Category Archives: Portfolio

A collection of all my articles.

Confidence Gained: How Dreaded Freelance Content Mills Helped Me

A boy, a Mississauga freelance writer, works on a white paper while using a typewriter.
When I was younger, I used to dream about writing for a living. Now, I’m actually trying to do it.

As a boy, I used to dream about writing for a career.I only just started seriously freelancing in the past few months.  Writing is something that I had wanted to do when I was much younger, but was very hard to get into.  There was no internet in the 1980’s, and it was just coming into its own during the 1990’s.  Once the millennium came around, I had given up on writing and moved on to other things.

Brand-New Start

So, now that I’ve decided on a brand-new career path, I feel like I’m starting over again.  Writing has changed a lot since the time when I learned to write in the 80’s and 90’s and I had to relearn a lot of what it meant to write in the information age.  So I read a lot of other people’s articles, how-to articles and job postings.

Everything that I read from anyone who is in the know about freelance writing says, “Stay away from content mills.”  They pay slave wages, they don’t help you write solid articles, the jobs there don’t allow you to repost articles for your portfolio.

All of this is true.

I’ve been working on a content mill writing articles that are 60 cents per hundred words—that’s horrible pay and I can practically hear other freelance writers groaning out loud.  I can’t link any of the articles to my own website and I know I’m spinning my wheels there.

+1 to Confidence

So, I haven’t made a lot of money as a freelancer.  I’ve yet to land a real client that pays professional wages, but there is something that I can take away from writing for websites like this:  I can write content well, I can write it reasonably quickly and writing a few thousand words doesn’t scare me now.  I know I can do it because I have been doing it.  I just need to do it for better pay.

For me, writing for a content mill is something that I needed to do in order to figure out how to write again and learn what topics I’m interested in writing about.  When I got my first (relatively) well-paying client from that site, the prospect of writing a 1400 word article didn’t scare me anymore.  The fact that I got paid $150 for doing it finally convinced me that there are people who will pay much better rates and the fact that the client gave me repeat business showed me that people like the final product.

Now, it’s on to bigger and better things.  I’m finally at the point where I’m inspired to push harder for what I want.  I feel like this is something that is achievable for me.  I’m nervous about the whole thing, but the content mill part of my career has helped me out, and that alone is worth it.

Hello, [Insert Your Name Here], Buy Our Stuff!

Personal digital advertising is already somewhat upon us.  All you have to do is browse the web for a while and it would be hard to not see that the ads that pop up on many web pages are tailored to your previous searches.  Technology can now take a look at your browsing history and show you advertising based on your interests.  Netflix has similar technology which gives you suggestions based on movies or shows that you have watched and ranked highly in the past, as does Facebook, based on the things you like or links you click on.

Moving forward from online activity, researchers are developing technology that could feel more like a scene from Minority Report, as Tom Cruise walks through a department store or subway station and is bombarded with in-store ads personalized to his taste based on previous shopping.  Well, science fiction is (once again) taking another step to becoming reality.

One day, you could walk into a Tim Hortons donut shop and the menu boards will change based on your interests to give you a personalized menu for browsing.  This technology may feel like something out of Minority Report, when Tom Cruise walks through a department store or subway station and is bombarded personalized ads, but science fiction is (once again) taking another step to becoming reality.

Cineplex Digital is headquartered in London, Ontario, and has supplied roughly 33,000 advertising screens to various retailers around the world, including Tim Hortons and McDonalds restaurants and banks.  The feeling in the advertising community is that, in today’s world, advertising must be flashy and kinetic in order to get people’s attention and keep it away from social media.

Recently, Sport Check opened a store in the West Edmonton mall that has over 800 screens in the store.  These allow you wave a shoe in front of the screen in order to get more information about the shoe (or other items).  Screens in store also allow you to interact with them and personalize your team jersey or see photos mailed in to the store from local community sports teams.  The rest of the screens flash advertising from many different manufacturers, hoping that you’ll spot something that interests you.

