Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The Last Jedi review

I think Star Wars is played out. There is simply nothing else that you can do with this universe that hasn’t been done already, and zero effort is being put in to creating new and compelling stories. Or at least this is the feeling I got viewing The Last Jedi…. Episode VIII is a disappointment. It carries over all of the things that were a let-down about The Force Awakens, and adds little to the greater Star Wars mythos.

Spoilers ahead!

The Last Jedi Logo


Main Premise is stupid

The main plot is a contrivance that makes absolutely no sense.

Ok, so the Rebel fleet is running out of fuel and can’t make a light speed jump because they can be tracked and would then be unable to escape when they reach their destination. They can accelerate outside of the range of the perusing First Order fleet, and can then stay out of range, using sub light engines because the Rebel ships are smaller, and can accelerate quicker. The clock is now ticking to find a way out of the situation before fuel runs out.

Star destoryer keeping up with Leia's Corellian corvette.
Star destroyer keeps up with Leia's Corellian Covette
I call bullshit. Even  ignoring the fact that star destroyers had no issue keeping up with a Corellian corvette at the beginning of A New Hope, or catching up with the Millennium Falcon in Empire, and so should have easily kept up with a lumbering Mon Calamari cruiser, the First Order had heaps of options to catch the fleet.

Launching a wave of TIE bombers? There would have been several squadrons available. Firing torpedoes?

Or how about just going faster? The resistance fleet is running out of fuel, but the First Order Fleet isn’t… How about making a light speed jump to simply catch up? Or hell, what not use some actual tactics and hyperjump a star destroyer on either side of the resistance fleet, one ahead of the fleet to slow it down, and Snoke’s ship directly behind, and then open fire with a massive concentrated volley on all sides?

Ok, they wanted a cat and mouse scenario. But there was no tension. The whole premise felt really forced, and really unbelievable. It was literally just waiting for the clock to run out.

And not to mention this is the Rebel fleet we are talking about! These same admirals, capital ships, and star fighters stood against a massive fleet of star destroyers and a death star at Endor, AND WON. They were feared by the Empire to the point that they scoured the galaxy to wipe them out, and stood up to everything the Empire threw at them. The same fleet that was so effective at guerrilla tactics and subterfuge that the Empire committed the last remaining Jedi to hunt them down as his primary mission.

This heroic fleet didn’t go down in a blaze of glory - capital ship versus capital ship, in a battle of tactics, standing until the last in a heroic showdown protecting what was left of freedom in the galaxy.

Nope… Instead the freaking Rebel fleet was defeated because it literally ran out of gas. 

And why would the entire fleet run out of fuel at the same time anyway? Do the resistance refuel all their ships at exactly the same time to share a discount coupon or something?

What we got was boring and a let-down.

The First Order Strikes Back…

The Empire Strikes Back is perhaps the best sequel ever made. Clearly Rian Johnson agrees, as The Last Jedi is once again a remake. It’s not a blatant retelling like The Force Awaken was of a New Hope, but it hits all the major points. Zero effort was put into tell a new story.

The education of Rey as a Jedi is the prime example.
Luke faces Vader in the Dagobah dark side cave.
Luke faces his dark side trial on Dagobah
  • The protagonist has to enlist the help of a reclusive Jedi master who has put himself into exile in what is a difficult environment that hides their location.
  • The purpose of this exile is partly as a penance for a wrong they feel they committed.
  • The master is reluctant to take on the protagonist as a learner, feeling they are undisciplined and perhaps already influenced by the dark side.
  • The protagonist enters a cave strong in the dark side of the force that tests their resolve. Both encounters end with the protagonist seeing a reflection of themselves in the dark side.
  • After failing to control their emotions, and failing to prove their rejection of the dark side, the protagonist leaves the training without having completed it to help their friends. 
  • After the protagonist leaves master is visited by the ghost of an old ally.

Meanwhile our hero’s, having become separated from the Rebel fleet, have decided to enlist
the help of a gambler and criminal who is a major player at an upmarket establishment. They end up being double crossed and captured.

And it goes on. Both films begin with the Rebels scrambling to evacuate their base while under fire from the Empire / first order. The Hoth AT-AT walker ground attack is reproduced, complete with frontal assault by atmosphere based fighters with defence handled by entrenched ground troops….

And, once again, this film is king of the call backs. Luke’s submerged X-wing. Yoda. “Rebel Scum”. Blue milk. Emperors guards. Jedi master sacrifices himself for the others to escape. Luke looks longingly at the twin suns. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Still nothing is explained

My biggest complaint about The Force Awakens was that it lacked a lot of exposition to bring the audience up to speed with the state of the Republic in this new trilogy and, as a result, felt confused and out of place with the established Star Wars universe. The Last Jedi doubles down on this, and makes no real attempts to explain anything of the premise.

