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Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down

26 replies on 2 pages. Most recent reply: Apr 13, 2004 1:49 PM by Matt Gerrans

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Matt Gerrans

Posts: 1152
Nickname: matt
Registered: Feb, 2002

Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Apr 13, 2004 1:49 PM
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Summary
Why do we believe that computers have made us more efficient and productive? Is it really so, or just wishful thinking?
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Modern technology is a boon to worker productivity, right? If this is so, why do so many people in the tech industry work ridiculous hours?

I've pondered this question numerous times in the past, but what really brought to mind recently was an interesting example of centuries-old technology proving itself yet again.

I did my taxes with a program called TaxCut this weekend (I had used TurboTax for many years, but their incredibly user-unfriendly and buggy web torture system forced me to switch this year -- a story for another rant). When I finally got through all the mind-numbing details and time-wasting stupidity that is our tax system, the software asked me whether I want to file online, or print out the documents and mail them.

It tells me that doing it online is more error-free, efficient and easy and it only cost $14.95. I'm sold! ...Wait a minute. $14.95? Why?

I can have someone come to my house and pick up the papers and deliver them for only 2% of that cost. (Looking at it from the other direction, filing electronically is 4,142% more expensive). More efficient? If it is more efficient, they should be able to charge less than the old technology and still make a tidy profit. What a boondoggle!


Greg Jorgensen

Posts: 65
Nickname: gregjor
Registered: Feb, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 14, 2004 6:29 AM
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Quite a few retail stores have paralyzed their customer service staff with technology. My wife and I stood in line this evening at an understaffed Home Depot while the checker serving the customer in front of us tried to get a price for some piece of molding that wouldn't scan. Remember when they just put price tags on stuff?

We moved over to the self-service checkout machine, but it didn't like our custom cut blinds. I assume it was because the weight in the computerized inventory system didn't match the weight after we had six inches cut off.

At a place as big as a typical Home Depot a price check can take several minutes. And it's low-tech: the checker shows the item to a random staffer who then tries to find the item on the shelf, and if they find it they write the bar code number down or bring another one to scan. If the item is not in the computer system you can wait a long time. I once walked away from a Rite Aid checkout line when the manager brought over a huge bound computer printout of their inventory and tried to find the unscannable item I had picked up -- which cost less than $3.

I prefer to shop at the Fred Meyer stores here in Oregon because if an item won't scan and it's obviously not expensive the clerk will either take your word for the price or give it to you for some small amount: they believe moving the customers through and keeping them happy is worth more than bending over for the computer system every ten minutes.

Greg Jorgensen

Jason Yip

Posts: 31
Nickname: jchyip
Registered: Mar, 2003

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 14, 2004 7:03 AM
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I'd say "Things that Work" beats "Things that don't Work" and it's not always just high tech versus low tech.

Michael Feathers

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Nickname: mfeathers
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 14, 2004 8:42 AM
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> the software asked me whether I want to file online, or
> print out the documents and mail them.</p>
> <p>It tells me that doing it online is more error-free,
> efficient and easy and it only cost $14.95. I'm sold!
> ...Wait a minute. $14.95? Why?</p>
> <p>I can have someone come to my house and pick up the
> papers and deliver them for only 2% of that cost.
> (Looking at it from the other direction, filing
> ng electronically is 4,142% more expensive). More
> efficient? If it is more efficient, they should be able
> to charge <em>less</em> than the old technology and still
> make a tidy profit. What a boondoggle!</p>

It's less about technology and more about economics. They want you to pay for the convenience of doing it right now and not having to remember to send it in yourself. For some people that might be worth it. They've set a pretty high price, but I'll bet there are some takers.

To me, this is sort of like the fast food drink dilemma. You can buy a small drink for $X and fill it a couple of times yourself, or pay more for the bigger cup and only have to fill it once. The price difference is based on on how you value your convenience, not the amount of drink you actually consume.

Stephen Warner

Posts: 1
Nickname: warners525
Registered: Apr, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 15, 2004 7:52 AM
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I was one of those who decided to file electronically. What got me to shake my head even more than the high fees for eletronic filing was the additional $19.95 you would be charged if you wanted your fee deducted from your refund rather than being charged to a credit card. I guess the name of the game is how many ways can we extract money from the consumer? The more unsuspecting the consumer the better.

Jeroen Wenting

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Nickname: jwenting
Registered: Mar, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 16, 2004 8:51 AM
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> At a place as big as a typical Home Depot a price check
> can take several minutes. And it's low-tech: the checker
> shows the item to a random staffer who then tries to find
> the item on the shelf, and if they find it they write the
> bar code number down or bring another one to scan. If the
> item is not in the computer system you can wait a long
> time. I once walked away from a Rite Aid checkout line
> when the manager brought over a huge bound computer
> printout of their inventory and tried to find the
> unscannable item I had picked up -- which cost less than
> $3.
>
You were lucky there was a manager and they didn't have to call headquarters and wait for someone to look up the item there.
It's not so much about IT as it is about procedures.
Give the person a terminal where (s)he can look up those prices himself in the central system and you're set but that might be too expensive...

