Saturday, May 15, 2010

A renter's dilemma...

I'm moving soon. It's definitely not my favorite activity. Something I actually loathe doing. It's more the actual packing and unpacking, and the mess. And I say that knowing I will hire some strong, strapping (no pun intended) men to lug my heavy stuff down from a second floor apartment and drive four blocks just to put it back in place in an apartment on the first floor, but very similar in floor plan.

The dilemma is this: My current landlord is an ass. The lease and the vacate notice are riddled with conditions and clauses that, if they wanted to get technical, they could easily keep the one-month security deposit I paid a little over a year ago when I leased the place. The biggest "catch" is that I am to clean up the apartment (including appliances) and upon their inspection after I "vacate," they will determine if I get my deposit back.

Hmmmm. Guess they didn't inspect very closely when I moved in. It wasn't what I'd pass as "ready to move in."

Specifically, there was crud in the bathtub, along with pieces of grout and caulk (since they had supposedly just remodeled the kitchen). I know, what's the bathtub got to do with the kitchen? Good question. Whoever painted the walls neglected to use painter's tape and there was brush marks and paint spills on all the woodwork and the newly refinished hardwood floors. They didn't take a moment to at least try to wipe up their sloppiness. Oh, and the floors. The new lacquer finish was already bubbling when I moved in.

More? The smoke detectors didn't have batteries in them, the doorbell didn't work, the light fixture outside my storage locker in the basement didn't work (still doesn't), and there was not a washer drain stand pipe. I had to buy materials and build my own out of PVC pipe.

Oh, and the garage? It was so full of junk that I couldn't drive my car into it. They finally did clear out the garage, but it took them over six months to do so. Then I discovered that the garage had no electricity, so once you manually close the heavy garage door at night when coming home, you had to grapple and feel your way to the entry door. A few months ago, bricks from the inside layer of the wall started falling off and nearly hit my car's hood.

Did I mention that the basement is intolerably moist - with mildew on the stone foundation? It has a place where someone (lowest bid handman) connected a copper water pipe to a PVC pipe without the proper fitting. It leaks incessantly and the basement floor is always wet in that area. Plus, this building has the old, quaint coal bin doors. By the way, that's where my storage locker is. That's the place where I can store valuable things, locked up. The metal bin door isn't caulked or sealed in any way, shape or fashion. You can see sunlight, which means water comes in when it rains; freezing cold in the winter, and every four to eight legged thing the rest of the time. I've had to spray bug killer and bought a dehumidifier for the locker that runs non-stop -- just to keep my things from getting mold and mildewed.

Another sore spot: my current apartment (nee my home) had new vinyl double-pane windows. But when winter came, I noticed a terrible draft around all of them – not to mention all the exterior doors, which probably is to be expected in an older building. But new windows? So I checked, since I have a pretty extensive background in home remodeling and have had two homes with newer insulated windows. Guess what? The lowest bid handyman neglected to caulk around the window frames, which means that while the double pane windows will keep cold out, the gap between the window frame and the window's four edges were leaking like a sieve. Yep, rather than complain and see nothing happen, I caulked them myself, which made a noticeable difference in comfort and natural gas bills each month.

Yes, I've complained verbally and in writing many times about all of these things. Each has been ignored or given lip service repeatedly. That, my friends, is why I'm moving. That is why I'm engaged in an activity that I do not want to do, really. Nor do I relish the time it will take away from more productive endeavors.

So, what about my new digs?

Well, I was very careful to find a place that is well-maintained, clean, dry and had owners who understand the value of all that, first, in finding someone to rent it, and two, keeping them happy and comfortable. The bonus is that the new apartment is a bit less expensive each month. Win-win!

So, caveat emptor! Just like buying a new home where you have to watch the builder scrupulously for cutting corners, forgetting to do things you paid for, or overlooking entirely, renting an apartment can be trying too.

The thing is this: Why do people renting properties feel they have to protect themselves so much from abusive renters, when they clearly are abusing their renters? Now we know another reason consumers insist on consumer protections. I'll step down from the soap box now.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Using the iPad to promote your work.

