A Human Menagerie · Our Subconscious

Geeks In The Basement…

Buying A Computer In Holland.

I’m using my old Mac at the moment, which I think dates back to 2004. Or something like that. Whatever, it’s old and it crashes with a regularity that is my new normal. I did buy a Minimac, but what with Apple’s ideas about older equipment and newer operating systems, it gummed up and remains gummed up to this day. No doubt there’s some malware masquerading as a solution – in the way you can stop the silly bubbles on Windows – but this is not something I want to enter into. I did try Linux, but that’s been trodden on with a vigour that has to be seen to be believed. Linux is for the people who want a cheap playstation and not a small office at home.

So I was looking at Windows computers, the only real alternative these days. What with Kaspersky‘s update, going down the Windows route is now a computer for safe surfing and a computer safe from official intruders.

So here it is, and I put a bid on it this morning. I'd chatted with the seller the evening before, ascertaining that the battery life of the machine was acceptable.
The ad for a computer. It had to be too good to be true, but that’s how the Dutch do advertising. The advertiser dreams and the customer is caught up in it. Source: Marktplaats.nl

So here it is, and I put a bid on it this morning. I’d chatted with the seller the evening before, ascertaining that the battery life of the machine was acceptable. He spoke of the machine as being in his possession. Please note this fact.

The value of the thing is probably around €300 so I put in a bid well above the asking price.

I received a response within the half hour: “it’s already been sold.” This at a quarter to ten on a Monday morning… I smelled a rat! It’s hardly likely that someone came in the shop and bought it. Quite clearly the seller was telling a lie, and the Dutch, if they are good at one thing and only one thing, it’s telling lies. They’re also good at believing them, but that’s as good a reason as any why they are so careless with the truth.

Now this was after I spent some time trying to buy a different one. I’d put in a bid that was accepted. Off I trotted on the train to go and pick it up. Only the Dutch railways decided to cancel all the trains to Leeuwarden, but did so after I’d checked the trains before leaving home. By the time I got to Utrecht, I couldn’t get any further. I couldn’t tell the people I was buying it from because they didn’t give me their telephone number – and once home, they didn’t accept my excuse for not being able to make my appointment. Which is how Holland works: they get to have their cake and eat it. It’s always the customers’ fault. Life’s easier that way, because you don’t have to worry about selling to an individual because there are always more fish in the sea.

Aren’t there?

White Lies And Nasty Lies.

Conscious, white lies are part and parcel of our daily lives; it’s how we escape from difficult situations without suffering too much. I do it myself, albeit I try to limit it. The real problem with the Dutch is that they are unaware of their telling lies. Now I know how to lie, and I can do it extremely well: I am an author and fiction is, if nothing else, one big lie! That is for an upcoming post about John le Carré. His father was a con-man, but a proper one, not like the limp wristed Jan of previous posts (1). Like all con-men he was a con man because he enjoyed the thrill. Of that, more in the other post. Suffice it to say that writing thrillers is extraordinarily good fun. It’s not thrilling because you know the answer… but again, that’s for the other post.

The problem with the Dutch is their inability to deal with social situations. And you can level that at me, too. Only I do happen to know how to engage in society. I know when I have done something wrong because of the looks on peoples’ faces… more to the point, I am looking for their response to me. The Dutch do not. They merely assume that because they’ve said something, that’s it. A little like the surveyor who came to agree a start date on my bathroom. How could he know he changed his mind when the things that are written on paper for him are how he remembers things? Now, if what is written on paper contradicts what was said, then his memory is deemed to be at fault. (2)

And yes, I do it myself! It’s so easy to let the paper tell you what’s right.

So what about this computer shop owner? Does he know any better? I wonder… In the world of computers – the ultimate in constrictive, competitive commodity markets – how is he to survive if he can’t offload them fast enough? On a computer worth €300 or so, he can perhaps make a 50% margin if he’s lucky. A shop like his needs to sell two in a day just to break even, and that’s assuming a margin as large as 50%.

