Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Today on MSN

The headline of msn.com's "MUST-SEE" section is "Man wins two jackpots at $3M" with a picture of a regional map showing "Bonne Terre, Mo."  Really.  That's the best picture they could find?  And guess what?  That same story pops up every few months when someone hits their second jackpot somewhere.  I suppose that is also about how long it takes for the average reader to forget about the last time they heard about it.  The guy didn't win two lotteries at the same time, he just won twice this year.  Playing scratch tickets.  Which means he probably played a lot of scratch tickets.  Big friggin' deal, huh?  Well, lottery fantasies apparently get clicks.  Let's see what else is getting clicks today:

"Police investigate 'Sister Wives' family"
"Games use 'super monkey' guards"
"Man climbs 82-foot-pole in seconds"
"'Death ray' at hotel heats up guests"
"Sneak a peek at hot new car models"
"Bing: Teens go all out to get tan"
"Bing: Transgender teen dethroned"

I don't even know where to begin.  Of course I am going to click on a "MUST-SEE" story about "super monkeys!"  Who wouldn't?  Same goes for the "death ray," and that is exactly why they are there.  But what does MSN really think about its readers?  That is to say, what's up with this other stuff?

"Sister Wives family?"  I don't even want to know what that means.  That's even more creepy than a man climbing a pole.  Honestly, who wants to see a man climbing a pole?  Car models might be interesting, but hardly "MUST-SEE" to me. 

The other two are links to "Bing" searches.  That means they aren't actual stories, but they might still generate click revenue.  And is it really news that teenagers want to get tans?  I think we already knew that.  What type of pervert would click on a story -- sorry, do a search -- for teens tanning?

Apparently, "transgender" is not a word according to my spell-checker, interestingly enough.  Whatever.  This headline made me wonder how a teenager could be "transgender," or exactly what they meant.  Evidently (yes, I clicked through) it means a girl who dresses up like a boy and plans to have a sex change operation when she turns 18.  When I was a teenager I grew my hair long and dyed it green, and planned to run for president when I turned 35.  Since I'm only 31 now, I guess that makes me an emo presidential hopeful, or something (and apparently emo is not a word either...).

Now I'm not discounting this individual's feeling about their identity or anything else.  Frankly I just don't care.  She can define herself however she wants, and a lot of people are going to get riled up about it.  People will stick their nose in her business (whether or not she's "asking for it") and raise a big hullabaloo (that is a word!) over something that is only really important to her and the people that know her personally.  But it generates traffic to Bing, which is all that matters.

Clearly, the MSN demographic is weird, or MSN thinks so.  I should get rid of my hotmail account to avoid being subjected to their news page every time I check my email.  But there is great power in inertia, and even if I switch to my gmail, things will still come to the hotmail account and I will have to check it.  There is no escape, except to close the window immediately upon logging out.  From now on, whenever I'm about to log out of hotmail, I am going to click into another tab in Firefox so I never need to see the MSN homepage again.

Aw, who am I kidding?  Where else am I going to read about the super monkeys?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

White Rabbit

It just gets worse every day.  Or maybe the desperate need to "fall back" is finally overcoming me, screwing with my sleep cycles and mood.  In any case, MSN is positively vomit-worthy today.

"Kitten with fur that spells C-A-T" (there was a video link; I didn't click it).  "Get a look at Snooki's new hairdo."  Are they serious?  There is one reason I know who "Snooki" is: the awesome clip that you can see for free in a million different places including: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/10/jersey-shore-girl-punched_n_388203.html

Let's see.  "Poll: Who should win 'America's Got Talent'? / Photos."  You had me at "poll."  But photos?  Isn't that some kind of non-moving video?  Um.  "Kid Rock in court over lawsuit stemming from [yawn]" what else?  "Klingon space opera makes debut."  I am sure that most of you stopped reading this as soon as you saw the words, and are well on your way to purchasing tickets right now.  Klingon.space.opera.  Of all the times that MSN chooses not to Use Caps Relatively Randomly in Their Headlines, they pick now?  That should have been all-caps.  "KLINGON SPACE OPERA."  In fact, that should have been their "Breaking News" banner.

