Friday, October 26, 2012

The hard not-as-hard part

Well, yesterday I got my test results from the State Department Foreign Service Officer Test. Turns out I passed.

I was/am pretty happy about it, but at the same time, I'm trying to keep in mind that passing the FSOT is only the first battle in a long campaign to actually become an FSO. So while the test was challenging enough, and I spent a few months studying for it, it's almost like "so much for the easy part."

The next stage is basically the analogue to submitting a resume––only instead of a resume it will be six short papers about my experience. That feels like the part I'll have the least personal control over. Sure I'll be writing the responses, but it's not an objectively graded test I can study for, or an interview that I can practice for. I guess I'm kind of thankful for that actually, but it still feels like I have less control than in the other parts of the process.

So anyways, I know I wrote previously that if I passed the test, it was probably still only a 10% chance that I'd make it past the next two levels and––while passing makes it easier to feel more confident now––that estimation is still probably pretty accurate. So it's still really a slim chance.

At any rate though, yesterday's news makes me at least feel a little better about the whole thing, regardless of what happens from here on in (or out).

And I'm super-thankful for all the people who've been supportive of me doing this, from the person who first suggested I look at the State Dept. in college several years ago, to the person who encouraged me to go ahead and take the test this summer, to my parents who were willing to put up with me not doing much but study this summer, to all the people who said their thoughts and prayers were with me taking the test. Thank you! And your thoughts and prayers will be appreciated as I take the next uncertain step into the selection process.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why my blog may go away soon

If anytime in the near future you come here to my blog and you get some kind of page error or redirect from blogger, it will be because Google terminated my account and deleted my blog.

Yes, that is right. It seems I have managed to kindle the wrath of the capricious head god of the internet, Google, and my YouTube channel, gmail account, and most sadly, blog now teeter on the edge of annihilation.

It's a story that goes back three years.

It was 2009, and while I had had a YouTube channel for a couple years before then and tried many series of videos ranging from travel vlogs across Europe to 3D animation software tutorials, I had never encountered run-away success with anything.

Then one evening in early fall, as I was dealing with a huge infestation of mice in my house, I randomly had the idea to set my camera in front of a mousetrap. Five minutes later, I had the video that would define my online money-making career to date. A slow motion video of a Victor™ mousetrap in action.

It wasn't successful overnight, rather it grew slowly but steadily until late 2011 when there was a significant uptick and views went from around 100 to six or seven hundred a day. By this time it was around 200k views and I was earning a steady couple dollars a day from it in advertising revenue.

Then, a few months ago, late this summer, after spending weeks attempting unsuccessfully to start a tech review website and accompanying YouTube channel, I applied a few of the simple traffic and SEO strategies I had learned to the mousetrap video. Views went through the roof and continued to climb, reaching a steady 5-6k by September.

While the video was hugely popular, it wasn't long enough to be effectively monetized. It was late summer so I set some more mousetraps. I got more videos of mousetraps that were longer, meaning more ads could be displayed on them.

While these videos didn't generate much traffic on their own, I became very successful and routing traffic from my one uber-successful video to these, while keeping great audience attention.

My short-term financial goal for adense was to be earning $120 dollars a month by November. That's when my student loan grace-period ends, and I knew I would need that much at least to make the monthly payments. By the time I uploaded my forth mousetrap video, I was tantalizingly close to that with around $100 a month, and I was extremely thankful that despite being chronically unsuccessful at finding employment since I graduated, I now wouldn't have to worry about my student loans.

That was when the problems started.

While all the ratings on my videos have always been overwhelmingly positive (85%+) there has always been a vocal minority––of the militant animal lover type––who were outraged at the videos. YouTube is full of haters and trolls though, so I was never particularly worried about them, and any malicious comments were always shouted down by the vast majority of my viewers who loved my videos.

As my channel became more successful though, some of these angry people started flagging my videos. As I said, my first mousetrap video had been there for three years and received 200k views, during which time Google earned lots of advertising revenue and never had any issue with it.

Then last month, I got a message that one of my videos had been removed for violation of YouTube's community guidelines. There was no option to appeal, and the video fortunately wasn't one of my major revenue sources. So I took the strike on my account and carried on.

A few weeks later I received an email that another, older video had been deleted for community guidelines violation and being my second strick in six months, my account access had been suspended four two weeks. This one was non-sense on stilts, as the video was of a mouse not-getting caught in a trap, and and it wasn't even harmed in anyway. Obviously haters from my other videos had just been going through my account and flagging all my videos regardless of their content, and some half awake Google content screener in India who thinks rats are sacred had approved the flag. I appealed the flag, and YouTube sided with me, removed the strike from my account and reinstated my administrative access.