A key example; assuming that the resistance is a direct continuation of the previous rebel forces – and it almost certainly is, being that they employ all the leadership of that organisation, many of the ships, and they outright drop the ‘resistance’ moniker by the end of the film in favour of rebellion – then  why is the fleet so small?

Assuming that the rebel fleet did not replace its losses at all after the Return of the Jedi (and we know they in fact did replace their losses being that Poe’s X-wing squadron is a new model and they have a new class of bomber) then the rebel fleet should still be comprised of several Mon Calamari cruisers and other frigates, escort vessels, and several squadrons of fighters and bombers at least. Yet all that is left at the beginning of The Last Jedi is a single Mon Calamari cruiser, a couple of Nebulon B and B2 frigates and a handful of other frigates. And by the end all is left is a couple of dozen people.

What happened to the Alliance fleet?  I guess that the First Oder could have whittled it down to this remaining force as it moved through Republic space taking planet after planet. But The Last Jedi takes place immediately after The Force Awakens – when did such a campaign take place?

Rebel Alliance Fleet at the battle of Endor.
Part of the Rebel Alliance fleet at the battle of Endor.

And while we are at it – why does the Republic not have its own military forces for defence?

It kind of makes sense the new Republic wouldn’t have a centralised military. It was the formation of the clone army under the direct control of the central government that led to the rise of the Galactic Empire, so I can see the member systems of the New Republic being very weary of giving that sort of power over to the central authority again. That’s probably why the Republic was financing the private military of the resistance in the first place.

But the prequels made it very clear that individual systems and organisation have their own militaries for defence. Even the peace loving Naboo had at least one squadron of star fighters. This is also implied in the makeup of the Rebel Alliance fleet in the original trilogy – with each of the rebelling systems adding parts of their own military forces to the cause, giving the Alliance fleet its eclectic collection of ships from various systems.

The Trade Federation private army attacks the Gungan military
In a New Republic that doesn’t have a standing army I could see this being even more the case. Especially after the years of turmoil that undoubtedly happened in the power vacuum after the Empire ended, and the paranoia of not being able to defend themselves should the central government try this again. I could see some of the individual systems that make up the New Republic being armed to the teeth, like, ahem, Corellia…. home of the Republics largest shipyards. The ones that built star destroyers...

Even without a central military, surely the First Order would have had a long slog to take over the New Republic system by system.  Even a token defence like that of Naboo would slow them down. But they appear to have just rocked up and taken it unopposed. Yes, destroying  Coruscant would have made the Republic’s defence much less organised, at least in the short term. But taking out Washington DC wouldn’t make an invasion of America easy by any means…

Why was the Republic such a cake walk? Was their entire defence strategy really in the Resistance fleet?   If so why was it so small and underfunded? Where is everyone else? What happened to the existing Rebel Alliance fleet? What was the state of the republic following the fall of the Empire?

And of course nothing gets answered from The Force Awakens. Who the hell was Snoke? Why didn’t the Republic deal with the First Order when it first became apparent that they were becoming a threat? Where are the Knights of Ren?

Rey the Wunderkind

This wasn’t something that bothered me all as much as some in The Force Awakens, but holy hell they’ve taken it up a notch this time. In the original trilogy the graduation of Luke from a force sensitive nobody to a Jedi knight was a slow process. Luke was only just coming to terms with his Jedi abilities by Empire Strikes back. During the Bespin light sabre duel Vader was only toying with Luke, who was barely able to keep up. But Rey has not only mastered moving things with her mind, but defeats Luke outright in combat! Then takes on a room full of Snoke’s guards.

It’s too much too fast, and completely blew away immersion.

Such a slow story

Ultimately it’s the pace and presentation of the story that really lets this film down.

There are never any real stakes. Finn and Rose heading off to find the thief? It was a non-issue all along. Luke’s fight with Kylo Ren? Luke was never in any danger.  Finn was never actually going to sacrifice himself. The Rebels are in danger of being wiped out? Luke Skywalker deus ex machina to the rescue.

In Empire there was a genuine risk of Luke turning to the dark side. He’d already failed his trial in the dark side cave, and he was letting his emotions push him towards the confrontation at Bespin. And Yoda even stated that he wasn’t the last possible saviour of the galaxy. “That boy is our last hope”. “No. There is another”. But Rey had already rejected the dark side during her trial in the cave, and was heavily invested in saving Kylo Ren. It never felt like there was ever any real threat that she could be turned.

