Going to the Dark Side, or How We Got Uverse

If you’ve followed the technology posts on this blog, you’ll know that I occasionally get a little miffed at ATT and their DSL service and Motorola modems. I’ve had my share of technical issues, which I’ve tried to chronicle in hopes that they can help others out, and judging from the number of hits I still get, that must be true.

Lately, we’d been having issues with how slow our DSL connection was. We were paying for 3 Mbps and getting 1.5 on a good day. We had also gone through the experience where ATT turned off our service to try to convince us to switch — they had given us notice, but we ignored it as a sales pitch — and forced us to call in and decline Uverse in order to get our DSL back. We were told DSL wasn’t being supported in our area and soon we would have to switch, but couldn’t get a definite time-frame. Maybe we had a couple of years left, but it seemed obvious that those would be a couple of years of crappy service. We didn’t want to switch at the time, because we didn’t have time to work out all the issues that would arise. My wife and I both teach, and we don’t want any interruption to our internet during the semester.

So this summer, when we weren’t quite as busy or at least when we could take a day or two to get things taken care of, we made the switch. I called, set up an appointment, and worked out the best deal we could get. Because we’ve been customers with ATT for many years (and Bellsouth before it got bought out), we were able to get free installation. I made sure to get the bundle that worked best for our needs: we went with 18 Mbps, though we would have been fine with 12. 18 turned out to be cheaper when all charges were considered — the bundle included the modem fee, whereas it wasn’t included in the quoted price for the 12 Mbps rate, according to the salesperson I spoke with at the time.

The day arrived, and a very nice technician came to hook up our service. They put a new box on the outside of our home and  ran a new cable inside, but used the existing phone lines leading up to the house. Because we had had our DSL serviced recently, the cable from the street to the house had been replaced — often this is replaced with a new Uverse installation. But I was interested to find out that the existing phone lines are used. It’s not a completely new network, so some of our old problems haven’t gone away.

In fact, it took the technician 5 hours and a helper to get our service up and running. He went through 2 modems trying to get one to work, and in the end, he couldn’t get us 18 Mpbs, but could get close: 14.4, I believe is what we officially have, though he said it might be more like 15 or 16 on a good day. (And it is notably faster than our old service — about 10 times faster than what we actually got, and 5 times faster than what we were supposed to get). Changing the speed meant changing the billing, though, and I had to wrangle with customer service a little to make sure we hadn’t lost some of the terms I’d worked out. In the end, i was satisfied, and we were paying about the same for 14.4 Mpbs as we would for 18.

The reason we couldn’t get the level of service we’d been sold (and they tried to sell us a higher rate) is at least in part due to a “bridge tap” on our phone line somewhere between us and the phone company. We were told this was underground and they couldn’t get down the manhole to replace it. As I understand it, a bridge tap adds a phone line off an existing line and effectively increases the distance between your location and the phone company by however long that other line is. It’s not a good thing, in other words, but they can’t take it out.

Still, we were happy with the new service. The problems were with billing. We had DSL and DirecTV bundled (and received a bundle discount). Switching services dropped that bundle. We called to get that put back together right away, but it still takes a month or more to get combined billing (even though or maybe in part because ATT finally bought DirecTV about the time we made the switch —they’d been planning to for months and it finally went through).

We also had autopay set up on our account, and because Uverse billing is separate from other ATT billing, when we switched, we lost the autopay on the ‘new’ account. No one told us, so we were late paying our first bill. We have electronic billing and didn’t realize we had been billed because we tend to ignore bills we know will get paid. The amounts we were billed were also confusing —DirecTV billed us for two months and then we were to get a credit because we’d already paid on the ATT DSL account. It took hours on the phone to figure out what was what and be sure that we were being billed correctly.