But seriously, as cool as that might seem to some folk, there are about 50 "things" on the entire MSN homepage that link to content that is not purely advertising.  Links to stories, videos, slideshows, etc.  I am leaving out some things like the weather, but even if we say 100 unique links, is it really worth wasting one of them on a  Klingon space opera?  When so many other "important" things are going on?  Tell me why.  There's one reason, and this is becoming like a broken record: clicks.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it, just saying: take a good look and think about what's at the end of your fork, especially when feeding your head.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

More Breaking News from MSN...

"Lou Reed makes Susan Boyle cry." How could I not click on that? Out of context (that is, without a picture of her, on the MSN home page), I might not remember Susan Boyle. But with her ugly mug up there in front of a microphone, I could not resist.

Well, it turns out that what actually happened is: "Lou didn't want Susan to perform his song, and he's not a Susan fan," according to a "source" for the New York Post. So he refused permission to use the song, which he can do because he owns the rights. I was hoping the article would say he poked her in the eye or something.

But what else is in the news today? Right away upon signing out of my hotmail account (which is the reason why I get dumped on the MSN home page several times per day), I see in large red letters, "BREAKING NEWS: Pastor says Quran burning won't occur if NYC Muslim center is moved. Developing ..." That's what they call herring font, I think.

The story ends with "Developing ..." but out of everything on the page, it is just about the only thing that is NOT click-able. You can click all of the ads with no problem at all. But this supposed story? It doesn't even show up on the slide-show of the top five newsworthy items. No, that is all "6 Outrageously Overpriced Products" this and "Guys: Here's What Women Really Want" that (and I'll give you a hint on the latter -- you won't find it in some article on MSN that makes gross generalizations based on cultural stereotypes that have been scrubbed clean for our viewing audience). So what's the deal?

Well, this is another non-event that has been manufactured into news. Honestly sometimes I wonder if computers are writing all these stories, but then I think: computers have better stuff to do. Writing articles like the ones on MSN would be a waste of processing power. MSN is still working with more of an x86 chipset mentality... "640k of RAM? Nobody will ever need that much!"

Seriously, though, what is this story about? First, let's find the story. Immediately I scroll down to "What the ... ?" (because you can't say "fuck" on MSN) but all I see is Lady Gaga in a meat bikini, Michael Jackson in chicken wire, and a woman eating 181 chicken wings in 12 minutes (a woman! That's over 15 wings per minute, one every four seconds. Do you know any men who can do that?) but nothing about a pastor or ummm burning books or a mosque...

Well, maybe it is under "Must-see" (sorry, "MUST-SEE") -- nope, that's the Lou Reed story, plus:
- Dog survives crash & finds way home
- Male menopause: Fact or fiction?
- Woman accuses Vince Neil of battery
- Shares of Spam & gas masks soar
- Which city was the hottest?
- Chicago tower gets ice rink in the sky
- Bing: Man sentenced for attacking pelican

Clearly a big news day. Too much to cover any real stories, what with all of the accusations about Vince Neil and the recent spate of pelican attacks. Wait, can a spate be a single instance? Pardon my diction.

In any case, there are clearly more important things that we MUST SEE and MSN is going to show us. But surely they have that manufactured story in the can and you can link to it from somewhere... F5


"Pastor cancels burning, says mosque moving - But sources close to imam behind NYC project deny there's a deal."

Ho, ho. Um, wait, what? Is this really happening? Has MSN been taken over by some weird pastor who wants to burn books, or by the imam who wants to build a mosque (which would add to several that I believe already exist) in New York City? Seems like those are the two parties that stand to benefit, at face value. Publicity for both sides, with some pretty crazed followers on both ends of the spectrum. But why is MSN covering this story.

The simple and obvious answer is the same as why do they do anything else: clicks. They want to generate revenue, so they write things that people will click on. This story isn't about anything. The mosque is not at "Ground Zero," nor is it the only mosque in the area. I'm sure that this pastor isn't the only nut with his panties in a bunch about it, too. But it is an angle, and it is easy. It has to be easy to read, or nobody will read it, and evidently it has to be easy to write too, because I'm not seeing anything better.

