Working With Computer Nerds

My recent post about Working With Canadians generated some interest (and discussion), so I figured I’d move forward with a second post on a related subject.

Much like the previous post, my goal isn’t to provide a perfect profile of every techie (generalizations, by their very nature, don’t hold for every member of a group).  Instead I just wanted to highlight some of the characteristics that are common with people who’ve chosen to work with computers.  This could be useful to help understand the system administrator at your office, the web developer you’ve hired to build a website for you or that cousin who earns a living designing digital circuits.

Much like the Canadian post, I am a computer nerd, so against my best intentions I might be projecting some of my own characteristics onto computer nerds as a whole (please call me out on it if you disagree with anything I write here).

Social Awkwardness

The Big Bang Theory” is about physicists more than computer workers (one of them is an engineer, so that’s a little bit closer).  They’re certainly nerds though.  The running joke of the series is contrasting the four main male characters intellect and geekiness with their neighbour Penny’s attractiveness and common sense.

Allowances have to be made, if someone is doing technical work at a company, don’t put them in a role which requires social skills they may not have.  If someone is a genius programmer but insults customer, KEEP HER AWAY FROM THE CUSTOMERS! (and let her code)  I’ve always warned employers in the past that I have no artistic skills, so if they ask me to build an interface (or design the website myself), it’s going to be ugly.  Fortunately most are aware of this, and respond something along the lines of “oh yeah, we never expect programmers to do the design”.

Some technical people DO have solid social skills, and for this rare combination consider putting them in a role to take advantage of both (such as managing other techies or working with customers).



I don’t mean to say that a nerd will never tell a lie, but there IS a tendency for them to BE more honest than is typical and to EXPECT more honesty than is typical.  I had a job pull a “bait and switch” on me (they said I’d be working on one thing, then after I’d quit my current job and started with them they moved me to another, less desirable, project).  I was never able to get over this initial deception and the job didn’t work out in large part because of this.

Don’t try to “sell” stuff to techies.  Computer people tend to be very good at thinking for themselves, and if you misrepresent something they’ll probably be able to see it.  Present the facts, if some things aren’t ideal, be upfront, provide an explanation and let the nerd make up their own mind about it.  For example, if you need a website done, DON’T try to convince a nerd that 1/2 market rate is the going price for websites!  They’ll realize that’s not true and get angry at being lied to.  If you say something like “there’s a lot of developers looking for work right now, so we’re looking for someone with extra time who can give us a good deal” or “that’s all we can afford right now and realize it’s below market, but we want to build a relationship with someone and will hopefully be able to offer higher paying jobs in the future”) they’re more likely to buy it.

Interesting Problems

This isn’t to say that salary or working environment are unimportant, but computer nerds NEED interesting problems to work on.  If you hire someone and say “we want you to do this exact thing in this exact way for the next 5 years”, they aren’t a real computer nerd if they don’t quit.  This isn’t to say there aren’t jobs well suited to people who are willing and able to use computers, but for people who *love* them, we need variety and challenge.  One fortunate element to this is you can turn a boring task into an interesting one by saying “how can we automate this or make it easy enough to let someone earning minimum wage operate it?”.  *BAM*!  It just got interesting.

How Things Work

A computer nerd will be very interested in understanding how things work.  The benefit to this is that they’ll learn systems inside and out.  The downside is that they’re likely to spend time where it looks like they’re just playing with the technology (which they are), but that’s part of the process.



The original meaning of hacker, rather than meaning someone who breaks into computer systems, was people who delighted in understanding a system so thoroughly that they can stretch it’s capacity and make it do new and surprisingly things.  From a security perspective, this often entailed getting permissions from the system you weren’t supposed to have, but other real world examples include things like the coffee cam, creating new senses or Steve Wozniak building one of the first personal computers.



