Descent into Chaos

Sometime between Christmas and New Year, I had some time to myself and decided to check out How it Ends on Netflix. It’s a heart-warming movie about an old-school, retired Marine father and his grown daughter’s lawyer boyfriend (who has gotten her pregnant) bonding on a road-trip from Chicago to Seattle the see the daughter. The road-trip is prompted by an unspecified cataclysmic event which has halted all air travel, interrupted communication, and caused to Army to restrict use of the interstate highway system. It isn’t a terrible movie, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but it did seem to be a little unrealistic in that within a matter of just a few days, America goes from the functional society we know, to ruthless Mad Max style anarchy, where a stranger is more likely to shoot than to say hello, and a gallon of gas can be worth several lives.

Then I saw the news. With the government shutdown, a majority of National Park Service employees have been furloughed while the Parks remain open. With a lack of authority in the Parks, the denizens of the United States came in, bringing chaos and destruction. I enjoy travel, and life outdoors, and have visited and camped at several National Parks, so with Google scouring my internet activity to determine my preferences, I have been buffeted with news articles about the wanton maltreatment of our parks. Everything from fights over campsite use, to damaging millennia old trees with Christmas lights, to public defecation.

I had believed that our culture in the United States included respect for these special places that have been set aside for generations to enjoy the unmolested beauty of nature, or at least that the people interested in visiting such places had respect for them, but apparently I was wrong. Now I just hope that the our representatives in Congress can put together a budget that will get the Parks fully staffed again and the damages can be repaired while repair is still an option. And I also see that the quick descent into chaos portrayed in How it Ends maybe isn’t all that unrealistic.

Yosemite Nation Park, September 2016
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Bear Country

I posted a picture a few weeks ago in another post, and never gave any kind of information about what it is; it’s about time I remedy that.

A few weeks ago I rounded up the children and the dog, tossed them all in the minivan, and drove up to Bear Lake in the Blackwater River State Forest. I like to imagine that I’m an outdoorsy kind of person. I enjoy taking a walk in the woods, living out of a tent, and sleeping in a hammock. I don’t do it as much as I’d like to though. I have a tent that I bought four years ago and have used on three occasions since, once was in the back yard, and only the kids spent the night in the tent.

Anyway, I drug the kids into the forest and forced them to walk with me around Bear Lake. For something that was supposed to be relaxing, it turned out surprisingly stressful. That weekend there was a multi-sport event going on that would have athletes running the same trail around the lake as we were walking on. We had arrived early, the event staff had just gotten set up, and as far as I could tell there were no runners on site yet. The trail wound its way around the lake, and I decided it would be wise to go the opposite direction of the runners, thinking I would be able to see them coming and could move aside to keep out of the way.

Bear Lake
Ferns along the trail

It was a beautiful day with great weather for a hike. Starting off I had to keep calling to the youngest not to get too far ahead of everyone else. He tired himself out too soon, and before long I was calling back to all of the kids to hurry and catch up with me and the dog. I stopped a few times to allow them to catch up, the first spot had a small wooded pier with a view of the lake. The swampy area in the picture above wasn’t too far past that.

When we started out, walking away from the end of the race, there were many signs on the sides of the trail with motivational phrases on them, encouraging runners to finish strong and letting them know they were almost done. Those signs became more widely spaced the farther we got away from the finish, and eventually ended and were replaced by much smaller trail markers placed for the event. The trail is well traveled, and there were only a few places for someone to take a wrong turn, so most of the markers probably weren’t necessary.

The trail around the lake is mostly flat, but there were a few low points where rain water from earlier in the week hadn’t dried up yet. Most of the puddles weren’t huge and were easy to avoid. About two thirds of the way around the lake we came to a spot where the trail had become a mud pit with no easy way around it. I tried to navigate a clean and dry path through the obstacle and was moderately successful, stepping on tree roots, and slightly raised clods of dirt. Meanwhile the dog happily waded through the muddy water becoming filthy in the process. I told my children to step exactly where I had stepped, but I might as well have told them to figure out their own way across, because that’s exactly what they did. Looking at their now slimy, black, shoes and socks was pretty annoying, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it at the time.

