Winners and Losers in the Year of COVID-19

Things in the UK haven’t changed this much, this fast, since the Second World War. Historians, economists and other scholars will sift through the wreckage of 2020 in due course and no doubt there will be interesting things to discover – but supply chain people are generally less interested in history; more interested in problem-solving.

There was a time when a significant chunk of my research was about scenario analysis, so let’s look at our current COVID-disrupted circumstances through that lens. What trends are developing? What behaviours contribute to the outcomes we are seeing? Already, we know quite a lot. If we can ease our way past day-to-day concerns about shortages of toilet paper and bread flour, it’s reasonably easy see some things that are happening. There’s no need to wait until you’re told about them on the evening news… and in any case the evening news isn’t going to tell us the things that affect us because the “Big Story” is drowning out all the little ones.

For this reason, I chose to look at a more obscure set of winners and losers. My list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but simply illustrative. I’ll leave it to professional journalists to report on the main issues, like a loss of faith in the World Health Organisation… mass unemployment… calls to boycott Chinese goods… but where else are we seeing changes?

Winner: Home Economics (domestic science)

A few days after panic-buying gripped the nation, a lot of food was thrown out. It appears that many people simply didn’t know what to do with the food that they had managed to buy. The government told us that it should be possible to get three meals out of a chicken but they may have been overestimating the culinary skills of British public. (That same public who mourned the closure of fast food outlets to an almost comical degree.)

As a school subject, home economics has been denigrated for years. It was a “practical subject” – which is a coded way of saying that high-achieving kids aren’t encouraged to study it. Home economics often came with an undercurrent of sexism, too. Add in the fact that the facilities and materials made it an expensive subject for schools to offer, and no wonder it was run down… but now we discover that we needed it. With food in short supply today, it’s clear that a little more education in home economics would be useful. Each time I discover that some ingredient has gone off before I used it, that’s an argument in favour of domestic science education: I expect that we will see a resurgence of this subject in the post-COVID world.

Loser: Cash

Nobody wants your money, anymore – in case it has invisible cooties on it. It’s a blow for older generations who aren’t entirely comfortable with online shopping and contactless payment as they find that paying with legal tender is positively discouraged.

The governments of many countries have been trying to wean people off certain low-denomination coins for years, on the grounds that they cost more to make than they’re worth. In fact, a lot of governments might secretly like the idea of an entirely cashless economy because it would put a serious dent in the underground economy. Cash transactions have been under pressure ever since banks made it hard to withdraw cash where this had traditionally been the means for companies to make payroll.

Could a pandemic push some countries toward a future of all-electronic funds? It probably won’t happen right away, but the decline of coins and banknotes has definitely been hastened by COVID-19.

Old coin

Coins were introduced around the 6th century BCE, first being minted by the Lydians, according to Herdotous. They’ve had a good run. [image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.]

Winner: Long-life food formats

As a nation, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that you can pick something up on the way home from work. At a time when so many of us are no longer travelling to work, those mini-supermarkets located on railway station concourses aren’t very useful. Also, visits to supermarkets of all sizes are much less pleasant now. Whether you’re going to queue round the block to enter the premises, get into a fist-fight with your fellow shoppers, be sneezed on or simply find that the item you went for isn’t in stock, nobody wants to do this more often than they absolutely have to.

All of a sudden, we’ve been reacquainted with the value of tinned, frozen and dried food. Breaded goujons from the chiller cabinet were all very well in the pre-COVID world, but now we want good old fish fingers. They keep for months and you can easily find room for two dozen of them in your freezer. I suspect that even when everything is “back to normal” a lot of us will tend to keep more food in stock, and that means more long-life food; less chilled and fresh. This would be a good time to buy shares in a cannery.

Loser: Horoscopes

Aside from the obvious problem, that none of the feted astrologers managed to predict the COVID-19 crisis… the big problem facing astrologers now is coming up with twelve different things to say to their various subscribers, day after day, when every day is much the same for everyone.

It’s ten years since all the woo-woo “sciences” (palmistry, psychic readings and so on) received a mortal blow from EU consumer protection regulations requiring them to make clear that the services they offer are for entertainment only and not experimentally proven. Perhaps the unforeseen circumstances we are now living through will finally consign the notion of Messages from Beyond to the ash heap of history.

Let’s hope so.

Winner: Useless CEOs

If you’re in charge of an ailing company that’s been on a downward spiral for years, this is a great time to shut it down. Right now, you have the best possible chance of abandoning the mess that you’ve created while preserving the two things that are most important:

          1. Your “personal brand”, and
          2. Your ego

Useless CEOs had to do just two things. Job one was to read the morning papers – the same ones that you and I look at. Job two was to use the last ten weeks or so to formulate strategies that would anticipate how their business could continue, even thrive, during a pandemic. For this, they had a pretty good foundation, based on what had already occurred with SARS, Swine Flu, Ebola… so are we really going to allow them to act all surprised and disappointed when the business they run goes off the rails?

