Cheap auction sites…. beware

Don’t be taken in.

You may see ads around for cheap auction sites selling goods for 90% or more off the RRP. Be careful with these sites; the owners are making quite decent profits, effectively selling each item for well above cost.

Let’s take an example: This is one site (which I will leave unnamed) for which the bidding process works thus: All goods start at $0.01. Any bid increases the price by $0.01 and costs some number of “credits”, where the number of credits depends on the price of the item. For something like an iPad, each bid costs 5 credits. You can buy 1000 credits for about $90, so each credit costs $0.09; that bid for the iPad you wanted costs $0.45. (Payments for bidding credits are nonrefundable.)

Let’s say the iPad eventually sellls for $30. That’s less than 5% of the purchase price, right?

But to reach that price required 3000 bids to be placed at $0.45 each. The amount raised from the bidding price is $1350. The auctioneers get about twice the price of the new item.

Whoever wins the auction probably gets lucky. Everybody else just blew a wad on bids and received nothing. It’s basically a scam.

I was (sort of) taken in by this as the way that auctions work isn’t made clear up front. Fortunately the Commonwealth Bank declined the charge and I wound up paying via PayPal, who have an excellent disputes procedure. (Not so excellent if you’re a vendor.) I posted a request for a refund to the site a couple of days ago, so I’m about to lodge the dispute, which I expect will be granted. I’m also going to suggest to PayPal that they cut this particular vendor off…

On introversion…

Something of an odd topic, I’ll admit.

I’ve recently been poking around YouTube and found a few interesting articles on introversion vs. extroversion. One clip in particular lays out the differences fairly clearly.

To summarise somewhat:

  • Introverts aren’t antisocial; they just prefer socialising with small groups (and often need to recharge with “alone time” afterwards).
  • Introverts recharge by being alone. Socialising takes effort and can be exhausting.
  • Introverts tend to be more introspective and thoughtful. Giving the right answer is important.
  • Introverts value a small number of deeper friendships over a large number of shallow ones.
  • Introverts tend to made uncomfortable by overstimulation. Loud music, noisy parties, chaotic environments will make many introverts uncomfortable. I’ll qualify this somewhat; chaos is not necessarily bad, but unfamiliar chaos is. My desk at Ebit was always very messy, but I knew where everything lived. Our network was highly complex, but this didn’t worry me as I knew it in detail. On the other hand, having new devices added without being informed always stressed me out….

I fit this category fairly well, although I developed some adaptations over the years. My main advantage has been a lack of self-consciousness, so with a certain amount of internal editing I can free-associate in conversation and do a reasonable job of appearing social.

On Sturgeon’s Law and the Retro movement

Sturgeon’s law (called by Theodore Sturgeon himself “Sturgeon’s Observation”) is that “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

This implies that, given that overall quality levels have remained the same, as much “good” material has been produced in the last ten years as has been produced overall in the last year; and as much “good” material in the last fifty years as overall material in the last fifty years.

Humans tend to remember the high points (the “good” material, or in rare cases the exceptionally bad material) much more easily than they remember the mediocre.

Thus we have the belief that all modern games are bad, because they are compared with the best games of the last thirty years; that all modern movies are bad, because they are compared with the high points of movie making since WW2. That all books are bad, because modern bodice-rippers are compared with To Kill a Nightingale and Catch-22.

It’s not really true. We overlook the crap and think the great games are representative of their periods. We overlook the modern classics-in-the-making and elevate the titles that have been proven by time.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a “retro” view, because the older titles really are as good or better than the new ones, but we shouldn’t overlook excellent new material when it comes along – particularly when the best of it learns lessons from the “retro” titles, giving a richer and more nuanced view overall.

Philosophy of tech support

A few observations on working in technical support.

  • Make sure you understand the user’s underlying need. Sometimes you’ll get a request asking to do one thing, when the user has actually taken the first few steps in thinking through solutions themselves, and is asking you to solve that problem rather than their real problem (which may be much simpler.) There may be a simpler, more elegant solution to their problem if you know what they’re trying to accomplish.
  • Make it easy for users to describe their problem. For example, keep network drive assignments consistent across the board (The T: drive should always point to the same share). Colour-code printer names; it’s a lot easier to say there is a fault with “the black printer” than with “the Kyocera 2100D near where Jacqui sits.”
  • Provide frequent feedback. If you are dealing with a fault, let the person requesting the fix know that it’s still being worked on, even if little progress is being made. Communication is key.
  • Underpromise and Overdeliver. When asked what benefits will be provided, be conservative about the benefits and timetable, but try to deliver more than was promised and ahead of time. If you promise a feature in one week and deliver in two, your users will be unhappy. If you promise delivery in three weeks and deliver in two, they will typically be happy. This leads to a related point…
  • Don’t overestimate yourself. I’ve found most technical staff (including myself) will underestimate the time taken for any given task. Most commonly this is because they haven’t taken the time needed for testing & debugging into account. When making an estimate, remember your limitations. For nontrivial tasks, your first impulse should be to double your initial estimate.
  • Complaints are golden. Any complaint is a vote of confidence in your ability to solve a problem. If your users are very quiet it may not be a good sign – your users may have given up on you as a source of help.
  • Don’t be afraid to inform users of the scope of a request. As technical staff, when asked to do something or if something is possible, our initial response is initially to say “yes, but…” People don’t hear the “but”; they only hear the “yes”. Couch your answer in terms of costs, or answer “effectively no”. If your answer is “That will take eight hours’ work; are you sure you don’t want me working on (some other important problem) instead?” most people will decline gracefully.
  • Don’t always turn down the hard requests. This is the flipside of ensuring that users know how hard a request is. It can sometimes be tempting to tell somebody that a job that is merely difficult is impossible.Taking those jobs will stretch your skills and, if done right, substantially benefit your user base.