Sunday, April 26, 2009

Australian computer shops

There does not seem to be a lot of interest in the news today. No doubt most journalists are still getting over Anzac day. So I thought I might put up something a little different. I reproduce below a small memoir I wrote in the late 1990s about computer shops. My son tells me that many such shops are just as bad these days so I think the memoir still has relevance

Computer people are generally held to be pretty bright but my experience with computer shops has left me wondering.

For instance: Around 1990 I had been told that Amiga computers have very good software for helping pre-schoolers to learn to read and write etc. So I tried to buy an Amiga for my then three-year-old son, didn't I? Naturally, as computers are complicated things, I wanted to see the use of the software demonstrated before I bought. So I went into the computer shop of one of our better Department stores (Grace Bros. in Sydney) and asked for a demonstration. I found that they could indeed demonstrate two teenage-type games to me. They could not, however, demonstrate anything else as "We cannot open the packs".

So I sought out a specialist computer store didn't I? Now I already had an IBM-type computer so I knew this was not likely to be a joyous experience. I seem to be invisible in such shops. As far as I can see, in computer shops everyone always seems to be on the phone and customers in the shop can just go hang. And those phone conversations are long. They just seem to be so much more interesting than the boring business of actually selling to a customer.

So I walked into a rather big example of such a shop at what should have been a quiet time of the week in the hope that maybe there would be one person there who was on the ball. But no, I turned out to be invisible again. This time, however, the worm turned. I wandered out the back to what seemed to be the boss's office and asked the man there (who was, of course, on the phone), "Is anybody selling here?" His response? "Just wait out the front and someone will serve you". I said, "But I have already been waiting for some time and no-one has said anything to me." His reply? "What do you want?" I said, "I want to buy an Amiga." "Don't sell them", he then said and returned to his phone call with evident relief. He did not want to be bothered with a piddling $1,400 sale, did he? (At that time the average male gross wage would have been about $350 per week).

So next I went to a small computer shop in the hope that a small firm might be keener. Again, of course, I was invisible until I asked someone if anyone was selling here but I did then get some attention. Yes, he did sell software for pre-schoolers and the Amiga was indeed ideal for that but he had no software for pre-schoolers at all in stock at the moment so try him again next week. So by that stage I still had not managed to buy an Amiga.

Eventually I found a small retailer with a heavy foreign accent who was so keen that he offered the lowest prices AND even delivered the Amiga 500 to me at home. He actually travelled for over an hour through Sydney traffic from his shop at Campbelltown (outer Sydney) to Lewisham (Inner Western Sydney) to make the sale. Funny that he was foreign! (Northern Italian, it turned out).

Now let me tell what happened when I first decided to buy an Atari ST computer: I knew virtually nothing about Ataris but I did already have a 286 (i.e. an Intel machine) and an Amiga so I knew a bit about computers generally. One thing I certainly knew was that the big expense with computers is not the machine but the software. So when I rang up the main computer firm that dealt in Ataris (United Computers) to enquire about Atari prices, one thing I wanted to know was how easily I could get public domain software for Ataris. I was put on to the firm's apparent Atari "expert" to discuss this.

I said that I knew that some Bulletin boards had Atari software and asked how I could get such software onto Atari disks. If I downloaded it on my IBM machine would the Atari read my IBM disks? If not, would I have to buy an Atari modem program to download the Atari files direct onto Atari disks? I was told: NO you will need to buy an expensive program to enable an Atari to read IBM disks; and: YES you will need to buy an expensive Atari program in order to use your Atari for modem work.

Both these answers were of course bare-faced lies. Ataris read IBM disks as easily as they read their own and the commonly-used Atari modem programs, like Amiga and IBM modem programs, are mostly in the public domain or shareware. Anyway, their lies just ended up costing them business. I concluded that since the software was going to cost me such a lot I had better economize on buying the machine. So I bought a secondhand Atari rather than a new one and United Computers lost a sale.