Because they investigate things so thoroughly, hackers tend to to be VERY good at what they do.  Like any other employees, problems come up, but if you have a problem with a nerd, jumping to the conclusion that they’re not competent is probably a mistake.  It’s dangerous territory to accuse them of this.  On the off chance you’re right, they’ll probably be abashed and redouble their efforts to understand what they’re working with and become competent.  If you’re mistaken about this, it’ll probably trigger the honesty issue and lead to very bad feelings (being called incompetent, or having this implied, is probably one of the worst things you could do to a serious computer type, so tread carefully).


Computer nerds are natural optimists (I read once that no one would ever start writing software if they were honest with themselves about how many problems they’re likely to run into).  The good side of this is probably they’ll see a new project in the best possible light.  The downside is that you’ll often get “best case” estimates from nerds, no matter how often you ask for most-likely or worst-case.  Pad estimates whenever possible so that there are resources in reserve that can be allocated if it turns out the problems are harder than expected (they always are).

Inmates Running the Asylum

Bag CheckWhen you’re working with hard-core hackers, chances are they’ll understand what they’re working on FAR better than you do.  Many people used to a traditional management role will be bothered by this.  It means that you’ll have to ask questions and gather information from the techies working for you, instead of dictating things to them.  Say they estimate it’ll take two weeks and you demand it be done in one?  You’re going to have problems (if they *DO* deliver it in a week, I guarantee either it won’t work properly or your team will have killed themselves to meet the deadline, they can only do that so often).  Say they recommend designing things one way and you demand they do it another?  Chances are there are going to be unforseen (by you) problems with the design that could have been avoided by talking to the people implementing it.

So I’ll turn the post over to our readers at this point (nerds and non-nerds hopefully both have a perspective on this).  Any of these you agree with?  Any big points I’ve missed that you’d add?  Any of these points that you feel miss the mark?


Unintended Consequences

I’ve been planning a post on the concept of unintended consequences for the last two years.  I keep coming up with different perspectives on it, put off posting, and continually rework it.  I don’ t think there’s any way I’ll be able to do the idea justice in under 1000 words, so I going to take a friend’s advice and just put a stake in the ground (and hopefully commenters and future post can flesh out the idea better).

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of unintended consequences.  From an early age we develop an awareness of cause and effect, and as this awareness grows we gain more control of our environment and our place in it.  You touch something hot, burn yourself, and learn that it’s a good idea to figure out the temperature of something before grabbing it.  Eventually however, we begin experiencing situations where cause and effect break down and we don’t get the expected outcome.  Say, as a child you’re being bullied, and eventually one day you’ve had enough and get into a fist fight.  The teacher takes you aside, and instead of being reprimanded (you’ve been told not to fight), they commend you for standing up for yourself.

The fields of ecology and medicine are full of examples of unintended consequences.  Rabbits were originally introduced in Australia as a food animal.  They were more successful than expected, and ended up becoming vermin that were pests to farmer (causing millions of dollars of damage annually) and devastated the local ecology (they’ve driven a number of species to extinction).  Aspirin is primarily used for as a pain reliever, but has a side effect of thinning blood (which makes it also useful in that capacity for people at risk of blood clots).

Because we are so enamored with the idea of cause-and-effect, people are reluctant to acknowledge or consider the multiple levels of effects that can result from any action.  We like to think in terms of absolutes, which may be knowable, instead of potential side-effects which are inherently unknowable.

The father of one of my friends worked for most of his career at environment Canada.  There was a popular phrase there called “environmental management” which used to drive him nuts.  Basically the idea is that the impact of humans on the environment can be predicted and controlled (such as allowing a certain number of trees to be cut annually, deer to be shot or fish to be caught).  For a while he carried around a Rubik’s cube and would hand it to the person using the phrase and say “try to solve it”.  After they’d played with it for a couple of minutes he’d then say “environmental management is like solving a Rubik’s cube made up of thousands or millions of smaller cubes, if we can’t solve this small toy, how will we manage an environment?” As a side note, his position WASN’T that we should ban all human activity that impacts the environment, just that we shouldn’t fool ourselves by pretending we can perfectly predict environmental impact.

