inasmuch as it concerns Technicalities:
Alas, the metamorphosis of a website is rarely as elegant as that of caterpillar into butterfly. There is less quiet in the crysallis, less of the miraculous, more of the goo. But hey! There's gadgets!
My $50 Lesson in Electrical Engineering
Was totally worth it, and cheap at twice the price. But the electricians from Precision didn't want to overcharge me for what was really a stupidly simple operation--"I mean, you've done pretty much everything already, mounted the unit, all that"--plus they told me about a special Fridays! Only! coupon on the website, so... $50 all told.
And when I say "stupidly simple," I don't mean that I was stupid not to figure it out. When it comes to electricity, you gotta respect it, 'cause it ain't going to respect you. Better safe than electrocuted, right? But it turns out they just repurposed a bit of copper wire from the old range hood, used a purple termination cap to connect it safely to the aluminum grounding wire, and then ran the other end of the copper wire to the grounding screw. Piece of cake. And now I know.
Also, now I know one of the light bulbs I picked up yesterday was a dud, so I have that errand to run tomorrow. Oh well. The McGuckins return policy is generous and trusting, and I have a new coupon to use there too.
So now the fan is working (modulo that one light). The circuit breaker is back in the ON position. The lights are back on in the bedroom and kitchen, and random extension cords are no longer cluttering the area. The old range hood is no longer under the table, but in the trash (minus the rest of its copper wire and mysterious hex flanges and grounding tab, which are now in jars in our hardware closet) and the new range hood's box is also no longer under the table, being now in the recycling drop-off.
The stove is back in its alcove under the range hood. For now. Come Tuesday, that sucker is gone and a lovely new model will have taken its place. All four of whose burners will function. Also, how did we go 12 years without a freakin' light in the freakin' oven? Seriously? How old was this stove, that an oven light was not a standard feature? We will have an oven light, come Tuesday. In an oven with a pretty TARDIS-blue interior. And convection action.
Why Writing Is Better Than DIY Home Improvements
We are in the midst of the Saga of the Range Hood Replacement. No, there are no Vikings in it, but I do think the term "Saga" is justified, because Loki has had his hand in every single step of the project.
Stanza 1: We decide that as long as we're replacing the stove, we might as well replace the dying overhead fan and light. We pick up a new range hood at the Home Depot on our way out from ordering the LG 30" convection oven and glass-top range. We drive home fantasizing about a fan motor that doesn't sound sick-unto-death and an attractive, easy-to-clean stainless steel finish with all the hard-to-clean angles and moving parts tactfully hidden away.
Stanza 1: I contemplate uninstalling the previous range hood. This is initially worrying until I find an instructional video online that makes it all look simple. It even shows me how to make a "screw template" by laying paper along the top of the range hood and poking holes through the places where the screws go. What it doesn't explain about is the wiring. That's is the worrying bit. Well, nothing ventured, right? I turn on the fan and go flip circuit breakers until I find the one that makes the fan shut up. Circuit deactivated! It is noon on Wednesday the 30th.
Stanza 2: The idea of "temporarily" taking the range hood down to see what the wiring connection to the wall looks like was a bad one; the keyhole openings are tiny and I can't get all four mounting screws to poke through at once. And my arms are getting tired. And there's no one home to help. And the door's locked so I can't yell for a neighbor. And my phone's in another room. And my arms are going to fall off. Finally I take the risk of letting the whole thing dangle from its wiring for about 30 seconds while I grab a stool.
Stanza 3: While the range hood sits on top of an upturned stool on top of the stove, I discover the wire-shielding panel. It is on the LEFT, which is an important plot point. The screws that hold it in are like the mounting screws that used to hold the range hood up, in that they are neither flat-headed nor Phillips-headed but rather this smooth-headed hex flange thing that probably requires an arcane ratchet forged by dwarves and blessed by the Aesir and ritually cleansed under a full moon conjunct Jupiter. I use the pliers on a Leatherman, which nips my fingers a few times but does the job. The shield comes down, exposing the wires: two white wires paired under a plastic terminator, two black wires ditto, and a thick-gauge wire with no sheathing that's looped under a grounding screw. I detach everything like the fearless bad-ass that I am. Then I wrestle the range hood off the mounting screws and stow that sucker under the table.