The same firm also sold Amigas and on a later occasion quoted me outrageous prices for Amiga disk drives -- around twice what other people were charging. They also tried to sell me a box of high-density 3.5" disks for $55 -- then normally available for $20 and later available for $10 or less. Needless to say, on both occasions I walked out of the shop with my money still in my pocket!

And what about the time I tried to buy a complicated piece of software off them? They tried to demonstrate it for me but could not get it to work. I offered to buy it anyway on condition that I be allowed to return it for refund if nobody I knew could get it to work either. They refused my offer! "But you could just copy it and then return it", they said. Maybe. But the fact that the software concerned was on CD-ROM should be mentioned. The CD was going to cost miles less than a hard drive of similar capacity would have cost me. Anyway, I once again walked out with my money still in my pocket.

And then there was the time I got a secondhand copy of the game "Dungeon Master". As it was copy-protected, it had not been backed up but had just been used straight out of the box. The original buyer did the right thing and relied on the retailer to provide any backup needed. By the time I got the game, however, it had died, so I took the disk, box and manual to United Computers and asked for backup service. They undertook to provide this at a charge of $5. Quite reasonable -- at first. I then waited -- and waited -- and waited.

After two months or so I gave up, asked for the stuff back, obtained a Blitzcopy cable and re-copied the game courtesy of another owner of it. United's excuse for the delay? "The game was out of production and our supplier had to write to America for a copy". But if this begins to sound half reasonable remember that Dungeon Master was at the time arguably the most popular computer game ever. Could they really not find another copy of such a game? They were obviously not even trying. They sure knew how to encourage software piracy! Or didn't they WANT to sell software?

I mentioned above how when you walk into almost any computer shop all the staff are on the phone. Occasionally there is a receptionist there who knows nothing about computers and whose only function is to ask you to wait but that is about as good as you get. The only exceptions seem to be when the shop is run by Asians. When you walk into one of their shops you find them on the phone too but they immediately say something which must be the Cantonese (or Urdu) equivalent of, "A customer has just walked in. I will call you back." They then get up and serve you promptly.

The only way I ever found of getting reasonably prompt attention from non-Asian computer shop staff was to say, "Excuse me. I want to buy a 486". Since the 486 was at the time the top-of-the-line IBM-type machine and cost accordingly, they then put the phone down and paid some attention to me. It was amusing to see their faces when I told them that I did not really want to buy a 486 but just said that as it seemed to be the only way of getting served.

Mind you, with firms like United Computers (who of course eventually went broke) even that trick may not work. I know someone (Jason Marianoff) who once went in there to ask seriously about buying an Amiga 3000 (the top-line Amiga at the time). The staff were too busy playing a computer game to answer his questions properly! He too left their premises without putting his hand in his pocket. He then went into business on his own account as an Amiga retailer and did such a superb job at it that he ended up as the only surviving Amiga retailer in Brisbane.

So computer firms at least should think about the company they keep. If they want to sell machines they would do well to cease relying on lackadaisical and typically Australian firms like United and try instead to sign up a few small Asian retailers. They would sell a lot more gear that way. Why? Because charging like the Light Brigade puts everyone except pretentious people off and pretentious people buy Apple Macs anyway. And NOBODY -- pretentious or not -- likes to be treated like a bad smell when they go to buy something. And if a potential customer DOES get treated like a bad smell, it is very easy for him/her to go elsewhere and buy a rival product instead.

And then there was the time I wanted to get a computer monitor cable copied by a firm that specialized in such work (Qld Connectors and Cables). The firm did the job and got it wrong. The copy cable did not work -- for a rather obvious reason. Rather than listen to me when I politely asked to tell them where they had got it wrong and how to fix it, they insisted on giving me my money back instead. They would rather lose money than listen to a customer! Customers who complained, no matter how politely or with how much justification were just not to be dealt with any further. Rather British, really, but quite incredible by Japanese or American standards.

And it is not even as if the service the firm concerned was offering was anywhere near irreplaceable. Anybody can buy all the connectors they need from a Tandy or Dick Smith store and then solder them on to a bit of cable themselves if they want to. It takes little skill and less brains when all you have to do is copy the example in front of you.

