Archive: December, 2017

Fed up with Google, ads to run a web site

posted by Jeff | Saturday, December 16, 2017, 8:12 PM | comments: 0

PointBuzz (Guide to The Point) and CoasterBuzz have been with me now for almost two decades. The early days were a lot more fun because of the wild west nature of the Internet. It delivered on the promise that anyone, anywhere, could create something with somewhat limitless potential, as long as they could pay for the cost to host it. That was a challenge for sure, in the early years, even when at one point I was hosting stuff on a T-1 to my house on my own servers, but that eventually gave way to rented servers, and then to the cloud. But even now, it's definitely not free, especially if you want to do it right.

The path to doing this was always advertising, which was generally lucrative enough to pay the bills, and during the recession and layoffs, enough for me to pay my mortgage as well. When Doubleclick (then an agency that sold ads on behalf of publishers) dropped me in 2001, it would have been devastating if I didn't start the CoasterBuzz Club, because my hosting costs alone in those days were over a grand. Fortunately, people didn't expect everything on the Internet to be free, and they stepped up.

Things have changed a lot. Before you even get to the issue of financing a niche community site, there's the fact that people aren't that interested in niche community sites in most cases, or at least not if it isn't a really big niche. People are content to use Facebook for most anything. Original content isn't valued very much. Attention spans suck too, so discourse on the Internet has largely been reduced to 120 characters of stupid by the likes of people like the president. It's all very discouraging. For years I've watched more individuals come to CoasterBuzz, but spend less time there.

But the money problem is worse. Google and Facebook own more than half of the ad market, and of that, obviously Facebook ads only appear on Facebook. That leaves scraps for the various small players, and few of them service small publishers like me. While Google has actually improved its CPM's for our sites, they aren't filling all of the ad inventory. That by itself wouldn't be that big of a deal if it weren't for the fact that all of the secondary ad providers have either shriveled up and died or pay so poorly that they're not worth using.

This year I'll technically take a loss, because I count my travel expenses to the business, and rightfully so, as those are largely a function of maintaining the relationships I've built over the last few decades. There's still some room to squeeze out more savings from the hosting, but not very much.

And here's the pisser: Google has been reducing my payout by as much as a third after the end of the month, attributing it to "invalid traffic." Mind you, there's no human who you can call to ask them about this... I'm just out a couple grand with no recourse. It's infuriating.

I don't know how many more years I'll be up for that. Ironically, the same company that's fucking me and the ad business is also the one that provides a ton of organic traffic. There are 80,000 pages indexed on CB alone. It's just that the traffic isn't worth much these days.


I forgot how to take time off

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 12, 2017, 9:38 PM | comments: 0

I realized early in my professional life that it's important to take time off to recharge, see stuff, do stuff. When I switched careers and started making software, this became even more obvious to me, I suppose because it can be mentally exhausting at times. Later, when I started managing people, I got kind of religious in making sure people understood the importance of taking time off to avoid burnout. I think I secretly believed that the breaks were also a way to cope with jobs you don't like, too.

But now I have a job that I really like, and I think it might be worse. As we got to the end of this year, I realized that I only used about half of my time. I was checking because I was starting to feel it. I've only taken two days off in the last five months, and then I had the move (those days don't count), a weekend with my team in California, and more weekends of hanging lights, ceiling fans and curtain rods.

One of the challenges is that I feel like time off should be used to travel, but that's harder now that Simon is in grade school. We can't easily just yank him out of school for days, so booking vacations during the school year is hard. The holidays aren't ideal because everything everywhere is crowded. Summer isn't as bad, but it's also not very long. But those two days I did take off were with Simon staying with friends, and that was practically life changing. Best 67 hours or so Diana and I have had in a while!

If I were the type to make resolutions, it would be to use my time off better. My brain needs it.


My HVAC education

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 10, 2017, 10:45 PM | comments: 0

When I built/bought my first house, it had an old school Honeywell thermostat with a mercury switch. That was a pretty straight forward device, closing the circuit to make the heat (or air conditioning) turn on. I had crazy high gas and electric bills, though it got better when Ohio separated transmission costs from source of energy, meaning you could choose where your energy came from. A rare, forward moment for Ohio.

Fast forward 16 years to my third house (all three have been new construction), and I had no idea what I was really walking into. Stuff has changed a bunch, but I hung out just enough with the field manager to understand a little of what was going on, though not enough to get my Nest installation right, it turns out. First off, the installation contains two systems, each with a blower and an outdoor heat pump. One set feeds the upstairs, the other downstairs. Already we've seen how remarkably efficient this is, even if the up front cost is higher. We have 57% more space than in the last house but already our November electric bill was about 15% lower. They're apparently doing this even with smaller floor plans now. That's a big change even in the four years since we started our last house.

