Category: Inside our World

A look at the daily activities and decisions that go into Tempest.

Marimedia Ad Network Does Not Pay

Over the course of running SearchTempest, I have had the opportunity to try out quite a number of ad networks. Unfortunately I’ve found that most do not have sufficient quality of ads nor earnings to warrant using them alongside Google Adsense. (One notable exception is Sovrn, formerly Lijit, which has been quite good for us.)

However, at least all the networks we’ve used so far do pay their publishers the amounts owed… except for one. We tried out Marimedia for a short time in early 2014. They now owe us several hundred dollars, which has been due for a year, and remains unpaid. We have sent multiple follow-up requests, and have been promised payment several times, but it never comes.

A few hundred dollars isn’t the end of the world, and certainly isn’t worth pursuing legal action, but I felt other publishers deserved to be warned. At least in our case, Marimedia does not pay its bills. I would avoid them.

If the overdue invoices are ever paid, I will update this post.

Update: About a week after writing this post, I was contacted by someone at Marimedia, and about a month after that I did finally receive payment. Since then I have been contacted twice by other Marimedia representatives with no knowledge of our past relationship, asking me to become a publisher for them. Also once after the invoice was paid, to arrange paying it. So, it seems like there’s nothing underhanded going on; they’re just really disorganized.

 

Hiring Manager

Of all the titles I hope to never have in my life, “Hiring Manager” is right up there with “Sanitation Engineer”. So if you’re applying to our job posting, please, just call me Nathan. Or use our company name if you prefer. But please, no “Dear Hiring Manager.” ๐Ÿ™‚

My new workspace

In case anyone’s interested in a small glimpse into my life, I just finished the little details of setting up my new workspace (just moved a few weeks ago) and figured I’d share.

My Desk

OK, honestly, it’s because it’s the first time I’ve ever done proper cable management. Here’s how it looked before. ๐Ÿ™‚ And yes, it’s always that clean now. … Yep. At least, when I take pictures of it, it is. Just don’t pan to the right or left at all. Or down. But otherwise, veeeery tidy.

The desk is a NextDesk Terra, which I don’t love everything about, but the huge surface and sit/stand adjustment are great. Monitors are BenQ BL2710pt, which I do love everything about. Except the OSD I suppose, but you pretty much use that once ever, so I can live with it. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Great review of it here if you’re interested. PC is a Sandy Bridge home build from about three years ago in a Fractal Design Define case, which has been great. (I like things quiet, so probably spent more time picking out the case, fans, and PSU than the primary components…)

Oh, and the kid on the calendar and the Amazon gift thing on the desk is my daughter, Lila. In fact, that one deserves a closeup. ๐Ÿ™‚

Christmas Elf

The toys you’d see on the floor if you had panned down before are (mostly) hers too.

And that’s about it! Welcome to my little world.

 

NextDesk Terra Electronic Adjustable Height Desk Review

Since I spend a good chunk of my time hacking on SearchTempest and AutoTempest, and a good chunk of the rest of my time playing Starcraft II and such, I end up at my desk for a large part of the day. I decided it would be a good idea to get an adjustable sit/stand desk so I don’t spend that entire time sitting on my butt.

I did a bunch of research and ended up deciding on the Terra from NextDesks.com. I’ve come across some significant pros and cons regarding both the desk and the buying experience that weren’t mentioned in any of the (relatively few) reviews I found online, so I figured I’d share.

NextDesk Terra

 

First the good. It does what it’s supposed to do. I got the extended version (73″ across) and it’s large, but not at all unwieldy or unattractive. It raises and lowers quite quickly (apparently fastest available), and has three electronic presets. There are a number of color options available, and you can customize things like where you would like the controls to be, cable management options, keyboard tray or no, etc. There is a tiny shudder to the up and down motion, but I certainly wouldn’t worry about anything on the desk shifting. Essentially it does what it’s supposed to do well.