Cineplex Digital is looking to further advance this kind of advertising, using mobile devices.  Installed apps would communicate with the store’s computers and provide you personalized ads either on your phone or on the screens.  It could provide customers with suggestions that complement their shopping by providing other products related to the store.

Services like this not only provide customers with additional suggestions, but they also cut down on the perceived wait times at stores.  Just yesterday, I was in line at a local Pizza Pizza showing movie trailers on one of its digital boards.  I stood and watched the trailers and hardly noticed the time it took to get the order ready.

Restaurants are even getting in on the act, using digital tables which allow customers to order directly from the table top with interactive menus.  Some tables even allow for credit cards to be placed on the table in order to pay for the orders.  In the meantime, patrons can play table top games while they wait for their orders.  I’m sure it’s only a small step for tables to be able to show sporting events, or allow patrons to set up an account that tracks their orders and shows them other foods they may be interested in.

Although it may be a far cry from the retinal scans of Minority Report, the concept itself is upon us.  Depending on your views, that could be both good and bad.  I get irritated with pop-up ads everywhere, but at the same time, personalized advertising does work.  I’ve clicked on many ads that I’ve seen in my browser, leading me to something I might not otherwise have found, and I have watched digital screens while standing in line at a restaurant.  As technology moves forward, so does the advertising industry.  Regardless of how you feel about advertising, it’s clearly here to stay and we will start to see more and more of it used in creative ways.


Dirty Laundry: The Macau Connection

Macau is a major gambling center that falls under the classification of a Special Administrative Region of China.  The casino industry contributes almost three quarters of Macau’s government revenue and attracts a huge number of tourists and high-rollers from mainland China.  It is also a place where loose regulations allow large scale money laundering to take place through its glamorous casinos.

Gambling generates billions of dollars a year.

Gambling junket operators are a large part of the casino culture in Macau.  They promote the gaming industry in Macau and encourage high rollers to visit.  However, their operations allow money laundering to take place, using casinos to disguise money as legitimate winnings.  In addition, their client base allows them to gain footholds in Chinese politics as well as the financial sector.

Strict limits are placed on the amount of money that is allowed to leave the mainland, but the use of junkets is a way of getting around these restrictions.  Gamblers coming from China arrive in Macau and are extended an advance by the junket operators.  Using this money, clients can gamble in the casinos.  If the money is churned, it allows clients the chance to disguise the funds as legitimate casino winnings, which can then go to various offshore bank accounts.

Upon returning to China, agents working for the junkets then collect the debt from the client.  All of this means that, technically, no money ever left China, and no laws had been broken.  The money was loaned to the client in Macau, then paid back upon the client’s return.  Junket agents have also been alleged to be aligned with organized crime triads, who are also involved in the narcotics and prostitution businesses.  This raises concerns that the triads are also laundering money through junkets, possibly using their clients as a potentially unwitting agent.

Macau’s casinos managed to make a stunning roughly $4.5 billion dollars in October, 2013 alone, and it is estimated that $202 billion in dirty money moves through the region every year.  Wikileaks released some diplomatic cables that indicated that Macau’s regulations were seriously lacking and were a weak spot when it comes to anti-money laundering efforts.

The Sands China, Macau.

The Macau government has indicated that it will be strengthening its licensing requirements for junkets, but some analysts have doubted that much, if anything, will change about the way junkets are monitored.  Casinos are also making efforts to reduce illicit business, with Sands China asking junkets for more details on their VIP clients, as well as looking to meet the more strict standards imposed by American regulators.

Even junket organizations themselves seem eager to shed the stigma of the past.  Several have branched out to become major international players.  One of the largest, Suncity, has interests in things as diverse as the ore industry, financial services, food and beverage and film and television.  Others have followed suit and diversified as a way to combat the decline of VIP visitors coming to Macau due to increased scrutiny.

Whether or not these changes make a difference in the money laundering racket that exists in Macau remains to be seen.  One thing is certain, however:  with the billions of dollars that flow through the region every year, Macau remains an attractive location to the politicians and criminals who want to hide their dirty laundry.