Not to worry, bad CEOs: it can’t possibly be your fault that thousands of people are losing their jobs. It’s COVID-19, innit? And maybe BREXIT, too. At last, a way out of that hole you dug for yourself by selling off all your company’s assets: simply wind up the whole thing and make sad faces. Spend more time on your yacht, because you’ve “earned it!” Useless CEOs sail away into the sunset with a big win this year – and perhaps quite a lot of taxpayers’ money as well.

Loser: Charity shops

At a time when people are feeling nervous even about the brand new items that they’re getting in the post, who’s going to want to buy second-hand ones? Moreover, what volunteer is going to be prepared to pick through the items that get donated?

An additional problem for charity shops is that one of the first things we all did under lockdown was to have a big clear-out. This may have made our homes more habitable, but it also led to virtually everything going into landfill. Charity shops have lost out in a big way – and eBay isn’t looking very attractive, either.

Winner: Our Homes and Gardens

Most of us have been spending a lot more time at home and this has led us to think about making that space better. Most DIY shops remained open in some form because house repairs were considered essential. Many customers will have found it necessary to use “click and collect” or arrange home delivery, but a lot of home improvements have been going on.

We’re on the horns of a dilemma here. Garden furniture may not be essential, but keeping some fragment of the economy ticking along at this time isn’t exactly a bad thing. So should you order items for home delivery, or not? Online shopping is causing people who work in fulfilment to go into a workplace where there are significant concerns about their safety… but this can only be considered on a case-by-case basis. Individuals and (where permitted) trade unions will have to take action here, because customers simply don’t know enough about working conditions.

Until we’re asked to show restraint – or until online shopping for non-essential goods is banned outright by those in charge – I’d say you can make purchases for home and garden a matter for your conscience… perhaps informed by articles such as this one.

Loser: Anybody with a strong opinion on BREXIT

On both sides of the UK’s 52%-48% divide, those with strongly-held opinions were counting the days until (they hoped) they could say “I told you so!”

Whatever happens now, BREXIT is small potatoes. These weeks of lockdown and social distancing have done far more damage to the economy than even the hardest of hard BREXITs could have done. If BREXIT is delayed, that’s not Boris’ fault but COVID-19’s. If the United Kingdom is debt-riddled and austere for years to come, that’s not Boris’ fault but COVID-19’s. Even if the European project itself fails (this piece suggested a rift was developing between the financially prudent member states and the more spendthrift, southern ones) it can’t be said to be a consequence of BREXIT: with COVID-19 in the room, everything else gets put into perspective.

Loser: my Barber

I appreciate that an anecdote doesn’t constitute evidence of a major trend, but consider this as indicative of damage to the service economy as a whole.

When other people were still worrying about pasta and toilet paper, I was buying hair clippers. We logistics people like to look ahead… and hair is going to keep on growing, lockdown or no. In fact, lockdown is the ideal time to experiment with a home-grown haircut because (a) it’s likely to be better than nothing and (b) even if it’s horrendous, who’s going to see it? By the time this lockdown ends, I’ll have had several home haircuts and perhaps each can be expected to be a little more proficient than the last. If the end result is actually sort of OK, given that I’m a grizzled old geezer with no particular interest in being fashionable… as far as my barber is concerned I might as well have died in the pandemic: he might never see me again. This is a small but more-or-less permanent knock to the service economy. Extend that across the nation, with similar stories from other sectors, and you have a recipe for a very weak recovery indeed.

Winner: reshoring

This particular piece of management yuckspeak is more commonly found in my supply chain strategy module, where it refers to bringing back that which was previously offshored for economic reasons. Can it be made to work? Well… maybe. Consider how all the shops ran out of paracetamol: apparently a vital thing to have in the fight against COVID-19. Imported, store-branded paracetamol was dirt cheap, but the spike in demand that we saw with COVID-19 showed how foolish it was to cede control of manufacturing. We are seeing the same thing with shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) – and people are dying as a result.

Governments must now be thinking about rolling back on globalisation – and stories like this will hasten the process. Offshoring was about price, but reshoring is about the far more important issue of control. In the same way that governments have sometimes requisitioned ships and aircraft in time of war (with consequences for the registry system, leading inevitably to higher prices) we can expect to see governments move to secure closer control of key industries… which means, whether through tariffs or incentives, the newly-strategic apparatus of COVID-era healthcare being brought back to our own shores.

A good time to be in UK manufacturing, perhaps… if the overall economic depression doesn’t bite too hard, for too long.

Loser: the Police Service

Take a part of the machinery of state that has been run down for decades – made up of staff who are no less likely to become infected than anybody else – and give them vague instructions at short notice, requiring large-scale deployment against “ordinary people.” (Possibly stupid people who think that what a nation on lockdown really needs is bouncy castles… but not previously those thought of as members of the criminal classes.)

This is a recipe for disquiet: you leave the police to interpret their unclear instructions and deploy their inadequate resources as best they can, handing out penalties that quite possibly wouldn’t stand up in court, if challenged. The result is resentment that could last a generation – or even overturn the policing by consent model itself.

Winner: the Study of Pollution

We only rarely get a chance to see what our skies used to be like, and that’s important in establishing a baseline. It happened in North America after 9/11 and in Europe after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, but the current situation sees the number of flights sharply reduced with no clear end in sight – and cities normally known for smog are much cleaner, too.