Vice-Admiral HoldoThe big climax of the movie of the vice-admiral sacrificing herself was poorly presented. A completely new character that for most of the movie has been portrayed as an incompetent bitch. And now we are supposed to be emotionally invested in her sacrifice?
The main characters have no soul. The actors themselves are great, but the characters are written so one dimensional. They lack that spark that existed between Luke, Leia, and Han. And Poe is presented as a cocksure idiot the whole movie.

And, with the exception of Leia, no respect is given to the characters from the original trilogy. Yoda lies to Luke to trick him into confronting Kylo Ren. Admiral Akbar is named dropped as he is sucked into the vacuum of space.

Luke Skywalker gets the worst treatment of all. After all his training in the original trilogy,  overcoming the temptation of the dark side, and becoming a fully fledged Jedi knight and saviour of the galaxy, Luke gives into his fear and emotions, succumbs to the darkside, and a attempted to cowardly murder Ben Solo in his sleep. REALLY?!? The same Luke Skywalker who risked his own life to redeem Darth Vader, a full fledged sith lord responsible for countless deaths and atrocities, because he could sense the good in him, went straight to murder when one of his own padawan learners had leanings towards the darkside? And not just any padawan - his own nephew, and the son of his best friend. REALLY?!? 

And Luke's fall to the dark side was addressed in a freaking flashback!

Then to end it all, Luke Skywalker, a decades old cultural icon, and a hero to generations of Star Wars fans, dies sitting on a rock on a distant planet out of harm’s way. What the hell killed him anyway?

The original characters are only in these films for the purpose of killing them off.

The verdict?

Star Wars is out of ideas. With the entire expanded universe to draw inspiration from the only thing they could come up with was to remake The Empire Strikes Back. Poorly.

Little effort is being put into making a coherent story that actually adds to established canon, or even fits into the narrative of the previous films. The tone of the original films is gone. Where The Empire Strikes Back had genuine tension and suspense, interesting locations, believable story lines, and ground breaking special effects, The Last Jedi has slapstick comedy , re-hashed stories, re-hashed visuals, and zero tension.  But hey, at least it has ‘splosions right?

The Last Jedi is long and tedious, and feels like the tail end of a far more interesting story.

But I’m sure that is by design. It’s obvious that Disney wants to milk that cash cow for all it’s worth. The core movies are giving us the absolute minimum story so that there is plenty of headroom for novels, comics, games, and standalone films to fill in the gaps, forcing you to spend big if you want the full picture.

The Disney team has very little respect for the source material, and that sucks.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Coping with two Kids

It's an interesting, and in some ways overwhelming, sensation have a second child. On the one hand I am without a doubt excited about having a son. I'm already planning the things that I want to introduce to him, the games and movies I want to share. But on the other hand the thought of balancing my time and efforts between Edward and my daughter, Abby, who is about two and a half years old is absolutely daunting. I really don't know how I'm going to do it, and in many ways I am worried about letting Edward or Abby down.

How Do I Split Time Between my Kids?

One of the things I really hated growing up was hypocrisy between how the siblings were treated. That's not to say my mum and dad were bad parents, far from it, but I am the oldest of five kids and with that sort of work load it was easy for my parents to accidentally fall into patterns that favoured some of the children over others in some situations. So one of my goals was to treat my two children equally, splitting time and energy in a more-or-less fair division between them.

And in some ways I feel like I've already failed.

During Abby's pregnancy I bought a whole lot of toys. For Edward I bought none. We already have a bunch of toys and clothes, so buying more seemed a little redundant and we needed the money for other things. But that now means Abby got everything brand new, while Edward is already having to deal with hand-me-downs.

Prior to Abby being born we went to the Christchurch botanic gardens to get pregnancy photographs. We did this again a few weeks before Edwards birth. But looking through family photographs last night it was clear that we got far more photographs of Abby's pregnancy than we did of Edwards. We still got very nice photo's of Edwards pregnancy. But with Abby's photo's we hit more locations, had more poses, and just generally spent more time doing it and got more pictures. This was partly because with Edwards pregnancy photo's we already had Abby. We were tired (raising a toddler requires a lot of effort), and had Abby with us - and she has a limited amount of time before she gets tired and bored. We had to be a lot more strategic with our time.  

Abby was born by cesarean section, which required my wife to stay in hospital for a week recovering. I visited the hospital every day, arriving just after visiting hours started and staying into the evening. Changing nappies, talking to Abby, playing. After Edward was born my wife spent three days in the hospital resting. But because I had Abby I could only spend a 3 - 4 hours at the hospital each day. The rest of the time was spent looking after Abby, doing the parenting thing.