FRIENDS: 10 Years of Character Progression

This September marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of a little show called Friends.  The show ran from September 22, 1994 until May 5, 2004 and became a runaway hit and cultural sensation during its ten year run.  After I realized that the show had been off the air for ten years, I found that I missed my old friends, and started watching the series again from the beginning.

It was interesting to go back and watch the first few episodes again to see where the characters started.  Fans of the show, like me, have fond memories of everything that happened after and we all have our favorite moments from the series.  But watching that first episode, it really struck me how much the characters had grown throughout the course of the show.

Each of the friends was a much more simplified version of themselves, but developed depth as the first season and the whole series progressed.  Joey was the dim-witted one with a good heart, Monica the responsible and slightly neurotic one, and Phoebe was the flighty but bubbly new-age girl.   Understandably, this was done to help viewers associate with each character.  Friends was a new show, and we didn’t know who they were yet.

By watching the show again, with episodes back-to-back, I began to realize just how far the characters had come.  In particular, Rachel had developed the most out of all of the characters.  Not only did they grow from a basic type of character, their personalities completely changed from the beginning to the end of the show.

Rachel, after running out on her wedding.

Rachel began as a self-absorbed, naïve girl who ran away from her wedding.  We saw that she had been a privileged girl, living on her parents’ money and never having done a day’s work in her life.  In fact, she was clueless about doing laundry or cleaning the apartment.  After being cut off from her family’s money, she was forced to take her very first job at Central Perk—a job which she was terrible at, and didn’t enjoy.

Eventually, Rachel gets a lead on a job in the fashion industry—a career that she has always wanted.  She is happy to quit her waitressing job and go into her dream job.  Unfortunately for her, she has to pay her dues and ends up serving coffee to the people she is working for.  Through the rest of the series, she becomes more confidant and progresses through the ranks of the fashion industry to Bloomingdales, then Ralph Lauren.

By the time that Rachel’s sisters visit her, she has a secure job, making good money and has learned a lot of life lessons.  Her sisters, Jill and Amy, serve as a mirror to show us where Rachel had come from at the beginning of the show.  The contrast between Rachel and her sisters is striking by this point in the show and, if we didn’t realize it before, we finally see just how far she has come.  They are spoiled and self-centered, and Rachel has a hard time dealing with them, yet she used to be like them.

Rachel and her daughter Emma.

Some of my favorite shows have shown a lot of character progression, in fact that’s one of the factors which make a show great.  Friends had that progression for everyone, and especially Rachel.  We got to see her go from a sheltered life with no skills to a confident working mother.  We lived and laughed with all of these characters for ten years and watching the show again is like a reunion with people you haven’t seen in a long time, but you love hanging out with them from time to time.

The Sense8 Triple-Threat

Netflix has recently become the home of some very high profile television series.  With the runaway success of both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix has begun to have some serious clout in Hollywood.  Then, back in March, 2013, Netflix announced development of a new science fiction series called Sense8.  I was curious, and after reading more about the show, I’m genuinely excited for it.

The show revolves around eight people from all around the world who share a violent vision.  Afterward, they find they are telepathically linked with each other, sought by a man who is trying to unite them and hunted by another who is trying to kill them.

Perhaps the biggest reason I’m geeked about this show is the talented and respected individuals developing the show: Joe Michael Straczynski (writer) and Andy and Lana Wachowski.  All three of these individuals have created some great entertainment, and their collaboration could mean something truly special.

Straczynski has had a long and successful career as a writer and producer.  Some of his credits go all the way back to episodes of animated series like He Man and the Masters of the Universe,  and The Real Ghostbusters.  Episodes written by Straczynski for The Real Ghostbusters are among fan favorites for that series.

Joe Michael Straczynski

Straczynski  has also written for shows such as Murder She Wrote, Jake and the Fat Man and, most famously, Babylon 5, for which he also served as Executive producer.  Some of his big-screen credits include the highly underrated Changeling and Underworld: Awakening.

Babylon 5 was and still is loved by its fans.  Straczynski went to great lengths to map out an entire story over five seasons, which gave the show a feeling of direction and continuity between seasons.  Where some shows seem aimless and not thought out, Babylon 5 always knew where it was going.  Although the production sometimes showed its low budget, the show’s enormous and intertwined stories carried it with characters that we could all related to in one way or another.