Will climate scientists find this lull useful? Certainly. Will ordinary people notice the improvement in air quality? Yes – if they’re allowed out. Will they value the improved air quality so much that they press for change, later on? Probably not: more likely we’ll be so glad to have jobs to go back to that we’ll accept a return to the bad old days of traffic jams and sulphur dioxide.

The study of pollution is the winner here, not the fight against pollution itself.

Loser: Air Travel

A complicated set of businesses collaborate to offer air transportation, many working in the background to make it possible. All stand to lose out while ’planes are grounded. The usually cash-positive business of aviation has a huge wage bill and expensive assets sat around, depreciating or requiring lease payments.

Longer-term, businesses that have had to make do with videoconferencing in place of face-to-face visits might decide that it’s actually worked out pretty well, with the result that business travel  volumes never fully recover. The problem here is that business travel was always far more lucrative for airlines than carrying the far more numerous hoi polloi at the back of the ’plane. Even if we, the holidaying public, decide to throw caution to the wind and start holidaying in far-flung places straight away (which is unlikely) prices are likely to be higher.

A complicating factor is that some airlines have acted disgracefully, not refunding passengers’ money for cancelled flights but offering credits against future flights… which might get them one more flight, grudgingly, but is likely to have put a huge dent in customer loyalty.

For manufacturers, COVID-19 comes after Boeing’s disastrous time with the 737 MAX (still grounded worldwide; still inspiring no confidence whatsoever) and Airbus’ failure with the A380 (passengers love them; airlines don’t know how to fill them; Airbus never sold enough to cover the huge cost of their development). If the demand for air travel is depressed by even five percent overall there are going to be a lot of slightly-used aircraft for sale, resulting in a very bad time for aircraft manufacturers and their supply networks, for years to come.

Question Mark: the Food Industry

This is a tricky one. On the one hand, after those scenes of empty shelves and people fighting over the last jar or hotdogs we’re all so absurdly grateful to have food of any kind that we aren’t looking much at the prices. They’ve crept up… maybe up to the point where farming becomes a secure, long-term business proposition. That can’t be bad for the industry.

On the other hand, farms will find that they are desperately short-handed. In any other year, growers could expect to hire an army of workers from eastern Europe. This year, those people simple aren’t here. This raises the prospect of a double-whammy: reduced supplies from overseas – many of the nations we usually import food from now have virus worries of their own – while locally grown supplies might be left to rot in the fields due to a lack of adequate labour. More reasons for prices to rise and shortages to manifest themselves.

We might also see citizen volunteers (or temporary workers) on the land – although many will be surprised at just how hard the work can be. We might even see a benefits system shake-up whereby those who are unemployed or “furloughed” are found work in the fields. This new ‘Land Army’ is just one example of how current policy is being shaped by things that occurred in the Second World War.

Loser: Variety

At a time when supermarkets were largely unable to cope with the surge in demand, we saw an interesting new development. UK supermarket chain Morrisons was one of the first to offer a no-frills food box, described thus:

“Our boxes contain a selection of items based on our current availability of products, therefore we are unable to specify exact contents of each box. You will however receive a variety of different foods in each box. Typically this box should feed 2 adults for one week.”

Remember when shopping involved a choice between three or four different brands for any particular item? If you wanted pesto… did you want a premium brand? Economy? In a jar, or fresh? Now we get food for two adults, for a week, meat-eater or vegetarian… no further details.

This somewhat resembles the situation in World War II: always a net importer of food, the UK began offering undifferentiated, commodity products within the rationing framework. Tea was no longer Brooke Bond, Lyons or Tetley: it was just “tea”. (It was my maternal grandfather’s job to blend tea from what was available, in fact.) Likewise chocolate ceased to be Bourneville, Fry’s or Dairy Milk but just chocolate (two ounces per person) and bread would become the standardised National Loaf, too.

For supermarkets, perhaps the present reduction in variety will be found to be a good thing. They might actually seek to streamline the vast array of Stock Keeping Units that they carry, when all this is over.

Question mark: the UK National Health Service

It’s hard to know quite what to expect in the future of healthcare. Elsewhere this will be examined in its own right, no doubt, but let’s try a quick look. On the one hand, the National Health Service is garnering colossal amounts of goodwill. Foolish indeed will be the politician who fails to acknowledge this: the NHS can expect increased funding in the years to come.

Perhaps we’ve become very complacent about the National Health Service, though. Politicians of all flavours had routinely described it as “excellent” as a matter of course… until COVID-19. All of a sudden, we were worried that it wouldn’t cope. Italy, we were told, had an excellent healthcare system but one that was buckling under the unprecedented strain placed upon it in early 2020.

Perhaps the NHS was most enviable in terms of its pricing model, rather than its sheer capability. This is a healthcare system that most of us pay almost nothing for (taxes, of course, but after that most British people of working age pay only for dental care and a contribution towards prescription charges). It really is exceptionally good value – but is “healthcare that is a bargain” top of your wish list right now? Maybe not.

