Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

How to Buy a Car: the Latest Saga

A few year’s back, I wrote a post about How to Sell One Car and Buy Another in One Day. Even then, I knew that had been a charmed experience and hardly typical, so I thought I would add a post about our latest car buying experience, which ended well but wasn’t quite as easy as the last time.

As before, we had a pretty good idea of what we were looking for to replace our beloved 2009 Mazda 5, which is beginning to show its age. We had done our research and narrowed our options to 3 main possibilities: buy a more recent Mazda 5, a Honda CR-V, or a Mazda CX-5. We liked both the Honda and the Mazda for their gas mileage and cargo space that is nearly as big as what we are used to. Now that we’re out of carpool, we don’t need a 3rd row of seats, but the cargo room with that row down has been a great feature.

After researching online, we discovered that there wasn’t anything available in our town, so we drove about half an hour to test drive a Honda CR-V with low mileage at a pretty good price. It didn’t take us too long to realize it was more of an SUV than we were really looking for. It’s a nice car, but we suspected we’d be happier in another Mazda, so we hit the road and drove another half hour or so to the next town, where there were two Mazda CX-5’s at the same dealer for us to consider.

One was a Sport and the other was a Touring. To be honest, we probably would have been fine with the Sport, though we did like the upholstery on the Touring better, and it had some features we liked, such as all-weather mats  and a 40/20/40 rear seat with a console. Both were 2016 models, and both were red. The biggest difference, though was the mileage: 1,500 miles on the Touring and 12,000 on the Sport. Both were priced well, and there was only $2,000 difference. But the Touring only had one key, so we talked to the salesperson about getting a new one and a luggage cover for the back.

Then came the sticker shock. What with the cost of the accessories, tax, and the dealer’s doc fee, it all added up to be more than we had planned on spending. We could afford it, but did we really want to? And then there was the fact that both cars were red, which was brighter than we were used to. Was this really the right deal for us? We asked the dealer for their best price, but they wouldn’t budge.

We have always heard you should be prepared to leave if you’re not satisfied, so we said we would. The salesperson went back to see if she could get us a better deal from the manager — still no dice. So we left and said we would sleep it over, knowing it would be another hour drive if we decided to get it. Better to do that than to have buyer’s remorse later, though we were sorely tempted, esp. by the Touring with such low mileage (and a Carfax report to back it up).

The next day, we researched some more, found a couple more cars in a bigger city 2 hours away, and wrote the salesperson to say we would be ready to buy the CX-5 Touring if they could come down $1000 to cover the cost of the replaced key and fees. I didn’t really expect them to do that, but I hoped they would meet me halfway, which really would cover the cost of the key and the luggage cover. But we didn’t hear from them. As it turned out, they were very busy that day and didn’t reply until the next day.

Before we heard from the first Mazda dealer on the third day, we left for the bigger city 2 hours away. By that point, one of the three vehicles we were looking at had been sold. That lit a fire under us.

The most tempting car was a 2015 Mazda 5 with about 20,000 miles on it. It was half the price of the Touring, and the deal seemed almost too good to be true. That and the distance to the dealer had kept us from checking it out sooner, but now we felt we had to. It was still on the lot, and when we saw it, we thought it really could be our car. The body was in good shapes as we’d seen in the online photos. The color was a dark blue we liked a lot. We asked about the history, but didn’t get a lot of information from the auto wholesaler where it was for sale.

But when we took it out for a short test drive, it became immediately apparent why it was priced so low. The car had a very distinctive pet odor. At first we thought it was from a very large dog, but eventually concluded a cat must have sprayed in the car. We alerted the salesperson, who claimed they had an ozone device that could get even the worst odors out. We wished him luck with that and headed on our way.

(We have pets. We understand pet odors. This one stayed with us for hours after we got out of the vehicle. It was not going away.)