Say we decide sweatshops are bad.  We organize a band of activists and put pressure on a company to move its factory to a country with stronger labour laws which will police them and prevent child labour, exploitation and hazardous working conditions.  We are proud of ourselves and happy for having helped the workers at that far-off factory (imagining that they’ll move on to better jobs with better pay and working conditions).  Now, back at the shut-down factory, the workers were barely feeding their family on the low-wages they were receiving, and without that job (since the factory moved out of their community) there isn’t comparable work for the former workers.  The influx of new workers looking for jobs drives down the wages in their community (since there’s more competition for the remaining jobs) and some members of the community starve to death (the ones who were barely making it when the factory was operating).  Say that community had been building a school and source of clean water by reinvesting some of the (relative) prosperity they had had into community development, but with the tougher times members are having they cancel those projects (and focus on more immediate needs).  By trying to help a community, our actions have led to the death of some of its members and permanent set backs in the infrastructure that could have led to a higher standard of living.

I’m not saying that sweatshops are good, or that this is the result from such activism, but this is a situation where a group of people INTENDED to help a community, but instead ended up harming them.  Consider the story of the butterfly and the cocoon, where our intention to help can sometimes harm.

Conversely, taking a knife and cutting someone up is a pretty mean thing to do, unless you’re a surgeon and potentially saving their life (by cutting in the right places).  Sometimes the side-effect of harming someone is to help them long term.

I’ve been quite interested in economics (and almost studied it for my PhD) and have read it described as the study of unintended consequences.  It’s seemed strange to me that personal politics can heavily influence an economist’s work.  Democratic or republican physicists should arrive at the same conclusion, so what is so different with economics?  Perhaps the infinite possibilities and depths of repercussion gives those studying economics the latitude to keep investigating until they find the results they want.

Unintended consequences happen CONSTANTLY in personal finance (and investing in general).  Interest rates drop, making housing more affordable, which leads to more people deciding they can afford to buy a house, which leads to more competion among buyers in the housing market, which leads to an increase in the sale price, making housing less affordable.  Investors lose confidence in the economy, leading to a stock market crash, which offers shares of a company at a more attractive prices which is more likely to provide a greater return in the future.

Have you had unexpected benefits or perverse results in your life?  What was the most memorable?


Working With Canadians

Stuff White People Like is an amusing blog that mocks the cultural norms of the “educated elite”, a group that often denies having any such norms (yet, we clearly do).  Similarly, Canadians both deny having a culture (some Canadians, without a trace of humour, claim they don’t have an accent) and hold particularly trivial things up as examples of “Canadian culture” (hockey, poutine, Anne of Green Gables and other such nonsense).

I’m not trying to provide the definitive guide, but thought I’d try to draw a rough sketch of Canadians, and some of our typical values and behaviours.  The target audience for this being someone who has recently moved to Canada, is working with a Canadian organization, or is trying to make sense of a new Canadian ex-pat in their country or company.

Please feel free to argue with any of my assertions or add any more.  As a Canadian it can be difficult to step outside of myself, so some of my own issues may creep in here.


Canadians often define ourselves in terms of how we are different from Americans.  A famous beer commercial aired years ago which basically consisted of detailing minor ways that Canadians are different from Americans.  The irony of all this is our cultures are VERY similar.  If you take someone from Northern New York State or Minnesota they’re probably going to be more similar to a Canadian than to a Texan.  Anything you’re unsure about Canadians, just treat us like an American and you’re on pretty safe ground.


Canadians are known for being polite.  Once while traveling in England my family had a good laugh when a tour guide characterized Canadians as “Americans with manners” (see first point).  The plus of this is that Canadians you’re interacting with SHOULD usually be polite to you.  The downside is that we can be touchy about behaviour we perceive as rude (joking around with or teasing a Canadians isn’t something to rush into).


When I worked down in San Francisco I was walking along the street with a Palestinian co-worker and I saw a man drop his fast-food cup in the gutter.  After I’d been ranting about it for 2 or 3 minutes my co-worker started chuckling.  “It’s really obnoxious to litter like that, eh?” I asked.  To which he responded “No, it’s just that a couple other Canadians I’ve worked with would flip out if they saw anyone littering too”.