With Straczynski behind the writing of Sense8, we can expect the show to be filled with interesting characters and a strong story that carries from episode to episode and season to season.  In fact, the show was planned out as a five season story from beginning to end, then pitched that way.  The cast has reportedly been signed on for the full run of the show too, so fans can rest assured that the series will run its full course without being cancelled (I’m looking at you, broadcast networks).

Lana and Andy Wachowski.

The other two thirds of the Sense8 creators are Andy and Lana Wachowski, creators of the mega hit franchise The Matrix.

The two also have writing and producing credits for V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas and the upcoming Jupiter Ascending.  Their geek cred is also further extended, since they have written for the comic book medium early in their careers.  The Wachowskis admit that they like telling multi-part stories, making a series the perfect medium for them.  Add to that their visual style and creativity to potentially make Sense8 something much better than your average show.

On top of the powerhouse show runners, is a strong cast made up of several sci-fi alums.  The cast includes Naveen Andrews (Lost), Daryl Hannah (Kill Bill), Tuppence Middleton (Jupiter Ascending), Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who) and Brian J. Smith (Stargate Universe).  Sci-fi lovers rejoice!

Naveen Andrews, Daryl Hannah and Brian J. Smith.

Sense8 has potential to do for science fiction what House of Cards has done for political dramas.  With Netflix on board and a top-notch group of people producing and writing the show, it’s something that I’m very much excited to see.  The show is slated for release either in late 2014 or early 2015.  I will be binge-viewing!

Heavy Weather: A Drop in the Bucket

Twin tornadoes in Nebraska.

Recently, the news has been filled with stories and pictures from the US and parts of Canada about violent storms and tornadoes.  The wild weather is nothing new for the people in Tornado Alley, and the pictures of the twisters there are incredible.  In addition to the devastation of property that these storms have had, these storms also take a toll with the lives lost to these and other storms in throughout the world.

As powerful as the weather here on earth can be, the largest storms ever recorded are nothing but a drop in the bucket when it comes to the rest of the universe or, for that matter, the solar system.  Outside of our own planet, storms rage that could engulf the entire Earth and swallow it up without the slightest interruption.

One of the most famous storms outside of our own planet is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a gigantic storm on the face of the planet that has been in existence since at least 1665, when it was first observed by Gian Domenico Cassini.  The storm is massive in scale, ranging in size from 24,000 to 40,000 km wide from east to west, and 12,000 to 14,000 km wide from north to south.  To put this in perspective, Earth’s diameter is 12, 742 km, meaning the Great Red Spot could swallow our planet whole.

Jupiter and the Great Red Spot.

The Great Red Spot’s wind speed varies.  The center of the storm is relatively calm, but further out on the edges of the storm, wind speeds can be between 430 km/h up to 680 km/h.  Here on earth, the highest wind speed ever accurately recorded was 408 km/h during Tropical Cyclone Olivia in 1996.  Higher wind speeds are believed to exist in tornadoes, but have not been accurately measured and are not considered to be official records.

Much lesser known, but even more powerful than the Great Red Spot, is the Great Dark Spot on Neptune.  This is not one storm, but different storms that appear and disappear every few years.  Also differing from Jupiter, Neptune’s storms are relatively cloud free and have been measured with different sizes and shapes.

Neptune and its Great Dark Spot.

Wind speeds in Neptune’s storms have been measured at up to 2400 km/h, dwarfing even the Great Red Spot’s top speeds.  It is believed that the storm is actually a hole in the methane cloud layer of Neptune’s atmosphere, and the white coloring are clouds of frozen methane.

Finally, getting away from home, planet H209458b (unofficially called Osiris) is located 150 light years from earth.  In 2010, a team of astronomers became the first to measure wind speeds on an exoplanet when they were able to measure Osiris’ atmospheric winds.  These winds are caused when carbon monoxide gas streams from the hot day side of the planet to the cooler night side at a stunning estimated speed of 7000 km/h.