The next car was a 2015 Mazda CX-5 Sport with 18,000 miles on it. It was also blue, and would have been a good deal. We noticed a few more blemishes than we wanted, but nothing that would be a deal breaker. But while we were talking about the car at the dealership, I got a text from the other dealer that they would throw in the key and the luggage cover for the Touring at no charge. It was practically a new car, but the price was hard to beat, so we left the blue Mazda CX-5 and went to a nearby parking lot to call about the red Touring. It was still available, so we took their offer.

At that point we might have been able to talk them down a little further, but we decided not to risk it. We had compared every vehicle within 200 miles (maybe further) that we could find online, and didn’t find anything close. The price was fair, and we were satisfied to get the second key and the luggage cover as part of the deal. Our trip to test drive two other Mazdas had been worth it because we were now certain of our decision. Neither car was a better option for us — and the one that seemed like it could have been the best deal turned out to be too good to be true.

Now we are the proud owners of the 2016 red Mazda CX-5 Touring. We’re happy with that choice, and even like the red color better than when we first saw it.

It’s great to be able to buy the first car you test drive, and sometimes when you do your research, you’re able to. Then there are times when it takes a little more persistence, and you have to check out all the options to know that you really are making the right choice. You can research a lot online, but you can’t tell everything from what you see. Learning that was worth the effort or we might have second-guessed our decision for years to come. And in the process, we negotiated a little better deal on the car that was already a very good deal to begin with.

Now we can work on selling the car we’re replacing!


Catch, Knox College Magazine

This week, I had a blast from the past, an email from Knox College asking about the times the undergraduate literary magazine, Catch, had won the CCLM national prize. The acronym is for the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, which around 1990 changed its name to CLMP —Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.

The three covers above are from 1985/86, the year I was the lead editor (with Patricia Bereck for the first issue). As I recall, we submitted the winter issue (middle one) for the prize. It was fun to go back to my back issues and see what we had published. And it brought back memories of working on my first magazine — appropriately, since this week, I sent the 8th issue of Poetry South (the first one produced by MUW).

We were not the first or the last. Sean Bronzell and Ann Suchomski won the award in 1983, and we think there was at least one more in the 1990s, and Knox has won AWP’s undergraduate prize, which took over the mantel of CLMP in recent years.

Back when Sean and Ann won, and when I did our first two issues in 1986, we were still working with photographic paper and wax, when cutting and pasting really meant what it says. For the Spring issue, we got to move to a computerize typesetting machine, which still used photo paper and wax, but you could see what you were typing and could edit on screen. That way we did most of our editing digitally and didn’t have to cut and paste nearly as much. We still worked on a light table to get the layout the way we wanted, but life was much easier. Nowadays, things have come a long way, and we don’t even use paper much, just pdf files created by InDesign, so everything is digital. But there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed — especially proofreading!

Tumblr Change

I’m somewhat disappointed to notice this month that Tumblr  has changed. I’ve used it first as an experiment in microblogging and then because it had a feature that was very useful — posting by email. That feature just disappeared, and I’ve confirmed through their support that it has been discontinued. (If you care about that, write support and let them know; they said they’re collecting feedback.)

Post by email was an attractive feature because I often receive announcements that I want to pass along. In my case, I primarily want to give them to the students in our MFA program in creative writing, but emailing all of the students each time is a pain. I might be able to set up an email nickname with all their addresses, but maintaining this list would become a burden. I could set up a mailing list. But then I worry that students won’t check their email or will ignore these messages that come in with all their other ones.

So instead, I set up an announcement discussion in our Program Lounge in Canvas (this is like a course, but everyone is in it as long as they are in the program). I could copy and paste into that, but an easier solution was to have the Tumblr blog, which I could post to by email. The discussion in Canvas could then read the blog’s RSS feed, so all my announcements would go into this course. Or students can just follow the Tumblr, if they prefer.

Now that I can’t email posts to Tumblr, I’m looking for another solution. One workaround, of course, is just to copy and paste into the blog, but this involves a few more steps than I’d like and isn’t much more efficient than just copying and pasting directly into Canvas.