After the first incident though, I had started making the transition to videos of live-capture traps, hoping that angry animal rights vigilantes would be less likely to sabotage them. And it was working. The same demographic who had been leaving hateful comments on my account before started saying how they "appreciate[d] my ethics."

I also started reviewing traps and posting Amazon affiliate links to them on external websites linked to my videos. My revenue increased several fold, and by two weeks ago, I was comfortably over $100 a week and had a clear-cut path to increasing that by three to five fold in the next couple months.

After almost a year of having no money, financial stability, and maybe even financial independence were finally on the horizon. Last week I invested in about ten new live-capture traps to test and review, and they should be arriving tomorrow in fact.

But last Saturday, things started to unravel.

Another one of my videos––this time one that had been there even longer––was deleted. I contested it, but my appeal was almost instantly denied. So now I'm locked out of my account for two weeks, barred from appealing for 60 days, and have two community guidelines strikes on my account. Which brings me to why I won't be surprised if I lose this blog in the near future.

If I get a third strike, Google will terminate my account. Not just my YouTube account, my entire Google account, meaning gmail, Google+, and, most sadly, my blog. When I first created my accounts on YouTube and Blogger, they were both independent companies. Then Google bought out YouTube, and a short time later blogger as well. So now, a completely unrelated event on my YouTube channel may be about cause the termination of my blog. (I feel like this holds some kind of geopolitical analogy for protecting the sovereignty of nations, but I won't go into that).

The obvious solution to ensure my Google account doesn't go on the chop-block is to manually remove the remaining video of a lethal mousetrap in action. Unfortunately, I can't even do that for two weeks because my administrative rights are gone––giving some Google employee somewhere a chance to kick me while I'm down if they so desire, and delete my account while I don't even have the option of doing what they want me to do to rectify the situation.

Assuming that doesn't happen (which it may) and my account survives the 12 days left to me regaining access, I will have a very tough choice.

The one video that I feel may be in danger of getting me another strike is also my flagship video. That is, the one that generates the 5-6k views a day that I can then re-route through my other videos. The live trap videos may be producing lots of revenue, but they can't if no-one watches them. So if I delete my flagship video, my revenue will basically go away. Of course I can undelete it in six months when the strikes expire, but just stop and think how much money I will have lost by then:

$100 a week for six months.

That's like $3,000. And that's assuming no increase in revenue growth––and there has been a steady increase for the last four months. If it keeps up at the rate it has, I should be earning more like $300 a month by the beginning to 2013. And that's not counting the loss in momentum from removing the video and the re-publicizing it. There's no guarantee I'd ever even get back to $100 a month and the end of the six-month hibernation.

So I have to ask my self the question: Is guaranteeing the safety of my blog worth a possible $10,000+ loss? Is it even worth a definite loss of $3,000––when that's currently the only thing making my student loan payments?

I think on the stock market they call that the decision between "extreme fear" (doing the obsessively safe thing) and "extreme greed" (doing the extremely risky but profitable thing). Only in world markets I believe they want to strike a balance between those two. I don't seem to have a balance available.

I don't know what I'll decide, and this is really all getting to me a lot more than I should be letting it. But that's all my problem. I just wanted to let you know what was up, in the event that this blog is no longer here next time you look for it.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weather From the West

I know I already did a post devoted to fall-leaf photos, but that was at the beginning of peak, and now it's toward the end, which is also beautiful in its own way. And there honestly isn't a whole lot else going on that's worth blogging about. It's also been a pretty schizophrenic day weather-wise,  making for some interesting light. So here goes:

My sister taking here own photos of the leaves.

A front of rain coming in from the west this afternoon.
The house––approaching front visible behind.

The lamp by my door after the first rain-shower.

Some mustard reflecting the sun in the four-acre field.

My Grandpa Tom about to go hunting. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In the Ruins of a Dying Empire


Sometimes I feel like a scavenger living in the ruins of a dying empire. Kind of like those people in The Book of Eli. 

Last night I felt like that when I reinstalled Adobe Creative Suite––albiet a very old version––on my computer.

I could never actually afford it, so instead I spent the night in the garage turned de facto office below the room I live in, trolling through stacks of paperwork and boxes full of tax returns, receipts and business cards for businesses long since dead to find the install disks buried at the bottom of a towering stack of banker's boxes.

It's like that with a lot of things.

