NaNoWriMo Progress Report #1

As I posted previously, I intend to enter this year’s NaNoWriMo. I decided to get started with their summer retreat and figured I would post a progress report. Here goes:

I began outlining my story. I have a primary protagonist and his personality is starting to fill out as I write about him. The story already took a tangent from its course to create a few interesting scenes. The outline has changed so many times that if I turned on the “tracking” feature in Word, it would crash the program.

So, I plan to outline in Word and do everything else in Scrivener, which is an inexpensive and awesome program for novelists. It allows the author to create character sketches, jot down ideas, export in epub format and more. It is, in a word, awesome.

I also signed up for the July version of NaNoWriMo, Camp NaNoWriMo. I wonder how far I’ll get? I will be updating sporadically through the month as I move along the journey. We’ll see if I finish the darn thing this go-round!

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I’m Entering National November Novel Writing Month this year.

NaNoWriMoThis year, I plan to enter and finish National November Novel Writing Month. I’m thinking something sci-fi or cyberpunk. The event, officially known as NaNoWriMo is a non-profit contest which challenges aspiring and professional novelists to complete a fictional work of prose reaching 50,000 words or more.

Per http://nanowrimo.org/about, NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization, dedicated to helping writers foster their creativity and meet the goal of 50,000 words by 11:59 P.M. on Nov. 30. In addition to the usual Nov. event, NaNoWriMo also holds a virtual writing retreat, a children’s writing workshop, fundraisers and more.

Potential writers are given access to tools and advice via the official event website. Students interested in participating in NaNoWriMo should sign up for an account on their official website. The website provides help, advice, a place to write and inspirational forums.

In addition to this, several libraries are and academic institutions across the country participate in NaNoWriMo Write-In Events. Several Write-In events are held throughout the country for aspiring novelists.

The write-in events will feature the opportunity to write as many words for a novel as possible, with assistance being provided by library staffs and online assistance through NaNoWriMo.

Since its establishment in 1999, NaNoWriMo has yielded quite a few popular novels through its history. Trivia and Miscellaneous publication, Mental Floss Magazine, recently published a list of NaNoWriMo winners: books that have all been published and are currently being sold in bookstores and online. The list can be found here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53481/14-published-novels-written-during-nanowrimo.

Some well-known novels, such as “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen were past NaNoWriMo winners. “Water for Elephants” was made into a movie in 2011.

NaNoWriMo allows fiction in any genre and there are no fees involved with the contest. More information can be found at http://nanowrimo.org. I plan to get started now, rather than wait until November. Wish me luck; I’ll need it.

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Return to Castlevania

A brief discussion of the new Netflix series “Castlevania.”

I’ve been a “Castlevania” fan since 1992. Playing the original NES title was not without its charm, but it was not until “Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse,” that I became a fan of the series. Years later, I’ve played and conquered most of the series’ installments, with my personal favorites being “Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin” and “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.”

I glossed over the 3D installments of the game, preferring the Metroidvania style to the classic arcade style games. As of this writing, the only Metroidvania I have yet to complete is “Castlevania: Order of Ecclessia,” which I’ll get around to one day.

Naturally, I’m interested to see what will happen with the new Netflix series. From the first look trailer here, it seems interesting, sort of like “Vampire Hunter D.”

The NES at the beginning of the trailer immediately piqued my interest. I chuckled when the person blew into the game cartridge before putting it in the system. That was a nice, nostalgic touch. I also loved the video screen, set up like an old NES title, complete with only a few colors and a few key Netflix originals listed in the options.

The actual clip is more of a teaser than a trailer, but it highlights a dark, moody artwork style and seems to be focused around Simon Belmont. There’s also plenty of blood, gore and horror, for those interested in such things. It looks awesome and I’m excited to check it out, even if it’s 30 years overdue

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The Economics of Nostalgia

Yesterday, I passed up the opportunity to buy a Nintendo Switch console. I stopped at Target for a few sundry items and decided, on a whim, to check out the electronics section. As I approached the aisle, I caught a glimpse of red in the corner display case. Upon investigating, I confirmed my suspicion: I found a Nintendo Switch in the wild!