The cons primarily have to do with the buying and assembly experience, but there are a couple to do with the desk itself that I will mention first. The main one is that the height presets have to be held down while the desk is moving to the preset height. This is not the case with their main competitor, the GeekDesk Max. What is particularly irksome about it is that I explicitly asked their salesperson about this before purchasing the desk, because I know some other competitors do have preset buttons that need to be held down. He assured me that their presets do not need to be held, which is simply not true. I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt and say he just made an incorrect assumption, but since I’m making a rather expensive purchase based on his word, I expect better.

Now, the NextDesk does adjust height quite a bit quicker than the GeekDesk, but when you don’t have to hold the button you can spend the time moving your chair, standing up/sitting down, and getting back to what you were doing while the desk is doing its thing. Since that time is much shorter but essentially wasted with the Terra, it’s essentially a tie as far as which I’d prefer. However, the GeekDesk is almost half the price. (The presets are still useful though. It’s nice to set your heights then not thinking about it, rather than always fiddling with the height trying to find the level that feels right.)

The other thing I’ve found with the desk itself is that a small chunk (perhaps 1/4″ x 1/8″) of the surface coating has apparently flaked off at some point. The solid bamboo surface of this desk is something that’s supposed to set it apart from the competition, so you don’t like to see the finish disintegrating almost immediately. (I have no idea when it came off, but I certainly haven’t dropped anything on the desk or anything like that.)

One other thing to be aware of with the surface too is that its color appears significantly lighter in person than in the color swatches on their website (or even the physical ones they mail out). Obviously the website ones will depend on the calibration of your monitor, but even looking at the swatch they mailed with the desk, my “dark” surface looks much closer to the “medium” color swatch. (Although when I took a picture of the desk with the swatches on it, it looked closer to the “dark” swatch in the picture, which explains why they look that way!) So this certainly isn’t a knock or anything, just something to keep in mind – it will most likely appear lighter in person than you would expect from looking at the swatches.

Finally, the process of buying and then assembling the desk definitely had some stumbling points. The good first though – they shipped the desk very quickly, and it was packaged extremely well. Essentially no chance of damage during transport, and it shipped in two separate boxes (for the top and the frame), which made things a lot easier to manage since it’s obviously large and potentially unwieldy otherwise.

However, even aside from the misinformation about the presets, I found their support to be somewhat underwhelming. To start with, I asked a simple question about shipping costs (I’m in Canada, so it’s cross-border shipping). Several times my emails went days or even weeks with no answer, and eventually I just gave up on the email conversation and resorted to phone calls. (And then I was promised callbacks on specific days which never came, again requiring me to follow up later.) I also asked them where the controls are positioned because I planned to set my working area up to the right side of the desk and wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be in the way. They told me that I can have it wherever I want, but if it’s not specified they put it about 6 inches from the edge. That sounded perfect to me, so I didn’t specify a position when ordering. That was a mistake, as the desk arrived with the controls installed about 18″ from the edge instead (right where my leg wants to be). I drilled some new holes and moved it, but shouldn’t have had to.

Then of course there was the presets thing, and when I wrote to complain about that after receiving and assembling the desk, I never received a reply. (It’s been about 2 weeks now.) And finally, their instructions are extremely poor. Again this certainly isn’t a reason not to buy the desk, but if you do get one, definitely read through them a couple of times before getting started. There were a couple parts where I had to do some dis-assembly because something that had to be done in an earlier step wasn’t specified until later (or at all). For example, the two legs are interchangeable, but the cables that run out of them to the central control box cannot be adjusted once the legs are attached. So if you don’t pay attention to which way they’re going when you attach the legs, you’ll end up having to take the whole thing back apart to fix it. There were also a couple guess and check steps, like the initialization process: “Press the Down button once or twice, holding it down.” Uhh.. ok. (I pressed it twice, holding it down the second time. That didn’t work though, so I tried pressing it once, holding it down. Still nothing. So I unplugged the desk, plugged it back in, pressed and held once, and it worked. Instructions fail.)

So, if you’re looking for an adjustable-height sit/stand desk, this one IS worth a look. Just be extremely explicit about how you want things set up, and be aware that regardless of what they say, the presets do need to be held down. Personally I would prefer not to support a company that treats customers this way, but there is quite a lack of premium electronic height-adjustable desks out there at the moment. That said, the GeekDesk is certainly worth a look, as might be this NewHeights desk. The main reason I wrote that one off in my research initially was that the presets had to be held down…

Hope that helps! Are any of you using an adjustable desk already? (Or just a standing desk?) What do you figure a company’s response should be after misleading a customer like this (assuming it was a mistake)?