In the end I know this is all part of having a toddler. It's not so much a bias towards Abby, or against Edward, as much as it is just a straight up different situation. The first time round we didn't have a toddler and could take things at a different pace. This time we had other obligations that squeezed our financial and time resources in other directions.

But still, going forward I am going to have to figure out a way to give Edward the same opportunities and attention that Abby has been enjoying for the last couple of years.

Dealing with Tiredness and a Grumpy Toddler

One of the things I have been finding really difficult is Abby's behaviour. Normally Abby is a really good kid. Polite and really well behaved. In the weeks before Edward's birth she was going through a bit of an independent streak - typical toddler stuff. It's called the 'terrible twos' for a reason. But Edward's arrival has kicked that into high gear.

She has been refusing to eat (in fact she had to be hand fed this morning), making messes, refusing to follow instructions, being demanding and argumentative, and procrastinating. She is also constantly whining. We have also had some jealousy issues. Getting grumpy when I change Edward's nappy, or demanding cuddles when my wife is breast feeding. Although, thankfully, she doesn't appear to have any ill feelings towards Edward himself.

I'm sure it's just a phase, and I'm sure it'll pass soon enough. But it is mentally exhausting. Particularly when Edward has had a rough night and I am physically exhausted as well. 

I've been finding that I have less and less patients for her, and I'm getting increasingly frustrated over what I would have previously considered small one off things. But she has had this negative attitude for 14 days now, and it starts grinding you down. 

And I feel really bad about it. Sometimes I think I forget she is only 2 years old, and perhaps subconsciously expect her to act older than she is now that she is a big sister. She has been through a large life altering event, and I need to acknowledge that.

But at the same time it is hard to be constantly fighting against a two year old. She has little understanding of consequence, and limited language skills, so you can't really negotiate with her. I also refuse to smack her or use other physical punishments as I see that as child abuse. She does respond a little to time out in her bedroom, or threatening to take things away - but these are temporary fixes that only really correct the immediate bad behaviour in that immediate situation. 

It means that the only option you really have left is feeling frustrated and upset. This leads to having a short temper, and taking aggressive tones of voice and body stances towards her, and sometimes yelling. And then you feel bad about doing that, which feeds back into the frustration.

That said, it hasn't been all bad. We still try and make sure she still gets treats, trips to play grounds and cafe's, and good one on one play time with her dad. And when we are playing we have a great time. But as soon as the focus is no longer 100% on her the attitude comes back.

I don't want her to feel that she is worse off because of Edward's arrival. But I'm exhausted, and I really really hope this will pass soon.

Finding Time for Myself With a New Born and Toddler

Another thing I struggle with a little is finding time for myself in amongst all this parenting stuff. I know many people would say that is what parenting is all about, and I should get over it. But realistically you need down time.

Currently my average week day looks like this:

6:00 am: alarm goes off.
7:00 am: leave home on 1 hour commute to the office.
6:00 pm: arrive home after 1 hour commute. Have a coffee / play with Abby.
6:30 pm: start Abby's bed time routine.
7:30 pm: Abby finally asleep. Then cooking dinner.
8:00 pm: eating dinner.
9:30 pm: bed time / barely awake.

So I have about an hour each day to myself - most nights I'm not even sitting down before 8:00 pm. The weekends are usually spent entertaining / educating Abby. We try to do an activity each day which usually means leaving home at 10:00 am and getting back around 3:00 pm. Then Abby's dinner time starts at 5:00 pm an the cycle starts again.

For a while now I have been wanting to do some professional development to broaden my future employment prospects (my current job is somewhat temporary). Ideally I'd like to get into coding, and have several projects I'd like to try out. But ultimately I feel that I simply don't have the time.

Every day I have to choose how my limited time is allocated between professional development, gaming, and chilling out with my wife on the couch (the only real time I get to do this, and something I don't want to miss out on).

There is simply not enough hours in the day. If I spend time on my desktop I can feel like I'm neglecting my wife. Spend a couple of nights looking into professional development and I feel over worked and burnt out. But if I don't think about my future employment prospects then I start to worry about money and failing to reach my life's goals. I almost feel like I'm in this perpetual holding pattern where I can't find enough time to do anything. Like I'm firmly entrenched.

God knows how I'm going to fit Edward's bed time into the mix when he gets old enough to need a scheduled bed time routine.