These days, that’s like finding a needle in a hay stack, considering Nintendo’s well-known inventory problems.

The sticker price, at $299.99 (plus tax), is a bit steep. The decision didn’t take long. I already own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for the Wii U. Now, Zelda is the only game I’m truly interested in playing on the system. Because the system doesn’t come with a pack-in title, I’d be shelling out an additional $59.99 (plus tax) for the game.

Should I decide upon acquiring additional games, it would cost even more. Let’s say I want a to procure a copy of the new Mario Kart 8, another title I already own on Wii U; it would cost upward of $60, depending on where I try to buy it.

Ultimately, I decided not to go through with buying the Switch. I returned today and, sure enough, it’s gone. You snooze, you lose, as they say. Of course, the proverbial, “they” ( who may or may not be giants) don’t have to think about paying bills and eating.  I’ve heard Nintendo Switch carts taste terrible, anyway, so I’ll have to go buy some groceries instead. I did buy some of those delicious coffee nut M & Ms, though, so it wasn’t a complete bust.

We’ve already discussed the debacle of the NES Classic Mini. However, inventory problems and shortsighted marketing aside, the Nintendo Switch could potentially become one of the greatest Nintendo systems since the SNES. It’s difficult to say, really.

What drives our interest toward these systems? Is it simple nostalgia for “the good old days” of gaming? Is it a desire to experience our favorites in HD? I wonder sometimes. I’m planning to bide my time and get the Switch when Super Mario Odyssey comes out, though. It looks like fun and will make me feel nostalgic for the older Mario games, but at what cost? About $400.

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Chasing Pennies – My time as an Amazon Mechanical Turk Worker

A look into my two years working as an Amazon Mechanical Turk Worker and my three months as a requester.

Update: Any time I attempt to log back into Mturk, I swiftly exit the page. Writing this article put much into perspective for me and cemented my view that crowd work is no longer a good fit for me. Best of luck to anyone out there whom still wants to give Mturk a try!

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For the past few years, I have invested more time than I probably should have into working for crowdsourcing services. Amazon Mechanical Turk, Clickworker, Rev and User Testing are the primary platforms I used, but several of these turned out to be dead ends.  The latter three, I barely used and never fully established a foothold.  Mechanical Turk, however, worked quite well for my purposes.

For the uninitiated, Mturk is, at its core, a crowdsourcing platform: companies or individuals can request work (data entry, receipts, etc.) to be done. These are called human intelligence tasks. Each hit can be offered an award amount. This can be anywhere from nothing to whatever the requester wants to pay. I have taken $20 surveys previously on the platform, but these are like Captain Ahab’s White Whale in rarity.

Most hits only pay pennies. After a while, it adds up. Especially, if you know how to use a combination of scripts, the community, and other tips and tricks to maximize your gains on the platform. Unfortunately, it’s quite addictive. Several online resources exist to help nascent Turkers in their quest. However, the secrets of the high-earners are never revealed. Also, despite the ready availability of Mturk resources, there will always be that one user who decides to post a question about the following (already covered) topics:

  1. How to get started.
  2. How to make more.
  3. How to get approved.
  4. Where to find the best HITs.
  5. How to report Mturk income on your tax return (trust me; you should report it).
  6. And much, much more!

I dove headfirst into the world of MTurk in March of 2014.  In the time since, I have become quite adept at the tedium that being a Worker on the platform represents. I first learned about Mturk from my research into crowdsourcing in 2014. I became interested in the idea of microtasks and, to better understand it, I decided to participate. Gonzo journalism at its finest. I think Hunter S. Thompson and Jon Ronson would be proud.

Diving into the world of crowdsourcing proved to be a fruitful endeavor. I learned how to use scripts on Mturk for maximum efficiency. With Rev, I managed to make a little bit of money doing transcription work, which proved to be tedious. I quit after a week.