I’m not sure if this is just a special case of politeness, but littering is a hot-button with a number of Canadians, so if you do it, don’t do it in front of us.  One of my friends’ father is about the calmest, nicest man you could possibly imagine and he almost got in a fist-fight when he saw a guy littering on the street.


I think many people are taken aback at how nice and friendly Canadians can be.  If you start at a new company or community, people will go out of their way to make you feel welcome and help you establish yourself.  I think it can be overwhelming for people at first (they think we’re after something), but I think it comes from seeing ourselves as nice, friendly people and trying to live up to that self-image.


As much as we can be friendly, we don’t make friends quickly.  A number of my friends have commented that they came to Canada, someone was super friendly to them so they assume they’re buddies.  They ask the person out for a beer one night and the person blows them off (“no thanks, I’m going home to watch 24”).  One man tried his damnedest to get me to go see the new Star Trek movie with him and it freaked me out.  I ran into him at a university event and we had a nice chat I guess, then he REALLY wanted to be my friend.  Mutual friends told me they told him that you can’t come on strong like that with Canadians.  We tend to ease slowly into friendships.

One friend told me if someone in her home country was as nice to her as most Canadians are, it would mean they really want to be her friend, so she always finds it off-putting dealing with hyper-friendly Canadians who keep rebuking her friendship overtures.


Canadians like to eat.  It can be a bit nauseating to new arrivals how much energy we put into thinking about our next meal (and often the amount of food we put away).  We’re similar with Americans for this, so probably they wouldn’t be taken aback, but I think many new arrivals from other areas are (rightfully) grossed out by it.

It makes us pretty easy to please.  If you have a meeting with Canadians, put out a tray of snacks (cookies or something) and we’ll probably get pretty excited.


This is another double edged sword.  The stereotype of a group of rednecks sitting around talking about “them” is pretty horrifying to most Canadians (and we do have an incredibly diverse population).  I think if someone were wandering around making sexist, homophobic or racist comments, they’d get called on it by other Canadians pretty regularly.  We like to think of ourselves as being a tolerant nation.

The other side of it is that often those attitudes are present, just concealed.  One friend-of-a-friend who worked in Asia was upset by the blantant racism she encountered (she’s black).  One time she had a job interview scheduled, told the person on the phone that she’s black, and the person then told her not to bother coming in.  In spite of this (and as painful as it was for her), she said she prefered it in some ways to Canada.  She said in Canada she never knew if race was a part of how people saw her or treated her (even people she’d known for years), and she at least liked that it was out in the open when she was in Asia.

So I’ll turn the post over to our readers at this point (Canadians and non-Canadians hopefully both have a perspective on this).  Any of these you agree with?  People who have moved to Canada, was it a big adjustment adapting to our norms?  Any big points I’ve missed that you’d add?



When I was growing up, the 80’s cartoons each had standard issue goods guys and bad guys.  Autobots battled Decepticons, G.I. Joes battled Cobra, and He-Man battled Skeletor.  I think I outgrew cartoons (at least this style of animation) when the villains’ consistent focus on “evilness” began to ring false.  The most extreme case of this would be Beastly on Care Bears who would cackle “I’m *SO* bad!”  In real life “villain” is often a matter of perspective, and no one thinks of themselves as evil.  We’re all the “good guy” in our own story (even when we play the villain in someone else’s).

I’m not entirely sure why we feel this is a good way to structure conflicts when we present them to children.  Clearly it becomes an easy framework to convey values to children.  If we feel generosity is a valuable trait, then we assign it to the Care Bears (and show No Heart being stingy) and it is clearly conveyed to them which is the better trait.  I think it can lead to a variety of problems with viewing the world as black and white as adults, however I’m not sure that early socialization is really to blame (Xenophobia seems to come quite naturally to the human race and I suspect “black and white” thinking derives quite naturally from an “us and them” world view).