I think ultimately I need to work out a better way to distribute my time. It might be that I need to find a more local job to cut out the commute time, or something that pays a little better so I can work less hours (or both).

It's Not Actually All That Bad

Reading over this post it comes across as I'm being really negative about having my two kids. This isn't the case. I actually really enjoy Abby. I love watching her grow and learn and develop. I love playing with her. I love sharing my interests (she is now into Star Wars in a massive way). I love watching her develop her own personality. I love the way she kisses me on the cheek and tells me she loves me. And I love having her in my life.

The same will be true for Edward. I'm looking forward to developing that father-son relationship and having him as part of my life. Not to mention that at the moment he is adorable.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Consider this post the tired ramblings of someone who hasn't had a full nights sleep in over two weeks...

A new son is born!

I would like to announce the arrival of my son, Edward Louis Hennessey, who was born on Friday 24th of June 2016, at a slightly smaller weight of 2.98kg. 

I also want to give a huge shout out to my amazing wife who managed two days of heavy latent labour, four hours of active labour, and a natural birth without any pain killers or anesthesia. Amazing!

Monday, 7 March 2016

Death of Dick Smith Electronics (or why Dick Smith sucked)

It was announced last week that, after being in receivership since the beginning of the year,  electronics retailer Dick Smith is closing down. And to be honest, it is something of an end of an era. I have very good memories of Dick Smith growing up. And I’m honestly sad to see it go, if for nostalgia if nothing else.

But in reality haven’t really shopped there in nearly a decade, and I’m actually surprised that it lasted this long. In all honesty, I think most techie type people have seen this coming for years.

But I can’t help but reminisce on the loss. In many ways Dick Smith Electronics is a case study of how not to run an electronics store. It’s almost like watching a car crash in slow motion. You don’t necessarily want to look, but there is a kind of morbid fascination. How exactly do you take a fairly successful and profitable hobbyist electronics store and slowly nose dive it into the ground over 30 years?

For those not in the know, Dick Smith Electronics (DSE) was an Australian and New Zealand retail electronics chain established in 1968 by entrepreneur Richard “Dick” Smith as an Australian version of Radio Shack, selling electronic components and eventually personal computers. What made DSE different to the other electronics component retailers of the era is that it sold its components cheap and in a bulk bin format that allowed people to pick and mix exactly what they wanted. In the early 1980’s Dick Smith Electronics was sold to Woolworths Ltd, a retailer specialising in supermarkets, department stores and hotels, which aimed to use it as its consumer electronics division.

Ultimately, the final nail in the DSE coffin was its 2012 sale to Anchorage Capital Partners after Woolworths finally discovered that consumer electronics was a sinking ship. Anchorage purchased the chain for A$115 million (only $10 million of which was a cash payment from Anchorage, the rest coming mostly from the sale of inventory), wrote done A$58 million of inventory, then turned around and floated the chain on the stock exchange at a value of A$520 million, held a fire sale to exaggerate sales figures for 2013, and took out massive loans against the company. Effectively bleeding every last cent that they could before scuttling it. (See the excellent analyses by Matt Ryan and Trevor Sykes from where all these numbers are taken).

But DSE had been in a steady decline for at least a decade, probably more.

I have very fond memories of shopping at DSE as a kid in the 90s. Back then it sold computer components, custom built rigs, electronic components, tools for working with electronics, cables, computer games, and unique and interesting electronics based toys.You could spend hours there just browsing all the cool stuff they had.

Dick Smith VZ200 (image: UQ Physics Museum).
I remember when I was about 10 my parents bought me a neat starter electronics kit for building a metal detector. You couldn’t get these sorts of toys anywhere else (well, not in Christchurch anyway). If you were into electronics or computers Dick Smith was the place to go. In fact the first computer I ever used - the VZ200 - was purchased by my dad from DSE in the early 1980s. And my copy of Command and Conquer: Red Alert came from the DSE store in Papanui - which closed down about a decade ago.

And DSE also had a fairly good student discount. In the early to mid 2000s when I was building PCs DSE was one of my go-to places for buying components and software. The first ever PC expansion card I purchased for myself came from Dick Smith - a DSE branded TV capture card.

DSE was a place that I would have happily recommended back in the 90s and early 2000s.

So what happened?

Woolworths and Consumer Electronics

At some point Woolworths decided that it wanted DSE to focus on consumer electronics. TVs, laptops, game consoles, e-readers, tablets, mp3 players, Apple products, cell phones, that sort of stuff. Over time consumer electronics completely pushed out electronic components, computer components, and electronic kits and toys. By about 2008-2009 DSE had stopped selling computer components pretty much entirely. This coincided with a rebranding of the chain, dropping the word “electronics” from the name, and replacing it with the stupid “Talk to the Techxperts”.