Please notice, because this is a plot point too: The wires exit the wall via a ragged hole on the LEFT.
Interlude A: The Leatherman was a bad idea. A crescent wrench works better at brute-force removal of mysterious hex flanges.
Stanza 4: I make a screw template, just like the video said. I tape it up to the cabinet bottom. I unpack the 1/2" mounting screws that came with the new range hood. I go get the electric drill. WHERE IS THE ELECTRIC DRILL?! As it turns out, it's still with the friend we loaned it out to several months ago. Not their fault! We just keep forgetting to reclaim it. Happily, John's over there right now and will bring the drill home just as soon as he's done over there.
Interlude B: It is now dark. You know what else is on the same circuit with the range hood? All the kitchen and dining area lights. Also all the nearby AC outlets. (Our electric drill is not cordless.) Hooray for extension cords and upright lamps.
Stanza 5: The mounting screws that came with the range hood are too short. The manufacturer imagined, not unreasonably, that the range hood would lie flush against the cabinet bottom. The manufacturer did not count upon whoever remodeled our kitchen extending the cabinet border panel facade thing a quarter inch below the cabinet bottom. Sinking the mounting screws deep enough for sturdy support makes it impossible to mount the range hood, because that quarter inch of wood panel is in the way. John and I confirm this by attempting to mount the range hood. One screw head can't get below the metal lip at all, and one of the remaining ones is wobbly. (But at least they're all pretty much in the right place. Yay screw template!) I briefly consider sanding down or hacking off that quarter inch. Then I sigh and resign myself to a McGuckins run in the morning.
Interlude C: You know what else is on the same circuit with the range hood? The entire bedroom. WHYYYYYY.
Stanza 6: It is now the morning of Thursday, January 31. Home from McGuckins, armed with 3/4" mounting screws, I pull out the stove for the (3rd? 4th?) time and position extension cord, upright lamp, and electric drill in convenient places. I set the screws. I mount the range hood on them, which is not difficult because A) standing under is easier than reaching over the stove, B) the new range hood is lighter than the old, and C) the much larger keyhole openings make pinpointing all four screws at once much easier. I can just look through the holes the way I used to look through the hole in a vinyl record to sight it on the turntable spindle. (I discover the rear screws are too far back after all, despite the screw template. I reposition them and remount the range hood.) And then I take the range hood down again in order to thread the 120 volt AC wiring through the hole in the back.
The hole in the back of the new range hood is on the RIGHT. The wire block, also, is in the RIGHT half of the range hood. Clearly the previous installers did not foresee this eventuality, because they cut the wires to a length perfect for attaching to corresponding wires attached to the LEFT of a range hood fan.
The grounding wire is too short.
The grounding wire is too short.
Stanza 7: Having hit my DIY wall and bounced off hard enough to bruise myself, I call up an electrician. The electrician will come tomorrow afternoon (Friday, February 1) to extend the grounding wire and make sure nothing else will go wrong with the range hood installation. Originally, the earliest appointment the receptionist could get me was Thursday, February 7; I allowed myself to be scheduled for that time slot, and made assurances that should I find another electrician who could visit sooner, I'd call back to cancel. Possibly the thought of losing a potential customer to a competitor with a less-busy schedule was enough to inspire someone to pull a magic parcel of time out of their back pocket, because they called me back in under 10 minutes with the offer of Friday the 1st.
Which means only 24 more hours without kitchen and dining room lights, bedroom lights, or bedroom electricity. Or convenient alarm clock, cell phone chargers, lights to read in bed by, plugged-in laptop to play or read on until I'm ready to drop off into sleep. Not to mention 24 more hours wallowing in the mess of an ongoing home improvement project under, on top of, and around the kitchen table. I suppose if I had to wait a whole week, I'd figure out how to safely cap the live wires so I could turn the circuit back on, and I'd do a more complete job of tidying up the project-in-progress. So it wouldn't be horrible. And, really, "horrible" is an exaggeration. It's just bloody damn inconvenient, is all.
