January 2010 - Posts
One of the many fun things about travelling around the world is finding out the rather different way people do common tasks.
Surprises abound, even with something as prosaic as saying "Back in 5 Minutes."
At least, that's what I assume this meant in a Chinese mall.
Similarly, the sales staff embrace different sales tactics, particularly depending on where you find yourself. There were three examples which stood out.
Hard ball haggling
At most markets and stores were haggling can happen, it's traditional for salespeople to lower their last price if you're walking away after a bit of haggling.
How odd to have the staff who will play hardball. You try and get a better price, but they don't want to budge.
So you leave - and they call after you twice, each time saying, "no, I'm not lowering the price any lower."
Sure, well thanks. Your sales pitch adds nothing to the conversation, bye. You walk away a third time only to get called again. "Ok, fine, we'll lower it."
Yay for persistence, I suppose. But on whose part in this case?
I've heard "no matter what, they're still making money." And that's no doubt true. But knowing that fact doesn't diminish the feeling of experiencing pure "win" when you are proved to be sufficiently stubborn to force some savings out of an immovable vendor.
Also pure win: the mandatory Santa Hat deployments in many stores.
When you're a male buying just about anything, you'll eventually encounter something a bit bizarre: the sales ladies' unique brand of flattery.
Big accounting firms talk a big story about the value you get from their consulting services. And sure, they do important, valuable work, but they're simply unable to compare with the tactics used to sell a jacket.
"You could be a model," they say.
That's not enough, of course.
They'll back up their words by smoothing out any wrinkles, and then - wait, what?
You feel a bit weird - "that was suspiciously close to feeling like a massage rather than a mere smoothing out of wrinkles. Do you not think this very pretty young woman I'm standing with who happens to be translating your Cantonese sales pitch into English for me might get a little jealous or something?"
Maybe she would be jealous too, if it wasn't for the fact that she almost fell over laughing so hard at what followed next.
Ignoring your prattling in English about how weird this is all getting, the expert sales staff continue to point out how nice you look in the mirror.
Next, they'll open up their product catalog, point to the model wearing the same outfit, and add "no really, you look great, just like this model in the photo."
Perhaps I do look great. But my judgment is now horribly clouded, so how should we continue?
Particularly if this is one of those stores where haggling isn't even permitted? Where's the fun in that?
Perhaps by fleeing with our wallet unopened?
You've successfully escaped what you later realize was an excellent sales tactic to use on people who aren't paying attention to their own thoughts.
To answer your question, I didn't end up buying that particular jacket. That's because I was paying attention to the oddly effective sales pitch they were attempting.
Picking up on "subtle hard sells" is no doubt a skill you gain as you complete your CA training, or which you naturally acquire as an achievement from going on a few dozen such missions. Another skill an experienced CA gains when they hit the rank of senior managers is the ability to walk through walls, I'm told, but that's an urban legend to discuss another day.
The search for a good jacket ended well though: we found a much better one in an outlet store in Hong Kong a week later. And it being an outlet store, the sales staff only had one function: to discourage you from trying on the clothes.
Don't worry, it'll fit
Aside from being treated like a living mannequin, the third strangest quirk on display was the phenomenon of stores where "Fitting is forbidden."
Perhaps it's not unique to the region, but rather something I'm simply not used to, having been raised and spoiled in decadent Canada.
Fortunately, I immediately learned about one of the crucial loopholes: the rule does not apply, of course, if you're sneaky enough to find a corner to try on the item where they can't see you.
"Oh good it fits and I didn't get scolded for confirming that fact, time to buy," is hopefully the end state of this exercise.
I managed just that, found deals which were, of course, fantastic, and just this past weekend the jacket kept me toasty warm in -19 weather, which means that this inadvertent cultural immersion program was a great success.
Completely random promotion: check out My Life is Polish - the site is hilarious, particularly if you are of Polish descent.
If you're not, I recommend keeping a bookmark to Google Translate's Polish to English engine to get some of the
jokes painfully true stories.
Example: Today, my mom poured water into our shampoo bottle and said "no to wystarczy do konca tygodnia". MLIP"
The "punchline", automatically translated by Google is "no it is sufficient to the end of the week".
Close, Google, but the correct translation would be "now it will last until the end of the week."
You get the idea regardless, but I submitted a correction to Google anyway. It'll be interesting to see if they fix it down the road.
Some work even if you don't speak the language though: "Today,
I realized that all of my closest friends have been forced to memorize
at least 3 words in polish. By me. I quiz them every couple of weeks
and get angry when they don't get them right. MLIP".
And others will teach you a little about how the language works: "Today, I realized my cats names all magically turned Polish even after
giving them Americanized names. Marley has turned into Marlenka and
Ivan is now Ivanek Gegusz Malutki, there's also one named Bushka. MLIP"
Yet another set of categories serves to highlight the wonderful customs people have come to know and love: "Today, i was sleeping over at my friends house and i kept saying im not
hungry. 10 mins later her mom brings in a plate of little kanapki.