We kept walking and the kids kept dawdling and falling farther and farther behind. Up to this point we had only seen three runners on the trail, and none of them seemed to be participating in the event that was going on; I kept expecting at any moment a pack of adrenaline crazed runners to come stampeding down the trail towards us. Meanwhile the trail was becoming narrower, and the forest undergrowth on either side was becoming thicker, making it more difficult to find a way to avoid the impending charge. In my mind’s eye I saw the runners at the front of the pack rushing towards us without a thought other than to win their race, and my kids having the classic deer-in-headlights reaction, then either colliding with runners, or being knocked off the trail into mud and brambles. With these thoughts in my head, I kept yelling for the kids to hurry up, hoping the trail would widen again, or we would get all the way around before the race started.

We finally came to an open area where the trail reentered the woods in front of us, and also forked to the left across the top of the dirt dam that created the lake, going directly to the lake’s campground and the parking lot where our minivan waited. We crossed the dam, and as we closed in on the parking area, I saw the first and only racer I would see that day, a woman who was just staring, and a race staffer who told her across the dam was the short route, and farther down she would find the longer route. I assume that the race was set up to have the runners start individually as they arrived, rather than gathering up to start as a group, and that all the runners who had already started went the long way, and hadn’t reached the point where we crossed the dam yet. All my stress and worry and attempts to hurry my children were unnecessary in the end.

I pressed the buttons on the key fob to open the sliding doors of the van and started to tell the kids to take off their shoes before getting in, but they moved faster than I had seen them move all day, and leaped into the vehicle at the first opportunity, tracking mud with them and making a huge mess inside the van. I would happily take them again, but next time I think I’ll do some research just to make sure there aren’t any events planned that I’ll have to worry about.

The Frustration of Honesty

I’ve mentioned before trying to earn income from the comfort of home through freelance writing, editing, and by selling products through Teespring.  Everything I’m trying to sell is original content, either photographs which I personally took, or original artwork; I would never try to make money by stealing other people’s work.  For the photographs, that’s not so bad, people will either like a photo or they won’t, as long as the photo isn’t crumby and is a place, thing, or a style that they are interested in.  When it comes to artwork it can get frustrating.

A pink tank top with an image of Florida and the words "Stay Strong Panhadle"
Hurricane Michael Tank Top

I’m not a well known artist.  In fact, you could take the word “well” out of that sentence, and there are likely folks who would say you could also take out the word “known.”  No one is looking to buy artwork simply because I created it, so my challenge is to come up with designs people just want to buy.  I haven’t quite zeroed in on a target audience yet.  My best seller so far is a design I made the day after Hurricane Michael came through the area.  My home was safe, but not 50 miles east was massive destruction.  I created the design with the intention of donating any profits to help with the hurricane relief efforts.  So far that design has earned around $50, I’ve donated all of that to the American Red Cross, except for six dollars and some change, which I’ll donate at the end of this week (just waiting to see if there are any more sales to raise that amount).  My second best selling design is “Save the Dodo.” I thought it would be funny to have a t-shirt from environmentalist efforts to save the dodo bird from extinction, which would make it over 350 years old.  Somewhere in the world there is one other person who also thought that was funny, since I have sold a grand total of one shirt to date.

A cream colored t-shirt with an image of a dodo and text encouraging the preservation of the bird
Save the Dodo!

No one wants to buy a product they don’t even know exists.  That meant I’d have to market my products, so I took to my meager collective of Facebook friends to spread the word.  Whenever I’d put a new design on sale on Teespring, I’d announce it on Facebook.  I even downloaded some royalty free photographs from websites like Pexels.com and Pixabay.com to make mock-ups of attractive people wearing my shirts.  For the dodo design I went as far as putting Charles Darwin’s head on a model wearing a white t-shirt, which became my dodo shirt (I do know the dodo went extinct in the 1660’s and Darwin was born in 1809, but it was funny).  All this effort got a few people to look at my listings, but didn’t lead to any sales.  This is where the frustration comes in.