But I was so proud of myself for taking on the range hood installation project! I felt so competent, so capable! I really, really hate not being able to finish something I started.
And that's one way in which writing is better than DIY home improvements. With writing, I can always finish what I start. Guaranteed. Without fear of electrocuting the household.
Meanwhile, I have mopped up the truly disgusting patch of floor that was hiding under the stove. Because that, at least, I could do something about. When the Home Depot techs get here to deliver our new stove and haul away the old on Tuesday, I will not, at least, be embarrassed by under-stove filthiness.
Things That Got Done Last Week
So today was kinda worthless on the writing front. This was mostly because Sunday was roller derby from early morning 'til night, and Monday was a pretty awesomely productive but exhausting volunteering-at-the-farm morning, so Tuesday was "I get to sleep in and be worthless guilt-free for once" day.
(You'd think that leaving the farm at lunch and napping in the afternoon would count towards the sleep-in-and-be-worthless-guilt-free requirement. Except the nap in the afternoon is never long enough nor uninterrupted. And it's never guilt-free. I can't entirely forget that the guys who work on the farm as their actual jobs not only start two hours earlier than I do in the mornings, they also don't get the afternoons off. So I'm a lazy wimp who if I really wanted to be helpful would stay until sundown just like everyone else... I never said the voices in my head were helpful or rational, but they're there and they're loud.)
I think that weekends, rather than always occurring on Saturday and Sunday, should be invoked as needed. I'm declaring Tuesday to have been my honorary Saturday.
Meanwhile, last week I Got Stuff Done.
I did indeed submit the one about the space glue snow apocalypse (now with Brand! New! Title!) to The First Line on deadline day. It required a stupid amount of wrestling with Microsoft Word over formatting styles it insisted on applying to my imported WordPerfect 5.1 DOS document. How did it know to apply "Normal (Web)" to all my paragraphs? I do not know. I mean, yes, I composed the story in HTML code and copied the web output into Word, I'll admit to that, but then I saved as WP51, opened it in WP51, and resaved it in WP51. WP51 format doesn't save Word or RTF formatting styles. To my knowledge, WordPerfect doesn't even know about formatting styles until you get into the WYSIWYG versions for Windows and Mac. Version 5.1 is a DOS program. Plus, look -- if you hit F11 to "Reveal Codes," you can see there's absolutely nothing but the usual hard line break plus tab at every new paragraph. Look! This file is clean! So when I then freshly boot up Word to open this WP51 document, how can Word still detect the former presence of HMTL paragraph tags? How? HOW?! THIS IS NOT HOW THINGS ARE SUPPOSED TO WORK!!!
Yeah, I'm a little bitter about this. Also about the way I couldn't change the style of the biography paragraph at the end without changing the style of the entire manuscript. WTF, Word?
Thereafter followed a lot of cursing and brute-forcing and frustration, but eventually everything looked acceptable and I sent the dang thing off. Immediately enough to possibly be an auto-reply, I got an email confirming receipt of my submission. So I guess that was a success.
I also finally got my butt in gear and submitted "First Breath" to a reprint anthology on almost the last day of their reading period. Go me. And frankly I'll be shocked if they accept it. I'm not anywhere near certain that it's a good fit for the anthology, or, if it is a good fit, whether it's good enough.
But I keep reminding myself of two things. First, this is a story that was already published at professional rates. Clearly it's "good enough" for some value of the term. Secondly, even if I'm not certain it's a good fit, I'm not certain that it isn't, which puts the dilemma squarely in the category of Don't Reject Yourself; There Are Editors To Do That For You.
So I sent it.
Next on my plate is "It's For You," a.k.a. the one about the phone that isn't there. My plan is to get that revised over the next few days and submitted over the weekend. Because the next few days are not about sleeping in and being worthless. They are about Getting Stuff Done. DO NOT SCOFF AT MY OPTIMISM BECAUSE IT IS INVINCIBLE.