To top it all off, about a month after we got the service, it went out. We had no internet and no phone service at the house, and it took me all day to get it restored. At first, I thought it might be due to the billing error, though they assured me it was not. I had to call several times to troubleshoot the modem, in part because they wouldn’t tell me what to do. Because I had no home phone (and my cell phone battery was dead), i called from the office, but they would only tell me to turn the modem off for 30 seconds (the first time they told me 10 seconds). When i called back, they told me to reset the modem using the reset button on the back — if I had been told that when i very pointedly asked what I could do before I called back, I could have saved 10 minutes of a phone call while I waited for that not to work. ATT also used their usual tactic of warning me there could be a $99 service fee if the problem turned out to be in my wiring. Since it had just been installed, I was confident that it wouldn’t be the issue.

As it turned out, the service guy was very nice. He came in and replaced our modem, telling me that about half their modems are junk and need to be replaced (two out of the three we’ve had were no good — let’s see how long this one lasts).

All in all, when Uverse works, it’s great — much better than our DSL (though not that much better than DSL when it actually worked). I don’t like that fact that internet and phone go out together (it’s phone over internet, so that makes sense), but I guess I’ll have to live with that. I don’t like living in fear that my modem will die, but maybe if it lasts more than a month or two, I’ll start to trust it again.

What was really annoying about the whole process was the billing, and this is something ATT needs to figure out. There’s no reason to force your customers to redo every aspect of billing when they switch services. It was worse than setting up a new account. I would rate them a -10 out of 10 on this aspect of Uverse. It would have been easier to switch to cable than to go through the nightmare of ATT billing (though I know cable companies are just as bad—otherwise, I would have been tempted).

The other negative aspect of the switch was ATT phone support. Though they are always very friendly, I didn’t find technical support very helpful. We had one guy who was very good helping us set up our new account after we had to redo everything for the slower speed, though even he forgot about autopay and he couldn’t help us with DirecTV – we had to be transferred to someone else for that. But calling to get help on the equipment is a nightmare. First it takes you forever to get to a real person (tip: dial 00 at any point to get to a representative), and then they don’t answer your questions or give you full advice. They seem to just follow a script one step at a time, and they want to discourage you from calling out a service technician when you need one. I’m happy to troubleshoot and try to fix things myself, but don’t threaten me with exorbitant service charges when the fault is clearly in your crappy equipment.

If there were an alternative, I would probably switch again. But our local cable company is as bad or worse, and despite their claims of being up to 10 times faster (they can’t do math, so why should I trust them—they offer “up to” 50 Mbps, which is not 10×15 — I hate to break it to them), their customer service is notoriously awful. So for now, we’re stuck with the devil we know, and can only hope that the modem doesn’t die every month or two.

My takeaway — if you have DSL and it’s working, I wouldn’t switch yet (unless you can get TV and want it—we don’t have Uverse TV in our area). Let them at least work out their billing nightmare after the acquisition of DirecTV before you bother switching, and maybe the modems will get better, too. But if your DSL service sucks and you can’t get it repaired, then it might be time to think about going over to the dark side. In the end, we’re happy with the service, but it’s been a nightmare getting here at times.

Okra Scramble

It’s about time I posted a new recipe. Here’s one I came up with tonight because we had a surplus of eggs and okra from our local farmer’s market this week.

1/2 onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
2 Tsp oil
1 yellow squash
1 poblano pepper
chana masala or other Indian curry
coriander chutney
6 eggs
1/3-1/2 cup buttermilk
1 large tomato or several small ones

Cut up okra into 1 inch or longer slices. I left the smallest ones whole (after cutting off the tops. Chop onion and garlic. Sauté onion and garlic in skillet with 2 Tbs of oil. Add okra once the oil is hot and continue to sauté for several minutes.

Cut yellow squash into thin pieces by slicing lengthwise and then turning 1/4 turn and slicing lengthwize again into thin strips. Cut these into 1 inch pieces, about the same size as the okra. Dice the poblano into medium pieces. Mix pepper and squash into the okra and continue to sauté. Add chana masala (or an Indian curry with cumin, garam masala, etc.) and coriander chutney or (other green Indian chili mix with coriander/cilantro, mint, green chili). Keep sautéing and stirring occasionally.

Mix 6 eggs and 1/3-1/2 C buttermilk in a bowl until well combined. Pour into the okra mixture and let scramble, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes once the eggs are nearly set. Sauté until most of the liquid has boiled away.

Serve over white or brown rice.