Usertesting is a good source, but work is very rare. It pays $10.00 per successful test, making it one of the higher paying sources I have found. Clickworker/URSE and Prolific Academic are excellent alternative to Mturk, but do not provide nearly as much available work in my experience.

The sources for Mturk are much more detailed, friendly, and useful than one would think, based on the competitive nature of being a worker. Users over at Reddit, Turker Nation and Mturk Crowd make things much easier for new Workers and are, for the most part, incredibly welcoming, and friendly areas.

In my own experience, Mturk was a way for me to make some extra cash to help build my home studio. I started out chasing pennies, finding whatever I could to build my numbers and make little bit of money. Later, I discovered a HIT I enjoyed, wherein the user would draw a box around a section of an image and then write a sentence about the image.

I did thousands of those HITs, which I later found out were part of Stanford’s Visual Genome Project, until my eyes were sore. I made some money, bought a few studio components, and paid a bill or two.

I listened to Frank Zappa’s “Does Humor Belong in Music?” and the music of R. Stevie Moore, among others (tons of Weird Al, The Arrogant Worms and Dr. Demento to be specific). I worked, toiled, and relished the sweet, sweet pennies, nickels, dimes, and occasional quarters coming my way.

Did I mention I once snagged a $20 survey? That made my entire Mturk career. I’ve heard of working for change before, but this is ridiculous!

I gained weight, became detached from my peers and my health took a nosedive. Mturk became a fixed, toxic cloud hanging over my head. Upon awakening, I would immediately fire up my computer, set up my scripts and turk away. At one point, I also began using the requester side of the platform, in addition to being a worker.

I treated turking as a second job, with myself as a supervisor. Let’s just say I came to despise my supervisor after a time. The burn out set in after the first year, but I continued to turk up until recently.

I had to ask myself, is the extra money worth it?

For some, I’m sure it is. If you venture over to Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/mturk/), Turker Nation (http://www.turkernation.com/), or Mturk Crowd (http://www.mturkcrowd.com), you may find some who enjoy the work. What you’ll mostly find is a wide variety of people turking for an even wider variety of reasons.

Some of us do it for extra spending money, others for all their income. It varies based on circumstance. What some of the articles always seem to “get wrong” is their focus. The play up the sad stories, or the exploitative aspect of the service, without really delving into multiple sources.

In my own research, I decided to use Mturk for research studies and other projects. I pay more than a slave wage and will only reject if necessary.  After an extensive lit review and reading a few online guides from other researchers, I determined a methodology and payment scale that only resulted in one poor review on Turkopticon, the distinct-from-Amazon review aggregate service that workers use to gage whether to do a certain HIT or not. Most of my information came from an excellent resource by Michael Buhrmester, PhD, located here: https://michaelbuhrmester.wordpress.com/mechanical-turk-guide/.

Pew Research Center conducted a research study on Mechanical Turk in 2015, where they reported that most Turkers make less than $5 and hour. That seems accurate in my experience, though a perusal of any forum will tell you there are exceptions. A full copy of that research study is available here: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/07/11/research-in-the-crowdsourcing-age-a-case-study/.

The way a work day goes, depends on the worker. In my own experience, my thought process would go something like this:

I have enough in my Amazon Mechanical Turk account right now to make a small payment on a credit card; maybe to buy some groceries or put a tank of gas in my car. I earned these funds over the past three weeks, working anywhere from two to five hours each day, every day of the week. Sundays have been the least productive, while Mondays and Tuesdays have seen major increases in number of HITs approved on my personal account.

I am dreading the prospect of working anymore HITs this week, but at the same time, I feel compelled to do so. This is helping pay for my education and a few other expenses.

This reflection doesn’t change the fact that I have been staring at my main account page for the past half an hour, trying to decide if the few dollars I’ll make today are worth the time investment. Cogitating upon whether to work more HITs or to do something else is exhausting. Ultimately, if any of my favorite requesters – chiefly Audiokite – post, I will decide to stay and work.