It’s a strong reminder of nature’s power when hurricanes and tornadoes wipe out towns, but it’s even more humbling when we put these killer storms in a wider perspective.  The most powerful storm on our tiny little planet does not even compare to what is out there in the universe.

The Peterhead Hostage Situation

 I recently came across this interesting little piece of history involving dangerous inmates, a prison guard hostage, the SAS and Margaret Thatcher.  I thought I would write a short article on it:

In 1987, Scotland’s Peterhead prison became the site of a riot when 50 prisoners took over the ‘D’ block and began destroying prison facilities. Many of these prisoners were serving long-term sentences for violent crimes like multiple murders and rapes. This was just the latest in a rash of prison riots, with inmates at Peterhead angry about the conditions of the prison and the distance that their families had to travel to visit the prison. As the riot began to subside, most of the prisoners surrendered themselves to authorities, but a small group refused to surrender and took a 56-year-old prison guard by the name of Jackie Stuart as a hostage.

Inmates parading Stuart on the roof of the prison.

The group of prisoners barricaded themselves in the roof space of the prison, and broke a hole through the roof. Using this hole, the prisoners appeared on the roof to make demands and parade Stuart in front of the media. Prison officials and police unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate Stuart’s release and the standoff dragged on. Making things more complicated was the fact that Stuart suffered from health problems and required regular medication and medical care.

As the crisis continued and Stuart’s health continued to decline, officials realized they were running out of time. A longer siege would mean Stuart’s death due to his poor health, but moving against the prisoners directly would also likely result in the killing of the hostage. Many of the prisoners involved were serving life sentences, and it was felt that they would follow through on threats to kill Stuart. The police made a request for assistance to the only people they felt could effectively deal with the situation – the Special Air Service.

Margaret Thatcher with SAS Operatives

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided that she would send a message to inmates everywhere and called in the SAS. This was a controversial move, opposed by a number of Thatcher’s Cabinet members. The SAS had never been deployed in a domestic situation outside of Northern Ireland as it was felt to be politically troublesome, however soldiers were required by law to assist civil police if assistance was requested.

Initially two men were sent to Peterhead as advisors to police. Civil authorities still believed that breaking the prison siege was best accomplished by the SAS and the advisory team began to formulate a plan. Negotiations continued until October 2nd, 1987 when a team of SAS operatives flew from their base at Hereford to Aberdeen, then were driven to Peterhead and arrived a few hours before dawn.

The goal was to get in, rescue Stuart and round up the inmates before dawn, out of sight of the media cameras at the front gate of the prison. The SAS team entered the prison grounds through the back gate, out of sight and put together their plan. The inmates had no weapons, so SAS operatives carried only police batons and their 9mm browning pistols – just in case things went badly.

After a quick mission brief, four operatives crossed the roof of the prison. With the slick wet tiles and a drop of 60 to 70 feet, the four operatives walked across the roof, in the dark, wearing gas masks that limited their vision. To complicate matters, prisoners in a neighboring block began yelling to warn the hostage-takers of the approaching assault. Their warnings came too late, as the SAS team reached the hole in the roof and used stun grenades and CS gas to stun and incapacitate the inmates. At the same time, other SAS operatives detonated breaching charges that had been placed on all sides of the barricaded section of the prison, blowing entry points into the inmates’ makeshift fortress. More CS and stun grenades were used, and the SAS rushed the barricaded prisoners.

Stunned by the grenades and blinded by the gas, the inmates were no match for the SAS. The four-man team quickly grabbed the ailing Stuart and manhandled him on to the roof, then to safety. The remaining teams captured and handcuffed the stunned prisoners, who had had no time to put up any resistance.

Stuart was reunited with his family, and the SAS quickly packed up their gear, and returned to Hereford after less than 12 hours. To them, this had been a quick, simple job, and the entire assault had taken only 6 minutes, but for Margaret Thatcher, it was a message that the SAS could and would be used against prison riots when called for.

In a recent interview, Peter Ratcliffe, the second in command of the SAS unit sent to Peterhead said, “The hostage-takers were very brave – as long as they had the advantage.  Against us, they didn’t have much chance.”