IRS Scandal Taxing My Patience

I’m surprised to see the IRS scandal still kicking around the news. Usually our collective attention span of a 2-year old would have dropped out and sent us looking to see what Kanye West is ranting about or if Jennifer Aniston is finally decided to settle down. But lo and behold, a New York Times article today highlights some of the non-profits that were targeted by the IRS. Looks like this story might have a little time left. I give it a week.

Pastafarian
Once again the Pastafarians were unfairly targeted by the IRS

In many cases it seems like some of the organizations deserved the scrutiny they got from the IRS. In particular, the Wetumka Tea Party of Alabama who, according to the Times, “sponsored training for a get-out-the-vote initiative dedicated to the “defeat of President Barack Obama”

Sounds partisan to me. But all of the press over the IRS scandal has focused more on the effects than the cause. First of all, there’s the Citizens United decision that opened up political campaigns to a flood of untraceable money. And with the inception of the 501C(4) -non-profits that classify themselves as “social welfare” groups rather than charities- it was clear that there was going to be lots of new organizations looking for tax exemptions.

It appears that the IRS couldn’t handle the amount of new organizations applying for tax exempt status. The IRS did what all we Americans do; It looked for the easy way out. They set up an algorithm that would flag organization if their applications contained certain words, such as “liberty”, “patriot”, and “bratwurst”. You get the idea.

cobra commander
Cobra Commander issues a stunning rebuke to Congress after being denied tax exemption

Obviously the technique was deeply flawed and many of the groups caught up in the snag happened to be right-leaning social welfare groups, many of them linked with the Tea Party. Since we have a Democratic president in office, it makes sense that there would be more groups on the defense establishing new organizations.

Yet the whole thing is, surprise surprise, being treated as a conspiracy to silence opponents of the president. Anybody who was around for the last election and saw the barrage of attack ads on both sides can conclude that the president did a pretty poor job of silencing his critics. I can’t go a single day without hearing criticism of the president. He’s become the whipping boy for the entire country. Locked your keys out of your car? Blame Obama. Fight with your wife? Blame Obama. The point is that if he’s trying to silence his critics, Obama the Silencer has done a worse job than Obama the President.

But really the problem comes down to 2 causes: Government mismanagement and partisan politics.

It strikes me funny when the same people who say that government doesn’t work can also claim that the government is capable of pulling off this kind of grand conspiracy. This is a government that can’t even pass a budget. Do you really think that they would be able to coordinate a mass conspiracy intended to smear the president’s opponents? And all of this without somebody talking to the media, writing a book or appearing on a radio show? Look, everybody has a price. It’s guaranteed that if this was all a conspiracy, somebody would have talked. It’s the same point that’s always turned me off by 9/11 Truthers.

It seems much likely to assume that the IRS is mismanaged just like everything else. They’re government workers after all, not comic book criminals. They care about bringing a paycheck home and that’s about it, just like most of you. With that lack of care, you have mistakes and you have shortcuts, just like every bullshit office job. And here you have your grand conspiracy.

But the bigger issue is partisan politics themselves. Political parties used to be more fluid, with some crossover. It wasn’t such a strange thing to see pro-life Democrats or Republicans who supported welfare. In fact, if you look at the political positions of a Republican like Richard Nixon, who established the EPA and proposed universal healthcare, we would cast them off as socialists. And remember, Democrats at one time supported slavery.

Red Sox fight
Our political system in one picture

Now, issues are owned by political parties. If you think that the government spends too much, you’re lumped into the Republican camp and now, by association, oppose gay marriage, abortion and any other pet issues. If you support a robust safety net for the poor, you must be a Democrat and you must believe the opposite of the Republicans.

Because of this issue ownership, a group can’t be apolitical. If you’re an organization looking to expand the safety net, you must be aligned with the Democrats. If you’re looking to reduce the deficit, you’re Republican aligned.

Sometimes it seems like our political system is a game of football. Making the country stronger isn’t the focus, but rather strategy and branding. In the end the people running our country are just like those IRS workers, looking for a paycheck. That’s the conspiracy.

 

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A Blog’s Life Part 3: The Birth, Death, Rebirth and Second Death of Mindwafers.com

Here’s the thrilling conclusion of the rise and fall story of Mindwafers.com, a site that me and four of my friends created. Check out the last two installments or you’ll be completely lost (unless you’re into that sort of thing)

So things were going good. We had success with March Fatness, we were contributing daily. We even picked up a few extra writers. But where would we go from here.