Stop poking it with pointy sticks! Do not test the invincibility!
NO, REALLY. INVINCIBLE.
Blasting Through an Early Morning Draft
- 1,854 wds. long
Up and writing earlier than I intended. Birds start to tweet around 4:45 or so, and then it's no use trying to sleep. I tried anyway, shuffling and rewriting the mental index cards for the new story, until the sentences assembled themselves into WRITE ME DOWN fashion and I got up and went to the computer.
Thinking I was just jotting down notes, I actually blasted through an entire draft composed as minimal HTML in EditPlus. That's another weird thing about the way I work; sometimes I get unstuck when I change writing medium. The phone story shook loose when I went from yWriter to WordPerfect 5.1. "First Breath" came tumbling out when I unearthed my typewriter. This morning, the new story got a real first draft when I took the text editor I use for making grocery lists, writing blog posts, and editing PHP/MySQL, and I pretended I wasn't actually writing a draft.
It worked, I think, for two reasons. For one, I can see more of the text at a time composing single-spaced in a text editor than I can double-spaced in the little blue WP51 window. For another, the stripped-down text-editor environment made it easy to write simply. No long flashbacks about the protagonist's railroad-flattened nickel or philosophical maunderings about mingling guilt with fascination with a sense of power. Just simple sentences describing a select few key details adding up to the story I was trying to tell. And no more bogging-down.
As far as I know, I'm OK so long as I submit this thing while it's still August 1 wherever the editors of The First Line reside, or maybe as long as my email is time-stapmed August 1. So I think what I'm going to do this afternoon is take this draft for revisions to the place I've set the story: the Madison Street Diner, on Madison Street just south of Colfax. OK, well, the real Madison Street isn't an all-night diner, it's only open from 4 PM until 10 tonight, but why not, right? Then I'll come up with a real title (I hope), submit the story, and drive back to Boulder in time to meet friends for take-out food and a game of Dread.
Until then, though, I'm going to try to get some sleep. At least for a few hours.
It's About Writing This Time
- 2,481 wds. long
As promised, this post is about writing. Actually Writing Blog: Does What It Says On The Tin. And I want you to appreciate this, because I'm on my way back from a fantastic roller derby event that I want to blog about So! Very! Much! But I will defer that pleasure for now, because I said my next post would be about writing. And so it shall be.
But it's not such a sacrifice as all that, because a mere three weeks or so before this I was at a fantastic writing event which I kept meaning to blog about. So now I get to do that.
Back in June, several of us from the Codex online writing group got together and had a writing retreat here in the Denver area. For me, this was a hugely needed thing. Like I've been saying, roller derby has been eating my life all up, bones and all. Stealing a week out of its hungry jaws and feeding those seven days to the poor starved writing beast was a matter of self-defense. It was a great big shove on the pendulum to encourage an eventual swing toward equilibrium.
Can I sorta-but-not-really interrupt myself here (of course you can, Niki; it's your blog) to mention that I now have proof positive that one can be a novelist and skate roller derby all in the same life? It's true! Exhibit A: Pamela Ribon, author of Going in Circles. Premise as I understand it, not having read it yet, is that a recently divorced woman joins a roller derby league to find and reinvent herself. I need to read it. Point is, Ribon is writing from life here. In second "Big Idea" guest post at John Scalzi's Whatever concerning her more recent novel You Take It From Here, she says she received the phone call that kicked off the new novel while she was sitting on the bleachers healing up from a derby injury.
I find Ribon's example immensely reassuring. It means my ongoing attempt to balance derby and writing isn't doomed to failure.
Anyway. Interruption over. Returning now to the writing retreat: A week in a house in remote Centennial. Surrounded by writers. Who are writing.
It wasn't just writing. All work and no play etc. There was also going out to eat (where we mostly talked about writing) and playing games (Dixit and Arkham Horror, both in their own ways appropriate for spec fic writers). But mostly it was writing, in the house or out at coffee shops. And critiquing each other's writing. And enjoying the very great privilege that was an afternoon's chat with local literary agent Sara Megibow. Mega awesome.