My family has a really nice house and a couple very nice cars (though they no longer work that well). If you come in, there are lots of expensive looking iMac's sitting around on most available surfaces, an office work-station HP, a couple modestly sized but nice flat screen TVs, and some really nice office furniture that has now found a civilian use.

The furniture and the HP should give it away. None of this––not the cars, or the computers, or even the TVs––was really intended to be ours. It was all originally at my Dad's office.

Before 2008, the office in Mansfield was an exciting, bustling place. A third of the people in the church I go to worked there and there was literally a million dollars worth of inventory sitting in the lot in front of it, organized in compulsively perfect lines and washed (that was part of my job) so that the dust from the busy Route 6 that ran by wouldn't damage it. Customers came in on an hourly basis, and during peak which was usually between August and December (the business sold high-end wood and pellet heating systems) there were so many people calling in wanting information that on days we wanted to get anything done, we had to disconnect the phone system and put a closed sign on the door. We all spent the better part of our summers working trade shows around New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio and my Dad would sometimes invite me on business trips to places as far away as Northern Manitoba (some of my best memories with my Dad).

Then Fall of 2008 happened––and nobody would buy anything.

The million dollars of inventory out front turned from a source of excitement to a source of terror, as most of it was financed through GE Money, which faltered, got bailed out by the Feds, and passed on the grace by killing credit and hiking interest rates for all the people who owed it money. My friends from church were one by one laid-off.

The office was eventually vacated to a building up the road from my family's house so that the nicer one in Mansfield could be rented to a company of gas engineers. But a few months ago they left––along with the entire real-estate market––so it sits abandoned on a Route 6 that's busier than ever before, and the one of up the road from our house that the business was relocated to burned to the ground. So all that's left of the business is a website from which you can't actually buy anything, the leather furniture in my family's living room, the computers and banker's boxes on the floor in the garage above which I live, and about half a million dollars of debt.

So last night, as I loaded a suite of expensive-if-dated design software onto my computer to use in my own as-yet-to-be-successful money making endeavors, I was thankful for it. Just like I'm thankful for the ikea office chair I'm sitting on as I write this, the high-end boiler UPS I have my laptop plugged into as a surge-protector, the Sony TV I play Halo on and the iMac's that my younger brother and sisters are doing their school with over at my parent's house.

But more and more often I get the feeling of being a scavenger living in the ruins of a dying empire.

Friday, October 05, 2012

As It Should Be

A tree along a road beside our house.
This morning I had a great dream but got woken up in the middle by somebody driving past my house. I went over to my parents house and ate breakfast as usual.

I was about to go back to my place and start going through yesterday's metrics from YouTube, AdSense and Amazon as I normally do when I had this sudden urge to go for a walk outside instead. So I walked up Old Post Lane to where the Inn––a house we used to live in was before it burned down.

It was beautiful.

The Inn looked out across a valley and you can see just about all of Coryland Pennsylvania from there. The leaves are almost at peak, and I got there just in time to hear––then see––the first flock of geese heading south across the valley. Seems ironic as it's been unseasonably warm the last four days, but I guess they know what's coming, whereas humans like me can trick themselves into thinking it's supposed to be this way.

I didn't take a camera this morning, but yesterday afternoon I did something very similar, and took some photos.

The clouds were making patches of light and
shadow on the ground, and while it made getting the right
exposure a challenge I thought the interplay
between them was pretty striking.

Another one with that going on.

So snapdragons aren't leaves, but I couldn't resist.

Evergreen vs. deciduous. The age old battle. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Misha's Space Bears

A few weeks ago, I watched a somewhat sensationalist but still interesting documentary about tardigrades––the tiny extremophile organisms that live on tree bark and have been proven to survive in space. I was fascinated enough by it that I ended up showing it to my Mom, who subsequently showed it to my sister Misha.

I didn't think much more about tardigrades until last night, when I got home from taking the FSOT in State College (went well I think, but won't know for three weeks now) and found Misha staring into a microscope––where she had apparently been for almost an hour.

That afternoon she had gone out in the yard with her pocket knife, found some moss, prepared a slide, and now, discovered a tardigrade, in our yard!

It was cool enough that I decided to try and take some photos of it, and after some trial and error, was impressed with how well a point and shoot camera was able to capture images from the microscope eyepiece.

It was mostly impressed with Misha though. This was the kind of thing I always dreamed about doing when I was her age but never actually did. It makes me wonder what she'll find next.

Of course I have no idea if she'll stay interested in science. But she certainly seems to be off to a good start!

And if nothing else, we now know that we have tardigrades (tardigrade means "water bear" in Latin) in our yard.