Social Marketing

I’ve been reading ‘Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World’ by Kristen Lamb, as recommended to me by Pip Marks after I wrote a few weeks ago about my efforts to build a “personal brand” in cyberspace. It’s been a real eye-opener, because although I’ve been dabbling in social media (very cautiously) for a couple of years now, I still have a lot to learn.

Maybe I’m thick, but I needed it spelled out for me… just like I found ‘Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions’ to be a revelation. (I used to just bumble into job interviews and try to answer ‘live’ when asked a question. Can you imagine? It never occurred to me that other people in interviews are less than entirely honest, and are prepared to game the system with techniques they learned out of a book.)

In the same way, I used to think that I was too busy writing to spend time on llllarch engine optimisation or promotion… which may be a more honest approach to self-publishing, but is kind of dumb if you write in the hope that people are actually going to read your output, someday.

Social media wordcloud

The simplest plans are the best ones…

Social media has involved a steep learning curve for me, not so much technically as personally. When I left school, I went straight into a job where I had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Thus, I became accustomed to a “need to know” culture that continues to affect my thinking to this day. My Facebook page is set to ‘private’ and has a very small number of friends on it. I seldom post there anyway. I shudder when my son’s nursery puts out photos and they’re geotagged, not so much because I believe that there are paedophiles or kidnappers lurking everywhere, as simply because unknown people on the Internet don’t need to know. You might have seen my son’s leg appearing at the edge of a picture on ‘A Logistically Challenged Holiday’, but you won’t find his face on this blog. Need to know.

I wouldn’t fare at all well if I were a character in ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers. His dystopian future features a thinly-veiled Google-like entity that dominates the whole Internet, demanding that people share everything about their lives. The book (love it or loathe it: opinion is divided) introduced several wonderfully Orwellian pronouncements, such as “Privacy is Theft”, and “Secrets are Lies.”

Trouble is, Kristen Lamb argues that we need to be real people in order to reach out to our audience. Acting as a real, social human being breaks down the barriers that everyone has in place: the unconscious filtering out of sidebars, pop-ups, and everything else that we didn’t request. Like the way that everyone ignores the second item on their LinkedIn feed, because that’s the spam slot… you tune it out. The things that you don’t tune out typically come to you from people who appeal to you on a social level: your 21st century ‘tribe’ vet and validate content for you. That’s why your own personal brand is so important, and shouldn’t be diluted by endorsing any old thing.

It seems that in trying to ‘sell’ a blog about the sustainable supply chain, I’ve neglected the personal aspect. Capacify puts out a tweet automatically each time I publish a new post, but (as Kristen has made plain) that isn’t social. Why should I expect strangers to care about my tweets, if I’m not a real person to them?

I’m going to try to do better, but it’s hard for a person who used to keep secrets for a living. It’s also prompted some interesting discussions with colleagues about the extent to which an educator should be ‘accessible’ to his or her students, and communicating in a medium where they don’t have control. Most of us feel that it would be unwise to go out on the town with our students, so why would we mix it up with them on Facebook?

I’m unconvinced by claims that social media enhances learner retention (which is teacherspeak for “saves the ones who are in danger of failing and finishing”) because boring old messages from educators must inevitably be drowned out by diversions such as the Jedi Chipmunk Lightsaber Battle. We try to make our teaching interesting, but Jedi chipmunks will always be more fun than exam revision tips… so I tend not to expect miracles from social media.

There are exceptions, inevitably. When Salman Khan was providing tuition for friends and relatives, he used YouTube, and inadvertently acquired a mass following, leading eventually to the establishment of Khan Academy, a major force in online education since 2009.

I learned something about the unpredictable power of the social Internet on a rainy day last year. We were disembarking from a train and I struggled to carry my son and a share of the paraphernalia of parenting, which is to say a changing mat, baby wipes, spare nappies, nappy bags, changes of clothing, push chair, toys, etc. To achieve this I stuffed his toy cat down the front of my coat.

We made it onto the platform and as the train pulled away with a cloud of diesel smoke we set about opening up the pushchair, putting its waterproof cover on, and stowing the aforementioned bits and pieces. Then I had to say the thing that every parent dreads most:

“Uh… where’s [favourite soft toy]?”

A quick search of the the immediate vicinity and ourselves revealed that I’d messed up. The cat must have dropped out of my coat while I wrestled with everything else.

We hurried back to our holiday cottage, and started making inquiries, such as telephoning the lost property office. Inevitably, it was closed for the evening, but while I frantically searched the Internet to see if a replacement could be bought, Mrs. F. hit upon the idea of tweeting an appeal for assistance.

As Dillie Keane of Fascinating Aïda likes to say, it “went fungal”. Everybody wanted to help… and they all wanted news of the missing cat. Many people will sympathise with a child who’s crying because he’s lost one of his favourite toys, and everybody wants to hear a happy ending… but there was tangible assistance as well. An off-duty member of staff for the rail company sent us messages of advice… and a short while later we heard from The White Company, from whom the stuffed cat had originally come. Unfortunately they couldn’t find us another cat as the product was discontinued, but they sent my son a free ‘Harry Hippo’ instead. How’s that for customer service?