(Sorry about that.)
(Well, no, apparently I'm not, as I don't seem to be going back and erasing it.)
(I pun. Deal with it.)
The concrete good that I got out of this week of almost nothing but writing was to finally finish a draft of the current short story in progress. This required, as it turned out, not only the writing retreat environment but also finally getting WordPerfect 5.1 up and running on my computer again for the first time since Dell's customer service techs needlessly reinstalled Windows 7 on this machine. (I told them it was a hardware issue. They didn't believe me. They have a Process. But I told y'all this tale already.) Once I had the story up in WP51, it stopped feeling like a solid wall. I could think my way into the crevices and cracks where editing could take place. It was like magic. I swear, should WP51 ever get taken away from me for good and all, there'll be nothing for it but to customize my replacement word processor with a yellow system font on a blue background.
Anyway, the story is called "It's For You". It involves a phone that rings at odd hours from a mystery location, such that the protagonist is helpless to answer it; and a next-door neighbor with a more assertive outlook on life. Everyone at the retreat who critiqued it proclaimed it "surreal" and I suppose they're right. Anyway, this is now my main project: another rewrite followed by submitting it somewhere before the month is out.
This goal is complicated somewhat by a recent tendency for any random freewriting exercise to turn into a brand new story draft, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Which is... good? I think? One of the effects I was hoping the retreat would have on me? Probably? In any case, I now have enough new stories to keep me busy for the rest of the summer. (As though I didn't have enough older stories waiting for me to please revise and submit them, too.)
This ideas business. It's like, feast or famine all the time. But I guess that's what happens when you shove the pendulum writingward. I guess the real goal now is to take another stab at that "writing like it's my day job" thing. Because it is. Right? Right. Writer by day, Fleur de Beast on eight wheels by night. Then perhaps instead of feast or famine it'll be three well-balanced meals a day. With a modest roller derby dessert.
But I've only just gotten off a train in Denver and unpacked my suitcase in Boulder and done my Wednesday AINC reading shift. Now I gotta go view the video footage from our last home bout tonight with the rest of the Daisy Nukes. Then it's serious fun quality time with John, who misses me. And then there's the rest of the weekend, which involves scrimmage Thursday night, a mix-up bout on Friday, and the rematch home bout against the Shrap Nellies on Saturday.
I guess normality and sober dailiness will have to wait for next week.
Well, that was easy. Apparently I just had the entire Manuscript class set not to pull certain data from the database unless I was in my staging directory. In other words, at some point in the past I clearly didn't want to deal with things, so I applied brute force.
The criteria for having an excerpt page and for showing notes about a given manuscript are now more intelligent. If I'm in staging, I get to see 'em. If I'm not, they only show up if the database entry includes a TRUE value for the brand-spankin-new "shownotes" field. Woot.
The upshot is, if you click on the title of the story in the little blue box here, you'll get the usual list of blog entries to do with that story. But you should also see a small description of the story and a link to read more. Click that link, and you'll get to read maybe the full story, or maybe an excerpt, maybe some just notes about writing it and where it got published.
In the case of "Last Week's Rhododendron," it'll be all of the above (or everything but the publication credit, until I fill in the publication credit. Which I'll do later on tonight. My brain hurts now). Enjoy!
Me, Now, I Forget Things All the Time
So my plan this morning was to make "Last Week's Rhododendron" available for y'all to read, along with a bunch of other high school and college era publications. My plan was to say, "Hay you guyz! Lookit! First story I ever published, right here! LOLLERSKATES." It was going to be a very simple change to the website. Very. Simple.
Except I appear to be lost in a maze of twisty PHP includes, all alike. Or not alike, and there's the problem.
I was so clever when I built this website. I was going to do it right. I was going to learn object-oriented PHP properly... and here we'll pause for the Java developers in the audience to get all that snickering out of their system; yes, yes, I know, putting "object-oriented PHP" and "properly" in the same sentence is hilarious, yes, please do enjoy the joke... but anyway that's what I was going to do. Objects for handling blog entries, objects for handling manuscript data, objects for handling the both of them as different species of data entities. Objects for determining whether the viewer was me, and thus eligible to manipulate data, or not me, and thus eligible only for viewing. And all these class declarations filed away in their own include files, and each include file having a copy in staging and a copy that was live.