On the downside, who is going to want to work in this hypothetical, better-funded health service? Having read news articles about thirteen-hour shifts; having seen photos of what long-term wearing of protective equipment does to the skin; having counted the casualties among those on the front lines… I sense a recruitment crisis.

At best, we will see a hard-bitten, better equipped NHS in place to support us through subsequent waves of this pandemic and others to come. Then there’s the elephant in the room: that COVID-19 and associated disruptions to “business as usual” in our care system could significantly reduce the number of old and infirm people – those who have in recent years been described as representing a “demographic timebomb.” It’s not a nice thought, but 2020 might do a lot to defuse a timebomb that a succession of administrations have failed to address.

Winner: Laptops

In recent years, IT managers have typically required their staff to make do with some pretty awful laptops. Let’s be honest: if you didn’t work for a ‘hipster’ startup and you weren’t the boss, you probably had something clunky and outdated. (Students routinely have better laptops than their lecturers, nowadays.)

Then came COVID-19. All of a sudden, staff were expected to join meetings via videoconferencing and the full horror of those laptops became plain to see. From the dim, grainy cameras on the ageing ones to the dreadful audio on their cheap replacements, conferences up and down the land echoed to the sound of “Uh… sorry… can you repeat that?”

Chinese factories might be in disarray or shut down entirely, but IT managers are spending like they haven’t done for a decade. Windows laptops have exhibited a race to the bottom on quality in recent years, with £700 being considered “a lot” to spend on a member of staff, but for a little while at least, that’s likely to change.

Loser: cities

Nothing in recent years has done more to discourage city living than COVID-19. Imagine that you were one of the people who had paid top dollar for a small city apartment: it might once have seemed that you were “at the heart of things,” but now there’s no upside to city living: just a lack of green space and difficulty maintaining safe social distancing.

Outside the city, people enjoy more spacious homes and fewer arguments as a result. They relax in their gardens; a short walk gets them out into the countryside. They are surrounded by farms, confident that they won’t have any real food worries.

Expect those inner city apartments to have lost at least £20,000 in value when moving home becomes possible again. City folk who also own a holiday home in the countryside have had it worst of all, discovering that the locals have made them distinctly unwelcome when they sought to escape the disease… for fear that they brought it with them.

Winners: David Mitchell and Robert Webb

In 2009, television comedy sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look featured a recurring item in which we saw The Quiz Broadcast, a game show set in a post-apocalyptic Britain that had been wrecked by a mysterious happening known only as “The Event”. As contestants competed for firewood, the quiz show host constantly reminded viewers to “remain indoors!”

This has been trending on social media in a big way, with people drawing parallels to their present-day circumstances. The comments section is stuffed with variations of “years ago, this was a comedy sketch: now it’s a documentary.” That’s not quite true… but if it earns Mitchell and Webb a well-deserved second look from new audiences, well and good.

Now wash your hands.

Beer and Number Crunching

In these turbulent times of panic-buying, empty shelves and the police cracking down on Easter eggs one crumb of comfort is that I won’t run short of beer any time soon. I brew my own, 23 litres at a time.

I’ve often enjoyed learning about jobs that are normally done for us by experts with their own terminology, tools and tricks of the trade. Too many things are “done in a factory” far away, and we don’t know much about them, but just for fun I’ve operated printing presses, made clay pots, spent several days blacksmithing, gone on bread-making courses and so on. Making my own beer was perhaps inevitable.

It’s quite simple – particularly when you learn that the process is actually very forgiving: I’ve never yet had a “bad batch.” Quite a lot of repetition is involved – mostly sterilising things – but it leads to a tremendous sense of satisfaction when you enjoy the fruits of your labour. Also when you reflect on the fact that you’ve saved about fifty pounds, compared to the cost of a similar quantity of beer if bought at the supermarket.

The home brewer is also reducing their carbon footprint considerably. By how much? Well, ’How Bad are Bananas’ by Mike Berners-Lee suggests a footprint of 500g CO2e for a pint of local bottled beer, bought from a shop – and much more for an export beer from another continent, obviously. Berners-Lee gives the following breakdown for one particular brand:

Ingredients: 36%
Electricity: 26%
Equipment: 13%
Travel and commuting: 10%
Freight: 7%
Fermentation: 5%
Packaging: 3%

For home brewing, some of those components of the carbon footprint remain; others change or disappear. Obviously, we still depend upon ingredients: we’re not making hooch from potato peelings here. Equipment is a one-off cost, after which it’s a good thing to use said equipment as much as possible. (Every cloud has a silver lining…) Freight is inbound-only: we aren’t sending the finished product out. Travel and commuting is basically nil: we aren’t employing people who need to travel to the brewery in order to work. Packaging is also eliminated because we can reuse any bottles that we already have: empty lemonade bottles are ideal.

Fermentation is an unusual component of a carbon footprint calculation, but this is a necessary process whereby yeast converts sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide isn’t just a Bad Thing that appears when vehicles move: it’s produced by this biological process – and we actually need it, because the beer will be otherwise be flat and unappetising.