I strongly believe that if Audiokite posts today, it just might be worth it to grind a bit more. To grind is to earn. On Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), grinding – or working as many HITs as possible in a short period of time – is a way of life. It reminds me of many a High School afternoon (and evening, going into early morning) grinding for levels in “Final Fantasy VII.” Only this time, I’m not on a quest to prevent the end of the world; I’m on a quest to earn as much money as possible, one penny at a time. Although, I suppose Chocobo farming is probably worse than anything MTurk could throw at me.

Audiokite is posting multiple HITs today, ranging from a $0.10 payout for 40 seconds of listening and a short review to a whopping $0.18 for two minutes of listening.  I can knock out the entire batch and receive a $5.00 bonus. There are over 300 HITs in this batch. OK. *clicks mouse and opens new Mturk tab.*“

There is no doubt in my mind that most Amazon Mechanical Turk Workers (Turkers) know what I am talking about. Of course, my experience is unique, as is the experience of anyone working on the platform.

Some workers, only do HITs for a week and abruptly quit the service, like Jeremy Wilson did for his 2013 Kernal article (http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/features/report/4732/my-gruelling-day-as-an-amazon-mechanical-turk/ )

How the media sees crowd work, compared with how the actual workers see crowd work an interesting comparison. Sometimes, it surprises me to see just how skewed some of this information is. Other times, it will be completely accurate, to the point where I’ll say, “wow, that’s just like my experience!” It’s an interesting take that is worth further study and much more intense scrutiny.

Some stories try to present a view of Mturk as a virtual sweatshop (http://www.vocativ.com/410794/are-virtual-sweatshops-the-future-of-work/), which is accurate to a point, but in my experience, turking is what you make it. The article outlines a few individual stories, which are outside the norm, and didn’t bother doing any research within the actual communities.

Journalists should double and triple down on their sources, with supporting documentation. Reading the article gives one the sense that these journalists were only looking for the sensational scoop that would get them the most page views and traffic.

Sure, I get it; sad stories make for more page views. That makes sense, and there’s an entire book about it called, “Trust me, I’m Lying,” by Ryan Holiday. It’s worth the read. In the book, Holiday discusses the concept of valence with the reader. Valence is what determines whether a story is shared. Per Holiday, sad stories get shared the least, but polarizing stories are shared the most. Hence, the content is intended to anger readers or upset them, so they share it more often.

That isn’t to say that Mturk doesn’t have some major problems with equal pay and worker rights. For instance, a requester can simply decide to reject a submitted HIT, resulting in the worker not being paid for their work.

This is a vicious cycle: the worker does the work, the requester rejects it, requester gets free data, worker gets a strike against their account, more rejections lead to blocks, block lead to losing your worker account. It’s a harsh domino effect that leads to a loss of income. For some workers, that can be a major blow to their livelihood.

In this article from Tech Republic: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/inside-amazons-clickworker-platform-how-half-a-million-people-are-training-ai-for-pennies-per-task/, the reader learns a bit more about what makes the service run, what it’s used for and features accurate, in-depth interviews with real turkers.

The difference between the two articles is stark. The Tech Republic article tells the story with ore impartiality than either The Kernal or Vocativ stories do. It also does something the others don’t: it reaches out to the foremost authority on being a Turker today: Kristy Milland.

Milland founded Turker Nation and has authored several papers and performed speaking engagements for crowd work. She can be found here: http://kristymilland.com/. She is quite active in the community and has done much to help workers.

Turker Nation maintains an excellent sub-forum with tremendous resources for crowd work in the media: http://turkernation.com/forumdisplay.php?56-Crowd-Work-in-the-the-Media.

Nothing truly sets me apart from anyone else. My experience is unique, but I am not. I must compete in much the same manner as my peers and choose whether to contribute advice to the community; I haven’t really done much in that respect.

So, the question is, do I keep grinding away at Mturk to make extra money or do I find something else entirely (spoiler: I quit Mturk for the time being)? The gig economy is not the best, nor easiest way to generate income. However, with automation concerns, market saturation and economic downturn, the gig economy may be all we have left at the end of it all.