Dodo

With all my t-shirt posts on Facebook, their multi-million dollar algorithms that figure out exactly what I like, and then feed me advertising geared toward my personal preferences, decided that I must really like graphic t-shirts.  Now whenever I check my Facebook, I see sponsored posts selling t-shirts.  The main difference between the shirts I keep seeing on Facebook and the shirts I’m trying to sell, is that they are not original content.  Everyone I’ve seen so far blatantly ignores copyright law and intellectual property rights.  They are also thrown together with minimal effort.  

I’ve seen a lot of Snoopy and The Nightmare Before Christmas shirts being sold, also various Marvel and DC super hero designs, popular characters that people want to buy.  Mostly the images are composites of say, a stock image of an old pickup truck, with Snoopy pasted into the driver’s seat, and Jack Skellington riding in the back with a stock clip art Christmas tree.  That or it’s fan art lifted from Pinterest of Mickey Mouse dressed as Bat-man, dancing with Snoopy being transformed into Venom.  All of these have thousands of comments like “Bill, you need this,” and, “This is perfect for you, Sarah,” and, “Grandma, top of the Xmas list.” All tagging friends, and making the advertisement appear in those people’s feeds too. 

Once I read a few comments, and noticed that whenever someone would ask about the quality of the products, or shipping limitations, or something else along those lines, there was a prompt reply assuring that the shirts were of the highest quality and could ship worldwide.  I made a comment asking how they were able to secure the licensing rights from Disney.  I never got a reply. 

Huge corporations like Disney don’t like these copyright infringing products being sold, but it usually isn’t worth the time or effort for them to take action.  It’s very frustrating to see thousands of people being duped into buying these illegal products, while my 100% legal equivalent product isn’t moving at all, just because I lack a popular image.

I am happy that I was able to sell one of the Dodo shirts.  I made a whole fifty-five cents on that sale.  The buyer clicked a link in a Teespring marketing email, and bought the shirt at a discount, which comes out of my cut before Teespring’s, also whoever first sold to that customer, putting them on Teespring’s marketing list, gets a cut of the profit, and Teespring takes a little out of my profit for including my products in their marketing.  Still it’s one more shirt than I would have sold otherwise and fifty-five cents more than I had before, and all it cost me was the effort of drawing a dodo and coming up with a catchy, possibly 1650’s sounding phrase about not letting the dodo become extinct from being hunted for food by sailors.  With any luck that one sale will lead to more sales, and I’ll earn some real money from it.

Hey everybody, follow me!

Where are we going?  I started blogging with WordPress to gain experience blogging, and for practice writing.  I’ve been mostly antisocial for a long time, at least when it comes to the online world.  I used to use my Facebook account just to communicate with family members who stopped replying to emails, but were active on Facebook.  I’d get friend requests from people I didn’t know, or were just passing acquaintances, and ignore or deny them.  For a long time I almost never posted anything, and when I did I always made sure it was only viewable by my friends and family, not the general public.  And that was it.  I think I started a Twitter account and an Instagram account as a means to enter some contests (didn’t win anything), but I never used those account for anything else.

With my profound lack of experience in online social networking, I was very surprised by the reaction to my new WordPress blog; with just three previous blog posts I’ve already gained 30 followers.  Some of my followers seem to be there for financial or commercial reasons.  Some tags or keywords I used were picked up on, and they followed my blog in hope that I would in turn check and possibly follow their related blog, laced with advertisements.  I don’t have a problem with that, if I can get a decent following on here, I will probably switch up to a paid account and throw some advertising on my pages to earn a little extra money.