Electricity is a somewhat complicated one. There isn’t anything essential that’s electric, but if there’s one thing that fermentation depends upon it’s a certain degree of warmth. Trouble is, my home brewing isn’t performed in the kitchen (for reasons of domestic harmony) and instead takes place in a room that we don’t normally heat. Those with more experience in brewing assure me that fermentation will still take place at low temperature, although it will happen “more slowly”, which is rather imprecise. How is the novice brewer supposed to know how long fermentation will require?

Another piece of advice I received was that you can buy an electric heat pad to place beneath the fermenting vessel and warm things up a little. These sell for about £25 on Amazon – or did, back when Amazon stocked such frivolities. Rated at 25 watts, a heat pad is reasonably cheap to run: I make it around eight pence per day – and perhaps 370g CO2e per day in additional carbon consequences.

So we’re ever so ‘green’ here… but perhaps that daily 370 grams of gases that contribute to climate change will detract from your enjoyment of the beer. I certainly dislike taking something as versatile and useful as electricity and turning it into nothing but heat – but would I have to? Couldn’t I use waste heat rather than grid electricity? There must be something that’s always warm, always running…

And of course, there is. Only maybe it should be used for cider, because it was made by a company called Apple, Inc.

The particular model of beer heater that I now use is called the Mac Mini, model 2,1. It’s rated at 23W at idle, rising to a maximum of 110W at full power. (Apple informs me that this equates to a thermal output of 376 BTU per hour. It’s nice to see these archaic units of measurement getting an airing once in a while. Perhaps one day I can do likewise and rate some cropland in bushels per oxgang?)

The standby power of the Apple beer heater may be insufficient at the baseline 23W, but a good way to raise the thermal output of the device is known: simply run an application that is sufficiently demanding, causing it to exert some specified portion of its two processor cores, each running at 1.83GHz. An excellent way to do this is to participate in BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. This volunteer distributed computing effort has been underway for two decades now, featuring over 800,000 computers using their spare time to perform calculations for complex science projects. You might choose to donate some runtime to searching for a larger prime number, performing protein folding, modelling the Milky Way, or examining the paths of the solar system’s asteroids.

I chose SETI@home, a project examining astronomical radio noise in the hope of detecting signals that might be artificial in nature – which is to say, scanning the skies for little green men. In this way my Apple beer heater has performed a few billion calculations for the project.

A good beer should have an interesting backstory, I think, and the gestation of this one suggested a name to me at once: Ale-in Life Form. A zesty drink with malt undertones, a pleasing ‘hoppy’ aroma and just a hint of the Crab Nebula. Sadly, the only life observed during my part of this grand experiment wasn’t out in space, but inside the fermenting vessel itself. It was a species of yeast, and I haven’t made any attempt at communication because it’s scarcely more intelligent than a politician.

SETI@home is winding down, now: they sent out the final packets of work to participating computers yesterday, signalling the end of a decades-long effort to answer a significant question:

Are we alone?

It seems we might be. And if so, life on Earth is all the more precious.

Ship’s telegraph signalling “finished with engines”

Finished with Engines: SETI@home doesn’t want us anymore.

My next batch of beer will be heated with calculations for Rosetta@home, a protein-folding simulation that performs applied research in the fight against various ailments including malaria, Alzheimer’s disease, HIV and now COVID-19.

I can take no credit for the idea of using a computer as a heat source. Dutch startup Nerdalize proposed an innovative business model whereby a householder would have computer hardware installed in their home instead of a radiator. Nerdalize would pay for the electricity consumed but wouldn’t have to worry about cooling, nor renting the space where the equipment was installed. A Nerdalize e-radiator would be installed on an external wall of the house, venting its heat inside when it was wanted, and outside at other times. This was a pretty neat idea because the heat given off by large-scale installations of computer equipment is a major problem, necessitating elaborate and energy-intensive cooling solutions. In search of cheaper cooling, data centres are moving north and in some cases even underwater, but a distributed computing solution that heats our homes could significantly reduce the harm caused by our current YouTube habit.

Where are they now?

  • Having raised €1.6m through crowdfunding, Nerdalize lost €882,000 in 2017 and filed for bankruptcy soon after.
  • SETI@home never found E.T.
  • The new batch of beer is called Lockdown IPA.
Lockdown beer bottles

Lockdown IPA: for a quiet night in

3-pin mains plug

Shameless Plug

We interrupt this hiatus to bring you… a shameless plug.

There’s an awful lot of logistics and supply chain activity going on, in the modern world. Companies are making less and buying more. More things are moving, further, faster and more cheaply, and this demands more and more problem-solvers, innovators and analysts.

Ruamsook and Craighead (2014) warned that the demand for supply chain professionals exceeded supply by six to one. For an industry that’s all about modelling demand and adjusting capacity, this is a distinctly embarrassing situation to get into. On the positive side, a person who wants to get into a growth industry need look no further!

At last, after years spent trying to explain to newly-arrived students in business schools that my subject is an important one, the words “supply chain” are being heard on the evening news daily. For this, we can thank first BREXIT and now COVID-19.