That’s where we stalled.

Since we started the site for fun, we had no idea of what we wanted to accomplish with the site. We loved organizing the Mustache Ball and the idea that we could use the site for something good for people. But we felt like the site still looked amateurish on the Weebly platform. Also, Weebly had LOTS of bugs. We invented a fictional character that ran Weebly, named Mr. Oopsie Doopsy, who would erase posts once we were done with them since this happened so often.

We hated Mr. Oopsie Doopsy.

Erik bought a fancy template on WordPress and went to work on creating a professional looking site. It had a slider like you see on the Yahoo homepage, lots of categories. It looked nice. But by that time, our writing had slowed down. We weren’t posting everyday, the posts were getting shorter. We had created so many different categories that it became difficult to manage. And we still didn’t have an overall theme to the site. We had no idea who our audience was, which would make it difficult when we decided we needed some advertising if we wanted to take in any income for the site. Because we didn’t know much about sales, all of our efforts to monetize the site were half-assed and ineffective. In addition, we ran into the single hardest obstacle: Life.

Work was busy for everyone, we were getting married, having kids. The website was taking a backseat to the various events in our life. It soon whittled down to me and Reece writing. But even we didn’t have time to keep up with a schedule that would ensure constant readers or keep us high in the Google rankings. After a while, it just seemed pointless to write. No one was reading it anymore even though we had this nice looking website.

We called the WordPress version Mindwafers 2.0. But Mindwafers 2.0 never took off like we wanted it to, mainly because our hearts weren’t into it. Sure we would talk about it every time we got together, how we needed to get back on the schedule we had before. But it’s difficult to force enthusiasm. As it stands, I posted an article about 3 months ago and that was it. Like I said, we haven’t given up on the idea. The challenge now is recreating that initial excitement we had when the site first went up. It’s easy to be excited when something is new, but keeping that attitude? Not so much.

As I’m thinking about the site, I learned much about why it failed, or more accurately why we gave up. The site could have eventually been a success, and it still might be, but it takes tenacity to have a successful website. You are competing against millions of others, many of whom are simply better writers. The key is coming up with a novel concept and engaging readers in a way that these better writers can’t.

Some key lessons I learned:

1) Have a plan: We started the site out for fun. We never set goals of where we wanted to be. This led to the eventual disinterest in creating more content.

2) Monetize: As much as it pains me to say this, I think we would have kept going if we saw some money coming in. Not that we were looking to become rich, but some income would have allowed us to pay other writers or a web designer. It also would have validated our success and kept us pushing for more.

3) Focus: The site became unwieldy and disorganized. We had so many categories but no central focus. We had a unique style for sure. But if someone had asked me what the site was about, I would have had a difficult time describing it to them. I would always fall back on, “just visit the site and you’ll see.” It would have been helpful to come up with a one-sentence description of the site, just so we know if a particular topic fit the scope of the site.

4) Put Yourself Out There: We didn’t spend nearly enough time promoting the site. We barely knew how to use Twitter until it was too late. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have one person be the social media person to make sure we were being promoted regularly.

5) Guest Post: We never cultivated relationships with other blogs. We should have contributed guest posts to other blogs to get our name out there and get some support from similar sites.

6) Have Faith: This is probably the biggest. We gave up. Had we continued on, surely we would have gotten back the audience we once had. Yet we expected too much too soon and our enthusiasm dried up. If you have a goal, stick with it. If your content is strong, people will come.

It’s not too late for Mindwafers. I hope to someday resurrect the site. It’s one of the reasons why I started this blog. Basically I wanted somewhere to put the writings that didn’t fit into the website and learn to develop my online presence at the same time.

I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Mindwafers. But at the very least, I hope you, imagined reader, learned a thing or to about what NOT to do when you create a website.

Thanks for reading and good luck on your internetting.

Joel AKA Bobby James AKA Big Sus AKA Jonah Goldfarb AKA Rod Pilf

A Blog’s Life Part 2: The Birth, Death, Rebirth and Second Death of Mindwafers.com

This is a continuation of my previous post on the story of Mindwafers.com, a website that me and four other friends created and subsequently forgot to write for. Eventually, I’m sure that the story will be picked up by a major movie studio and turned into a steamy summer blockbuster with Bradley Cooper, full of backstabbing, whispery dialogue and other skullduggery. But for now, it’ll have to live through my lil website that hasn’t cracked 10 visitors yet (any day now!)