Update – July 2014:
I wanted to update this post, as I just had a really good experience with Priya at NextDesk customer support. I finally decided to see if I could get warranty support for the shuddering issue mentioned in the comments, since it seemed to be getting worse. The response from custom support email was instantaneous this time, and she took me through a set of calibration steps, then when that didn’t help, readily shipped me a new leg along with a return shipping label for the (presumably) defective one. It looks like the company may be maturing, which is great to see. Hopefully this new leg works out!

Update 2 – Septembar 2014
They seem to be trying hard, but so far the first replacement leg they sent me was also damaged, and the second was the wrong color. I also still haven’t received any shipping labels despite asking repeatedly, so I’ve got a growing collection of desk legs littering my office…

Why weโ€™re lovin’ CARE International (and what we did about it)

On behalf of AutoTempest, our used car search engine, I recently decided to make a charitable donation. We had $10,000 to donate and just needed to find the right cause to put it towards.

As you know, here at Tempest, weโ€™re kind of obsessed with quality. Weโ€™re on a mission to bring you the best search results, for Craigslist through SearchTempest, for used cars through AutoTempest, and for movie listings through MovieTempest. So when it came to choosing a charity, it was very important to me to take the time and effort to ensure that we chose a top-notch organization with a similar commitment to quality.

I started by doing some internet research, and I also read The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier while I was considering this stuff. (Great book by the way; I definitely recommend it.) From all that I came up with a list of questions to pose to various charities. In the end, I decided on CARE International. Theyโ€™re doing some fantastic work in developing countries worldwide, and I particularly appreciate their focus on building skills for the long term, rather than providing ‘band-aid’ solutions.

If youโ€™re interested in finding out more about CARE and the work that theyโ€™ve been doing for the past 65 years (the organization started by sending care packages to Europe post WWII) check out their websites: International; United States; Canada. If you’re looking for an excellent charity to support, you should definitely check them out.

And of course, if you’d like to help out AutoTempest, it’s as easy as spreading the word!

You can also read the official announcement about our donation here.

And finally if you’re interested, you can read the full set of questions I sent to CARE and their answers below!

Read More

The Internet is Down

It seems like my problems earlier today were symptomatic of something a fair bit larger. Several major sites (ebay.com, about.com, livejournal.com, perhaps others) are inaccessible by both ping and tracert. Equally strange, the tracerts all seem to fail at completely different locations. And I have tried originating them both from my development machine in Canada, and a remote server in California. (PS: If you know what I’m talking about, try your own tracert to ebay.com and/or about.com and post in the comments!) Even MORE strange, the websites themselves are accessible! I can pull up ebay.com in a browser, or grab it with wget. But I can’t ping it?! Before today I would’ve said that’s impossible. If you’re an internet guru (or just know what’s up here), please enlighten me.

What a day

I had plans for today. I was going to do some coding.. add the new Google +1 thinger to SearchTempest, update the FAQ, port some stuff from that FAQ over to the AutoTempest FAQ, tweak the ads on SearchTempest, even work on a new feature or two! … my server had other ideas. I had an email waiting for me this morning from someone who couldn’t find an ad they had posted using SearchTempest. These are fairly frequent, and 98% of the time it’s for one of the reasons covered here. When the emailer claims to have already read the FAQ, that number drops to about 97%. ๐Ÿ™‚ This case was no different. What was different was that when I pulled up SearchTempest to verify its omniscience, it took about 47 seconds for the homepage to come up. I pay way too much for screaming fast internet, so this was definitely not normal. Took a look at the apache logs, and noticed a bunch of entries like this:
mod_fcgid: can’t apply process slot for [filename]
mod_fcgid is a fastcgi module for apache, which allows apache (the web server) to talk to things like php without having to load them inside the server itself. This is great for a bunch of reasons that I won’t get into here. What wasn’t great was that it was out of processes. The server is configured such that it should handle many times the current peak load of the sites (just in case I get slashdotted or what have you.. ๐Ÿ™‚ ), so that shouldn’t happen. At this point I’m kind of freaking out because a) all you fine people can’t access SearchTempest, b) the other fine people who probably aren’t reading this because they’re new users are now thinking that SearchTempest is crap and doesn’t work!, and c) I’m nearing the end of my very limited LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) debugging abilities. I sent off a somewhat panicked message to the support folks at the company I lease the server from, then, as is my way, proceeded to get in their way trying to debug the problem myself at the same time. Read More