Another offended shopkeeper was in a way even more amusing. I wanted to replace my 486 with a machine running a Celeron chip in late 1998. I found the cheapest Celeron being advertised in the paper (by a firm called Global Computers) and rang up and ordered one. When I arrived I asked to test the machine to see that it worked, only to find that the computer was nowhere near ready for use. All they had done was put it together. They had not even formatted the hard drive. So I had to partition and format it myself (warned by past experience with computer shops, I "just happened" to have a DOS boot disk in my pocket) plus set up access to the the CD drive plus set up the soundcard -- all of which took me about 20 minutes while the salesman just sat on his behind staring into space.

At the end I found that the sound did not work and pointed this out. He asked his technician about it and was told that a special piece of software would be needed to get the sound running. I asked if he would like my phone number so he could let me know when the sound was running. He did not seem to want to be bothered so I just walked out the door with my cash still in my pocket. As I walked out he said: "Thanks for wasting my time". He was angry with me because I would not buy an inoperable machine!

So I then rang someone I had long known ("Game Dude") and asked him for a quote. He charged $1321 -- about $200 cheaper than what the moron was charging. And when I went to Game Dude he had everything all set up. I just had to walk in, test it and hand over the cash! Shopping around can make an amazing difference. Game Dude was of course an owner/operator of his business.

Australia contrasts greatly with Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, the retailer seems to think that it is his/her job to ensure that you walk out with less money in your pocket than when you walked in. And he/she does what it takes to bring that about. He/she actually makes an effort either to give you what you want or convince you that you want something else. The retailer actually gives the impression that he/she wants to make a sale! There are no invisible customers in Hong Kong.

But Hong Kong capitalism is closer to us than you might think. When I took my train to work in Sydney of a morning (in 1990), it was not uncommon for around half the faces in the carriage to be Asian. And that is already beginning to show up in the shops. And everyone knows what it is like in a Chinese restaurant. You no sooner sit down than there is a menu in front of you. You have no sooner made your selection and closed your menu than there is someone by your elbow waiting to take your order. In other restaurants it can take half an hour just to get a menu! I wonder why I mostly eat out in Asian restaurants?

At any event, it has already happened in Britain. Polite brown people from the Indian sub-continent of Asia now seem to run almost all the small businesses in Britain -- from laundrettes and grocery shops to Post Offices, small hotels and electrical goods shops. Australia's Asians might come from a different part of Asia but they will do a similar justly deserved takeover in due course. "Old Australian" businessmen will just end up at the beach and on the dole, where they generally seem to belong -- modern-day Pacific islanders. Australia is, after all, the largest Pacific island.

Dismal record of state-run projects

Kevvy is still pushing hard with his enhanced broadband project for Australia and now seems to be intent on the government doing the installation rather than contracting out the work to private firms with expertise in the area. It is all rather comical, really, as the article below points out

IN the late 19th and early 20th century civil engineers, driven by ambition and imagination, built cities. Robert Moses in New York, Baron Haussmann in Paris and John Bradfield in Sydney mapped and transformed the city. With the exception of Bradfield, the ambition bankrupted the city but left a legacy of infrastructure to accommodate future generations.

For now it is the financial engineers who determine the future of cities. Public-private partnerships enable the fast-tracking of infrastructure.

But during the past decade taxpayers across Australia have watched aghast as major road projects have gone wrong and state governments have evaded responsibility by blaming private partners.

The BrisConnections Airport Link in Brisbane is the latest casualty of a failure of responsible state governance of infrastructure development. Under the Airport Link funding model the, mostly small, shareholders are obliged to pay a further $2 on shares that have now fallen from $1 in value to 1c. They are understandably reluctant to pay. Anna Bligh remains silent about this elephant in the city.

About $270million of the original share value of $409million went to pay the financial engineers who put the deal together. More than 20per cent of the $1.2billion of shareholder funds in the motorway is advisory transaction and management fees before it is built.