So we were off and running, posting at least an article a day, but many times more than that. We started the website on Weebly because none of us really knew much about HTML, Dreamweaver, WordPress or anything else related to making a website. Weebly seemed the easiest and it was free. Easy decision, considering we were all broke.

We all developed our own styles. Adam, or “Angry Artie” would rant about sports, misspellings and bad grammar intact. Mike was the thoughtful stoner, someone who would take 2,000 words to unwind the intricacies of why elderly people shouldn’t be able to drive. Reece was the funniest, always on point with the one liners, while slipping interesting points between the humor. Erik became more of the programmer later on, as he wasn’t as interested in the writing, although he contributed here and there.

I feel like out of the group, I had the least recognizable style, mainly because I was writing as so many different characters. The most common character, Bobby James, was an unapologetic leftist/socialist, who often posted underreported stories and enjoyed criticizing the media’s treatment of certain events. In those years of cubicle living, I had become obsessed with reading news on the internet, at that point still a recent innovation. Every morning I would read the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and a small progressive news aggregator called Common Dreams. I graduated with a degree in journalism in college and always wanted to work for one of these papers after college. After graduating I realized that the competition was more fierce than anything I could ever deal with. At the same time, newspapers were going byebye and news was mainly read for free on the internet (myself included). So Mindwafers seemed the closest I would get to writing about important topics for an audience, so I took it seriously…maybe too seriously. And with reading all these publications everyday, there soon were too many topics to be covered without quitting my job and writing full-time, a regular fantasy of mine.

Mindwafers hit a high point in 2010 when we introduced the March Fatness competition. March Fatness was a bracket-like tournament that set various fatty, greasy snack foods against each other to determine the ultimate snack. We set up the site with a poll for voting so that our website visitors could determine the winner. We wrote short capsule reviews of each matchup, putting in our 2 cents as to who should be the winner.

With March Fatness, we learned our first lesson to having a successful website or blog: make it as interactive as you can. Soon after we opened up the competition for voting, we doubled our daily visitor count, at one point eclipsing 1,000 hits per day. Not bad considering we did very little to promote the site (We were still getting the hang of Facebook at the time and Twitter wasn’t even in our vocabulary).

It was no surprise that pizza won the March Fatness competition, destroying everything in its path. Another lesson we learned: Pizza wins everytime. We launched March Fatness the next year to equally popular reception. Except this time, we would make the competition between different types of food. Thai would battle Japanese, Italian duking it out with Chinese. The third year we introduced restaurants into the mix. It was easily the most popular thing and even gave Minwafers some credibility online. We became a name people knew, even if they didn’t know the people who were behind it.

The reach of our audience allowed us to organize some charity events which were successful beyond anything we could have predicted. We threw the first “Mustache Ball” in November. We would collect money throughout the night and donate it to the Greater Boston Food Bank. We all grew mustaches for the event and encouraged other to do so. As a bonus, this was before Movember and the greater mustache movement had gained steam in the US (FYI: Movember was created in Australia). In the end we were able to raise nearly $3,000 for the food bank. It felt great, being able to use our little bit of influence to do some good for the world. At the same time, we felt like we were mastering the whole “viral” concept and understanding how to spread your message in the internet age.

Things were going well. So why did we stop?

We’re past 800 words here so I’m going to have to roll this over to part 3. Note to self: Be more succinct

A Blog’s Life: The Birth, Death, Rebirth and Second Death of Mindwafers.com

I wanted to start off my blog with the most involved, arduous and fun writing position I have had so far. Me and a group of friends created a website called Mindwafers.com (which is still up even though nothing has been added in months) which gained a bit of popularity for awhile (at least among our circle) but eventually fizzled out and died. I still have hopes that we can revive the website someday, as it’s still in my mind most days. But before that moment I wanted to share our story to perhaps analyze what went wrong. Hopefully someone out can gain some insight if they’re preparing to start their own website and even more hopefully avoid the pitfalls that we fell into.