This isn't even funny anymore. The misdirection is so obvious and in-your-face that it doesn't take much to fail to notice. Tell me: is this a real news story? Take a look at your favorite "news" outlet, at their main page. How many of the stories are "real" stories? How many of them exist only for click-through revenue? How much does that matter to you? What drives your interests? If you are a happy consumer, then there is no problem. Otherwise, where to look for anything?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Follow the Money

Social Security. The mere words set off something inside me, an intense boiling. I came across a random article on the subject which led me to further research as I grew angry about money that I have earned but will never see. The question loomed in my mind: how to make this more than a long, whiny, complaining rant. There is plenty to say about the misuse of tax dollars, the system being rotten to the core, or any of the other easy roads which are, to greater and lesser extents, largely true. But what would be a more interesting approach?

I decided to get personal. I looked at my paycheck, and I think I may need blood pressure medication. Let's follow the money a bit, shall we?

I get paid every two weeks. I don't want to go into all the details of my personal finances, but I am not overly paranoid or secretive about anything mentioned here. For reference, I am paid every two weeks (typically 70 hours). First, let's look at some VOLUNTARY deductions:

Auto Insurance: $40.13
Charity: $10
Union Dues: $16.11
Subway/bus pass: $29.50

So from this we can see a few things. My car insurance is pretty low, I don't give much to charity (if you are looking for a worthy cause, I suggest BITS ETC - www.bitsetc.us - but that is for another article). I am part of a union (and I believe those are dues for two pay-periods), and have a subsidized MBTA pass (the $29.50 is a 50% discount on my monthly pass). Okay, so that all seems reasonable.

Oh wait! There are some other things that are kind of well, hiding. They aren't listed as "Voluntary Deductions" in the HR system, but they are technically voluntary:

Health insurance: $33.23
Dental: $7.38
Flexible Spending Account: $21.54
Long-term Disability Insurance: $3.06
Life Insurance: $1.92

Okay, so once again I will save my rants about the health care system and taxes for the moment and say that this is all fairly reasonable. My insurance premiums are pretty low (my prescriptions alone right now cost over 20x what I spend on insurance), the flexible-spending account is a big pain in the ass -- I have to submit claims for reimbursements for things like office visit or prescription co-pays, OTC medications, etc. -- but it is deducted pre-tax from my paycheck, so I save a significant amount.

The long-term disability is good for 2/3 of my current salary, forever, and well worth it. The life insurance is basic because I am young and don't have any children or debt or anything else...

So now I am feeling a little bit better. At least my paycheck is going to the right places. Never mind that I am contributing to my retirement, and that my employer contributes another 5% of my gross salary on top of that. But none of that adds up to very much money. So why is my net pay -- the amount that gets direct-deposited into my bank accounts -- so low?

Oh wait.

This honestly makes me a little woozy. Just looking at it, I am struck with a mix of feelings. None of them are good. "Total taxes." I can't bear to write the number. So far this YEAR I have paid enough for a down-payment on a house. I know some of you might be thinking well at least you have a job that pays you blah blah blah that is not the point! That is just a distraction from the fact that my money is being stolen!

What happened to all of this money? I did not give it up voluntarily. They were smart enough to take it before I could get my filthy little hands on it, because then it would be a lot harder for them to get back, not to mention all of the interest that I could earn from it in the meantime, which they happily accrue instead. Sure, some of you are making the argument in your head that you can do this or that to circumvent the system, blah blah blah.

That's not what I'm talking about. I am merely pointing out that we are being tricked. On one level, yes it is armed robbery, because if I refuse to pay, they will send thugs called "police" with clubs and guns and chains to take me away. But by and large, it is more like pick-pocketing. They're filching a third of your dough, and there's nothing you can do about it. So where is it going? Let's keep following the money.