My Secret Inspiration

Well, not secret anymore I guess. The about page talks about how I got into this Tempest business, but it doesn’t really cover why I decided to try my hand building a website in the first place. I don’t know if I should admit it, but the real catalyst was the Million Dollar Homepage. You may remember it from a few years ago. A college student in the UK had the brilliant idea of selling a million pixels for a dollar each (in 10×10 blocks). After some shrewd marketing it went viral, and a few months later he’s a million dollars richer. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one inspired by this. Soon after, there was a rash of ‘Ten Thousand Dollar Homepages’ and such. (After all, why pay $1 per pixel when you can pay 1ยข? :)) Unsurprisingly, these didn’t do so well. But it got me thinking – you’re not going to get rich copying what’s already been done, but there are plenty of other cool ideas out there. The only difference with the million dollar homepage was that the guy who had the crazy idea actually followed through and did something about it. And hey, what’s the risk? Worst case I learn a bit about web design – there are worse ways to spend your time. So I did some brainstorming, and came up with a fantastic idea. It was something.. about.. showing ads at various times of day, and people would.. guess what ad was coming up.. or something. Fantastic idea. ๐Ÿ™‚ Only thing was, it seemed a bit ambitious for a starter project. I figured I needed a little test project to get started. Not anything with real potential, just something nice and simple to do while I learned what I was doing. So I figured I’d just make a simple little site to help search multiple cities on craigslist. (You know, just until I learned the basics and could switch to working on something with real potential…) Mostly I just wanted something that would help with my air conditioner search. I may have had my priorities a bit backwards, but with a little luck, things turned out pretty well. The key is that I did something. So should you. You don’t need to start with a perfect idea; my first one was terrible. You don’t need to know how to start a business; you’ll learn as you go. You don’t need a lot of money; you can keep your job and get started part time. You just have to start something. In the words of Michael Masterson, “Ready, Fire, Aim!” Fortunately I also have a few other sources of inspiration that you might actually find inspirational. ๐Ÿ™‚ Premier among those is Paul Graham. I’ll write more about him and others later, but for now, go check out one of his essays. Just pick a title that sounds good, and I promise you an enlightening read.

If it ain’t broke… it can probably still be optimized

Any time I change anything on SearchTempest (or any of the Tempest sites for that matter), I get two broad categories of responses. Some people write to thank me for the new feature, let me know how useful it is, etc. (We like those people.) Others write to inform me that I must be most mind-numbingly stupid person on the face of the planet to think that anyone, ever would use this ridiculous new feature. (OK, they’re not all that extreme, but that’s the gist.) I admit I enjoy the comedic effect when both varieties of emails arrive at the same time. ๐Ÿ™‚ To an extent, I can understand where they’re coming from. It’s the same reason people hang on to ancient web browsers or other software when new, better, free alternatives are available. When you’ve found a solution that works for you, there’s little motivation to take the time out of your life to learn something new. With a website though, you don’t have a choice, which can be frustrating. On the other hand, we don’t have to look far to see what happens when you take “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to extremes. You get craigslist. Craigslist is fantastic, but I’m guessing you wouldn’t be here if you thought it was perfect. So what’s the solution? Well, first I’ve had to accept that I can’t please absolutely everyone. Instead, I have a rough algorithm for any changes I’m considering:
Likelihood of change = difficulty level * (users helped – users annoyed) / total users
Difficulty factors in because it’s better to do a bunch of things that each help 10 people and take a day than one thing that helps 20 but takes a week. Second, when I’m contemplating any change, I think on how I can minimize the annoyance factor. Mainly, this involves making things optional. For example, the SearchTempest results originally showed just one craigslist city per page, with Previous and Next links to switch between them. Nowadays the default mode shows 20 cities per page, which lets you flip through them more quickly. The original mode is still available though – just click the Display Options tab on the results page. About 10% of searchers still use it, so clearly it’s worth keeping around. That’s not always the case. In theory, making everything optional sounds perfect. Everyone gets exactly what they want! There are two significant drawbacks though. First, each additional option means additional development and maintenance time. And every minute I spend keeping a legacy feature working is a minute I’m not spending on a cool new feature, or even a cool new site, like MovieTempest.com. Second, every additional option makes the site incrementally more complex, which makes it appear harder to use. Even if all these extra options can be safely ignored (which they can due to intelligent defaults), a new user doesn’t know that. And losing new users to other sites because they have less features is an irony I prefer to avoid! ๐Ÿ™‚ So in the end it’s all about balance. I will always keep innovating, because if I didn’t, we’d still be stuck with craigslist. I’ll make changes optional whenever possible, because I want the sites to be useful for as many people as possible. But occasionally I will likely do things you don’t like. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And if not, I at least hope your email’s funny.

