Tuesday, September 28, 2010

AT&T

Really soon here I should be getting a new Windows Phone 7.  I'm pretty excited about it: from the little I've played with one, it made the iPhone look like a relic.  The problem is that Windows Phone 7, like the iPhone, is launching as a GSM-only phone, which AT&T and not Verizon.  (Verizon phones will be coming someday, but not for a while.)  I'm a current Verizon customer and I really like the service, but I also would really like an amazing new phone.  I was with AT&T for a while and it was terrible.  The service was abysmal and the cost was far higher than what I pay now.  Apparently, though, over the last year they've gotten better—incredibly better—especially in this area.  I've decided over the past few days that I'd be willing to give them another chance.  Jason's on AT&T and he can actually even receive phone calls, which is way better than I used to get when I was on their network.  The problem with giving them another chance is, of course, if I choose poorly and they still suck, I'm stuck with them for a long time.

Of course that's not news.  That's just the way phones work in the US.  It's awful and plenty of people despise it, though it does result in lower-cost phones up front since it effectively ends up being a payment plan.  I think this may just be one of those places where the free market sort of failed.  Until all of the major carriers allow people to freely move between networks, they only have to be competitive every two years when peoples' contracts run out.  Even if contracts weren't in the mix, carriers' technologies aren't terribly compatible, so I couldn't use an iPhone from AT&T on Verizon's network, for example.

I do wonder how much better the European model works, if at all.  As I understand it, the technology there is all roughly the same, and people own their phones outright without lengthy contracts, so it's much easier to switch carriers, forcing them to compete constantly on providing a good service.  That's very appealing to me.  I mean, that's supposed to be the big benefit of capitalism, right?  In the US it seems like it's one of those situations where the free market didn't produce a situation where companies are truly competing with each other.  Mobile phone service is just good enough where it seems that nobody can win out by being radically and phenomenally better.  If a carrier came out with a high-quality service that cost less than half as much as their competitors, I'm sure people would switch, but if you save five bucks a month or get a slightly cooler phone, most people aren't going to notice.  But I really feel that if they were in a situation where people could and would switch for smaller service improvements like that, mobile service would improve at a faster rate than it is right now.

I suppose that as the demand for technology services arises over the next decade, we're going to run into a lot more situations like this where I'll feel like the free market is failing me.  I like Facebook, both the service it provides me as well as the UI.  But nobody's really competing with Facebook, at least not in their core business.  No one can right now.  Maybe eventually I'll stop liking them, and then I won't have any other options to switch to and I'll be upset.  It certainly could happen.  Right now they don't have to let anyone compete with them.  Their network is theirs and they don't have to share.  I don't think that the government forcing Facebook to open up their social network, or forcing AT&T and Verizon to abolish contracts and share network technology is the best solution.  But I do think that a (much) better economist-legislator than me could probably come up with a solution that better encourages companies to behave in ways that ensure future competition without resorting to dictatorship or ridiculous rulings and fines (cough Internet Explorer cough).  Getting stuck with a service provider you don't like for multiple years is not good for capitalism.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Intimidated

But enough about ads and music and all that stuff. The real reason you read this thing is for embarrassing stories about ways in which my brain is broken.
[This is a long post. tl;dr: "I'm hilariously shy."]

This past Sunday night seems like a perfect example that might help you to understand a little bit what it's like to be me: I don't know if it's simply introversion, or something more unusual. Jason and I went to a post-PAX meetup at a bistro in Seattle. Upon arriving, I'm in an unfamiliar place around people I've never met before, and immediately I could think of nothing but finding my ex-coworker there so that I'd be around another person that I already knew. The fact that we all shared common interests—we were all gay men who love video and board games—was not enough to console me. For that first minute I was already in a state of unease. Something in the back of my mind was flooding my thoughts with messages. Why are you here? You know what happens when you're around new people. It never ends well. You should go. GO. You shouldn't be here.

But of course we didn't leave, and it wasn't more than a minute or so until we met up with that ex-coworker, and then I became a lot more comfortable. I didn't really leave his side other than to order a drink for a while. I stood there talking to him and Jason, observing the other people around me playing Rock Band, but not able to start a conversation. Why would you start a new conversation? You don't know these people, after all! I don't know what subconscious thing prevented me from talking to them. Did I fear the rejection of them not being interested in what I had to say? I actually think I'm kinda awesome and smart and pretty fun to talk to, so I don't feel like it's for lack of self-esteem. I went to this event with the explicit purpose of meeting people, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn't do it. It was like I was paralyzed from the brain down. I was trying to talk to these people, but I couldn't open my mouth. Something was stopping me and I didn't know what.