This kind of thinking creeps into personal finance in two ways.  First, there is a tendency to break people into two groups:  those providing good information and those providing bad information.  I wrote a pretty scathing review of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert T. Kiyosaki, so people might be inclined to think I disagree with everything he writes.  I find some of his material incorrect, some of it poorly presented, and some of it worthwhile.  Trying to sort these out isn’t worth the benefit, so I recommend steering clear of his books.  He suggests joining MLM as a way to learn how to sell, which isn’t AWFUL advice (I think it might be the only worthwhile reason to get involved with “network marketing”).  Conversely, I like most of what John Reed has to say about real estate, investing and life.  One big idea that he pushes in a number of books and articles is the “unlimited downside” of toxic contamination as a risk in real estate investing.  I agree that it’s a concern (and agree with him that it does give you an unlimited downside) however I disagree with his conclusion that it means you should avoid buy & hold real estate strategies.

This sort of thing can creep in to blogging.  Long term readers will have a mental image of Mike and myself, and I can pretty much guarantee we don’t match it in real life (Guiness416 and Preet have both met us after reading the blog, please feel free to comment).  One reader was briefly very enthusiastic about the blog (she wrote me an e-mail comparing some of what I’d written to Shakespeare and the Dalai Lama).  Later she discovered I invest in tobacco stock and told me off.  I’m not as good *OR* as bad as she thinks I am.  A while back OperaBob took exception to a comment about the DRiP Investing Resource Center.  It seemed to me what he couldn’t wrap his head around is that I said good things and bad things about the community he’s a part of.   His community isn’t all good (or all bad):  nothing is.

Our infamous real estate agents posts have similarly been interpreted as us saying agents are bad, which we never said in the posts or comments (and, in fact, we repeatedly point out parts of the process where the agent is useful).  However, because we don’t  agree that agents are absolutely good in every way, some people interpret this as meaning we think they are all absolutely bad.

The second way this creeps into personal finance is people who want to view investments as “good” or “bad”.  In my recent post “Beginning Investment Strategies to AvoidMark Wolfinger left a comment disputing characterizing stock options as a zero sum game.  Mark’s comments were interesting (he certainly knows more about options than I do), and presented situations where stock options could be used effectively, however that wasn’t what I discussed in the article.  In that post I said that stock options were a) not for beginners and b) a zero-sum game.  This was taken as saying options are “bad”, which wasn’t at all what I wrote (or meant).

We sometimes get commenters who want to figure out which is the “right” investment strategy.  Cory recently commented on one of my posts that GICs have outperformed stocks over the last 10 years (I’m not 100% sure I even buy this, it’s probably ignoring dividend reinvestment, but let’s accept it at face value for the purpose of this post).  There’s another chestnut showing that you’d be better off buying beer, drinking them, then returning the cans for a refund instead of investing in the stock market.  These are true, for what they are, but they’re absolutely useless unless we have a time machine.  I don’t care whether GICs outperformed stocks over the last 10 years, I want to know if they will over the NEXT 10 years (and no one can know that).

There are people who have made fortunes with Multi-Level Marketting (probably by starting them), there are people who have lost big in passive investing.  Some have lost “safe” money when banks collapse, and others who have never lost a dime but have danced through one risky investment after another.  There are no absolutes (in investing or in life), and you’re wasting your time and money if you go looking for them.


Friends and Family as a Form of Insurance

I mentioned in a recent post how stories influence public policy. Social supports are sold on the idea of a poor downtrodden individual who has a run of bad luck, and putting a system in place to catch them before they hit bottom. It may be a woman with children trying to escape a cycle of abuse at the hands of her husband, a family just scraping by when a child is diagnosed with leukemia, or an immigrant family who runs a convenience store and one of the members is shot in a robbery (and they don’t have emotional support to deal with the aftermath).

You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted to say “screw them!” to people in any of these situations, and I think it’s VERY rare that anyone actually has that reaction. Most people I’ve known, from across the political spectrum, genuinely want to help people who are in a tough place. They often just differ on the best way to help them.

I often wonder how much the reality of the populations being served by these programs match the image they are sold on. I also wonder why none of these people have friends or family that can help them.