If you like Indian spices, this combination is very good. If not, you could easily substitute any savory spices that go well with eggs.

How to Promote Yourself as a Writer Online

Disclaimer, this is just my two-cents.

In my graduate class, “Writing for New Media,” there has been some discussion about using social media to market yourself as a writer. I won’t claim to have all the answers or even to have done any market research. The remarks that follow are based on what I’ve read about this and what I’ve observed. Mostly, I’m thinking about how I respond to other writers on social media and how I think my audience is likely to respond to me.

Rule #1: Don’t over-promote!

Have you ever been to a party with someone who won’t talk about anyone but themselves? Some writers on social media act this way. The only things they post have something to do with their books or publications. They brag about their successes, and they use everything, even the weather, to remind people to buy and read their book. I have an itchy filter finger; I will ignore them or even block them very quickly. As I would with the guy at the party, I will pretend to listen, all the while looking around desperately for someone to get me out of this situation.

Rule #2: Don’t under-promote!

Okay. You get it. You can’t just talk about yourself, but it’s okay to talk about yourself sometimes, right? Yes! When you have good news, share it. Don’t be shy. But even then, don’t make it all about you. When your book comes out, thank your publisher. When a magazine accepts your work, link to the magazine. Promote others as you promote yourself, and your posts will be relevant to those who want to learn about you and to those who want to know who the cool publishers or bookstores or other resources are. And make sure your blog or profile has information for anyone who’s curious to learn more about your writing.

Rule #3: Be a good literary citizen!

I was hinting at this in my last rule. You want to engage with readers, right? It seems to me that a good way to do that is to provide them information that they can use. So when you’re not promoting yourself, if you promote other writers or magazines or publishers or reading series or… well, you get the picture. The more active and engaged you are the more you can help others. And the better literary citizen you are, the more good will you will engender. You can do this by writing reviews of other people’s books or by sharing their good publishing news, submissions deadlines, etc. If you promote ten people’s books, they will be more likely to share your good news when it comes. And then their followers will know your good news, too. If you help twenty readers find books they like, then when yours is published, they’ll be more likely to check it out, and they’ll be more likely to tell their friends. As I said, I have no scientific evidence that life works this way, but it stands to reason.

Rule #4: Don’t post too much…

This is a little like over-promotion, but it doesn’t have to be about promotion. I know some writers who tweet at least twenty times a day (no lie). Or they update their Facebook status constantly with every game or every cause or every birthday. This may be okay, but I have a fairly low tolerance for frequent posters and I’m likely to tune them out. I don’t think you have to post all the time — not even every day, though that can be a good goal if it helps your writing to do it — so don’t feel like a failure if you’re not keeping up with the frequent posters. Your posts will seem more important if you follow…

Rule #5: Make every post relevant!

Okay, maybe not every post, but try to make your posts valuable to the readership you’re trying to reach. Some people have a separate account for their cat photos and one for their persona as a writer. This is a rule I violate all the time on this blog, and I’m not sure whether it matters. I get a lot of hits on my technology posts, and that probably doesn’t lead to too many people who want to read about cooking or poetry. (Does it help me get noticed by search engines? Do I get noticed for the wrong things? Maybe I should have a poetry blog and a technology blog…) For this blog, I don’t mind writing about multiple subjects because that’s how I set it up. I also like people to know I’m a real person and not just a poet. But for Facebook, I have a personal account and a poet account. On Twitter, I have three accounts: one for me, one for the Welty Writers’ Symposium, and one for the MFA program I direct (plus one for the Suzuki Strings program in our town that I manage in my spare time). If more of my friends or family were on Twitter, I might want a personal Twitter account. Now I have an Instagram that so far is mostly personal. Each of these identities is a little different, and yet I want each of them to make sense with the others for those who have found me in all of those places and want to get a broader perspective on who I am. I wouldn’t want my poetry readers to be shocked by my tweets or Instagram photos, in other words, but I might start a new account if I wanted to start writing Instagram poetry or twaiku on a regular basis.

Rule #6: Don’t use numbered lists!