> I prefer to shop at the Fred Meyer stores here in Oregon
> because if an item won't scan and it's obviously not
> expensive the clerk will either take your word for the
> price or give it to you for some small amount: they
> believe moving the customers through and keeping them
> happy is worth more than bending over for the computer
> system every ten minutes.
The small store advantage. The person behind the counter at the large store doesn't have that authority, she'd have to call the manager to ask permission to charge a price that's not in the database...
I've encountered situations where the person at the checkout counter wasn't even allowed to correct her own mistakes. She'd mistakenly scanned an item twice and had to wait several minutes until a manager appeared with a key to undo the change.
Can't blame technology for that either, it's procedure.

Tech CAN be used in a way that decreases productivity, but more often than not it's used as an excuse for procedural problems in the company.
The Home Depot clerk probably had to call his supervisor in the past too when a pricetag was missing while the one at Fred Meyer would just charge something reasonable.
Tech didn't change that, but did increase the working speed for both equally during standard operations...

twc

Posts: 129
Nickname: twc
Registered: Feb, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 16, 2004 3:10 PM
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I'm a teacher, and for various reasons have become the electronic gradebook guru for my school. When someone asks me about electronic gradebooks I always caution them that it won't save them any time, and in fact will probably require more time. What it does is allow them to do things that would have been impractical before - like printing out complete grade summaries for parents at open house, or posting grades on a (secure) website.

That, IMHO, is where the added productivity comes from. You can't do what you have always done in less time, but you can do more in about the same amount of time.

twc

Greg Jorgensen

Posts: 65
Nickname: gregjor
Registered: Feb, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 17, 2004 8:56 PM
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Not to pick nits, but:

re RiteAid: "Give the person a terminal where (s)he can look up those prices himself in the central system and you're set but that might be too expensive..."

That's what the barcode scanners are -- terminals that look prices up in the central system. The problem is RiteAid stocks things that aren't in their central computer, or have wrong bar codes. The only recourse seems to be looking the item up by name in a big printout. I don't know if they ever found it -- I gave up and left. My point is that a regular price tag would at least let them make a sale and keep customers happy, although it would not reconcile with their already wrong inventory system.

re Fred Meyer: "The small store advantage. The person behind the counter at the large store doesn't have that authority, she'd have to call the manager to ask permission to charge a price that's not in the database..."

Fred Meyer IS a big store... they are a large chain (now owned by Kroger), with stores in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, northern California, maybe elsewhere. In Portland the Fred Meyer stores are bigger than Safeway or Albertsons.

RiteAid has gone with a technology or nothing solution: if their computer system is down or something won't scan they can't complete the sale. Fred Meyer has chosen to keep customers happy whether their technology works or not. Neither store puts price tags on their products. Home Depot seems to be following the RiteAid model: make customers stand around indefinitely while computer problems are resolved.

Greg Jorgensen

Todd Blanchard

Posts: 316
Nickname: tblanchard
Registered: May, 2003

Fuzzy economics Posted: Apr 17, 2004 11:14 PM
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the software asked me whether I want to file online, or print out the documents and mail them.

It tells me that doing it online is more error-free, efficient and easy and it only cost $14.95. I'm sold! ...Wait a minute. $14.95? Why?


Because time is money. My tax return with associated schedules and supporting documentation is something like 30 pages. Estimated time to print, envelop, address, and post the papers is probably at least an hour and more likely closer to 3 hours if you have to run to the post office. At billable rates of $50 per hour for the average developer, you have to be able to get it all done in 12 minutes to be ahead. The eFile took less than 60 seconds to do.

While you're at it, consider that your refund is likely to show up at least 2 to 4 weeks sooner if you file electronically and it begins to look like a deal if you're getting a sizable refund. Suppose a refund of $1000. 1.5% is $15. About the same as the cost of charging the same amount to a credit card for a month.

Perhaps you need to look more carefully at the total cost - time and time value of missing money.

OTOH, if you owe money, heck yeah, file using a crayon and 12th generation xerox copies. That'll slow down the processing nicely.

David Kerr

Posts: 2
Nickname: dicky
Registered: Mar, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Apr 19, 2004 7:00 AM
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Here in the UK, things are different, if you file on-line, nothing is charged, effectively it is cheaper to file on-line (no postage, time with forms, etc).

Clearly, the taxmen benefit (as well as us taxpayers) because a lot of the clerical issues are automatically taken care of.

Filing takes under a minute.

This situation is like budget airlines, utilities, etc that prefer you to interact on-line; a well developed system will reduce their staff costs.

Matt Gerrans

Posts: 1152
Nickname: matt
Registered: Feb, 2002

Re: Fuzzy economics Posted: Apr 19, 2004 6:49 PM
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Fuzzy economics...Because time is money...