After the sale of DSE to Anchorage Capital Pertners in 2012 the direction of the business changed again. From 2012 it began selling kitchen gadgets. Blenders, toasters, kettles, microwaves, coffee machines and the like.

I visited the Westfield mall store last year looking for some solder and a soldering iron. The electronics section had been reduced to a single set of shelves about 1 m wide, 1 m tall. Gone were the cable spools. Gone were the bulk bins of components. And gone were the electronics tools. Dick Smith - a retailer established to cater to the hobbyist electronics enthusiast - no long sold soldering irons or solder!

Presumably Woolworths felt that it could make more revenue by tapping into the larger, non tech savvy, population. The ‘normal’ folk. The people who are more interested in buying a Mac than building a PC. And to an extent I get it. Kind of. Why sell resisters at 10 for $1 when you could be selling $1500 televisions? Perhaps they thought that tapping into a larger customer base would produce more sales, and therefore more profits?

But the thing is DSE was successful because it filled a niche. Yes, the customer pool was small. But back in the day under the management of Dick Smith, DSE was profitable as a specialist electronics retailer because of some key points:

  1. Overheads were kept as low as possible.

  2. While the items being sold were cheap, the profit margins per sale were high - up to 25c in the dollar (compared to as low as 4.68c in the dollar for consumer electronics). People are more likely to make multiple small purchases in a small amount of time than they are to make large purchases. So while hobbyists may only spend $20-$40 a visit, they might also be visiting every other weekend. So in the long run you earn more from that hobbyist buying 10c resisters every week than you are from a person who drops $500 on a TV or cell phone every 6-12 months. 

By contrast Woolworths was pushing DSE into a market that is very difficult to break into. In order to make profits from consumer electronics you need a to push a lot of sales. This means you need lots of foot traffic and lots of floor space. DSE started popping up in expensive large shopping mall locations rather than the stand alone stores it used to occupy. Overheads went through the roof, and so product prices also had to go up to match.

But the consumer electronics space is also saturated. Low end consumer electronics retail was already dominated by the likes of K-Mart, The Warehouse, and JB Hi-fi, while high the high end marketplace had Harvey Norman, Smith City, Noel Leeming and Briscoes. These were well established and well known chains, and many people already had loyalties to their favourite stores due to loyalty programs, financing deals for long standing customers, and brand recognition.

This was brand recognition suicide for Dick Smith. People knew DSE as a technology retailer, not somewhere that sold TVs. And in reality, Dick Smith couldn't compete with the other consumer electronics retailers - their competitors often had a larger range of stock and larger floor spaces as they could subsidise consumer electronics other high margin merchandise like furniture and whiteware.

So to keep the lights on DSE had to jack up the prices. Dick Smith went from a place that sold targeted electronics items, unique toys, and cheapish computer parts to a loyal customer base, to a place that sold $55 HDMI cables and would heavily push extended warranties and high margin accessories to scrape every last cent out of a sale. DSE became one of the most expensive places to buy PC parts.

In the end, people who were in the market for consumer electronics kept going to the stores they had always gone to, while the customer base that was previously loyal to DSE either went elsewhere to find better deals, or found that DSE simply no longer stocked the product they were after.

To top it all off, the niche space that DSE left behind was rapidly filled by other retailers. By the mid to late 2000s if someone asked me about buying computers I would send them to PB Tech. Components and cables? Jaycar.

Bad Customer Service

From about 2006 the service at DSE took a bit of a dive. To be clear, the staff were nice people for the most part. Friendly and approachable. But it was clear that they weren’t being trained to be knowledgeable of the gear they were selling. Presumably Woolworths dropped staff training to lower overheads.

I remember going to my local DSE around 2008 to pick up some SATA cables, a molex y-splitter, and a 120 mm case fan. Got intercepted by a staff member as I enter the store, he asks me what I’m after, I explain that I want a SATA cable to connect my new DVD writer. He looks at me, and then says that he doesn’t think they make DVD writers with SATA ports… Um, thanks for the advice buddy… And as it was they no longer sold SATA cables or case fans.

On another trip I was helping a friend buy a laptop. It was clear that the staff member helping us was a little out of his league selling computers, struggling to answer basic questions about the various hardware on offer. A question about the dead pixel warranty really stumped him, and resulted in a blank stare from the staff member, before being told that he didn't think Toshiba has a dead or stuck pixel policy… What, none at all? Talk to the Techxperts indeed.