The other new thing is that the outdoor units are now bidirectional heat pumps. This was my new discovery, as I didn't really know this was even a thing. Air conditioning isn't all that complicated. It's the process of taking heat out of the air (not putting "cold" into it). It stands to reason that if you can pull heat out of a tiny refrigerator and make the coils on the back slightly warm, you can pull heat out of the cold outside air and put it in your house. It's just the same process that the AC does, just in reverse. So the primary heat comes out of your ducts, not as hot as normal gas or electric heat, but the fan runs longer and heats over more time, ultimately using less energy. When the heat pump can't suck enough energy from the outside, it can supplement with traditional heating coils (in our case, since we don't have natural gas).

This is where the Nest actually does its best work, because over time it will learn what the most efficient combination of heat pump heat and typical electric coil heat is, factoring in the outdoor temperature and ambient heat from the other unit. A regular thermostat simply uses a cut off temperature, where it resorts to the internal heating when the outside gets below a certain temperature. We don't benefit from the thing learning when we're home (because I work from home... we're home most of the time), but for a few weeks each winter we get this algorithmic magic.

The thing I got wrong about the Nest installation was configuring it. I didn't know that it was a heat pump arrangement, and I just guessed on the wiring configuration well enough that air conditioning worked. Last night, I noticed the fan had been blowing for hours, but we were at 67 degrees and not getting any closer to 69. That's when I started learning about what the different wire conductors to the thermostat were used for, and the orange one, sure enough, went directly to the outside, where convention indicated it went to the reversing valve on the heat pump. That does what it sounds like it does... it turns it from an air conditioner to a heater by putting heat into the system instead of pulling it out. Then I remembered that my warranty registration also described the units as heat pumps, and I realized I configured the Nests wrong, without the primary and secondary heat.

After I got it right (at 4 a.m.), I ran a test to find that "auxiliary heat" was traditionally hot, while the standard heat was just warmish, as you would expect if you understood how the system works. Some hours earlier, I did not have that understanding. But by morning, the house was toasty as the outside hit 39, and to hit the programed 72 downstairs by 8 a.m., I imagine the heat pump was already running and the fan blowing.

I'm pretty excited about all of this energy efficiency, and I'm hoping that the other house sells for our target price so we have enough money to install solar and live in the inevitable future. Sustainable energy is not a goal so we can be smug, it's a goal for science and moving forward, proving that it's real and possible today, so others will follow. We can't wait for the government to make it happen, so this is how we can do our part.


Accountability over outrage

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, December 6, 2017, 8:00 PM | comments: 0

I don't write about politics the way that I used to. There are a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which is a suspicion that no one is listening. Another reason is that I think it just adds to the noise. When it comes to politics, I've frankly been outraged most of my adult life. Some presidents are better than others, but I honestly believe they were all decent human beings with good intentions, even when they failed. Donald Trump is not one of those decent human beings.

But being outraged over his latest shit show doesn't change anything. Indeed, I think the fatigue has set in already, which leads to either acceptance or uprising. Fortunately, it seems to be leaning toward the latter. In terms of what any individual can do about it, outrage has few results. Accountability, however, does get results.

We've seen a man rise to power who takes no responsibility for his actions, which isn't itself as disappointing as the people who will overlook those actions (the subject of another post). However, what we're seeing is that those who support a fundamentally immoral person are being called out and held accountable. It's happening in backlash to people in Congress. It's happening at the state and local level. It's happening in the courts. Corporations, educational institutions and non-profits are feeling it. The message being sent is clear: If you choose to be on the wrong side of history, where racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and hate are the order of business, people will remember. We can have spirited debate about economic policy, and that's cool, but when you fundamentally appeal to the worst traits of humanity, people will remember. You will be held accountable.

And keep in mind, it's not a left or right issue. There is plenty of ridiculous behavior to go around.

Activism is not likes and shares on social media... that's just outrage. It is our duty as Americans to hold those accountable that work so hard to tear down 200 years of slow progress. Let your elected officials know they are accountable. They work for you (this includes the president). Support those organizations that engage in accountability.

Outrage takes too much energy to sustain. Use that energy to demand accountability.


We upgraded our phones to Pixel 2

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 5, 2017, 9:50 PM | comments: 0

I was fully expecting that I would hang on to my original Pixel (in Really Blue) for the full two years, but I was thinking about what to do for Diana. Her Nexus 5X just kind of died after two years. It came back to life once for me, but has since been deceased. She took my 5X then, which is the same age. Then Google did a Black Friday deal with a $100 of Fi credits and trade-ins, in what amounts to cutting a Pixel 2 cost in half, or a BOGO deal. So while I didn't need a new phone, the deal brought the cost down to something reasonable, and Diana doesn't have a hand-me-down.

Most importantly though, we get the new cameras, which are arguably the best (or tied for best) on any phone. I took 1,600+ photos in the last year, so that's important.