Okay, I broke that rule, too… this time. But I’m not a big fan of the numbered list because I always doubt that there are Five Rules for Self-Promotion. I always suspect there must be a rule number 6 or 8 or 25, and I’ll probably think of two or three as soon as I hit “publish.” Or maybe there’s only one rule: Be a mensch: do promote yourself, but do it in moderation and with an ounce of humility.

What are your rules?

Book Review: Before He Finds Her

Before He Finds Her: A NovelBefore He Finds Her: A Novel by Michael Kardos

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An engrossing read, Kardos’s second novel captivates both as a thriller and as a character study that asks deep questions about love, family, truth, and the will to change. As anyone who has read The Three-Day Affair might expect, Kardos weaves a complex and excellently crafted narrative that alternates between the the days leading up to the murder of Allie Miller, of which her husband Ramsay is accused and the present where Ramsay is believed to be in hiding and still a threat to his 17-year-old daughter, Meg, even as she goes looking for the truth. Both narratives are full of suspense and revelations that alter our understanding of the crime and the characters involved. Kardos keeps us guessing throughout, and the payoff is satisfying both in terms of what we learn of the crime and what we may learn about ourselves, reflected in the story’s mirror. It is a book you won’t want to put down, even after you’ve read the final page.

View all my reviews

How to Afford Your MFA in Creative Writing

Naturally, this topic will have different answers for different people. The best way to afford an MFA degree depends a lot on you, your schedule, and your finances, so the the best answer will be different for everyone. What I want to do in this post is to present a few scenarios that will help students navigate their options and help them decide which option is best. You should also talk with the director and/or your advisor about your best route through the program. You want to design a program of study that is affordable and that also gives you the best educational experience. The information and examples presented are based solely on Mississippi University for Women’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program. Other programs may not allow the same level of flexibility that we offer, since our residency courses are not directly tied to other courses and we are set up to allow part-time students. Some programs want everyone to take courses in the same sequence and do not allow as many options, but you may still want to think about the main questions: should you progress through a program quickly to save on tuition costs or progress more slowly to be able to work your way through and avoid some loans.

How to pay the least amount of tuition

One way to think about affordability is simply in terms of the total dollars spent on the degree. This is the plan you might want to consider if you are funding your whole degree yourself and want to finish in the least time possible. You should plan to devote all of your time and resources to the MFA, if you do this schedule, since you will be taking a heavy course load!

  • Full time
    • Time to degree: 2 Years
    • Hours per semester: 13 for 3 semesters = 39 hours
    • Summer classes: 2 Full Residencies = 4 hours
  • Part-time
    • Hours per semester: 5 hours for one semester (or possibly in summer)

In this schedule, you would take 4 3-hour courses per semester plus a short residency in the fall and another 1-credit-hour course in the spring, which might be another short residency or a 1-hour internship or independent study. In your final semester (or another semester), you would take 5 hours, which would likely be 3 hours of thesis and two hours of internship or independent study. The reason this plan costs less than any other is that at MUW you pay the same tuition for full-time classes from 9-13 hours. So you pay for 9 hours and earn 13 hours of credit.

It might be a little tricky to organize one semester with 13 hours and one with 5, so a slightly more expensive way to do this is to take 13 hours during two semesters and 12 hours during your other full-time semester. Your part-time semester in this scenario would be 6 hours, so you would pay for 1 more credit than you would on the fastest track. But you would still finish in the same amount of time. In this scenario, your final year would likely be your thesis semester.

One advantage to this schedule is that you pay for 36 hours and earn 48 hours of credit, which at current tuition rates would save you $3855. Another advantage to this schedule is that you finish in the least amount of time possible and are able to move on to other things (potentially earning a higher salary). You could practically finish in a year and a half at this pace, if you took summer classes (5 hours) between your first and your second years; though you would still be required to return in the spring of your second year for your final full residency. For scheduling reasons, the full residency classes will only be offered once a year in May or early June.

The disadvantage to this schedule is that you would not have as much time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. Another disadvantage is that you could face burnout. Needless to say, this schedule is only advisable for the student who is incredibly focused, is very far along in her or his writing, and is willing to devote themselves 100% to their MFA studies for two years. In other words, this is a very intense schedule and it may not be the best for everyone. In fact, we expect most students to take 6-10 hours of classes per semester, and some will take fewer than this.