Setting your own hours is great, but not for the reasons you’d think

Now that I’ve moved from my old life to working on Tempest full time, I finally get to set my own hours. I always figured that would be great. No more dragging myself out of bed too early in the morning. No staring bleary-eyed at the clock, watching the second hand drag along until it’s finally 5:30. Work when I want. Sleep when I want. And do whatever I want the rest of the time! Great, right? And it IS. But not like I expected. Getting up when you’re rested is awesome, except that I’m someone who could sleep 10 hours a night if I let myself. And without a boss expecting you to show up at a reasonable hour, it’s surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) easy to do exactly that. Before, I had to get up for work. Now, I have to get up, because… I have some vague understanding that if I don’t, over time, I’ll feel bleh. It’s a bit harder to wrap your head around that when the alarm goes off in the morning. (Fortunately my wife rather likes me to be around during the daylight hours too, so that helps. ๐Ÿ™‚ ) So the ‘worst’ part about setting my own hours is that I get to sleep in. The best part? I can work really long hours! That’s right. The best part is if it’s 1am and I’m getting some really great work done, I don’t have to quit because I’m expected to be ‘at work’ the next morning. Or when 5:30 rolls around, I don’t feel compelled to pack it in, since I’ll have to be back at the same time regardless. If things are going well, I can grab a bite then get back to it. When I’ve finally gotten the entirety of a complex problem shoehorned into my brain, or when I’m on a creative roll and the ideas are coming one after another, I don’t have to stop. And that is great. I honestly think there are days now where I do the equivalent of a week’s work in my old 9-5 jobs.
When I’ve finally gotten the entirety of a complex problem shoehorned into my brain, or when I’m on a creative roll and the ideas are coming one after another, I don’t have to stop. And that is great. I honestly think there are days now where I do the equivalent of a week’s work in my old 9-5 jobs.
Of course, you can’t do that forever. And the other benefit is that you don’t have to. I spend periods of days or even weeks working what feels like every waking minute, but follow them with periods of similar length where the extent of my work is replying to emails. I recharge, have fun, and then, start having ideas. Eventually, I can’t wait to get back to work and let that creative energy flow into making something cool. If you’re lucky enough to set your own hours and would like to try something that might boost your productivity and enjoyment of your work, Steve Pavlina suggests one way to get started. That schedule ironically ended up being too rigid for me, but it’s at least a good primer. Paul Graham’s essay on Good vs Bad Procrastination also has some great insights. In fact, while you’re there, check out some of his other stuff. It’s all fantastic. And if you’re an employer, think about the benefits of giving real flex hours to your employees. Not “show up any time between 8 and 9”. More like “as long as you’re here for scheduled meetings, come in most days, and get the work done, do whatever works for you.” Because really, is it more important to make certain everyone’s working exactly 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, or would you rather have happy employees producing higher-quality results, faster? Obviously there are challenges to work around, but it’s worth it. I’ll write more about that side of things in a later post.