Then I didn't touch the code for some years. And I forgot how everything worked.
So what I've got is a page for displaying manuscript excerpts that works beautifully in the staging directory, but comes up almost entirely blank on the public version. I know why I did that in the first place -- I didn't want to expose the notes I'd written on each of my stories. Originally I wrote them for my own eyes only. I need to go through and make sure they're ready for prime time before I let y'all see 'em. So today I figured I was going to make an exception to that code specifically for "Rhododendron." BUT I CAN'T REMEMBER HOW THE CODE WORKS.
So I'll just be over here today, grumbling while my eyes glaze over trying to track Ariadne's thread through the labyrinth of code that Past Me created specifically to confuse Present Me.
Past Me was such a jerk. I'm this close to hoping she gets eaten by a minotaur.
The Internet Never Forgets
Just a quick note regarding "Right Door, Wrong Time" -- I still haven't found a place to reprint it yet, drat me. (Really. It's embarrassing how long ago I said, "I should send it to Brain Harvest." Have I done so? Well, have I? *ahem* Not as such...) However! Thanks to the magic of the Wayback Machine, you can still read it online! Twilight Tales may be gone, but the snapshot lives on, here:
"Right Door, Wrong Time" by Nicole J. LeBoeuf, appearing for the first time in print at TwilightTales.com in July of 2006.
This note brought to you by the question "Where can people read your stuff online?" and the realization that I am struggling to come up with three titles that meet the criteria. In addition to slushing the reprint of "Door," I suppose I should put some of my older stories up on this site like I've been promising to for years...
Question: Can I call my college-era and high-school-era writing "juvenilia" yet? Or is that only something I get to do once I'm a lot more published and a good deal older?
Well, THAT Was Easy
It was around 5:30 PM on Tuesday when I spoke to Dell Technical Support about my non-functioning speakers.
It was around 8:00 AM on Wednesday when the technician who'd visited me Tuesday called up and offered to return between 10 and 11 that very day. And so he did. And though he did not need to install the replacement speakers after all (as expected and hoped), he did indeed have them with him, freshly overnighted from Dell HQ.
Does your math tell you what my math tells me? My math tells me this is barely more than 12-hour turn-around time. I'm not sure how this is physically possible, even under the rubric of "overnight delivery." What I'm trying to say is, I should like to borrow Dell's TARDIS, please.
So, yes, when the tech installed the new motherboard on Tuesday (which continues to perform splendidly, thanks), he'd just managed not to securely plug my external speakers into it. On Wednesday, he opened up the computer again to correct this. It was a matter of five to ten minutes.
"Awesome," was my take on it. "As mistakes go, this one's a lot easier to fix than the one that results in yet another flawed motherboard."
"Well, that one would be easy, too," he said. "I'd just install another motherboard."
"Yeah, but -- how depressing would that be? Another flawed motherboard. Ew. I'm glad it wasn't that."
He pointed out that maybe his employer wouldn't feel the same way. A flawed motherboard would mean someone else had made the mistake, someone that employer didn't have to answer for. I guess field warranty support contractors expect their techs to be perfect. But that's silly -- not to mention deeply unfair. It's not perfection that's obtainable but rather the striving for perfection. Any company policy that expects employers not to make mistakes is a policy that expects employers not to be human. Seems much more practical, more effective, and more humane to focus instead on how to respond to the inevitable mistake that does crop up. And I've got no complaints whatsoever in that department. No one dragged their feet, no one tried to weasel out of the warranty, no one tried to evade responsibility. Everyone concerned had the same goal: me with a functional laptop. I'm happy to say that goal has been achieved. Hooray!