My personal “safety net” in order of desirability is: self-insurance, insurance, friends and family, and government programs. I’m fortunate that self-insurance takes care of most of the risks in my life (I’m single, so I don’t need life insurance, and as a grubby grad student disability insurance would be close to useless). The biggest risk for me currently would be liability involving my condo, and I have insurance that covers that (with a very high deductible).

If I ran into problems in my life that neither of these would take care of (say a prolonged serious illness that depleted my savings or that prevented me from taking care of myself) friends and family would be the next place I’d look for help. I have one friend I know for sure would take me in no matter what happened, and within my family there are two homes that would also put me up. Two other friends would certainly give me a place to stay for a short period (say a couple of months) while I got back on my feet from a temporary setback. When we talked about this once Mike jokingly said I could move in with him if I was willing to change dirty diapers.

So that gives me 5 homes I could potential depend on before I’d throw myself on the mercy of the state (and one place I could exchange diaper duty for rent). If an unpleasant person like me has that many options (I’d do the same for any of them, heck maybe *I’d* start wearing diapers if Mike moved in with me to give him something to do 😉 ) who I can count on if I fell into real trouble, who are these people who don’t have anyone? What kind of a SOB would you have to be to not have anyone to help you if you were living with abuse, an illness or the consequences of a criminal attack?

The purpose of this post isn’t to argue against government programs to help people in trouble. I often wish there was more transparency about who was being helped and how. The real point I’m getting at here is that your social network is one of the most valuable safety nets most of us have (and often we don’t considered it when thinking about “worst case scenarios”).

How many people in your life could you count on to take care of you if you fell into real trouble? How many people would you be willing to take care of?


You CAN Argue With Results!

swingersMike and Trent are in Las Vegas and Mike has just lost a hand of blackjack after Trent advised him to double down.

TRENT: I’m telling you, baby, you always double down on an eleven.

MIKE: Yeah? Well obviously not always!

TRENT: Always, baby.

MIKE: I’m just saying, not in this particular case.

TRENT: Always.

MIKE: But I lost! How can you say always?!?

Swingers (1996)

I’ve always been interested in how people learn and decide what is “truth”.  Often people use the wrong approach to determining what is correct and incorrect.

With social or science issues, often people are swayed by anecdotal evidence. If we’re looking to shape public policy or understand how people function as a group, we need to consider them at the group level.  It’s problematic for people, as we automatically relate to stories about individuals far more than statistics (that’s why McCain and Obama debated about “Joe the Plumber” and not about small businesses or the middle class).  However, as enticing as stories are, it’s incredibly misleading to allow ourselves to be swayed by this.

With philosophy or religion, we are often swayed by a charismatic person shaping our early views.  This is why children disproportionately share the religion of their parents:  our parents have a VERY large impact on us during our early years (and often for the rest of our lives).

With investments, they’re often judged by their results, which is also the wrong way to think about them.  In the lead in quote the characters Mike and Trent (from the movie “Swingers”) are arguing about this.  Trent is talking about the optimal strategy to play blackjack (based on probability), while Mike is talking about what actually just happened in the hand they played (the results).

“Decisions can only be evaluated based on what the decisionmaker knew at the time, not on results.” – John T. Reed

In “Landlording on Auto-pilot” the author suggests an investment strategy where you buy one property per month until you’ve bought 100 properties.  You allow these to appreciate for 4 years, then sell off 80 of the properties, pay off the mortgages on the remaining 20, then live off their income for the rest of your life.  It’s a great strategy, provided you can:

  • guarantee strong real-estate appreciation during the 12 years it would take to execute
  • have each property cover ALL its monthly expenses completely
  • not have any surprise emergency expenses (such as a roof leak or a water heart burst)

Any of these three is pretty close to impossible to pull off consistently (and would make you filthy rich if you could do so),  so to manage all 3 for 100 properties would be pretty damn impressive.

I don’t think the author is being intentionally misleading when he recommends this.  He’s probably had reasonably good luck during his accumulation phase and based on his results he recommends a VERY aggressive strategy (which is far more likely to ruin someone following it than lead them to riches).  Casey Serin was doing something along these lines and managed to get himself over 2 million dollars in debt and headed for bankruptcy.