Have you seen this Jellycat?

Lost: one Jellycat ‘Maddy Cat’. (Also, another partial view of my son. Knee and elbow: still no face.)

Sadly, we never did get the cat back. She was still quite clean and new-looking (unlike so many really well-loved Kuscheltiere) so perhaps somebody decided to re-gift the lost cat. Or maybe a member of railway staff just found it quicker to stuff the cat in a binsack than to hand it in as lost properly. We’ll never know… but even though we were unsuccessful I was astounded by the support we received from strangers all over the country.

Pardon me while I try to save the planet with my writing on green manufacturing, where a new article probably gets 25 hits in the first few days. If you report a lost soft toy you pick up several hundred new followers within hours…

For a more up-to-date example of the unpredictable Internet, consider the Natural Environment Research Council, who recently invited suggestions and votes for the name of their new research vessel, currently being built at Cammell Laird on Merseyside. When James Hand flippantly suggested that ‘Boaty McBoatface’ would be a good name, he had no idea that it would attract 27,000 votes, and that the surge in interest would crash the NERC website.

They’ve had more publicity than they could ever have dreamed of… at the cost of having to explain that they might decide to overrule the British public, and choose a more sensible name for their £200m ship.

Back in 2013, suggested that only one percent of companies were “doing anything with social media for supply chain planning”. Perhaps this is unsurprising because it’s so hard to know which products, services or stories will “go fungal”, and which will fail to inspire action. It’s also hard to glean much information from users who use pseudonyms, choose not to reveal their location (that’s me…) and perhaps communicate on the Internet in ways that they wouldn’t do in a face-to-face situation. Call it the Boaty McBoatface Effect: it’s too good a name to waste.

Will social media enable more accurate planning and forecasting, presently? Perhaps, but our time is precious and we use a whole slew of tactics to ignore and actively rebuff those who seek to harvest our data. My web browser exterminates cookies at the end of every session. I prefer that the advertisements that manage to struggle their way onto the web pages that I view are for products and services I have no interest in, because it saves me money. I’ve got an extortionate mortgage to pay off, and a son with an expensive Lego habit as well: the last thing I need is advertisements that persuade me to buy things that hadn’t occurred to me… so I withhold information. Facebook thinks I was born in Canada, and work in China. Why? Because Facebook doesn’t need to know. It appears Dave Eggers was right: secrets are lies.

Perhaps we now value the opinions of our ‘tribe’ far more than we care about glitzy messages from professionals. I could share my opinion of the Fiat 500L we had as a hire car last week (surprisingly roomy, comfortable ride: horrendously bad satellite navigation by TomTom…), and my small social following might actually take note. They almost certainly won’t pay any heed to paid content, however nice the graphics may be.

It’s a funny old world, and it’s getting funnier all the time. Particularly the parts that involve Jedi chipmunks – and Boaty McBoatface, obviously.

How Green was my… Raspberry Pi?

A diminutive single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi evokes memories of the 1980s, when home computers were largely meant for learning to program, rather than for the consumption of ready-made content.

This is just about as ‘bare bones’ as computing can be, demanding a bring-your-own approach to input, output, and storage… but it’s astonishingly cheap.

Pi reminds me a lot of the Sinclair Spectrum. It’s infinitely superior in terms of its computing power (unsurprisingly, given the intervening decades) and build quality, but in some ways it’s very similar to the humble ‘Speccy’ that so may of us were scratching our heads over in 1982. For one thing, it’s incomplete: straight out of the box it does nothing – and although you’re getting a bargain, it’s a stripped-down system and will likely see you buying accessories in the weeks that follow. Early Raspberry Pis came with just one or two USB ports, so once your mouse and keyboard are in place, you’re stuck. I found myself having to disconnect the keyboard in order to drag files off a USB drive with the mouse… so obviously you find yourself buying a USB hub pretty quickly, and then you find that the Pi can’t support the power demands of all the ancillaries, so make that a powered hub… and then you’ll want a wifi dongle, and… and…

Pretty soon, the alleged $35 computer is weighing in at well over $100: a price point at which it’s a bit less attractive. Just like my old Spectrum that needed an interface to connect with a disk drive, and another to connect with a joystick, or a decent printer… start down this path and your piggy bank is in for a battering.

If you already have a mass of computer accessories around the house, you can get a Raspberry Pi up and running for not much money. No power supply is included with the Pi, but its creators claim that most folks already have one kicking around in a drawer, in the form of a phone charger. (If your old mobile had a micro USB connector, that is: people with iPhones will need to visit eBay.)