That sort of thing makes me extremely uncomfortable. I'm generally in rather good control of myself. I don't swear unintentionally, I don't become violent when I'm angry, and I can calm myself down or cheer myself up at will. (People who observe me in action behave as if I have some sort of meditative superpower.) The idea that my behavior is not completely under my control is actually pretty terrifying. People talk about how hard it is to quit smoking, and whether I want to or not part of me always thinks of those people as just being weak-willed, but come to think of it, I probably have a pretty good grasp of how even simple and positive actions can be blocked subconsciously for unknown reasons.

Not too long after we arrived, someone proposed a game of Uno, and I countered with Coloretto, which I'd brought with me. As soon as people were talking to me, I could effortlessly interact with them, but if he hadn't spoken up, I wouldn't have either. We got five players and a couple tables and started setting things up. I introduced myself, explained the rules, and the game progressed as if we were all friends. Once we had a purpose—to play Coloretto—my conversational difficulties dissolved entirely.

But Jason and that ex-coworker weren't technically the only people I knew there. I had also talked to one of the other guys before: not in person, only online. When I saw a few minutes after arriving that he was there, I planned on going over to say hi and start a conversation. I planned this for four hours and it never happened. Many times I had completely resolved and decided that I was going to walk over there and talk to him, maybe shake his hand or something; say "hey, I'm Travis, remember me? ...nice to meet you." I couldn't actually do it. I would turn in that direction and tell my legs to start moving, and they'd remain motionless. I was physically unable to go over and talk to him. And this wasn't even someone new: I knew his name, the games he plays, his Starcraft II character's name, and all sorts of things that one could start a small-talk conversation on.

Several factors conspired to bolster my shyness this time. At first he was in a group, and it would have been perhaps rude to interrupt a conversation just to introduce myself. But many people in this sort of social situation will immediately leave one group and join another effortlessly. This was a conscious block: I told myself that if I waited for him to be alone I'd never have a chance to talk, so I'd just have to go mingle and wait for a chance to talk, and that was that. I got over it. I already knew this person and I'd come up with a plan, so it'd be easy to go chat. Simple! Of course that didn't happen.

Another problem was that this guy is attractive. Like, really hot... Mr. April 2011 kind of hot. I have a really hard time talking to attractive people. It's not even solely people I am actually attracted to myself: I was at a party about a year ago with a quite good-looking girl I'd talked with like a hundred times before. She works at the gym and we talk all the time there and she's very lovely and friendly, and at this party it was challenging to bring myself to talk to her. (I don't recall if I ever actually did.) Why can I talk to her at the gym? I don't have to; I could easily just be as cold and rude as the other patrons there. I never had any trouble at all talking to people working at Burger King or the grocery store checkout lanes or the deli or Microsoft. Something about parties and bars in particular must scare me, because I don't seem to have the same problem at a workplace.

It seems that with sufficient willpower, I can overcome a few of my difficulties talking to people (unknown people, unknown places, parties/bars, attractive people), but not all of them, and when that willpower falls short, I end up just standing there, seemingly paralyzed. I try to move my legs to walk toward someone, try to open my mouth to talk to them, but nothing happens, and it starts to freak me out. I have enough weird and adorable little personality quirks that I've come to love and accept, but this one in particular angers and scares me. I hate it. I don't want to be this way.

Advertising credit

Facebook decided to give me a $50 advertising credit, so I used it to run this ad in September:


The total campaign cost about $46 (so free after my credit). In that time, the ad was shown 172,423 times, received 42 clicks, giving a response rate of 0.024%. Facebook ads work on a bidding system where you offer to pay up to a certain amount per click, and the ads that offer to pay more get shown more often. I offered up to $1.50, and on average they charged me $1.08 per click. (As an experiment, I'm going to try offering only 20 cents per click and see if the ad gets shown at all.) Then, once you get up to your daily budget (I set a whopping $7), they stop showing your ad until the next day, and then people who bid less than you start having their ads shown more often.

They let you target the ad to pretty much whoever you want. I chose to target only English-speaking women in the US between ages 30 and 60 who have at least a bachelor's degree and have "high school teacher," "middle school teacher," "teaching," "youth group," or "youth ministry" listed on their profiles, because based on the emails I receive, those are the people who use my product. After a day I decided to remove the gender restriction.

Overall it's a pretty neat little system. I don't have any prior experience in advertising, but Facebook gave me more than I expected and it was all really easy to understand. What I don't know is how terrible of a response rate 0.024% is. I mean, obviously, that seems really low. I know people barely ever click ads, but still, 1 out of every 4,000 people seems ridiculous. I don't know if I targeted the ad poorly, or if it's just not visually striking or appealing, or what.