What I am very curious about is how many of my followers actually follow my blog.  So far I’ve received three comments, all on the same day, all on the same blog post, and all flagged as spam by WordPress.  They are also written in some version of English that is edging into utter nonsense.  I’m not sure how much the average blog reader feels the need to comment on posts, but I sort of thought that with 30 followers, there’d be at least one, “I liked your post,” or a, “Welcome to WordPress, good luck with your new blog,” something along those lines.  Or, maybe I’m expecting too much right out of the gate.  I certainly didn’t expect to so quickly gain 30 followers, so maybe it’s a bit much to expect any comments so soon.  I suppose I’m okay with quid pro quo followers picking up my blog so that I will pick up theirs.  It might actually be a good marketing strategy, perhaps once I nail down a single topic to make my blog about, I’ll prowl WordPress looking for other bloggers writing about similar themes to follow in hopes they’ll follow me.

Here’s a few pictures that have nothing to do with this post, but I’m thinking my next post may revolve around one of them.  Sort of a, “Next time on The Life and Times of Johnny,” way to close out this post.  And remember, your comments are welcome, but please, no spam.

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Music to My Ears

My daughters are both very talented.  The older girl is in her high school’s band, and the younger one is in the band in middle school.  She plays the flute.  At the end of the school year last spring, a family friend’s daughter graduated high school.  She had played the flute, and either didn’t plan to continue playing, or was getting a higher quality instrument.  Either way, her old flute was given as a gift to my daughter.  Musical instruments can be expensive, so a free flute seemed great to me.

After school started again this fall, my daughter was having some trouble with the flute, there were a few notes that she couldn’t play on it.  We took it to a local music shop to see if they could find the problem and fix it.  The flute is made by Mendini, which it turns out is a low-end instrument maker and the music shop wouldn’t even look at it.  They told us that even if they could fix it, it would just go back to playing poorly soon after.  We went home disappointed, where I had my daughter play the instrument for me, while I tried to see what was going on when it wouldn’t make the notes.  I took a closer look at the keys she was pressing for the bad notes, and what holes those opened or closed.  I did find a rod that was slightly bent, and preventing two holes from being completely closed off.  I grabbed a jeweler’s screwdriver, removed the faulty rod, and straightened it out as best I could.  After reassembling the flute, I had my daughter play it again.  It was better, not great, but definitely better than before.  My daughter went back to school with the flute, and I waited to hear how the instrument worked out in her band class.

Being a teenager, most of the feedback my daughter gives me consists of shoulder shrugs, “hmmm,” and, “okay, I guess.”  That was exactly what I got from here when I asked how the flute was working out.  All the while the words of the music shop employee were echoing in my head, that it was just a matter of time before the flute malfunctioned again.  Researching the music shop’s website, I found a list of instrument brands they can do work on.  Some were familiar like Yamaha, others I had never heard of before like Gemeinhardt.  I did some checking online, and found that there were plenty of used flutes from the higher-end makers on Ebay.  After a few auctions I was able to win a Gemeinhardt 2SP flute for less than $50, which was thrilling to me, since a brand new one costs over $500.

The flute came in, and I had my daughter try it out.  It sounded pretty good, at least as good as her other one, but it was in pretty rough shape, there were a few dents, the silver plating was tarnished, and most of the pads which close the holes looked pretty worn out.  I checked Amazon and got a repair kit for under $30.  The kit from Instrument Clinic came with replacement pads, shims for the pads, an LED light to check for leaks, oil for the moving parts, silver polish, new springs, a cork for the head joint; everything I’d need to tune up the old flute.  It was time to get to work.

Taking apart the flute was easy enough, I took pictures as I was working to make sure I knew where each piece went for reassembly.   dsc_7137

After cleaning and polishing all the separated parts, I went to work replacing the worn out pads.  That’s where the whole enterprise became something of a nightmare.  I’d put in the new pads, then reattach that set of keys to the flute body, take it into a dark area, and check for light leaks around the pads.  Not once did it work out the first time.  I’d have to take the keys back off, add some shims, put the keys back on, then check it again.  I’d say that there was somewhere around five times going through the assemble, light leak check, disassemble, shim/de-shim, reassemble cycle for each key.  After three days, it seemed like everything was good to go.  I had my daughter try to play the flute, and half the notes she tried to play sounded the same as if I’d taken a copper pipe off the sink drain and blown through it.