Another workaround is to read the email messages on my iPad. There I can “select all” and then share to the Tumblr app. I tried this, and it might be a good solution as long as I remember to do email on my iOS device (I assume Android would be similar). It involves a couple more steps than emailing the post to my blog, but maybe a few less than copy and paste, since I can keep the app logged into Tumblr. I will probably gravitate to either copy and paste on my computer or sharing through the app on the iPad or a combination. And if none of those work, I may go back to the old-fashioned email list.

Short Rant about

Dear (expletive) Amazon: Sometimes I’m just searching for information. I don’t want to buy your $#%^!

Have you ever noticed that the search terms you use in a web search reappear in marketing emails from How they think this is a good strategy is beyond me. If I wanted to buy a product, I would search for that product on a shopping site (and probably not Amazon, esp. after their emails). If I need information, I don’t want to be bombarded with ads about related products. And when I’ve just bought a product from Amazon or somewhere else, odds are that I don’t want another one, nor will I appreciate the company that keeps trying to sell me more.

Enough said! (I did promise a short rant…)

Up Periscope: Testing the Waters of Social Video

Last week, I took the plunge into Periscope, Twitter’s live streaming video app. I’ve been thinking about trying this technology for a while now, but frankly, I felt a little daunted. I shouldn’t have. Live streaming video using Periscope couldn’t be much easier. I downloaded the app, tested it with a couple of very short videos (the weather at my house and at my office — each 30 seconds to a minute), glanced at the help files to learn about features like tweeting out, and then launched into my first real half-hour video, which I would count as a success — I didn’t feel completely stupid, and 18 people watched (2 more watched on replay).

So my first lessons: don’t expect to go unnoticed and don’t expect to be an overnight sensation.

Maybe the hardest part of doing a video like this is to have some content worth watching. Look around on Periscope, and you’ll see a variety of topics — some like mine are going to be mostly people talking; others are likely to be of people doing things, maybe even sleeping. You don’t have to be scintillating to get people to watch, at least for a little while anyway. So don’t be too worried about content, especially your first time.

I wanted to use Periscope to promote my university’s new low-residency MFA program in creative writing, and as I’ve done on this blog, I figured a good way to do that would be to offer to answer people’s questions about MFAs in general. I talked a fair amount about our  own program, but tried to compare it to others. Sure, I mentioned our strengths (the flexible schedule, low tuition, personal approach, etc.), but I also tried to acknowledge the differences in other programs that might be valuable to some students. Low-res programs that work on a mentorship model are great for those who want that one-on-one experience, whereas a program like ours that has online workshops during the semester might be better for students who want more interaction with other students.

Lesson Two: Have Props

This is a lesson I learned while doing the video. When I was talking about the #1 ranking we received from Nonprofit Colleges Online, I showed my computer screen with their website on it and scrolled down to the picture of our campus. I don’t expect anyone could read this, but it might help them find it later and it certainly gave them a break from looking at me for a few seconds. Similarly, when I was talking about how to learn more about MFA programs, I realized I had a copy of Tom Kealy’s The Creative Writing MFA Handbook on my desk, so I flipped to the rear camera on my iPad and showed the cover. Next time, I may try to have a few more props on hand that I can use, even if that’s a print-out of titles or web addresses (in large print).

Lesson Three: Expect the Unexpected

I wasn’t too surprised by this, since I had invited questions. Someone wanted to know what an MFA is and how do you join one — I talked about how to apply. Someone wanted to know what I thought about Harper Lee — I gave a quick answer and then got back on topic. Next time I might ignore off topic comments, as I eventually did with a few that seemed to be people checking in to see if they could get me to respond to their comment. You can block a user from your video by tapping on their comment, and I might have to get better about that in the future. Once one person commented with a specious comment, several others showed up briefly to do the same, probably because I hadn’t blocked right away. That’s hard to do while you’re talking, though, so if you can, you may want to have one person operate the phone or tablet while you talk. Then they can do the blocking and you can do the talking.