The saddest thing of all: some of the work we do on Mturk may be training the artificial intelligence and automation systems that will replace our jobs in the future. Will the robots take over the job market? Maybe (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/11/robots-jobs-employees-artificial-intelligence ).

But, maybe not (https://www.ted.com/talks/david_autor_why_are_there_still_so_many_jobs).

Perhaps, Elon Musk will save us all by convincing the government about the validity of his ideas (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/04/elon-musk-robots-will-take-your-jobs-government-will-have-to-pay-your-wage.html)!

 

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Is the SNES Classic Mini a Possibility?

I recently read on both Nerdist and Mental Floss that Nintendo may be releasing an SNES Classic Mini this Christmas. That’s pretty cool, I guess. I wonder if the supply will meet the demand?

Let’s be honest here: the NES Classic Mini was a bit of a debacle; scalpers seem like they’re the only ones able to obtain one and, quite frankly, the supply was never truly made to meet the demand. It’s entirely possible that the NES Classic was a market test for the SNES Classic mini, or similar devices, but I feel as if that would be a bit counter-intuitive. Far be it from me to make that assessment. Nintendo has been around a long time and, for all we know, this may well be part of a larger marketing plan.

If such a device DOES come into existence, I’m sure it would be packed with the classics: Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past, Super Metroid and more.

But you know what else would be an awesome pack-in title? Super Smash TV or Captain Commando. Those were fun.

Some of the excellent RPGs would be a great as well, as the SNES was loaded with them: Illusion of Gaia, Final Fantasy II & III, Breath of Fire, Earthbound, The 7th Saga, Soul Blazer, Super Mario RPG, Chrono Trigger and many, many more. I’m quite certain I spent a good chunk of high school playing those games. They were fun, but they can be easily obtained either on the after market or on one of a variety of different compilations and virtual consoles.

I think it’s a neat idea, but I’m not feeling particularly nostalgic for the SNES or any system these days. They’re fun, but Nostalgia is weird. I fully expect this to play out as either a rumor or the same way the NES Classic Mini did. We shall have to see.

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Mturk Requester Presentation for Audience Research

As a requester on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, I have done quite a few research projects. As a result, I was invited to speak to a college class this past semester about my experience and some of the best ways to run a survey I’ve found. Here is that presentation, in glorious portable document format:

Mturk & you

Download and peruse at your leisure.

Here are some references I used for my literature reviews. They’re not as extensive here for the sake of brevity, but there are many more.

 

Here are a few annotated sources worth looking into for anyone interested in using Mturk:

 

Wilson, J. (2013). My gruelling day as an Amazon Mechanical Turk. Retrieved February 03, 2017, from http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/features/report/4732/my-gruelling-day-as-an-amazon-mechanical-turk/

This article details the experiences of Jeremy Wilson, a Tech reporter in The Kernel at the Daily Dot. In his 2013 experiment, he details his day working on Mturk. While some of his experiences are accurate, the way the service works in 2017 is vastly different. Gone are the Walmart receipts and face-making games. More and different HITs are posted daily. His report of the pay is a bit on the generous side. It is also apparent that he did not research the community or “tips and tricks” available (at the time) to most Workers on the platform. While not representative of a regular worker on Mturk, this article highlights the basic perception of Mturk by those whom do not use it regularly. It is worth reading for any research into Mturk, as it provides a leaping point for further review.

 

Berinsky, A. J., Huber, G. A., & Lenz, G. S. (2011). Using Mechanical Turk as a subject  recruitment tool for experimental research. Submitted for review.

This article discusses the pros and cons of using Mturk for a research sample. It goes into detail, citing various experiments performed by the researchers. This is an excellent resource for justifying external validity through an Mturk study.

Buhrmester, M. (2016). Mechanical turk guide. WordPress.  Retrieved from https://michaelbuhrmester.wordpress.com/mechanical-turk-guide/

This article details the experiences of a requester who pays a fair wage for his research. He discusses at length the best practices of a requester on Mturk. This is an essential read for anyone considering posting a survey on Mturk.