In the computer market, margins have been cut to the bone. The only way to make a profit in a market like this is to offload more gear (which, by the way, is how the market became so competitive in the first place!) It works like this: you put up an advertisement that is tempting. That is to say, it offers more than you would ordinarily expect. When someone who makes a bid, it means they’re in the market for a computer, and can be tempted to buy a better one… it’s how this con runs.

And it is a con.

The Second Law Of Business.

The second law of business speaks of how one can get customers to return to you. (4) Which is a serious problem for the geek, creatures whose natural habitat is the server stack down the stairs in the basement. Which will have some kind of lock to the door in case anything goes wrong upstairs. Do this in a shop and the geek is in trouble from the start because he has nowhere to hide.

In computer shops it’s the norm to be met with people who are salesmen but not geeks or geeks who can’t sell. Either way, the customer’s in for a hard time: the salesman knows how to sell but doesn’t know how it works, the geek knows how it works but (a) can’t put it into words the customer can understand and (b) doesn’t like talking with customers about his private life down in the server stack, otherwise known as what the customer’s asking him about. He may be friendly but will only be willing to chat about everything save his business. That is to say, what you want to find out about.

You go to a computer shop and see if I’m right.

If the geek knows what he’s doing, he’ll not be friendly (or off-hand). If they’re friendly, they’ll not know what they’re doing. If it’s not like this, please let me know because I’d like a computer shop that I can trust! That is to say, be honest with me and know what they’re talking about.

I’ve already described the problem for the owner of the shop: he can’t sell enough and he doesn’t like doing the things that would make him a profit. There’s a computer shop in Utrecht that has (at a gross underestimate) 10,000 computers within three minutes walking distance of his shop. It’s a residential area in the middle of town and the number is probably five times that amount. If not ten. Yet this guy is struggling to make a living. Well, now you know why! He doesn’t like dealing with customers and nor does his partner. They even tried to offload those flick-whizzy spinner things in the summer only to find the newsagents across the road were selling them for a euro less…

If they did a good repair job for a customer, pleased them, they would be raking it in. If you are selling on price, you are in trouble and so is your business. It really is that simple. I mean, here is a guy – the guy selling the €300 computer – selling a piece of equipment that a generation ago simply couldn’t exist, leave alone have a price put on it. The speed, size and complexity were simply beyond reach. And today he can’t get rid of them and make a sensible living by doing so! How crazy is that? It’s a different version of the American car manufacturers who made cars that only lasted 18 months… so you had to buy a new one.

And just how many of those car manufacturers are around today? Back in the Fifties there were perhaps twenty odd. How many survived? The Japanese offered a consistent rugged quality at an affordable price and the Germans did the same at a higher price. They’re still strangled by their being in the commodity market, but they are big enough to survive being strangled. They can even survive a government fining them a years’ profits. (5)

A small computer shop flogging cheap computers can barely survive.

Back to the modernity of these devices: the computer market has seen prices crushed. This is a piece of equipment that will do all your office chores, send letters to Australia in the space it takes to push the button, sing you songs, entertain you at night and a very great deal besides. And it costs you five tanks of fuel. That fuel will be gone in the space of a month, you can still sell that computer for three hundred. It’s more that if you tried to make that computer by hand, you’d be hard pushed to make one of the buttons for three hundred euros. Leave alone the rest. Most of the cheap stuff in a computer is cheap because no human hand can do the job. Nano technology is real technology: the machines have taken over the asylum.

What’s more, once you’ve bought a machine, it doesn’t complain about wanting more money, does it? It just works and works and works and then crashes. All I have to do is patiently switch it back on… but for a geek, this is to demand too much. But then, geeks expect the impossible. And we see that because they want a business but don’t want what business – true business – demands. Having their cake and eating it means they are starving themselves out of business. That again is for another time.

(1) You can meet Jan the fraudster here.
(2) You can read my sorry tale here: Live Wires.
(3) You can find out how to spot what poker professionals call a ‘mark’ here: The Strip.
(4) The first law of business is: “The customers value your product more than they value the money they give you.”
(5) The VW scandal: What A Mistake To Make!



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