Supply chain management is something that needs to be understood – better understood, by more people – if we are going to make globalised trade work. For too long, we have allowed a continuing downward pressure on price not just to influence our decisions, but to shape the landscape within which all business decisions are made. Not just by ourselves, but by many other institutions upon which we depend as well. Few have understood that the cost reductions achieved through a longer, leaner supply chain come with a hefty side-order of risk… but perhaps realisation is now beginning to dawn.

What better time to employ one of my students? These are people who understand that business continuity requires an in-depth understanding of inter-related and sometimes competing issues including social drivers, environmental factors and profitability. (Profit isn’t a dirty word: making money is the reason why you keep doing all the other valuable things, instead of cancelling them because times are hard.)

For many of my students, studying for a masters qualification in Logistics and Supply Chain Management is a process of conversion: they did a bachelor’s degree in something that their eighteen-year-old self found interesting, but which didn’t complement their later career path. All over the nation, there are warehouse managers with a degree in chemistry, procurement specialists who originally studied medieval art history and so on. There are also a lot of people who don’t currently work in the supply chain at all, but who could do great things if they did. We need those people… as you will probably agree, if you are currently short of toilet paper, paracetamol and pasta.

(The 3 P’s of supply chain disruption? A new theory? Well… maybe. I digress.)

Help is at hand… and you could even study for a Masters in L&SCM while quarantined. If you like Capacify; if you forgive my sometimes irreverent writings on business in general and the supply chain in particular; if you can find room for more of this in your life… you might want to learn more about the online programme at the University of Hull.

As you will see, they selected a key frame for the video that makes me look completely demented… and left it that way, despite my objections… but the programme itself is a good one.

Developing it has required Herculean efforts from a lot of people. It’s not been a personal project, but one involving professional proof-readers, learning designers, videographers, graphic artists and significant management buy-in, too. You simply can’t do this kind of thing on the cheap… although there are always some who think that entry into the world of online education is easy.

Some years ago, a different university asked me to develop an online MBA programme. “The budget is £25,000,” they said.

“Per module, right?” I asked, naïvely.

“No, in total,” they said. “And can you have it ready by September?” It was early summer.

I chose to emulate the Roman Empire instead, and declined.

You see, online study done on the cheap is really bad. My PhD studies were in computer-aided learning, back in the 1990s. From those days I recall the warning from Fisher (1994) that “Too many people put a linear book on-line, give it some electronic bookmarks, and call it hypertext; worse yet, they add a few scanned-in photographs and a soundtrack and call it multimedia.”

To this day, too many people think that if you get a film crew in and have them point a camera at you while you perform your regular lecturing duties, the result can readily be converted into an online learning experience.

No. Hell no: Nobody wants to watch you hold forth for an hour or two, prerecorded and with no chance to interact. The key to successful online learning lies not in what is broadcast, but in the activities that students perform. People learn by doing, not watching.

On my programme, students redesign a warehouse; they plan the blood transfusion supply for London; they debate whether Lego is a “green” product; they submit 2-minute movies on waste and so on. There’s at least as much to be learned from the other students as from the programme itself, because the supply chain is vast and it exists in many forms.

You should probably check it out. There’s no need to wait until September; we have three starts a year. Besides, what the heck else are you going to do, once you’ve gone for your government-mandated one walk per day and counted your rolls of toilet paper? Lockdown is an ideal time for online study.

(Now wash your hands, please.)


Fisher, S. (1994) “Multimedia Authoring, Building and Developing Documents”, Academic Press Inc., Boston

Ruamsook, K., & Craighead, C. (2014). A supply chain talent “perfect storm?”, Supply Chain Management Review, 18(1), pp. 12–17

Hopping Mad: “riding the rails” in the 21st century

For a few weeks, I’ve been doing some research (just desk research…) on the subject of freight hopping: something I’d never heard of until I received a video recommendation from YouTube. This is a crime, pastime or way of life (opinions vary) with a long history and a great deal of present-day relevance.

Join me, as we ride with Jim (‘Stobe the Hobo’), Mark (‘Hobo Shoestring’), Dave (‘Brave Dave’), Owen (‘RanOutOnARail’) and others.

Freight hopping is where you conceal yourself aboard a railway wagon that’s meant for cargo, either boarding it while stationary or hauling yourself aboard as it rumbles past… and hope that it’s going somewhere useful. You might be surprised to learn that this isn’t just a plot device in action movies, but something that really happens… a lot. You might not fancy your chances of climbing aboard a train that’s a mile long and three times as tall as you (four times as tall, if you’re Tom Cruise…) but there is a subculture for whom this isn’t a desperate act, but just another day at the office. It’s not something that’s going to take off in the UK – our trains are too short and our security generally too tight – but in the wide open spaces of North America it has proved impossible to stamp out.

Yes, I’ve found a mode of transport even cheaper and more uncomfortable than Ryanair. Please don’t tell Michael O’Leary because he’ll only get ideas… but if it’s good enough for Jack London and Ernest Hemmingway, who knows?