                   The Beginning

Out of the blue on a Wednesday, sometime in 2009, I got an email from my friend Mike. He had moved to Hawaii a couple years earlier to do God knows what. I hadn’t heard from him much since he left, but knew he would eventually return. In the email, he told us how he wanted to start a website based on an idea he had been toying with. He basically was compiling a list of things he hated in the world, whether it be a numbskull cultural trend, an annoying band or an oft-repeated phrase that made no sense. He collected these in a collection we decided to call “Why People Suck”.

it was strange and random to get the email. Even more strange was, for no apparent reason, I purchased the domain name of Mindwafers.com a month previous. I originally wanted MindCookies.com but it was taken. My original idea was to have it be a news analysis and culture analysis site, with no real clear focus in mind. But it would be like “snacks for the brain”, hence the Mind Cookies.

Three other friends were on the same email chain. They all loved the Mindwafers name. Within an hour, another guy in the group came up with a logo, one that I still to this day. Here it is:

mindwafers

Nice, right?

So off we went, compiling everything that annoyed us over the past ten years. And if you knew us, you would know that we were annoyed by a LOT. Mike and Reece took the major roles in these articles. My job was to spruce the site up with politics and entertainment news.

Due to our day jobs and the site’s tagline: “Killing Work For Over 10 Years” we wanted to keep our identities anonymous. I created two fake characters to write my articles, each with their own distinctive style. In time, I would create so many different characters that it would be difficult to keep track of them all. But it did work my writing muscles, as it was challenging to write in different points of view, often more than one in a single day. As time went on, the character’s developed more and I had the idea to integrate their lives into the site. Other fake characters would comment on the articles, rivalries were created, backstories were told. It was a novel concept.

The leader of Mindwafers was H.M. Mindwafer, a ruthless corporate titan whose plan to take over the world would be undertaken by running a small website by some no name twentysomethings who wouldn’t make any money from the project. Mr. Minwafer would periodically issue memos to the “company” indicating any changes in direction for the site. In time, the memos became more common.

So we had our site, a logo, a tagline, an idea. Before we even started, we had a “brand”, a concept I admittedly hated enough to want to feature it in a Why People Suck column. But I realize now how important and difficult it is to create a unique brand. If only we had known what to do with it.

I’m going to stop here since the blog is getting long, but continue onto part 2 if you want to read the story. Otherwise, enjoy your day and check in here for updates.

Let’s Be Friends

Hello and thank you for visiting my site. I’m not sure what you brought you here. Maybe you heard about my Megachurched project or my upcoming novel A Confused Consciousness. Maybe you were trying to find info on Joel Foster, original settler of River Falls, Wisconsin, or maybe you have a friend named Joe Foster who you wanted to catch up with, but your right pinky finger got a bit excited.

No matter the reason, I’m glad you’re here. I started this site to track my thoughts and writings as I officially embark on my lifelong quest to be a professional writer. Actually that’s not true…it’s my second attempt. After graduating college I had the insane fantasy of rocketing out of school and becoming a hotshot reporter. I would infiltrate the mafia, dodge mortars in Iraq, share high tea with Gordon Brown (at least neither of us made it). But that wasn’t the case. I had absolutely no idea how to begin a freelance career, nevermind sustain it.

Well that was seven years ago. I would like to think I’ve grown up a bit since then (although my Batman sheets tell me otherwise) so I figured I would take another crack at it. I’ve been studying the industry over the years and I feel like I might have found the secret. Want to hear what it is? It’s going to blow your mind…It turns out that in order to be a writer you have to…write…a lot!

Yeah I know, I was shocked too.

Over the past few years I embarked on quite a few long-term writing projects, a few abandoned, some finished, most thrown in my desk drawer after they were done, never to see the light of day again, like an unwanted Christmas present. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time, maybe I knew deep down the stuff I was pumping out wasn’t very good, maybe I just had no confidence.

This sight marks an end to that. I’m officially putting myself out there. Let’s hope I don’t get put back in the corner, my clothes in tatters while I babble incessantly about the mean people trying to steal my brain circuitry.

I’ll be posting projects I’ve been working on, a few of which I’ve set up separate pages for. I’ll also be posting short pieces based on my opinions and random thoughts in my crazy head because, for some reason, people like to read that kind of stuff. I’m trying for at least 2 updates per week, at least to start. If all goes well and I start getting some stuff published, this will hopefully turn into an everyday exercise, like crossfit without all of the vomiting.

Talk soon