Trying to get feedback from my daughter was futile.  She gave the same standard responses of shoulder shrugs, “hmmm,” and, “okay, I guess.”  Nothing that helped me pin down what specific keys were causing the failures.  I went back looking for light leaks, as well as wedging the keys shut, plugging one end of the body, and blowing into the other end to find where air was leaking out.  This led to another marathon session of making tiny adjustments to each key, all the while I kept thinking how stupid it was of me to think I could do this, the flute had played better before I’d done anything, and I should have left well enough alone.

I don’t know how to play the flute, and can’t make a sound, even with a good instrument, so every time I thought it may finally be good, I’d have to wait for my daughter to get home from school to try it out.  After a week of messing with the instrument, I’d finally gotten it to the point that when my daughter would play it, I could hear a different note for every different note she tried to play.  I have no idea if those notes are right, but they’re there.  I finished everything up with the instrument, patched up and cleaned up the case which was also falling apart, and passed it off to my daughter, with instructions to let me know if she had any trouble with it, and to stick a piece of masking tape on the keys she was pressing when it didn’t sound right.

I want her to take both flutes she has to school and let her band teacher tell her how they each sound, but so far she is just using the Mendini still.  I’m really hopeful that the Gemeinhardt is good.  If so maybe I can add flute repair to my resume.  Though after stressing over that instrument for a week, I don’t know if I’ll ever want to do that again.

The Many Reasons to Write a Blog

There are myriad reasons to blog, as many as there are people.  Some bloggers are looking to build vast followings and monetize their blogs with advertising.  Others just want to share their thoughts with others.  Some may really like puppies and feel it is their solemn duty to tell the world about any cute and/or interesting puppies they have seen.

For me, the main reason I started this was to gain experience.  In my last post, I wrote a little about my tribulations trying to find freelance work online.  One roadblock to writing gigs has been my lack of experience.  Oh, I’ve written plenty.  For years written products like performance evaluations, official letters, and instructions were my bread and butter.  But today people are hot for blogs.  They are a way to advertise a business or service that don’t  overtly look like advertisements.  When I was contacted on Freelancer.com by a potential client for a writing gig, the first question asked was about my experience with blogging.  My answer at the time was none.  So that’s why I decided to start blogging.  Now I can honestly say I am an experienced blogger.

As a secondary reason, I just like to write.  Back when I was a starry eyed high school student, I thought I would be a professional writer, pumping out best selling novels.  I wrote some short stories that earned me pretty good grades in my English classes, some of them also earning gawks and stares from fellow students when we would have to read our stories to the class.  I even did some semi-professional writing; I did a couple of video game reviews for a website after playing demos at the local Best Buy.  I can’t remember the website, but it was dedicated to the Nintendo 64 when that was the hot new video game system.  So this should give me some good practice writing.  Before retirement, some of my colleagues said I should write a travel guide to the places I’ve visited while on active duty.  They were mostly joking, but I’ve started working my travel book.  It’s far from finished, and I’m hoping that by writing here it will provide me the motivation and inspiration to keep working at it, and also I’m hoping to receive some feedback here that will help me improve overall.

I hope I’m not alienating too many of the people who saw my first post last week and thought I’d be writing mainly about working from home.  As a warning to all, I don’t have one particular topic in mind to blog about.  I full expect this will be a meandering road, and the topics I write about may change wildly from post to post.  I may even end up writing about cute and/or interesting puppies I’ve seen, but right now, I’m not planning on it.

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How did it come to this?

Work from home.  Make money online.  It sure sounds great.  It’s probably not workable for everyone.  So how did I get here?  Why am I writing about this?  It’s because twenty years is a long time.  For me it was long enough.  I retired from active duty in the Navy this past summer after a 20 year career.  It was good, and rewarding, but also tough and hard on my family.  We could have toughed it out longer, but I just didn’t want to anymore.  We’d saved up enough that with my pension and the savings, I didn’t need to go back to work, not right away at least.  I am planning to get back to a regular job, but since I can afford to be picky right now, I’m holding out for the jobs where I think I will be happy.  And that takes some time.  Sometimes I find myself with very little to do with my time (like now).  So, I figured with the extra time on my hands, I might as well do something to put a few more dollars in the bank.