A Slightly More Expensive Full-Time Schedule

As we have seen above, a student can still finish in 2-3 years by going full-time and taking 10-13 hours some semesters and 9 hours during other semesters. You can save a little money anytime you take more than 9 hours, even if you don’t take the maximum number of hours every time. Anyone should consider taking an extra class now and then. If you are full-time and taking 9 hours per semester, adding the short residency hour won’t cost you extra (other than room and board costs). If you find you can take 12 hours one semester, you can save a little money that way as well.

Part-Time Schedules

Since the cost per credit hour of a full-time 9 hour schedule is the same as the cost per credit hour of a part-time schedule, I want to consider part-time next. You can decrease the time to graduation by taking 9 hours per semester, but you won’t save money unless you take at least 10.

The advantages to a part-time schedule are that you can take more time to pay for your education and you have more time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. You won’t feel so rushed, and you are less likely to face burn-out. So for many this is the best option, and it may end up costing less.

What you save in tuition on the full-time schedules, you might end up paying back in interest if you have to take out loans to make ti possible to have such an intense schedule. If, on the other hand, you take fewer classes at a time and avoid some or all debt by working your way through your degree, then you might end up paying less over time, even though you pay more for tuition. So one way to think about what is affordable is to consider how many credits you can take per semester without taking out a loan (or by taking out the smallest loan possible).

As we have seen above, you can finish in 6 years even if you take 3 hours per semester. In order to qualify for federal loans, you need to take at least 6 hours per semester, in which case, you can finish in 3-4 years. How quickly you move through the program may depend on how many classes you can afford each semester or how much time you can devote to your classes in addition to your work schedule.

What Is Affordable Really?

When thinking about affordability, you should consider the total cost of your MFA program, in other words. Don’t only look at tuition, but consider what it will cost to pay off your loan — and if you do have loans, remember that you can reduce the cost of the loan by paying back more than the minimum amount each month: the sooner you pay off some of the principal of a loan, the smaller amount of total interest you will pay over the life of any loan. If you can work your way through your degree, you might decrease the amount of loan you need. If you can finish sooner, you might get a better-paying job sooner and be able to begin paying off your loans sooner. If you have saved up enough money to be able to take 2 years off and complete your degree on the fastest track, then that might be the best option for you. If you want more time and want to keep working while you’re in school, then a part-time track may be the best option. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, you might plan on taking at least 9 hours per semester so you can take advantages of the savings that taking an extra hour or two now and then can bring.

The Fix: MacBook Pro Trackpad Scrolling Issue

If you’ve followed my last two posts, then you know my beloved MacBook Pro had to go in for repairs to the graphics card, which mean they replaced my logic board (for free). Everything seemed to go well, but when I got it back, I noticed the trackpad wouldn’t scroll. I could grab the scroll bar and scroll the old-fashioned way, but when I moved my finger across the trackpad, the window wouldn’t scroll. It didn’t matter what program I was in either.

Since he asked whether there were any issues, I checked in with Sean, the AppleCare technician who had been helping me set up the repair. I asked if there was a simple fix or if I should take it back in to be looked at. I was a little concerned that they might not have hooked everything up right, though that seemed unlikely. Instead, Sean asked if he could call me, and we went through several steps to rule out a hardware issue and try to find the problem. All my trackpad settings were good. We tried replacing the com.apple.systempreferences.plist file (hold down the Option key and select Library from the Go menu to get here—in Library, go to the Preferences folder). I had already removed the trackpad plist files in case they were corrupt. But none of this solved the problem, so we logged me into my admin user account and checked scrolling there. No problems, so that ruled out a hardware issue — something was messed up with my main user account, but we couldn’t find where it was.

I will say, that I was impressed that Apple would spend this much time working with me when the repair had been done by a local authorized service location. Unfortunately Sean admitted defeat, saying he needed to research it and would call me back the next afternoon when he was back at work.