The supply network is more complex than most of us can imagine. Perhaps your daily bread comes from the corner convenience store, but the flour probably comes from the endless wheat fields of Canada. The process by which it reaches us is ponderous, grimy, under-appreciated and essential. There’s so much that we never get to see… but some people do. They’re breaking the law, they’re risking life and limb and they probably smell none too good when they’ve been living rough for a week or more – yet many people envy those who ride this way.

In fact, why are trains in general so fascinating, for so many people? I asked Google and got a lot of different answers. The power; the speed; a yearning for adventure; nostalgia; the mystery of a profession with its own skillset and language; childhood memories.

Child playing with toy trains

Railway enthusiasts start young! [Image:]

I thought that Ann Litz, who describes herself as an “obsolete librarian” (and who, I should clarify, has no known connection with freight hopping) put it best:

Trains are fascinating because freight trains are an increasingly rare sight in the truck-oriented United States, and because every kid-at-heart knows the ritual:

A half-mile away a whistle shrieks. Red lights begin to flash. The barrier gates bedecked with white wooden strips like ribbons drift down.

How many locomotives are there at the front? Two? It’s gonna be a long train!

Quick, put your hand in the air and yank it down again. The engineer will blow the horn for you.

Coal cars, black tankers full of oil or corn syrup, cattle cars, box cars that might or might not be harboring mysterious stowaways. Meaningless graffiti from hundreds of miles away.

Flatcars with huge rolls of steel like toilet paper for giant robots.

More coal cars. Who uses that much coal?

You can kind of see the end now. The locomotive whistle sounds again, from very far away.

Sometimes there’s a caboose, and sometimes there’s a guy riding the outside of the caboose. Wave. Maybe he’ll wave back.

Up to a point, that romanticism makes a lot of sense, and there are railway enthusiasts of all ages. “Railfans”, if you’re in North America… but to choose to sneak aboard a freight train and ride it to places unknown? That requires more than mere enthusiasm, I suspect.

Freight hopping has probably been around almost as long as the railway itself, but it’s become much more visible in the age of social media – and technology hasn’t merely served to record the act, but also to facilitate it. Modern-day hobos use a radio scanner to listen in on communications while a train is being shunted together; they use Google Maps on a smartphone to study the security arrangements at goods yards, to track their progress while in transit and to choose where to disembark; some use crowdfunding services such as Patreon or GoFundMe, receiving sponsorship in return for documenting their travels.

To the travelling men of the Great Depression – the people that you can probably picture best if you think of a John Steinbeck novel – the life of a professional hobo in the 21st century would be completely incomprehensible. This really struck me when I saw ‘Brave Dave’ charging a couple of ’phones with a solar panel as he exchanged messages with friends, talking to camera and reporting his progress as he went. Compared to the experience of earlier generations, you might as well be zipping around in a flying saucer.

This business of crowdfunding raises a moral question: if you donate a few dollars to one of the professional hobos, are you doing a good deed such as funding their next meal… or are you encouraging them to keep on risking their lives, for your entertainment? Perhaps that question should have a simple answer… but freight hopping videos are compelling!

Brave Dave’s feature-length film in four parts details a journey across the vastness of Canada – and it’s better than most of the things they put on television nowadays. Videos made by Stobe are invariably funny and the piano accompaniment (his own) is first-rate. With ‘RanOutOnARail’ you get some excellent camera-work and railfans get to see things from a new angle, while the videos from Shoestring’s marathon career as a hobo are basically a love letter to the railway – and his short-lived blog was great, too. (I suspect he knows more about the operation and deterioration of the North American rail network than many of the people who work on it.)

Some railway staff clearly turn a blind eye to freight hopping, and even “the Bull” – the railway police – seem to vary in the degree to which they enforce the law. Some freight hoppers tell tales of having been made welcome by railway staff – given food, information and money… while on another leg of their journey they’ve been busted and have spent two weeks or more in jail. The risk and the apparent randomness of this seems merely to add spice to their adventures. In at least one film, ’Stobe’ appeals to viewers that they shouldn’t leave any evidence of their presence, when freight hopping. He says this having boarded the unoccupied cab of a locomotive at the rear of a train; a distributed power unit or DPU. If you’re going to trespass on the railway, I suppose you might as well ride in style and comfort! Still, who among us would have imagined that a locomotive’s cab isn’t normally locked? It’s clear that you can learn a lot about the rail network from people who should never have been there at all.

These aren’t the people who we lump together and call the homeless. To use a line that I liked from Fisher Monroe’s Hitchhiking Blog, they’re not on the streets; they’re on the road. The rails, in fact: those parallel lines that meet at infinity, stretching further than the eye can see and always promising new experiences and greener pastures.

In the early eighties, Ted Conover wrote ‘Rolling Nowhere’ – perhaps the definitive book on freight hopping, detailing some of his adventures. Then he revisited the subject for Outside magazine in 2014, after his son asked to be shown the ropes. Wrestling with the anxieties he had never felt with other travelling companions, Conover nonetheless managed to deliver the requested adventure. In doing so, he achieved a longitudinal study that shows how America’s unofficial transport network is changing. Boxcars and autoracks are more secure than hitherto; relatively few of the flatcars that carry intermodal containers have a recessed ‘well’ in which a rider can stay concealed. Many modern railcars have no real floor, obliging the hobo to stay awake. To make use of such a car is called “riding suicide” – for obvious reasons.