Tangent: While the speaker fix was simple, the tech's visit was a bit longer than planned because an unrelated part of the motherboard decided to give him problems. If you've ever taken apart a Dell Inspiron 1564 -- and why should you? But if you have -- you'll be familiar with the ribbon cable that attaches the power button to the motherboard such that pushing it actually has an effect. It's teeny and fiddly, and so is the plastic clamp that secures it in place. When that plastic clamp pops off, it can be very tricky to pop it back on. He had to use his entire set of pliers and my own pair of needle-nosers AND the tweezers from my Swiss Army pocketknife, in various combinations, before the thing finally decided to cooperate. Then he cloth-taped that sucker into place so there'd be no more of that nonsense.
So now my laptop is stable, functional, and ready for me to move both my working life and my playtime back in. I can now go on with my life.
(Yes, I'm aware of how pathetic that is. Possibly my life needs an overhaul if a broken laptop can bring it to a screeching halt. First world problems ahoy! Still.)
In other posts I've mused on how stress is habit forming. It totally is. And there are different flavors of stress. Right now, I find I'm in the habit of stressing out over the possibility that my laptop will crash if I pick it up, adjust the angle of its monitor, or just shove it farther away from me on the desk. It's downright Pavlovian. Either a week with John's perfectly stable Inspiron 1440 wasn't enough to put me at ease, or being back at the keyboard of my 1564 is evoking stress once more. My guess? A bit of each. Give me time; I'll get back into the habit of taking functionality for granted eventually.
On the other hand, I managed to get almost two years of productivity out of a cracked motherboard. Go me!
The Diseases of the Laptop, and How to Cure Them
So. Laptops. Today my entire brain is taken up with laptops. Well, and writing a little bit, but mostly laptops: the care and feeding thereof, the backing up of their contents, the getting of technical support when things go wrong.
Mostly it's the tech support angle, with a side-order of backing up.
I have this love-hate relationship with Dell. I'm on my second Dell Inspiron, and I keep swearing it'll be my last because both of them had problems. My previous one, a 1505e, had hinges that constantly loosened and a CD/DVD-ROM tray that repeatedly broke. My current Inspiron, a 1564, had serious instability right from the time I got it in April of 2010. This was frustrating because, darn it, the laptop was new. I was not ready to deal.
So I disabled the internal USB hub that ran the webcam that seemed intimately related to the Blue Screen of Death memory dump crashes that happened sometimes when I adjusted the angle of the monitor (but if the webcam was running, it happened every time), and that managed things until about October of last year. And even then, when simply moving the silly thing risked a shut down (now in three different flavors! Red Raspberry Restart! Blue Raspberry Restart! And Black-Out Licorice!), I put it off. And I kept putting it off even though sometimes it shut down without my moving it at all.
There was NaNoWriMo to deal with, after all. And then in December there were all those things I had let pile up during NaNoWriMo. I'm a writer. I live on my laptop. Even when I'm not writing, I'm attached to the machine. The thought of backing up all the crap and living without my computer for a couple of weeks was a painful one. And I didn't even want to think about having to recreate all my settings from scratch if an OS reinstall.
In the first week of January, the dang thing crashed during startup. Not the first time it had done this, but then it crashed again. And then it didn't want to start up for several tries. SCARY. It was time to take this problem seriously.
But, see, here's the "love" part of the love-hate relationship. Besides being powerful little machines that will do pretty much anything I'd ask of a desktop computer while being perfectly portable, they come from a company who make tech support practically painless. I tend to forget the practically painless part when I'm dreading making the call, but it's true. If you are in the market for a Dell, and you're trying to decide whether to buy the warranty extension, buy that sucker. I mean, if you can afford it. It does add a couple hundred to the price tag. But oh, the headaches it will save you. Also the money. I got the 3-year extension. A laptop is an investment, and I want it to last.
So. I explained the various permutations of my Inspiron's instability to a tech support specialist over live chat. "Overheats far too easily," I said. "Shuts down quasi-randomly." And so forth. And the tech support specialist did what they'd done twice for my previous Inspiron: they had a FedEx box shipped to my door so I could ship the ailing machine to their repair depot, all free of charge.