First impressions: It's a Pixel. The first version of this phone was fantastic, and the second improves on it in most every way. I know some people complain that the design is "meh," but I'm not sure how many more variations on a rectangle you can have. On this one, they reduced the glass on the back to just the top fifth. No glass on the back would be better (especially if you don't use cases), but I understand the radios need some breathing room. I got the white one, and it looks great. The metal has a less slick texture than the previous model, for the better. I kind of wish they did the front bezel in white, because I liked that about my blue Pixel. I know everyone loves the thin/no bezel thing, but as someone who has a tick where I rub the edges of the case, I'm OK with bezels. Also, the room for the speakers makes for pretty good speakers. (Sidebar: Spigen makes really solid, inexpensive cases that protect the phones without hiding them. This is my third phone with one of theirs.) I'm super annoyed about Google (and everyone else) ditching the headphone jack, but at least they put a dongle in the box. I imagine they partly did it for the water resistance, but it still sucks.

The screen is another great OLED (can't believe Apple is still doing backlit LCD on the 8), and unlike the original Pixel, this one isn't tweaked out. I had to use a developer option to tone down the color on the old one, but this one has an option in settings for "Boosted," "Natural" and "Saturated." Saturated was the default color space of the old one, but this one landed on Boosted. Natural feels a little flat to me. I like the always-on time and notifications on the screen, which on OLED doesn't take much energy to sustain.

A primary consideration for going all-in was the new camera, as I said, but I haven't done much with it yet. I can tell you that the power button double-tap to taking a picture is nearly instant. The processing, even when you turn on portrait mode, is crazy fast as well, and they haven't yet turned on the dedicated photo processor chip yet, which I believe is supposed to offload the HDR and depth of field stuff at a lower energy cost. That update is starting to roll out now with Android 8.1. Instead of having two cameras, they use what sounds like Canon's dual-pixel trick, where pixels next to each other can calculate distance (used on the Canons for auto-focus improvement) as well as computationally arrive at wider dynamic range. Google is using it to aid in the portrait mode and whatever other visual effects they decide to roll out.

My "tolerance" for Android was opened up a few years ago (as Windows Phone continued to die a slow death) with Google keeping its own phones on the latest bits, and they're at a pretty amazing place now. Widgets are the answer to WP live tiles, and contextual menus are occasionally useful. The live backgrounds are fun. Mostly, the OS gets out of the way now. The fine grained control of notifications has evolved to near perfection, and it's contextual to each notification. Careful logging of energy usage and data makes it easy to find the occasional rogue app (I'm looking at you, Walt Disney World).

The transition was fairly easy. Contacts have been synced in whatever service you prefer for years, and since mine are all in Gmail, this "just works." They now have some merging and copying capabilities too, in case you have your stuff spread across multiple accounts. From a security standpoint, it makes sense that not all passwords and accounts get copied, but with Google's auto-fill functionality, most recent apps that I've installed don't make me guess the passwords. The only thing that really bothered me in the move to the new device is that Google is hell bent on changing notification sounds every new model. I really liked the "Hey!" notification for texts in the last Pixel, so I downloaded the file and restored that. I also like a "real" phone ring, and for whatever reason, that carried over for me.

Net cost for these phones was $350 with the trades and Project Fi service credits. And remember we're averaging about $55 per month total. These are top of the line phones, state of the art, and it doesn't involve a grand for the phone on top of typical carrier pricing.


The innovation stage for tech companies

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 1, 2017, 11:12 PM | comments: 0

One of the things I've tried to do in various jobs is keep stakeholders and other people around a business in the loop on how the software development effort is going. Sometimes this involves just summarizing major accomplishments and velocity in a sprint, sometimes it means more widely distributed, generalized information. At my current job, I do a monthly update to the whole company, and share the accomplishments of the development team and the themes around the work we're doing.

Last month I reviewed the last year in my update, because I just crossed my first work anniversary. This month I was thinking a lot about where we were headed, and it got me to thinking about a major innovation phase. When I really stopped to think about it and look for innovation as a pattern, I realized that it's one of the few generalized phases that young technology companies often go through.

I've seen this go both ways. A lot of companies, or their internal software/IT efforts, are in a continuous battle to just barely stay ahead, and never get around to breaking new ground to serve their customers, internal or external, in a better way. In companies where the effort is just a cost center that supports a bigger business, they can kind of limp along this way, but for pure technology players, it's bound to lead to certain death.

On the other hand, when I worked at Insurance.com, my longest gig on a single product and in a technology company, I joined around the time that the innovation phase was just beginning. (A lack of innovation is not what eventually killed that company... that's another story.) In the years prior to me joining, the had been through the struggles and pain of trying to scale and figure out what the product was supposed to be. In my time there, we were dreaming up all kinds of things and building on a pretty stable platform where we could measure everything. We did nutty things that people take for granted today, like decide what kind of picture on a form resulted in higher sales conversion for specific demographics. I'm not sure that we measured the ROI on those projects, but it was still pretty cool.

The idea that we're headed into this phase is pretty exhilarating. It's what every technologist wants to be a part of, but honestly, we don't get to do it very often. As someone who has always struggled with job satisfaction, it's personally important.