Riding Suicide: travelling in a rail car that doesn’t have a complete floor

Riding Suicide: NOT recommended!

‘Grainers’ are generally a better prospect: the tank that holds the grain is angled so that it can be drained from a single point. The steel structure of the wagon typically has large holes where a couple of riders can hide from sight and shelter from the worst of the weather. It’ll be filthy, of course; scorching hot in summer and freezing cold in winter; noisy enough to cause hearing loss and the jolts and vibrations are very uncomfortable, too. You may be robbed or assaulted by another hobo, and in years gone by you could have expected a beating from railroad employees as well.

A freight hopper is seen inside the structure of a ‘grainer’

Savvy freight hoppers occupy spaces within the structure of a ‘grainer’. [Image from here]

Basically, there are a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t ride the rails.

Probably the only reason why freight hopping is still possible today is underinvestment in the railway network. Train crew sizes have been cut and the staff that remain have enough to worry about. Equipment hasn’t been updated: the infrared cameras and other sensors that could easily detect an illicit rider are few and far between. Fences don’t get mended and radio communications still aren’t encrypted. Meanwhile, freight volumes are growing and freight hopping is set to continue.

Deaths among railway trespassers are on the rise, too. According to the Federal Railroad Administration in the USA, 888 people died due to train-related incidents in 2017. Some of those cases involve unrelated issues such as vehicles on crossings being struck by trains, but an astonishing 575 people were categorised as killed while trespassing. Even if we discount cases where the coroner recorded a verdict of deliberate suicide, we’re still looking at a death a day. The constant background noise level of death on the American rail network is simply staggering. (The published figures make no distinction between those walking on the tracks and those who were freight hopping.)

The autumn of 2017 was a bad one for some of the freight hoppers that I have introduced, above.

Our token British freight hopper, ’Brave Dave’ flew to Canada – only to find himself the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant, written out by CP Rail Police in Saskatchewan as a result of his earlier adventure. He’s barred from entry into Canada and the USA for ten years.

‘Shoestring’ disappeared for a time, causing considerable concern among those who subscribe to his YouTube channel. (It’s nice to think that the fate of a self-described ‘hobo’ matters to so many people – something that would have been unlikely before the Internet era.) When Shoestring reappeared it was with the news that he’d suffered a serious accident, costing him two fingers from his left hand and requiring a stay in hospital. Leaving a moving train is dangerous, even to a highly experienced rider.

‘Stobe the Hobo’ died that same autumn. His body was found on the tracks near Baltimore and the circumstances of his death are unclear, although the injuries reported are consistent with his being caught on a train and dragged. He was thirty-three years old.

The big loads are still moving from city to city, though… and you can bet your bottom dollar that where there’s a freight train being put together, there’s a person (or more than one) camped out under a bridge, waiting until it’s dark enough to slip aboard.

And you know what? I understand the temptation.

Turtle Environment Science

Tilly the Turtle swims through the air, atop a column of waste plastic. She’s on display outside the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, where she featured in the British Science Festival and then the Hull Science Festival.

Tilly the turtle, seen from below, with branded plastic bottles showing.

At 3.5m tall, this Trash A’Tuin is an impressive sight… even if it is technically a rubbish sculpture.

This giant chelonid was made from waste plastic collected on-campus and at two recent festivals. Tilly reminds us just how much waste we generate, day-to-day… and challenges us to make a commitment to reduce our personal plastic footprint. Her appearance on the campus in September was timely, coinciding with the publication of a paper (Wilcox et al, 2018) that establishes a link between the ingestion of plastic debris and the likelihood of death in sea turtles. Young turtles drift with the ocean currents, just like the waste which they haven’t learned to distinguish from the jellyfish they they would otherwise be eating.

Personally, I’m in favour of anything that eats jellyfish… as long as I don’t have to.

Information panels about Tilly

Tilly will have been seen by thousands of science festival visitors, attending over a hundred talks, debates and interactive demonstrations… many of them with a ‘green’ theme.

Concerns about our addiction to single-use plastics continue to grow, and the people exhibiting Tilly encourage us all to make a ‘#plasticpledge’. At the time of the Science Festival some of my students were celebrating the completion of their research projects, and it’s been my pleasure to supervise four pieces of sustainability-themed research.

Michal examined the plastic bottle recycling schemes that are in place in five European countries, setting out how the UK might implement a solution based upon the best practices seen among our neighbours; Dominic looked at the potential for Big Data Analytics, Blockchain and the Internet of Things to deliver sustainable outcomes against the Triple Bottom Line; Khalil researched Fast-Moving Consumer Goods and their potential to cause environmental harm, seeking to produce a knowledge map for a sustainable recovery; Hasanat evaluated the life cycle analysis practices of the leading automotive manufacturers – and found them wanting. Each found evidence of problems; of waste and missed opportunities, but they also proposed solutions – and now they’ve entered the workforce, perhaps to continue the search for a sustainable future.

To my hard-working dissertation students: a heartfelt ‘thank you’.