That's using the same argument that an erstwhile telco monopoly used, to charge people extra for upgrading to DTMF, when it was more expensive for the company to maintain support for pulsecode.

As David points out, it is not just a benefit to me, the taxpayer, it is better for everyone. So why is it being used as a vehicle to wrest more cash from my freshly pillaged coffers? I think the answer is quite simply one of perception; when more people learn that they shouldn't stand for being swindled in this way, it will cease. (Hmm... perhaps this is an unexploited niche: tax software from a company that respects it customers!?)

As it turns out, I did opt to file online, in spite of the $15 federal plus $13 state filing fees. I was foiled by the software, though. In addition to the standard error and warning check, it ran additional checks it ran if you are filing online. These checks failed for the California (which also cleverly prevented the federal forms from being electronicially filed) with a message to the effect "Either line 1 or line 2 (of a particular Calfornia form) must have a value -- they cannot both be 0." (No word there, in the help or anywhere else that I could find that said why this was so.) If you try to edit line 1, it says this is an automatically calculated based on federal forms and if you change it, electronic filing will be disallowed. Looking up the help for this pointed to a federal form I had not even filled out! So I tried tweaking line 2 (after reading up on it, I still didn't understand what it was about); putting a 1 in there didn't solve the problem. Putting a 44 did the trick. At that point, I could have filed online, but I felt uneasy about filing with this bogus number in there, so I printed out the paper. In the end, I lost plenty of billable hours (and endured plenty of pain and suffering) doing battle with the software before capitulating.

I was not missing the point that "time is money" (even though I don't really agree with that cliche, despite the cute Far Side cartoon that provided the "proof"). I was trying to point out a case where corporations, instead of using technology to provide better service to their customers, use it as a gimic to wring more money out of them. After all, I already paid for the tax software. Why isn't the electronic filing free? Or at least, less than the cost of a postage stamp? Amazon doesn't charge me an extra "electronic transaction fee" for buying books online (yes, there are shipping and handling changes, but that is a different thing).

Jennifer Shuffelt

Posts: 1
Nickname: jennie8nt2
Registered: May, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: May 6, 2004 9:00 PM
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Matt:

I would like to ask about your intentions when programming files for HP such as KillWind, Terminator, etc.

My mother has an HP - she was told after a scan that she had a virus in her HP/bin folder. This has caused her enough stress that she would like to throw her computer out. I have researched many articles and discussion boards regarding this issue - some say you have a great sense of humor. I feel it was a poor judgment – especially when it comes to individuals who are already nervous about sharing information over the internet. It has taken me several years to talk my mother into getting modern – she had a general fear of technology – it took her just as long to get a VCR!

I would like to suppress my mothers fears and delete these files from her system, and since you were the designer of these files I would appreciate your help in doing so safely along with any other files that are not needed and have scripting such as “will destroy and assassinate all window files and components”.

For a man with an educated rhetoric and articulation skill; one that has rewarded you a “spot” on a technical web-site I am appalled at the content of the property values within your files. Please advise me on the possible deletion and the importance of these files.

Thank you for your time and prompt attention to this matter. The quicker I can solve this the better off my mother will feel.

Jennifer

Ron Bergeron

Posts: 2
Nickname: rontron
Registered: Jun, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Jun 13, 2004 2:23 AM
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I bought a used HP Pavilion that has always been buggy. I found 4 files, authored by Matt Gerrans, doing business as Key Concepts Inc. that promise to corrupt any windows operating system. They are called ProcKill-T, Terminator and other ill-meaning names. They cannot be cleaned, deleted or quarantined. They badly corrupt my system. They were installed around 1999 in the C:\_RESTORE\TEMP\A010ETC.

Matt, if you wrote this malicious code, I need to know how to get rid of it without losing all my files. The California Attorney General and your former employers at HP may be very interested in this issue also.

I shall give you the benefit of the doubt and assume someone has used your good name to wreak this time-wasting havoc. I shall further assume you've been cleared of any wrongdoing and that a fix is available.

If, in fact, you are the author of the malicious code, I will not rest till I see you stand before a judge to answer for your misconduct.

If any other readers have any info on this HP problem, please inform me. If I'm wrong I'll readily admit it.

Thank you

Rontron

Ron Bergeron

Posts: 2
Nickname: rontron
Registered: Jun, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Jun 13, 2004 2:31 AM
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I wrote my assertions to Matt Gerrans before I read your note. The KillWind, ProcKill and Terminator promise to make users waste a lot of time.
I also want to know how to get rid of them, what good effect (if any) they have etc.

Thanks Jennifer. Matt Gerrans has a lot of explaining to do.

kenneth wohler

Posts: 1
Nickname: coalmover
Registered: Jul, 2004

Re: Low Tech Beats High Tech, Hands Down Posted: Jul 13, 2004 8:28 AM
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I also have the same problems with those HP programs
i have been searching a long time for some answers
it is refreshing to hear someone else is fighting for answers also
thanks jen and ron for the informative posts
looking forward for a fix to this problem

thanks again
coalmover

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