Thankfully, around the same time I got the 1564, John got a Dell Inspiron 1440, and he never uses it because he's always using his work computer instead. (Watching how well that thing runs is an effective advertisement for Asus. I have laptop envy.) So I set up a profile, made myself comfortable on it, and ported everything over.
The box arrived two days later. The following day I shipped it back, Intel Inside. Included with the machine was a meticulously filled-out form describing all the permutations of my problem and how to reasonably expect to replicate it. This is an important plot point.
Several days later I received an email that said FedEx had delivered it. The next day, that it had arrived in the repair depot and work would begin.
The day after that, that it had been shipped back to me.
"Hmm," I said, "that was suspiciously quick."
Two days later, the box arrived. I opened it up. I eyeballed the memo stating that the only corrective action taken was to reinstall Windows. I said "Hmm" again and turned the machine on.
I picked it up while it was booting. Blip! Out go the lights.
Given the ease with which I caused all three flavors of computer crash within about five minutes, I can only assume the folks at the repair depot didn't actually read those meticulous error-replication instructions. Maybe my handwriting is worse than I thought? Maybe they saw that I checked "random" and didn't notice that I'd also checked "replicable."
So this was obnoxious and caused me to consider changing my opinion of Dell Technical Support for the first time in about five years. But I called the phone number listed in case "for any reason the portable does not operate to your satisfaction upon receipt," and despite that it was midnight Mountain Time, a cheerful receptionist took down my data and pulled up my file. (My opinion started going back up again.)
After I told her my frustrations and ran some diagnostics to her specifications, she talked to a manager and told me that, seeing as how the reinstallation of Windows didn't help, it must be a hardware issue. ("I know!" I did not say. "That's what I've been saying all along!" I further bit my tongue on.) Therefore they would have an on-site technician replace my motherboard, hard drive, heat sink, and fan.
"Oh, that's fantastic! Wait -- 'on-site' -- you can't seriously mean at my site, can you?"
"Yes, ma'am. A technician will come to you."
Should I be as impressed as I am about this? I was, and still am, seriously impressed. That was late Friday night when we spoke, and today a technician did indeed visit and replace the specified hardware. I got to watch him take the thing to pieces, and I got to make a go at cleaning out the keyboard while it was detached, and I got to ask him questions about the process, and and and basically I got to feel more or leass involved in at least the head-space of whatever was happening to my computer.
Not to mention all the exchanging of pet stories (apropos of my cats hanging around) and Rush concert stories (apropos of my Snakes and Arrows tee), because I'm a proud member of various geek tribes and I love having fellow tribe members come visit.
Unfortunately, he was on a tight schedule and couldn't stick around for the First Time Running Windows Setup rigmarole. But he did stay long enough to watch me picked up the laptop and swing it upside down and mess with its lid and tap on the hinges ...and utterly fail to cause a shut-down. From this he determined the hard drive didn't need replacing after all, so he packed up his box of electronics and headed out. "You probably had a miniscule crack in the motherboard right from the factory," he said, "which just got worse every time it heated up and cooled down."
I thanked him profusely, waved goodbye, and set about setting up Windows.
About an hour later, I discovered my external speakers weren't functioning.
This whole saga has been like a game of Good News Bad News. "Good news! Your warranty is good until April 2013! Bad news! You have to invoke it! Good news! A tech will come to your actual house and replace hardware at your kitchen table! Bad news! Now your speakers don't work! Good news! An on-site tech will be with you in a couple of days to replace your speakers or maybe just re-attach your current speaker's cables, because, awesome as today's tech was, he may have forgot to do this, probably because you wouldn't stop talking the whole time he was working, you nerd! How easy is that?!"
All in all, the balance is on the good news side. Live with computers and, sooner or later, you'll need computer repair. Maybe you'll need it on day 366; maybe you'll need it on day 1. At least the warranty is comprehensive and the people backing it are going the extra mile. And, being the fallible humans that they are, maybe Dell Technical Support won't fix everything on the first try -- but they'll fix it on the next try, or the one after that. Whatever it takes.
It's exhausting to finally come around to making the complaint, but I can't honestly complain -- or at least I can't lastingly complain -- about their complaint department.