This strategy would work great for literary videos like a reading. However, you could also read a brief passage on your own and turn off commenting for your video in advance if you don’t want to be bothered with comments (or just ignore the off-topic ones if do you want some comments). The hearts Periscope uses for likes were also a little distracting, but I don’t think there’s a way to turn them off.

Lesson Four: Build an Audience

I’m planning to do a video again every Friday for the next several weeks. As I did this time, I will advertise on Twitter and Facebook in advance, and I’ll post the topics I’m planning to discuss. Next week, the goal is to talk about student debt and how to avoid it. If I get better suggestions of questions to answer, I may go with one of those and save student debt for later. But I found it’s good to plan at least one topic in advance and then see where the comments take you.

When you start your Periscope session, make sure to turn on the feature to Tweet Out your broadcast. This will send a tweet to your twitter account that has your title and a link to the video. This might help drive people to your video. People can also find you on the Periscope global map, and they will see you’re live if they follow you. Now that I have some followers, my audience might grow.

The other thing you can do is write about your experience after the fact. I posted on Facebook and tweeted about it right afterwards, and now I’m writing this on my blog. Check me out at noon CST on Fridays in January and February, if you want to see what I talk about next. I’m using our program’s account, which is @TheW_MFACW on both Twitter and Periscope (good advice is to keep the same name if you like your twitter handle).

Lesson five: choose your app

I chose Periscope because it has one feature I really wanted — it will archive your video for 24 hours. That way, if someone misses the live broadcast, they can still see it. You can also save your video to your device and then upload it to YouTube, Vimeo, or any other service like that. Meerkat, which I like because it came before Periscope and wasn’t bought out by Twitter (but still works well with it, from what I’ve read), didn’t have the archive feature. I didn’t want my video to live online forever, but I did think it would help to grow my audience if some people could watch it later. If you like Meerkat, though, I’ve read it does some things better than Periscope. Archiving was the feature that made up my mind, but you may have other criteria that are more important to you.

A few final notes:

As I was signing off my video, one person said it had been helpful and they learned something. That made me feel it was worth it, despite the trolls who wrote specious comments. Ezra Pound said a professor is someone who can talk for an hour. I figured I could talk on video for at least half that long, and proved myself right. But your video could be shorter. For future broadcasts (once I’m done talking about MFAs for awhile), I’d like to do a short reading to promote my book Barrier Island Suite when it comes out, and I’d like to video student readings or other events at our residency period (with permission of course), and I’d like to give a tour of our campus or building (if I can stay within range of wifi and not use data). I’ll definitely be looking for more interesting backgrounds and other visual elements, and an interview with another writer might be nice to try. So check back later and see how it goes!

New Year’s Resolution: Use Pinterest

Last year, I did very well with my new year’s resolution: I resolved to finish a book of poems. I did that and got it published — Barrier Island Suite  is coming out in March from Texas Review Press. This year, my resolutions may be a little more modest, but I also want them to be practical.

For my first resolution, I resolve to make better use of Pinterest.

Now, let me say I have a love/hate relationship with Pinterest. Or I should say, I really don’t like it all that much, but I know I should. Everyone says they love Pinterest, and I’ve never seen much value. I don’t do crafts, and I don’t collect things. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on social media, if I can avoid it. What’s there to love in Pinterest?

But last year, I decided I should make the plunge, so I set up a Pinterest account for the new low-res MFA Program in creative writing that I direct at Mississippi University for Women. I thought it would be a good idea to have a presence on one of the fastest growing social networks. I wanted the account to fit our program, and got a little excited by the idea that Pinterest can be about more than crafts. I set up two boards: one for our program and one with links to writing advice and news. Initially, I pinned a few things, and then it languished.