Never underestimate a polish woman when it comes to food. MLIP"
Is this a classier Polish version of FML? Absolutely. And it works marvelously.
Bonus "better translation by me" for you to enjoy: "Today,
My friend asked me out to "studniowka" ( POLISH PROM) . Excited i told
my mom about it. Her response " jak to ciebie zaprosil? nie zna innej
dziewczyny!!!" Thanks mom for caring :) MLIP"
The response was, "Why did he invite you? Does he not know any other girls?"
I once alluded to instances of ignorant rants being granted precious space in newspapers. The most recent guilty party was written by a Toronto Sun columnist who misunderstands what "smart meters" are supposed to accomplish.
Before you ask why I bothered with the Sun, I must explain that I'm willing to read pretty much any newspaper if you give it to me for free. It's in some ways a bad habit, although I've learned to fight it by skimming over the worst whiners.
I'm exposed to enough poorly thought out thought processes as it stands when I travel by air.
Who was, after all, the genius
who designed this sign at O'Hare?
Closer to home, an angry letter writer lauded this column, blasting the provincial government of Ontario for having the audacity to try and get people to conserve energy for all the right reasons. The angry protests about forthcoming doom caused by power prices going up by a fraction of a penny was simply too much to take.
Let's not talk about whether we're under-paying for our electricity in Ontario, though, I have a more important point to make: we're often overpaying for power, and smart meters are here to help.
Columnist Lorrie Goldstein should instead have realized that the "smart meters", by charging you different amounts of money depending on the time of day you are using electricity, shine a spotlight on a simple fact: many of us are paying too much for our electricity.
His false condemnations, and the collapse of his argument, stems from his failure to understand the basic principles of how our electricity system works. Try to avoid reading the comments to his post, where people feel free to prance along on his merry dance of ignorance, because it's depressing.
We all pay for power plants that are not used at their full capacity for the majority of the year.
The following links provide the real life facts, from a couple of the many websites that track, manage and operate our power grids.
- First, the New York's ISO - kind people running New York State's power grid presents information in the bottom right corner with the current price of NY's power, plus how much power is being used. Late at night when people are already asleep, New York State uses around 14,000 MW - megawatts. This shoots up to over 20,000 MW later in the day. If you have friends who study or work in this field, you can easily learn to interpret the technical data that's publicly shared on the site.
- Ontario has its own equivalent of the NYISO, the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator) which provides an even more elegant graph which presents the same kind of stats on power demand. You may note that, interestingly enough, that Ontario's load happens to be similar to that of New York State. The IESO page also shows a demand graph for the entire day - both the forecasts, and the actual demand. Dig a little and you'll find many more graphs, showing trends in pricing too.
When you're done digging through those stats, remember that you've learned something very important: there is a very obvious "peak" period when most, if not all power plants in a given region have to run to keep up with our demand.
But, it represents only a short period out of the entire day.
And this is where Goldstein fell on his face: he neglected to address the fact that there is a difference of sometimes double the amount of power being used between the low and high use periods.
As you can imagine, we keep a giant reserve of spare power plants that are idle during low demand periods, which then fire up during the "peak"
demand period when
everyone's lighting up their lamps and computers, or working in factories.
Does that "spare capacity" cost us? Naturally, yes it does.
If we got more people to use power earlier in the day - and therefore reduce the size of that "peak" - would it mean we would need less power plants?
So how do you save money? By building fewer new plants, not having as
many people staffing them, and not having to sell off so much of your
power at "discount" prices because you're using it more consistently
throughout the day.
With "smart" appliances the near future promises us devices which will
work harder when power is cheaper and cut back on their compressors,
motors and chargers when costs are high. Having your air conditioner
work at a lower speed or simply shut off while power prices are at a
"high point" would go a long way towards helping power producers manage
their supplies more effectively. This being a free society, no one's
going to stop you from running your A/C at full blast if you really
insist, but you'll be charged a fair price for putting a strain on the
system when it can least handle it.
Would this create a "new" peak period? Not likely: although you would see a "smoother" demand curve, there will always be plenty of activities which we'll all tend to perform during peak periods - like firing up stoves to cook dinner and running those aforementioned air conditioners - which simply can't be "shifted" to low demand periods.
Will it take time for those savings to percolate through?
Yes - but you're old enough to know that there wouldn't be an automatic magic change in everything, right?
All those fantastic concepts will take time to take effect: we don't blow up a hundred power plants overnight, nor do we replace all our appliances in a a few days simply because we have a great new idea.
The changes take time, and there will be growing pains as people shift and adapt their power consumption habits.
Before anyone at the Sun starts yelping that this is in some way "unfair," tell me this: how is it fair that people who use power late at night - when the price of power is as cheap as a penny or less - have to still pay the full 5 or 8 cent price for their power?