To reiterate, the staff were good friendly people. I don't have anything personal against the staff (with two major exceptions). They were a good bunch, and I am generalising here. But at least from my point of view it was clear that by the late 2000s Woolworths was happy to employ people with little technical savvy, and wasn't offering the training to bring them up to speed.

DSE wasn't really a place that could give you good advice. This was a big contrast to specialist computer stores like PB Tech who seem to only employ computer geeks. Even entry level department stores like Warehouse Stationery employed computer specialists to sell their laptops. This was a big reason why computer enthusiasts such as myself often warned people against going to DSE.

But, customer service got soooo much worse.

Dick Smith Nintendo DS Fiasco

The background: back in 2006 I was a student at Otago University, and was staying at my parents in North Canterbury for a couple of weeks over the Christmas holidays. I didn't own a car, and the Christchurch CBD was a good hours bus ride from my parents house. I’m a big introvert and avoid getting into fights. I’m very good at keeping my cool. I didn’t yell or get abusive, but I was holding my ground. The following story took place over about 5 days.

Back in 2006 Dick Smith had a 14 day change of mind money back guarantee which stated:

Shop with confidence with our 14 day money back guarantee. For 'Change of Mind' purchases, goods can only be accepted for refund or exchange in unmarked, original condition and packaging, complete with all instruction books, accessories, etc. All returns must be accompanied by your Sales Docket.

I also want to point out that purchases from retail stores are protected by the by the consumer guarantees act (1993) which states that retailers must offer either a replacement, repair or refund on goods that are damaged or otherwise not fit for purpose.

Anyway, I was looking to buy a DS lite, which had been released earlier that year. These things were sold out everywhere, except Dick Smith. So my wife and I were in the central city doing some shopping and I decided to pop into DSE to make a purchase. Get home, give the DS a charge, turn it on…. and it starts making a loud, headache inducing, high pitched squeal….

Now this is an uncommon but not unknown problem with the DS lite, and is due to a lack of shielding between the bottom LCD and the capacitive touch layer. Nearly a decade later there are instructions to fix it online, and it’s actually a fairly easy repair. But these didn't exist at the time, and being a cash strapped student I didn't want to risk voiding warranties.

I took the console back to the store I purchased it from. The staff member turned it on, heard the squealing, and replaced it with a new one. Good on him. But I got home, charged the new DS, turned it on…. and squeaaaaaaaaal. Fuck.

So the next day I went to exchange it again. I couldn't get a ride into the CBD, so opted to go to the closer store that was only 30 minutes away instead. This time I was served by a middle aged woman who was absolutely determined not to help me. She turned on the DS to listen to it, while standing next to a television playing guitar hero, at the front of the store with all the foot traffic, and also next to the cashier desk… And then bluntly informed me she couldn’t hear it. Of course she couldn’t…. She had intentionally given herself the worst possible chance of hearing it.

This led into a couple of minutes of heated debate. Would she exchange it? No. Would she give me store credit? No. Would she send it for a repair? No. This woman was incredibly blunt, and frankly very rude. Even going as far as to call me a liar, and telling me I was making it up to get a refund. Really? If all I wanted was my money back I shouldn’t have to make up some lie about the device being broken as Dick Smith had a 14 day change-of-mind money back refund policy!

She finally conceded that a 55 year old standing next to a TV perhaps wasn't the best person to access a high pitched sound, so she called over a younger employee. Who stood in the exact same place - the noisiest part of the store - and again proclaimed he couldn’t hear it. Oh come on man, at least try!

I then asked him to move away from the front of the store, which he did. And finally, finally, he could hear it! Yes, the DS was emitting a squeal, yes it was defective.

So was the original staff member going to exchange it? Hell no! I can only assume that she didn’t want to be wrong, but she wouldn’t exchange it. No reason given, they just wouldn’t do it. Consumer guarantees act? Dick Smith's own money back guarantee? Nope. Wouldn’t even discuss it.

Left the shop extremely annoyed.

So the next day, Sunday, I decided that I’ll take it back to the store I originally purchased it from. But it turned out the store was closed, so I went to another store in the CBD that was open. My dad offered to give me a ride, and came into the store with me and my wife.

I was served by a person who identified himself as the regional manager. I explained the situation, and that I wanted a refund. Now this went down hill extremely quickly. He had been told that I was at the other store the previous day. He wouldn’t even look at the DS. Instead he got very aggressive. He accused me of trying to scam them - apparently the reason that I was going to different stores was to run some sort of hustle. He was extremely blunt, and was getting increasingly aggressive in his body language and tone of voice.