Getting the economics of urban infrastructure wrong isn't a new event. The London underground was electrified by an American, Charles Yerkes, who financed it with pound stg. 15million worth of bonds. When asked to comment on the viability of this proposition the chief accountant of London County Council said he couldn't understand a word of it and wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. The investors never got a penny back. Surely the Queensland government advisers must have had similar scepticism about the BrisConnections business model?

ASIC has suggested BrisConnections has made a number of "inadequate and deficient" statements to unitholders on their obligations to make future instalment payments, on the financial status of the Airport project.

Meanwhile, Brisbane is in gridlock morning and night. The small investors who trusted that a government-backed infrastructure project couldn't go wrong look like losing all their money. There has to be a better way.

Queensland is not alone in this. The NSW Government is a serial offender as project after project has failed to complete and resulted in losses for all concerned. But mainly for small shareholders.

In Sydney, Bob Carr's election promise to selectively fund the users of the M5 have distorted the economics of the route, making it difficult to expand a successful but quickly haemorrhaging toll road. The cross-city tunnel under Sydney's CBD is blissfully peaceful as drivers use every other route to avoid paying $4.16 for a five-minute trip. The investors in the Hills motorway have taken a bath. With this track record why would anyone get involved with state Governments in infrastructure investment?

But wait, there is more. The federal Government, through the Building Australia infrastructure fund is about to give $12.5billion to the states for infrastructure development. When the leaders of government are routinely blaming the banks and finance houses for the global financial crisis, the answer is to pour money into infrastructure.

State governments have proven themselves singularly inefficient in managing the development and financing of infrastructure yet they are about to be showered with billions of dollars and an instruction to spend it as quickly as possible.

Based on the BrisConnections model about 20percent, or $2.4billion, of the Building Australia infrastructure fund will go to banks and finance houses.

The career path of senior government personnel and politicians has been from public service to finance houses. The failing fortunes of finance may reverse this career path and provide state governments with the financial expertise to avoid future BrisConnections debacles.

Public-private partnerships in infrastructure development are a great idea. We have in Australia some of the best infrastructure construction and finance expertise in the world. But structuring such partnerships solely to avoid government debt and responsibility has clearly resulted in great financial and quality of life cost to the residents of all our capital cities.

The costs and benefits of infrastructure cannot be solely calculated on the basis of user-pays, as infrastructure has what economists call externalities. It benefits the economic efficiency of an entire city and improves quality of life with calmer, less polluted streets in adjacent neighbourhoods and in numerous other ways.

Early reports on state bids to the commonwealth infrastructure fund were that bids were so ill considered as to be unacceptable. The Infrastructure Australia Committee has formed its priority list for funding state projects and has produced a checklist of minimum information to be provided.

But the information requirements do not request that the consideration to be offered to financial engineers be identified as a proportion of the cost to taxpayers. Nor does it specify the means and penalties for monitoring compliance in the financing and construction and governance of the projects.

When we are desperate for increased infrastructure to improve our economic potential and provide for jobs growth, the principal impediment is the appalling record of government in managing such projects.

Just as we are hearing proposals to monitor the finance industry, its institutions and management of funds, so we should be hearing proposals for the federal Government to monitor the performance of states in the financing and implementation of infrastructure projects. There should be no impediment to establishing an independent authority to report on the financial engineering and realisation of development targets on such proposals.

Without an auditing process, on the basis of experience taxpayers can expect their $12.5billion may well be spent without a successful outcome, with an increased commitment to complete the project and with ongoing levies to use the infrastructure.

Hopefully, before too long some agreement can be reached between the BrisConnections financiers and the state Government that will save the small shareholders from bankruptcy and secure continued construction of the Airport Link. Without a transparent process for the commonwealth monitoring and auditing infrastructure development we shouldn't be embarking on further BrisConnections.


How Melbourne gets people out of their cars

Recently, I was on a tram at 6.30am with an Early Bird ticket (which allows free transport before 7am), when a ticket inspector approached. She took one look at my Metcard and proceeded to inform me that unlike every other ticket in the public transport system, these tickets were only valid on trains. I was stunned. I offered to validate a brand-new, 10 x 2, hourly ticket, but she refused and instead confiscated it! The proceeds from this article will go towards paying the fine.