My initial, brief enthusiasm for Pinterest was based on the realization that I could use it as repository to store links to web sites of interest, but this enthusiasm cooled because I found pinning things counterintuitive and rather clunky. There wasn’t always an image that I wanted to pin on the site I wanted to list, or I simply forgot about Pinterest as my schedule got busy. I didn’t make a point to go look for things to pin, in other words. I did download the button for my web browser, so I could pin things more easily, but I didn’t use it much.

That is my plan to fulfill my New Year’s resolution, though. I’ve realized that I can pin almost any page, and can and should use this more when I’m doing my regular browsing. Often a link on Facebook or Twitter will take me to an interesting article on writing or to a magazine that has a good poem or story. All I need to do is click the Pinterest button, and I can quickly add it to a board. Pinterest will even let me start a new board as I’m adding it, if the content I want to save doesn’t fit my existing categories.

I want to use these boards not only as my personal repository of links, but as a way to share interesting material related to writing with the students and faculty in the program (I have a feed from our Pinterest account in the online student lounge I set up in Canvas). Of course, anyone in Pinterest can follow our boards, so I hope they might be of interest to other writers and therefore to prospective students. In addition to the boards I mentioned above, I’ve started one for literary magazines, and may start one for publishers, contests, workshops, or other writing opportunities.

Follow our program on Pinterest to see how I do with this resolution!

How I Survived My First Tweetchat

Until yesterday, I didn’t really know what a tweetchat was. Then AWP announced they would be holding a tweetchat today using the hashtag #MFAchat. Since we have a new program and can use the exposure, I said “sure, I’ll join in!” Then i searched to find out what to expect in a tweetchat.

Essentially, it is a somewhat organized conversation on Twitter. The organizer announces the times of the chat and the hashtag. And I believe there’s a service that helps you schedule yours or at least check to see when others have scheduled theirs so you don’t have too much competition. I didn’t set this one up, so I didn’t have to worry about scheduling. AWP does this every month or so with a new topic.

To get ready for the chat, I wrote and saved about 10 tweets in advance. Since the topic was MFA programs, I wrote the main points I might want someone to know about ours. I included links to more information, and when possible a picture, though that cut into the number of characters I could use.

Doing this helped me in two ways. It was like an outline of what I might want to talk about, and it provided me with a stash of tweets to release whenever I was feeling overwhelmed by the number of tweets that were being sent on the topic, as people from all over the country wrote in questions or tweeted about their programs. Having these ready allowed me to find tweets that I wanted to respond to and actually reply or quote and address people’s actual questions. That made it feel like I was tweeting with them, not at them. But when I needed to, I had a tweet ready to send into the twittersphere on the topic, while I scrolled through to see what else had been said.

I was using the Mac Twitter App for most of this, which worked relatively well. There are other apps that may be more suited to chatting on twitter, and I may explore some of these if I decide to try this again. Given that I had some good conversations, generated a lot of favorites and retweets, and learned from other programs, I probably will try again.

As the hour-long chat wore on, I had used up my cache of tweets in the first half hour and responded to several people. I composed new tweets on specific topics, but didn’t feel like I had to worry as much about linking back to my program or describing it, because those tweets were out there. I could focus on the conversation more and just try to keep up. It was intense.

Once the official hour of chatting was over, I scrolled back through the conversation and responded to a number of tweets that I’d missed at first. I wrote a thank you to the organizers, too, and was glad to see the conversation they’d started was trending (at least others reported that it was — I didn’t have time to check. I had a few extended conversations with people and didn’t worry so much whether I kept including the hashtag. And I kept checking back in with the conversation that kept going for over an hour.

In the end, i had to leave after nearly two and a half hours of solid tweeting. I’ve checked back a few times, and I still get a few favorites and retweets on the posts I made. I’m glad I was prepared, both mentally and with some prewritten tweets. It made the experience much more enjoyable and rewarding, and i hope it made my contributions more valuable to the conversation.