Naturally, I didn’t want to wait that long, so I kept researching and looking into it. I knew the tech guy who replaced my logic board had zapped the NV-Ram on my MacBook when he was testing it, so I figured some setting got set back to default, but I couldn’t find it. I thought maybe a keyboard shortcut could toggle the setting, so I searched for that and found  a really great site by Dan Rodney that lists them all (or most). This jogged my memory that there are settings in the Accessibility control panel in addition to the ones in the Trackpad control panel or General control panel, where we had already looked. Lo and behold, there was the problem setting. Under “Mouse and Trackpad” there was a button for “Trackpad Options” where “Scrolling wasn’t selected. I clicked on that and the trackpad returned to normal!

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.53.27 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.53.47 PM

MacBook Video Card Repair Conclusion

In my last post, I wrote about how my 2011 MacBook Pro died, due to the common issue with the graphics card. I had been experiencing all the symptoms of weird lines (artifacts) across my screen, random restarts, and finally the inability to boot up the computer at all. That’s what led me to bite the bullet and call Apple, who authorized a local service place to replace my logic board for free.

The Repair

I will say, the whole process has been relatively smooth, and I’ve been impressed with Apple’s willingness to stand behind a 4-year-old computer (now). Exceed Technologies, where I took the MscBook was relatively knowledgable, and had done the repair before. I still knew more than they did about the issue, but they handle more than Macs, and they don’t need to know the cause to know how to replace a logic board, so why should they remember every detail of the issue the way I would. 

The repair was done fairly quickly. It took them a day to get to me (my only minor disappointment), a day to get the part,, and another day to do the repair and test it, do I could get it back the next day. I took it in on Thursday and got it back on Tuesday, so that was a bit faster than Apple’s estimated 5-7 days. And I didn’t have to drive two hours to take it in or wait for Apple to mail it back. For those of us living in the sticks, this is a great option!

Apple Support

Apple support during the whole process has also been fabulous, better than I would have imagined. Not only was I able to call and get this service authorized quickly, but the support tech, Sean (the supervisor of the woman I spoke with first), gave me his contact info and encouraged me to let him know if I decided to go to the Apple Store or have the repair done locally. So I emailed him to say I had gone to Exceed. He wrote back a couple of times to verify whether the repair had been initiated. I wrote when the repair had been completed, thanking him for his help, and he offered to help out more if a I had any related issues. As it turned out, I did, but that is for another post. Let’s just say for now that he was willing give a support call and even spend some time working on my computer to try to resolve an issue I was having with my trackpad after the repair.

The Aftermath

The repaired MacBook Pro appeared to be working well, when I got it back. The only issues I had other than the trackpad scrolling, were with passwords. I had asked the tech if I would need to authorize the computer on iTunes again, due to the new logic board, and he said I wouldn’t because he had put in my serial number when he set up the new logic board. That turned out to be true, but I did have to login with iCloud again to access my keychain, and before I realized this, Mail tried to connect to Google and didn’t have the password. I had to reset that, though once idealized the iCloud issue, my other mail accounts worked. I’ re had to login a few times to Google to get it all straightened out on all my devices. If I didn’t have so many email accounts, including two with Google, this would have been easier. And if I had taken the MacBook to an Apple Store, they probably would have helped me through that process (at least they did when I had an iPad replaced under warranty last year). But if Apple had mailed it back to me, I would have been in the same boat.

I expected to have to reset a few settings and passwords and such after a major repair. In fact since I wasn’t able to secure my computer before I took it in, since I couldn’t even start it anymore, I probably need to reset most of my sensitive passwords, anyway. I basically trust the technicians at Exceed, but I don’t know them personally, and you never know. And it’s good to change passwords now and then , so this will be a good incentive to do that again.

So the only real issue that I faced after the repair was  the fact that my trackpad wouldn’t scroll. That’s what I mentioned to Sean, asking if there was a simple fix or if I should take it back in to be looked at, and that’s what led to a service call and an eventual solution. But more on that in my next post, since it is arguably a different issue that resulted from the repair or the crash. But other people with the issue might get it another way. So I want to go into it in more detail separately.


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