I like Derek Foster, his books and his investing strategy.  HOWEVER, the justification he provides for his strategy is very much based on results.  He bought certain companies over a certain period of time and managed to retire at a very young age.  Would the same strategy work today?  Would it have worked then with a different set of stocks?  Will it work indefinitely into the future?  These aren’t easy questions, and a number of commentators have questioned this.  Again, I believe Derek Foster is sincere in his confidence in his investing strategy and is honestly trying to help fellow Canadians become better investors.  I think there’s a fair bit of good stuff in his books, and they helped me get the (limited) understanding I have of equities.  I also think bloggers and journalists have asked him some good questions (that haven’t all been answered).  The biggest danger would be if he got lucky picking the right strategy for the market we were in and his results may not be easy to repeat.

Some may ask “well, if their strategies don’t work why did these two guys make a lot of money doing it?”  The simplest answer is that the people whose strategies didn’t work aren’t writing books about it (surviorship bias – we’re only hearing about lucky ones).

The ultimate example of this may be the lottery winner who advocates winning the lottery as a retirement plan, since he made $30 million!  It’s true that it worked out for him, but what if it hadn’t?  Is it a good idea for the rest of us to try and follow in his footsteps?

One of my bonehead uncles (as always, I’ll point out that we’re only related by marriage) once made the assertion that after world war 2, Britain invested in rebuilding houses and in consumer goods, while post-war Germany was forced to invest in its industry (while the population continued to suffer from war damages).  He claims that the strong modern economy in Germany, compared to Britain, proves that this was the superior policy.  While I’d be willing to discuss the policy and it’s impact, it is an utterly IDIOTIC assertion to make that the relative strengths of their modern economies “prove” this point.  The two countries have radically different populations and geography, and have gone through over 60 years of a HUGE variety of differing policies.  If all we use to evaluate these policies is the current state of their economies, that would imply that EVERY SINGLE economic decision Germany has made since the war was correct (and EVERY SINGLE economic decision Britain has made was incorrect), since “Germany has the stronger modern economy”.  This is foolish.  Their economies were impacted (positively and negatively) by ALL these decisions (and a large number of other factors thrown in).

Similarly, with anything we want to judge “by its results”, we must consider not just the philosophy or general approach but the specific execution of the strategy, and the environment it worked in.


Changing the Deal

Bell and Rogers get a lot of bad press.  Ellen Roseman frequently posts problems customers have with both companies.  Some might argue that by virtue of their size, companies such as these will, by chance alone, have customers who accidentally get treated badly (unavoidable circumstances and all that).  That is, a small business with 400 customers can have, at most, 400 dissatisfied customers.  The majority of Canadians probably use Bell or Rogers, so they’ve got a lot more people to potentially tick off.  That being said, both companies seem to do a very good job of annoying customers.

I Hate Rogers and I Hate Bell are two sites that show the depths of customer dissatisfaction.  When people are making it a part time job to denounce your company, you know you’re generating a lot of ill will in the marketplace.

There are all sorts of things I dislike about both companies.  Bell lost me as a customer when no one showed up for a scheduled installation (and when I called them they’d lost all records of me and wanted to put me at the end of the queue and schedule an installation in 2 weeks, when I didn’t like this the rep flat out refused to let me speak to a manager).  Without fail the Bell sales reps have tried scummy tactics on my friends and I.  One called a friend and offered her a deal.  She asked if she could compare the numbers to what she was currently paying, and the rep told her that the offer was only good for that phone call (once they got off the phone it was no longer available).  She ran the numbers after the call, and what Bell was offering was a worse deal than she currently had.  One rep called me, and got my attention when, right off the bat, he said that Bell realized how badly they had messed up in the past and wanted to offer me a credit of $500 (to show they were serious about changing)  if I would reactivate my account with them.  After listening to his spiel, my final charge was going to be something like $64 dollars / month.  I asked the guy “so with my $500 credit, I won’t be paying anything for over 6 months?” to which he responded, “no, you’ll be paying every month, the $64 is after the credit has been applied”.  “Wait a second” protested Mr. Cheap, “that’s a discount, not a credit”.  After he apologized for “misspeaking” I told him scummy tricks like that are the reason I won’t do business with Bell and asked him to please take me off whatever list they have me on.

