planet, have led to a decline in all native Aussie wildlifeincluding emus.

That context should show you that the emus may have won the battle but they lost the war.

So, no, Aussies don’t feel bad about losing a battle.

This answer first appeared on Quora.

Exercise articles

Confession: I’m an exercise junkie.

If I don’t get my fix I start doing pushups and handstands in inappropriate places.

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Seriously, WTF?

I’ve lifted weights for a couple of decades now. How the time flies. Back in my day gyms weren’t like they are now with their… actually, they haven’t changed that much. The challenge of lifting heavy stuff is cool and the added side effects of being (subjectively) stronger, fitter, healthier and sexier are awesome.

Fitness is sexy
Fitness is sexy. Steroids are sexier.

After being around gyms and fellow fitness junkies this long you start to realise that articles on how to get in shape are as numerous as new programs claiming to be the best program ever. Every person and their pet has their five cents on the subject (cough, cough). There is nothing wrong with different programs with different ideals. Not everyone loves running, not everyone loves bench pressing on Mondays, not everyone needs to look super lean for their next Instagram shoot. Variety can be good. And some variety can be quite funny:

functional-stupid

But something happened to me between when I wrote about an F45 promotional ad news article and now. I’ve stopped reading exercise articles, blogs, and scientific papers.* Essentially, there are only so many times you can read “Exercise in a progressive way and eat healthily in amounts that match your energy needs/expenditure.” Doesn’t stop people writing them though.

Okay, big deal, you’re tired of reading the same 3 articles (Eat less/more, Do exercises that address a weakness, Train to progress), what’s your point?

Good question, imaginary audience surrogate.

Not a problem. Are you going to answer the question?

Not unless you can find a way to incorporate the answer into a segue to my list of things to look out for in any fitness article.

1) Fake experts.

So many articles are written by some unqualified hack who just happens to be in good shape in spite of any fitness program and diet they followed. These hacks quite often have some impressive modelling photos, or celebrity cache, or online course credentials, or all of the above. Sometimes the fake expert will be the opposite of this, with lots of legitimate qualifications and knowledge but zero idea of how to apply it.** Often it is very hard to tell the difference between an actual expert and someone who woke up with abs one morning and decided to advise others on how to do the same.

What to look for:
Fake experts will try to reveal some magic secret or brand new piece of knowledge but will likely have little evidence or be running counter to the majority of evidence. They’ll be citing one study, or what worked for them, or some other similarly small amount of evidence.

2) Quack medicine

The fitness industry is filled with alternative/complementary medicine nonsense. Health-conscious people will go looking for medical help. And there are lots of quacks looking to lighten their wallets.*** If any of this stuff worked it wouldn’t be called alternative medicine, it would just be medicine. Many of these fitness articles lend credence to quack medicine or use quack medicine to support their claims. The advantage of using quack claims is that it doesn’t require real evidence, which makes it easy to sell people on the new fitness fad.

What to look for:
If it comes under the banner of (S)CAMS or alternative medicine, there’s a good chance the article is rubbish.

3) BRAND NEW!!!

I remember when F45 was called circuit class. I remember when HIIT was called interval training. When Crossfit was just a cult… nothing new there. A few tweaks here, a brand name there, and you have the new fitness craze. This is more marketing than anything because no one wants last season’s wheel, have to reinvent it.

What to look for:
Advertorial disguised as news or an article.

4) Buzzwords, appeals, and contradictions

Have you tried holistic functional fitness? Get a six-pack for summer! How to focus on this extensive list of things.

This sort of meaningless nonsense is rife in an industry represented by people who failed high school. You know: athletes. You either focus on one thing, or you aren’t focussing at all. What exactly makes swinging a kettlebell functional versus doing a weightlifting snatch? How exactly does balancing on a ball while I wave dumbells around get me a six-pack and not a date with my shoulder surgeon? All these questions and more will be glossed over as someone tries to sell you on their new program or fill space between adverts for supplements you don’t need.

What to look for:
Marketing and spin.

5) Random numbers

Articles will often have a set of numbers that will be regarded as heavy or a long distance or a fast time by the author. Most often, these numbers are made up or arbitrary. This is most obvious when the numbers aren’t given any context. E.g. One-hundred kilograms is ridiculously heavy for a bicep curl, but light for a deadlift by an experienced lifter who weighs at least 80% of that.

Sometimes these numbers are just naïve. That sounds big enough to me. Sometimes they are humble brags. Yeah, those are my bench numbers. Impressed? Sometimes they are the inflated internet numbers. What do you mean only three people in history have run a faster time than that?

What to look for:
The context for the numbers or a reference to accepted standards.

Hope this helps you become disillusioned too.

 

* What? Didn’t I mention I’m a nerd and like going to the source for information?

** This is surprisingly common across a range of science fields. We may have the answer down to an amazing level of detail but it has little application to the average situation. E.g. a highly knowledgable nutritionist might be able to give you a full biochemical breakdown of how what you’re eating is killing you, but that does very little to address the underlying habits and reasons for those habits that would lead to actual diet changes.

*** To be fair, many of the alternative medicine people are genuine in wanting to help. The problem is that they have been sold on nonsense and become unwitting purveyors of it themselves. In many instances, reputable institutions who should know better hand out degrees in this stuff. Odd that the chiropractors aren’t in the physio or medicine faculties.

Oh, and before anyone says “My chiropractor is great” it is worth noting that most chiropractors make major misleading claims. “Physiotherapists didn’t make any major misleading claims, whereas 70% of misleading claims on chiropractor websites were major.”

What even is literature?

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Back a few years ago, the Nobel committee created a minor furore for awarding Bob Dylan – known for his performances in Hearts of Fire* and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – a Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such.

My criticisms of literature stem from who performs this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

As I pointed out recently, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked or instated, as tastes change.

Thus, having the Nobel committee awarding Dylan’s lyrics a literary prize might actually be about them trying to bridge the divide. They could possibly be about making us all think of lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

I look forward to future Nobel Prizes for Literature being handed to Dan Brown and James Patterson. Because they are certainly pushing literature in an interesting direction.

* This is a great reference. Seriously. Check for yourself.

How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

There is a joke that started a month or two ago about how HBO subscriptions were going to cease once Game of Thrones concluded. The implication is that despite a long history of high-quality TV shows – Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Flight of the Concords, Banshee*, and Strikeback** – the station will suddenly have nothing to offer audiences.

This argument reminded me of a PBS Ideas Channel video I shared on how technology is changing TV shows.

It raises an interesting point about how there appear to be more complex narratives in TV shows now. And in light of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, audiences are expecting more from networks that they doubt can be provided.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows has a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which in turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge-watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

* Banshee is criminally underappreciated.

** I stand by including this on the list. Show me another TV show that managed to do more in one episode than most entire action movies with 10x the budget.