The one takeaway was that if I really were paying $1.08 per click, I'd have to charge significantly more than that just to break even on my ad if this were for profit. If I assumed that 1 in 10 people who clicked the ad actually bought something, which still seems generous, I'd have to charge $11 to even break even on advertising, and (just as a reference) depending on who you ask, the average cost of a successful iPhone app these days is more like $4, and the developer gets like $2.50 out of that. Looking at those numbers, I don't see how a "little guy" making a small, simple product can really profit from Facebook ads. Experimenting with a really low per-click bid may change my perspective.*

* UPDATE: After another week or so, the lowest bid that I could find that would cause my ad to be shown at all was 75¢. At the final end of the campaign, my total was 173,962 impressions, 62,519 of which were for unique users. I got exactly 50 clicks, all unique users, so .08% of the people who saw the ad clicked it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

We Are Born

The short version:
Augustana—Can't Love, Can't Hurt: 3/10
Ozomatli—Coming Up (EP): 5/10
Justin Nozuka—Holly: 5/10
Dynamite Hack—Superfast: 5/10
Gotan Project—Tango 3.0: 7/10
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack: 7/10
Sia—We Are Born: 9/10
Gorillaz—Plastic Beach: 4/10
Hans Zimmer—Inception: 7/10

I've been listening to a lot of different CDs recently, partly because most of them aren't that good and it took a while to find things to like about them.  I'd picked up another Augustana CD, Can't Love, Can't Hurt, when I got the last one, and I probably shouldn't have, but those accursed low prices enticed me.  It wasn't worth it.  It's bland elevator rock.  The best tracks on here are Sweet and Low, I Still Ain't Over You, and Hey Now, and none of them are that good.

I got an EP from Latin band Ozomatli, Coming Up, and it's decent, but nothing special.  It's not very expensive and you get a few worthwhile tracks, but it's not something anyone really needs, either.  The best songs are Esa Morena and a live rendition of Ya Viene el Sol, and some of the rest are kind of annoyingly repetitive.

I got the album Holly by Justin Nozuka after a free Amazon MP3 download of the pretty decent single Criminal, but I guess I should have waited until there were samples of the rest of the tracks online, because they're a letdown.  Down in a Cold Dirty Well and After Tonight are pretty decent too, but the rest is not really my style, sort of a white-boy blues in a voice that sounds awfully similar to a less perky Jason Mraz.

And then there was Dynamite Hack's Superfast, which was a case of "I'd already heard all the great songs on here"; there were a few other okay ones and the rest were pretty bland.  The main single Anyway is excellent somewhat punkish rock, and the weird alternate slow version at the end of the album by a band member's little sister is strangely good too.  They've also got a cover of Boyz-N-The Hood that's pretty hilarious and has a great video.  But, the rest isn't superb, or at least it's so much not my style of music that I can't find much to be interested in.

The third album Tango 3.0 from a group I really like, Gotan Project, arrived a few weeks back, and it's better than any of those other ones so far, but it's a little phoned-in.  Their previous two albums were significantly better (the first one in particular is pretty amazing), but this one seems to be lacking some of that soul.  Peligro, Tu Misterio, and √Črase una Vez are all fun.  I'd recommend this one if you like this tango-fusion music, but it's not an overwhelming recommendation.

After seeing all of the artists that I like on it, I finally broke down and got the soundtrack to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and was pleasantly surprised.  The songs fit together pretty well stylistically, and there's a lot to like.  I'm always annoyed at having to buy some random compilation CD to get a track or two I want instead of just getting that on a normal single-artist album, but this one ended up being worth the purchase.  Songs of note include Metric—Eclipse (All Yours), Florence and the Machine—Heavy, Sia—My Love, The Black Keys—Chop and Change, and Cee-Lo Green—What Part of Forever.  (Interestingly, Bat for Lashes and Muse are two of the three artists I got the album for, and their songs aren't even favorites.)

The best one out of the bunch was Sia's latest, We Are Born.  It's great; it's definitely her most poppy CD to date, but it's just as smart and creative as her previous work, if not more.  I love The Fight, Clap Your Hands, and Bring Night, and it's an album I can listen to twice in a row and not hate it.  If you like Sia's previous work or just interesting pop-styled music in general, I'd recommend it.

The latest Gorillaz album Plastic Beach is sort of painful.  The best tracks on it aren't that great (Superfast Jellyfish, Rhinestone Eyes, Some Kind of Nature), and there are some terribly obnoxious ones like Pirate Jet and Sweepstakes.  There are interesting and creative beats and sounds like you'd expect from a Gorillaz album, but whether or not it succeeds as a sound effects CD, it's not good listening.  Their first two were considerably better.

Finally, I picked up Hans Zimmer's soundtrack for Inception.  When I saw the movie I was in awe at how well the music fit, but I was unsure of how well it would work as a standalone CD.  It turns out that it works... okay.  The pacing of the album makes it impossible for the whole thing to fit whatever mood I'm in all at once, but yet the tracks themselves make the most sense as a collective.  Even if you liked the music in the movie as much as I did I don't think it's worthwhile to pick up the album.  That said, Dream Is Collapsing, Mombasa, and Time are all great tracks and sound good on their own.

Could have been a better couple months. I'm going to need to replenish my stock of new music soon.