I messed with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for a while.  Holy cow, that is a weird thing.  You can do a lot of surveys, and get a few pennies for each.  Some people want things written; I did one that had a one to two sentence beginning to a story, and a one to two sentence end, with the task of creating the story of what happened in between and what the moral of the story is.  That was kind of odd, I may have been doing someone’s homework, I’m not sure.  There are others asking you to Facebook or LinkedIn stalk companies, finding missing pieces of information, such as names and contact info for people in the organisation, some of those seemed a little shady, and quite a few have a ridiculously short time limit, so when you submit the work you are denied any payment.  I’m not sure if the person who put the task on Mechanical Turk still gets the results of your unpaid work when that time expires, hopefully not.  It was a good waste of time, but the small change I was pulling in at Amazon’s internet based sweatshop wasn’t worth the time and effort I was putting in.

Something I’ve always liked is taking pictures.  After 20 years of the Navy bringing me to exotic locals all over Asia, I’ve taken thousands of pictures.  There’s probably a half dozen good ones in my collection.  Years ago, the photo lab at the Lemoore Navy Exchange had a picture I took in Yosemite blown up and hanging on their wall.  Other people might want that too.  I searched for websites to facilitate selling my photos as wall art, and found out that Teespring does posters and canvases now.  I already had account; years ago I started one so my daughter could sell a t-shirt as a fund raiser.  So, I got onto Teespring.com and put some photos up for sale as posters, and stickers, and coffee mugs, and leggings.  There might be some socks on there too.  But I figured that people aren’t going to Teespring looking for a poster of commuters alighting from a train in Japan, or ravens doing raven things over the Grand Canyon, they’re looking for t-shirts.  Another thing I’d liked is drawing.  I put together a couple of cruise patches in my last squadron, those sold well, so how hard could this be?  So far I’ve put about ten shirt designs on Teespring, and have five photograph posters.  It’s only been about a month since I started and so far I have sold one t-shirt to myself, and someone else has bought two.  Those two were a design that I have promised to donate all profits from to charity for Hurricane Michael relief.  So I’ve made a grand total of negative nineteen dollars and forty-three cents.  I did donate $16.14 from the Hurricane Michael shirt sales, so at least someone’s gotten a little money from my work.

I’m also trying Freelancer.com and Upwork.com.  Originally I had labeled myself as an artist and graphic designer, after seeing some submissions from a Freelancer.com contest our First Class Association had ran for a t-shirt design.  The submissions they had gotten were clearly put together with some clip art found on Google and about ten minutes of work on something like Corel Draw or Adobe Photoshop.  I figured that was an easy way to make a few bucks, but it wasn’t panning out so much.  Too many potential clients don’t provide a clear vision of what they are looking for and want it in unreasonable time frames on ridiculously low budgets.  Then, after reading too many news articles online with glaring grammar and typing errors, many from well known, professional publishers, I decided the world was in desperate need of competent proofreaders and editors, so I added those skills to my Freelancer and Upwork profiles, along with writing.  So far on Freelancer I’ve been contacted by two clients, both of them scams, one asking for permission to use my PayPal account to build an Upwork account, the second just looking to buy my Upwork account.  And therein lies the biggest hurdle with these freelance markets, cyber sweatshops in places like Malaysia and India with more accounts than workers flood the market with low quality work and are more than happy to bring in pennies for each job, since they are able to complete thousands of jobs a day, where someone like me can complete just one or two.  I did get a hopefully legit offer the other day, for writing a blog promoting a taxi service.  We’ll see how that pans out.  Even if the client is willing to buy some work from me, they don’t want to pay more than thirteen dollars… Australian Dollars.  At least the nine dollars that comes to in the U.S. will help pay for the t-shirt I bought from myself.

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