It's shameful that people chose to score cheap political points over trying to help the planet - and local economies - by instead making intellectually bankrupt arguments such as the following quote from his column: "In a sane world, we’d be paying less for electricity now because the
recession has blunted demand and when demand goes down and supply goes
up, prices should fall."
By this point you realize why that shallow sentence makes no sense: anyone with a basic knowledge of economics - or common sense - knows that power plants have "fixed costs." Yes, you're burning less coal when the power plants are not running at 100% or even if they're off, but you still have employees who keep that building operational. You still have repairs and maintenance bills even if it's turned off! And nuclear reactors simply don't get turned on and off like a light switch. Starting those generators up is a messy, complicated and expensive process which operators avoid as much as possible.
The power mix in Ontario, which the IESO website displays on its main page as well as in handy chart form, is composed of different types of generators that are easier and harder to "control". So the neat and tidy "sane" world which Goldstein calls for is indeed on the way - but it'll take time to get there: the province has long term plans to introduce more 'fleixible' power plants which can switch on and of at lower costs, but our desire to control costs and deficits also means construction will not take place overnight either.
Now you inadvertently know the basics about smart meters - so if a question on this topic appears on the UFE, and this being a popular topic in the news, it very well could! - don't get bogged down in these details.
You'll just need to explain the accounting issues. Which'll be simple since they all started to pop up in the back of your mind as your read through this, right?
And by "vitamins" I mean, "topics to write about."
I had a very good university professor who shared opinion pieces and rants to the editor which were full of flaws - usually due the fact that the people submitting the articles did not have a clue about what they were talking about.
After we saw one particularly egregious example, I asked if he considered writing a letter to the editor pointing out the mistakes.
The answer was no, "life's too short."
And once you're a professor with tenure, flying to your country's capital on a weekly basis to testify before Senate committees on This Important Topic and That Giant Failure Committee, it makes sense.
As a student, I had time to complain, and writing poured forth.
These days I'm starting to pick my battles more, but sometimes you'll see that completely insane rant that screams to you, "this is stupid, and the many levels of "wrong" must be exposed with the burning light of knowledge and wisdom."
Kind of the like the Bat of Knowledge and the "You will learn" catchphrase from this site.
I've decided it makes sense, in terms of writing style, it makes sense to separate the introductory rant from the intelligent arguments, so look forward to an electrifying part two, where the failure is exposed in a cascade of knowledge.
Every December, about a quarter or a fifth of the UFE writers from the previous September get the bad news - despite their best efforts, they didn't pass the exam.
It sucks, but there's no reason to give up.
Much advice will then flow forth, and one of the most repeated points - "figure out what went wrong" - will mean more than just asking yourself, "what happened during the three days of the exam?"
Equally important, if not moreso, if figuring out what happened before the exam.
Speaking very broadly, you have two groups - the people who studied the "right way", and people who studied the "wrong way."
Figuring out which group you 'belong' to can help you debrief what went wrong.
I'm not really sure what they're trying to warn you about doing with that cable car.
If you studied the "right way" - with a study buddy marking your cases, following a well-planned schedule up to the exam, avoiding spending too much or too little time, refreshing your "learning points" from earlier mistakes - and still failed, then odds are something went wrong during the exam. Reviewing what you did at the exam hall itself - were you distracted or just plain unlucky? - will probably be the focus of your debriefing.
On the other hand, if you studied the "wrong way" it can be both easier fix the more 'obvious' structural programs, and sometimes harder to admit.
Ask yourself if you did all the things the "right way" first: and be brutally honest with yourself, because lying to yourself, to paraphrase the cliche goes, doesn't help you at all.
If you studied too hard and burned out, was that because your plan was too aggressive, you didn't follow the plan, or didn't have one in the first place?
If you had a study buddy or a study group - did they help you, or were there problems that made it hard for you to concentrate?
Did other factors interrupt your studying - were you too worried about work, personal issues or other problems? Solve those problems before you try and study - if you can't, this will be a difficult stumbling block to overcome. The solution will of course depend on what kind of problem you're facing. If you lost your job, accept the fact it's gone, and focus on the exam. If you can't, it might actually be best to defer writing the exam and focus on resolving your problems first, instead of mixing your attention, which is just a recipe for catastrophe, of UFE-tastic-proportions.
Or did you just not study hard enough - not take the exam seriously enough?
Some people think they'll "wing it" the way they managed to in university. If you fell into this group, realize it fast - and accept the fact you're going to have to change
your approach next year. A lucky few may fluke through this way, but
this is probably one of the most common ways for someone to flub the
exam in their first year.
These questions were inspired by the the discussion board at My CA Site discussing for more details on re-writing the UFE - check out that conversation for more details, or feel free to click here to leave comments.