So this continued for a couple of minutes until my dad spoke up and asked if we could simply return the DS under the 14 day change-of-mind money back guarantee. The unit had not been used and the packaging was in mint condition. So if, as asserted by DSE, the unit isn’t broken, then it would be Dick Smith policy to refund the purchase price no questions asked.

(It should be noted that the consumer guarantees act allows the customer to have a support person speak on their behalf).

Well, the guy appeared to take this as some sort of personal insult. He very sternly told my dad that if he spoke again that he would call the police and have him escorted from the store!

So not only was Dick Smith in breach of the consumer guarantees act and it’s own store policy, but I, a 10 year customer, was being called a liar and a scammer while my father, a 30 year customer, was being threatened with police action for asking for a refund! All over a ~NZ$220 gaming console...

Now, the guy must have realised that he had messed up at this point because his demeanor changed, and about a minute later he gave me the full refund.

And I vowed never to buy anything substantial from DSE ever again.

The cracked laptop screen

In 2012 DSE started an ad campaign using 
sex puns. Image:
Another story, this time the store involved was in south Dunedin. Around 2008 one of my friends needed a laptop for university, specifically a Toshiba, and DSE had the cheapest price. So, against my better judgement we went to Dick Smith to make a purchase. Now after dealing with the staff member that was a little out of his league discussed above we got the laptop home, opened the box, turned it on….. And there was a diagonal crack in the screen going from corner to corner.

So back we went to the store, and they wouldn’t exchange or refund - they would only offer a repair...

Ok, so under the consumer guarantees act the store is allowed to choose which of the three options they go with. But come on DSE! The laptop was sold in this condition. It’s not like it broke six months down the line and we were bringing it in for servicing. It was sold that morning with a cracked screen. It was already broken when it was on the shelf. You sold him an actual broken product, and have other, presumably not broken, laptops in stock. Why can’t you just exchange it for another unit?

Alrighty, well, could we return it under the 14 day guarantee? Nope, because it’s damaged. But we are in fact returning it in the same condition that it left the store in. No, they don’t accept returns on damaged goods regardless. Figures.

Ok, we’ll get it fixed. When can we pick it up. Well they have to send it away so it’ll take 4 - 6 weeks…. Oh what the hell! It will take 4 - 6 weeks to do a repair that any technician with even a basic level of experience should be able to do in an hour?

So Dick Smith sells you an actual broken computer, with a visible and immediately diagnosable defect. The laptop was broken either in transit to the store or when it was in the store itself. But rather than exchange it like any other retailer would, the customer is being punished with a 4 - 6 week wait time for a repair. The university semester would be half over in 6 weeks!

I once had a brand new laptop replaced by Global PC because of a single dead pixel!

With that I told my friend to refuse the repair. We then took the laptop to The Laptop Company, who are a Toshiba service agent. They fixed the screen under the manufacturer's warranty and he had it back the next day.

Why does DSE need to send the laptop to Auckland to fix it? Why do they not employ a single person who can also act as a service technician? Why would it take 4 - 6 weeks to perform such a simple repair? Why didn’t DSE simply recommend The Laptop Company as a servicing agent?

Who the fuck knows.

Could it have been saved?

So that’s my 2 cents. Could Dick Smith have been saved? Probably not. Woolworths wanted it to go head to head with Harvey Norman, and that simply wasn't going to happen.

But would it have survived if Dick Smith the man never sold it? Yea I think so. If it had followed the original direction of keeping overheads as low as possible.

It could be said that the DIY electronics market has declined significantly (although Jaycar is doing very well, so who knows). But that decline could have been matched through growth in PC components. DSE  had (and still has) a strong brand recognition as a technology retailer. The chain could have capitalised on that and remade itself into a specialist computer store through the PC boom of the late 90s and 2000s. Selling computer parts, systems and electronics kits and components, and most importantly, high margin software products and servicing. Really advertised itself as THE place to go for technology.

Then as the consumer PC market declined in the 2010s DSE could have moved into tablets and smart phones to cover margins, while at the same time rebranding itself to attract PC gamers to bolster the sale of PC parts. PC gaming is the strongest it has been in years! At the same time they could be  capitalising on the small resurgence in high margin electronic components with the development of the Raspberry Pi and Arduino. Imagine Dick Smith as an official Element 14 stockest!

Oh, and if they had offered better staff training...
But then, who knows.

Anyway, I truly hope the staff can all find new jobs quickly. This entire situation must suck hard for the floor staff taking abuse from all directions. Perhaps with the exception of a certain middle aged woman, and one regional manager...