Well, the iPad went on sale this past weekend to a lot of hoopla, and I believe it will turn out to be a revolutionary tool for home, school and business uses.

In the negative comment column, among other gripes, is the fact that it nor the iPhone support Adobe Flash. If you are a photographer or someone in the graphics world, being able to use the new, larger screen of the iPad would make it a perfect portfolio tool. Yes, it's $500 to get in, but many photographer spend that much or more on one portfolio by the time the make prints, a suitable presentation binder, sleeves for the binder, etc. And that is only one portfolio. If you could make several portfolio presentations and put them on one iPad, you now have utility. And you could personalize each of these for the client too.

So I started thinking. If I can't put my Flash-based slideshows on my iPhone, or a future iPad, what could I do to achieve the same effect?

3 Possible Answers

First, the BIG idea. If Safari on the iPhone/iPad won't read Flash, what will it read? The answer that came first (and if there are more, I'll explore them soon enough) was Keynote, Apple's presentation application that is a part of the iWork Suite ($79.00).

I made a 19 slide presentation quickly and easily. The first two pages are title slides, the next 16 pages have solid black backgrounds with a jpeg photo centered on the page. The last page is also a title slide with my web URL listed. So now I had a presentation I could play with transitions between each slide and a soundtrack background (if you want) to roughly simulate a Flash slideshow – without the control bar (pause, forward, reverse).

Now, how to get it into the iPhone/iPad. This was simple, too, for the most part. By selecting Export under the File menu in Keynote, you get choices. Three of the six options offered looked good to me: QuickTime, HTML and iPod. Let's take the last first.

The iPod export put the slideshow into my iPod movie folder on my Mac and when I synced my iPhone, it loaded the "movie." Now, all I have to do is go to that movie and select play and my portfolio presentation plays just as it did on my Mac. Neat.

The other choices are valid in that they work. The QuickTime movie export, shown above, works well and creates a file much like the iPod movie, except ii is standalone and I need to figure out how to access it on the iPhone/iPad once I get it on one.

The third option is pretty cool too. The HTML export option creates an HTML slide show that looks just like the keynote presentation, but it doesn't support the background soundtrack. It also doesn't play automatically. What it does is put Forward, Back and Home buttons on the bottom of the page so the viewer can manually advance the pages. Not as slick, but it works and looks professional. Again, the problem is how to get it onto the iPhone/iPad and then have Safari open a local HTML file – which normally it won't.

More as I discover how to get around the Apple-Adobe Flash feud. For sure, though, an iPad is in my future as a way to market my work in front of art directors, clients, editors and so forth.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

One of my recent feature articles and accompanying photos...

As appeared in Parts & People, River Valley edition, April 2010

Mike Piazza Automotive relies on diagnostics to drive volume in new neighborhood shop.

by Chuck Ramsay

Maplewood, Mo.--Mike Piazza may just be the next generation of automotive shop owner. After nearly 14 years of working for others, Piazza, an ASE Certified tech, said he struck out on his own three years ago to follow his dream of running his own shop in the neighborhood where he grew up.

Piazza said his wife, Gina, helps him with the administrative side of the business but that he handles almost everything else.

After finding a neglected one-bay shop for sale, Piazza said he added a new two-post lift, purchased some new tools and a Snap-on Versus scanner, made some updates to the building interior and put new blacktop on the driveway.

“I try to run a shop where customers will want to bring their car back because the work was done right and they were treated as I would want to be treated,” he said. “Most the jobs I do are completed the same day.”

Piazza characterizes his typical day as everything from state vehicle inspections to oil changes and more involved diagnostic repairs.

He said his customer base has grown steadily and mostly consists of nearby residents, though he has worked on out-of-town vehicles requiring maintenance before traveling home.

“One thing I enjoy about being located in my old neighborhood is to provide service to friends and families who were here when I was growing up,” he said. “I’ve even had a few of my teachers bring their vehicles in, which is very gratifying for me.”