This shows, through my weakness of character, how these companies keep getting away with it.  We’re suckers for a good deal (myself more than anyone), and we should be saying “enough, no more from either of these companies”.  Instead, when they offer a good enough deal we get tempted to give them another chance and start listening again.  People complain about the poor service of airlines these days, but we’ve driven them to deliver this service by usually choosing the low-cost carrier (it has been more profitable for them to cut prices than maintain or expand services).

The one thing both companies do that drives me NUTS is changing the deal.  They quote you a price for service which is, without fail, a “promotion”.  People who live their lives caring about something other than managing their phone service plan inevitably have the promotion end, and their bill jacked up.  I’ve never had a problem getting them to put me on a new promotion, and getting them to retroactively adjust the bill, but it annoys me that they try to change the deal, hope the customer doesn’t notice (or care enough to argue it), and make you wait on hold and sort it out again every six months.  Thicken My Wallet once wisely wrote that the financial industry preys on inertia (perhaps it’s all large companies).  I imagine that they make large profits from customers who get sick of sorting it out repeatedly and just resign themselves to paying the high rate (as Bell and Rogers keep stealing customers from one another, then playing the same game).

I don’t expect a service price to be set in stone forever, but telecommunications has been getting CHEAPER to deliver, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have a set price for service (or to adjust the price in line with inflation, instead of jumping it up 25% or so like they love to do).  I feel bad taking out my frustration on the call center reps (who have nothing to do with the company policies), but I think at it’s heart this is just bad business.  They’ve traded short term profits for becoming two of the most hated companies in Canada.  I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone with real affection for either company.

I’ve switched my long distance to Yak, and if things go well my phone and internet service may follow (I’m also *still* considering TekSavvy:  see what Thicken My Wallet means by preying on inertia, 6 months later and I’m still sitting on the fence!).  I know at 3.5 cents a minute in Canada and the US they certainly aren’t the cheapest, but I like their philosophy of no contracts, promotional pricing or hidden fees.  The one thing I don’t like is they call their high usage plan “unlimited”, which it’s actually 1500 minutes per month.  25 hours per month is a lot of time, but VERY far from unlimited (you’d go over it by talking an hour a day, which doesn’t seem crazy excessive to me).

How have your experiences been with Bell and Rogers?  What alternative companies do you prefer to either of them?


South Park: Margaritaville

Sorry to our readers who got a VERY early edition of this post in their RSS feed.  Mr. Cheap accidentally hit “Publish” when he meant to hit “Save”.


Margaritaville” (originally airing March 25, 2009) was the 3rd episode of the 13th season of South Park and it provided an amusing perspective on the current financial crisis.   After various prophets each try to explain the reason for the current crisis (one blames low interest rates, another blames corporate greedy, while Cartman, of course, blames “the jews”), Randy (Stan’s dad) wins approval by explaining that the citizens of South Park have angered “the economy” by mocking it (and it has, in turn, cast its vengeance upon them all).  Channeling Mr. Cheap, he advises:

Yea, it is an angry and unforgiving Economy. To repent we must stop frivolous spending! Instead of paying for cable let us watch clouds! Instead of buying clothes, wear but sheets from thine beds! Cut spending to only the bare essentials! Water and bread and margaritas, yea.

Meanwhile Stan decides to try to return his father’s margarita maker, which stands as a proxy for mortgages-backed securities, and traces it through the retailer, lender, stock broker, and ultimately to the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington (where he discovers how political decisions are REALLY made).

You can watch the episode on-line (legally) at (in the US) or (in Canada).  Viewers outside the US and Canada may try to watch it here, and if you’d rather read it then watch it, check out the scriptWARNING: South Park’s humour can be fairly edgey (Mr. Hankey makes me feel a little nauseous whenever he’s on the screen), and it might not be to everyone’s taste.