If this were a movie, the villain would be the litigious Department of Transport. Lynne Kosky stars as its inept leader, babbling her way through disaster after disaster. "In for a penny, in for a pound!" is her battle cry as she throws more than $1 billion at the troubled myki ticket system in lieu of buying trains and laying tracks.

Meanwhile, her army of green-clad ticket inspectors are doing their best to get it all back. Remember when you could reason your way out of a misdemeanour? Well, those days ended a few years ago when operators (Connex, Yarra Trams, etc) began getting a commission from fines. And the zealous ticket inspectors? Maybe they get a gold star for everyone they catch, and at the end of the month, whoever has the most stars gets a $20 voucher.

While Connex distributes its stars, delays and cancellations have become the norm, inflaming passengers' anger when ticket inspectors are as unforgiving as the system is unreliable.

Fortunately, there are some heroes who make the journey a little easier. They may not be powerful enough to challenge Kosky and her belligerent Green Army but, with humour and empathy, they manage to crack its impersonal facade. These are the bus drivers who stop when they see you running to meet them. A small gesture, but when you run for a bus, one of two things inevitably happens: either you're left on the kerb, breathless, and cursing the driver as you lock eyes with a passenger who shrugs helplessly as they disappear down the road; or the bus stops and the driver becomes your personal hero.

Then there are tram drivers who bring people together by putting their loudspeakers to good use. "Can you please get out of the stairwell," quips the driver on the No. 1, "or you'll be crushed when I open the door and I'll have to clean it up." He jokes his way from Coburg to South Melbourne, and people take off their headphones to hear his banter.

There's also a Richmond station attendant who talks merrily into the garbled speaker system. People on the platforms grin at each other as he riffs childish rhymes about departures. If you're lucky, he'll even broadcast opera.

Public transport users develop relationships with these heroes and are willing to show empathy when something goes awry.

Patrons at my local cafe tell me their favourite driver captains the 72 to Camberwell. With his northern English accent and gracious manner, he could have a bright future in easy-listening radio. As it is, he charms passengers simply by announcing the next stop. When an older couple requested their stop as the tram was about to glide past it and he erupted in anger, everyone agreed he must have been having a bad day.

People get angry about delays, they get angry about missing meetings, and angry that receiving compensation is more trouble than it's worth. But what makes people angriest is the lack of empathy from the Department of Transport. Recorded apologies for any inconvenience caused by late trains, and ticket inspectors with scripted idioms ("we have to take your details — if you receive an infringement notice you can appeal to the department") make people seethe. But the heroes of public transport make us smile and they make us patient.

Lynne Kosky and co would benefit from catching the No. 1, and if they don't learn anything from the driver, at least there's a chance I'll bump into them and cause them a little inconvenience of my own.


Third "refugee" boat in fortnight intercepted

Another boat load of asylum seekers has been intercepted off the Australian north-west coastline, in the same region a vessel exploded less than two weeks ago, killing five refugees. The vessel, carrying more than 50 passengers and two crew, was intercepted yesterday 90 nautical miles south-west of Ashmore Reef, about 900km from Darwin, by a Royal Australian Navy patrol boat.

It is the eighth boat of asylum seekers to approach Australian waters this year and the 15th boat to be intercepted since last August when Labor made changes to Australia's immigration policy, including the scrapping of temporary protection visas.

Minister for Home Affairs Bob Debus said in a statement the boat was in international waters and the group voluntarily transferred from their boat to the HMAS Albany.

It is believed the boat was travelling from Indonesia and the passengers were most likely Afghans.

It is also understood the vessel was not being tracked by Australian authorities, although its sighting was confirmed by a Customs and Border Protection Command Dash 8 aircraft following an alert by an oil rig tender vessel. Within an hour of receiving the alert, the navy had made contact with the boat, Mr Debus said. The interception demonstrated the effectiveness of Border Protection Commands surveillance, he said. The interception came as another boatload of asylum seekers was transferred to Christmas Island.


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