Piazza said he became a Tech-Net Professional Auto Service shop early on because it offered him the ability to provide a nationwide warranty on his work, something he said he believes the public expects only from larger shops.

Piazza said he realizes that he has to work harder to provide the same level of service as a larger shop. But he also said he also knows that as a newer, smaller shop, he has to do some things differently.

“There are days when I don’t stop working at closing time so I can keep up with the workload,” he said. “This is one reason good diagnostic capabilities are important to me. Not only can I turn work around quicker, but I can often repair vehicles at a lower cost when the diagnosis is fast and accurate.” Diagnosing electrical problems has become a growing segment of Piazza’s business, he said. For electrical diagnostic work, he said he charges a flat fee of $80 in addition to the repair. For all other types of diagnostic work, his diagnostic time is built into the cost of the repair, he said.

Piazza cited a Durango that was brought into his shop awhile back. “The owner told me I was the fourth place he’d taken it to and needed help,” he said. The battery kept dying.

After a thorough examination of the electrical system, Piazza said he found the cause using an amp clamp. The rear wiper motor was shorting out the system and draining it rapidly. “The customer kept saying he wished he had brought it here a long time ago,” he said.

Trained at South County Tech in both automotive and HVAC, Piazza said the HVAC curriculum has helped him provide auto air-conditioning maintenance for many of his clients. “Most of the A/C work I get comes from word-of-mouth,” he said.

To attract new business, Piazza said he has had to depart from many of the practices that larger shops use because they do not fit his smaller operation or budget. He said he offers an oil change special, which is very successful and gives him the opportunity to do a quick inspection of other wear and tear that needs attention.

“I always ask customers, too, if they have any other concerns while their car is already here,” he said.

Piazza said he also sells and installs tires, which is a growing part of his service mix.

Gina Piazza, who is involved in the shop’s promotion, said they have found a few media that work well for their neighborhood-based location. They advertise in nearby church bulletins and have their oil change special printed on the back of Shop ‘n Save grocery store receipts, she said.

“Both these are affordable for us and have brought in new business,” she said.

The shop also has a Web site featuring an appointment request form, which Mike Piazza said is getting more and more use each week.

Networking is a tool both Mike and Gina Piazza use regularly and includes dropping business cards off at local businesses, meeting potential customers at the local coffee shop, and belonging to the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve even found some new customers through my off-road hobby,” Mike Piazza said. “I park my off-road vehicle in front of the shop sometimes. On occasion, someone will come in and comment on their off-road activity, and the next thing I know, I’ve got a new customer.”

With business growing for his new, small shop, Piazza has also begun to make adjustments in how to handle higher volume. He said he and his wife are beginning to automate their accounting, work orders, and invoicing, and are looking into other ways to get more done in less time while acquiring a better measure of how and where their business is growing.

“I’m also planning to add onto this building with at least one more bay, and hoping to add a tech,”he said. “There’s also a 5,000-square-foot building nearby that would make a good space for larger repair jobs like engine replacement. We just have to determine which should happen first, based on where we see the most growth opportunity.”

For Mike Piazza Automotive, the future is bright. He said he sees lots of opportunity but is cautious in his pricing strategy.

“I’ve been watching parts costs creeping higher and higher,” he said. “That’s a concern to me and my customers.” As a result, he has been shopping for new sources while remaining committed to getting the best service and quality in the parts he installs.

“My future is in treating my customers as I would like to be treated,” Piazza said.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

It's not all about me all the time...

I'm a writer. I'm a photographer. I'm a designer.

If you're not under 50, you might think that this is a past episode of "What's My Line."

But it's not.

Some of us aren't cut out to be specialists – really good at only one thing. For me, writing, photography and design are so integrally related and are good bedfellows. Each of these disciplines complement each other too.

So in this blog, as I get time, I'd like to explore what I'm doing with each and weave in the people I encounter along the way. For living with those around us is often what shapes us as a society. Just as what we do for a livelihood does.

Enough for now.