There's even a keen pie-chart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fy2010_spending_by_category.jpg

After looking at the pie-chart, I am feeling more than a little nauseated. Mind you that we're running about a $1.2 trillion deficit as part of this awesome budget. That's "trillion" with the "tr" which you won't ever see in your pocket until our currency is completely devalued (though by then I am sure that the Bureau of Printing and Engraving will be too worried about the Zombie Apocalypse to bother printing trillion-dollar bills, much to the chagrin of Simpsons' fans everywhere).

So there must be some pretty gosh-darned important stuff that we're spending all that hard-earned cash on, right? Instead of a down-payment, let's take a look at some general items:

$677.95 billion - Social Security. It would be way too easy for me to write about how I'm never going to see this particular money again, so let's just leave it at that.
$571 billion - "Other mandatory programs." Okay, I know that actually means something I don't like, but would prefer to lighten the mood a bit and imagine that these are programs for things like happy rainbows and making sure that the butterflies have safe passage when there is a hurricane. Everyone loves butterflies.

$453 billion - Medicare
$290 billion - Medicaid

Sigh. This just makes me tired. Let's pretend that all of the money going into Social Security, "Other mandatory programs," Medicare, and Medicaid, all goes to provide health care. That's a total of almost $2 trillion. That's also with a "tr." Most sources I have found say that we have 50 million people in this country without health insurance. That works out to what, about $40,000 per uninsured person? Seems like it should, on average, be enough. According to Wikipedia, "In 2006, per-capita spending for health care in Canada was US$3,678; in the U.S., US$6,714. The U.S. spent 15.3% of GDP on health care in that year; Canada spent 10.0%.[5]" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_the_health_care_systems_in_Canada_and_the_United_States for the whole dreary article).

But wait, some of that money isn't for health care, right? The Social Security money, that was originally supposed to be about retirement. So let's take that out. Where else do you think we might be able to find some money in the budget? How about:

$663.7 billion - Department of Defense
$42.7 billion - Department of Homeland Security
$51.7 billion - Department of State
$23.9 billion - Department of Justice

Surely, I don't mean to cut all of it? Ho, ho. These are just some of the big numbers. Where is this money going? Well, we're killing lots of people. And we're making lots of people angry at us. The Department of Defense (which should really be called the Department of Offense, for more than one reason) and the Department of Homeland Security, along with the State Department, make sure that everyone who doesn't get killed by us at least dislikes us. And State does that to our own citizens, as does the Department of "Justice."

Think for a minute about this spending. You pay dollars to kill people. You like that? If you don't, then too bad. If you do, then you are lucky, because you are on the side of what is Good and Right. Do you like the idea that predator drones are blasting people with the dollars you earned today in, let's say the last third of your day? I hope you do.

Do you like that we have multiple overseas conflicts going on, but very little news coverage of them? Does this make you curious? The government depends on a population that is easily overwhelmed by the appearance of facts and the easily tricked out of doing any critical thinking. Have you bothered to check any of the numbers in this article? Do you intend to? I took them directly from Wikipedia. Do you trust them?

Let's accept that my numbers are, at least roughly, correct. Does that make them meaningful? How meaningful is a number like $663.7 billion? How do you put that in terms that are understandable? Well, it is a lot of hamburgers.

What is in the rest of the budget, though? What doesn't merit the same level of importance (assuming that funding is a proxy for importance)? Let's see:

$13.3 billion - Department of Labor
I wonder what all those unemployed folks think about that... What does the DOL actually do, anyway?

$12.0 billion - Department of the Interior
$10.5 billion - Environmental Protection Agency
Aren't these people supposed to keep things nice for us? Seems like they could use more money, if we're going to play that game, than the people who destroy shit.

$7.0 billion - National Science Foundation
$0.7 billion - Small Business Administration
I'm so glad that we are supporting science and small businesses.

Are you depressed yet? I am depressed that instead of mortgaging my future on a new house, I am forced to mortgage my future on weapons of mass destruction and other toys for those in charge to play with. Oh well. If you don't pay your taxes, those toys you are paying for will be used against you...

And don't forget, every year, you are going to be paying at least:
$164 billion - Interest on National Debt

Good times for years to come!