If I was less keen on experimenting for the sake of it, I might have noted that I have three or four ‘retired’ computers around the house of a specification at least equal to the early ‘Pi’ models. In other words, I didn’t need a low-cost computer. The last thing I need is another computer, really… but I visit developing countries for the purposes of delivering education, so I’m interested in practical, affordable hardware.

old-style 15" MacBook Pro

The greenest computer choice is probably one that you already own. After a long useful life, a failed USB port and an ailing trackpad meant that this laptop was beyond economic repair, but even in retirement it was far more capable than the first Pi that I bought.

People who donate computer hardware they’ve finished with are doing a good thing, no doubt, but have you ever stopped to think about what a difficult proposition it must be to manage a classroom full of donated computers? IT support staff are likely to have a mixture of different hardware, and are forced to choose between having the computers plod along as they attempt to run an up-to-date operating system, or leaving them vulnerable to viruses… while also coping with hardware that’s already had a hard life and is likely to have acquired a few foibles of its own. Add in the fact that few developing countries have a capability to recycle e-waste and these schemes look a bit less attractive. The “$35 computer” may be a better bet.

My experience with the original Raspberry Pi (model B) was largely positive, although I never did anything productive with it. Dr Joe and I were impressed to get OpenProject up and running on the diminutive Pi, because that was a piece of software that we were regularly using on one of our Masters programmes in Zambia and Malawi. Imagine how useful it would be if instead of giving each new student a flash drive with assorted reading materials, we were able to give them a “$35 computer”, with all the programs they’re going to use over the next 18 months preinstalled, plus documents, bookmarks and so on… even if it inevitably becomes a $100 computer by the time you’ve added the peripherals that are needed to make it function, that’s not half bad.

The 700 MHz single-core CPU of the original Pi didn’t really have enough oomph to run OpenProject. Web browsing and word processing were similarly sluggish: just not as snappy as we’ve all become used to. Once you’ve had an Intel Core i5 or better, it’s hard to go back to waiting for things to happen.

Raspberry Pi model 1 and 2, and cases.

In the early days of the Raspberry Pi, cases were overpriced, clunky things that were typically made by 3D printing. I made my own out of plywood instead… but by the time the Model 2 came along, decent polycarbonate cases were available.

I abandoned all thoughts of using the original Pi as a ‘proper computer’, and most users appear to have done the same. The Pi found its niche in hardware projects: the low cost of the unit makes it ideal for hardware hacking, since it doesn’t really matter if you manage to destroy one, and its ridiculously low power requirements made it ideal for oddball applications that see it providing the brains of amateur-built robots, or being sent up in weather balloons, etc. Some enthusiasts have racked dozens of Raspberry Pis together to make a kind of ersatz supercomputer… but as with the robots and balloons, one of the reasons it works so well is because it doesn’t really involve interfacing with a human being. Superb low-power performance is meaningless if you have to hook the Pi up to a monitor, and low cost is similarly elusive if we have to source a keyboard, mouse, etc. for every unit.

So: a great little gadget to tinker with and learn about computer hardware itself, but not a ‘full computer’ in terms of what most people actually need to do with a computer, day-to-day. Your cast-off smartphone is a more ‘complete’ computing device in some ways, since it has things like a battery, a screen, a camera and a means of data entry – all of which need to be procured if they are to be used with a Pi.

Things changed somewhat when the Raspberry Pi Foundation brought out the Raspberry Pi 2, with a quad core processor that operated at a more respectable 900 MHz – making it about six times as capable as the original. They also provided four USB ports, which reduced desktop clutter nicely. With the Mark 2, though, I found myself caught in a bizarre chicken-and-egg situation where I wanted to get it working with our wireless network, but after purchasing a wifi dongle I found that I needed to download additional software. (And if there’s one thing you can’t do until you’re on the network, it’s download software…)

Raspberry Pi 2, showing its four USB ports

Four lovely USB ports: the original Model A had just one…

Such a wrinkle would be trivial if I had a tame guru that I could persuade to solve my IT problems for me, but our IT staff have enough trouble keeping Microsoft Windows lurching along, without getting distracted by questions about non-standard hardware and software. For your Pi’s operating system you’re probably going to be using the Unix-like operating system Debian, which has the advantage of being free, but which has a few rough edges as you might expect. There will be nerd-enthusiasts out there who find it incomprehensible that I should have trouble setting up the wifi, but I’ve bought almost nothing but Macs since 1991, and despite continuing to write software I seldom feel the need to ‘pop the hood’ and tinker with my computer’s operating system.

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

I never managed to get my first Raspberry Pi to make a sound under Debian. I didn’t particularly care, and I knew it wasn’t a hardware fault because if I ran a different operating system that turned it into a cheap media player then the sound worked nicely. No doubt a Pi nerd would laugh and tell me that all I needed to do was to open a hidden file called “hash dot underscore 23296” and change the 307th line to read “Expecto Petronem!” (with or without quotation marks not made clear) and all would be well.

That’s fine. Except… really? Apple (who are backsliding a bit nowadays but who were once the guiding light in producing computers for “the rest of us”) have spoiled me in the last quarter century. In the good old days Apple refused to accept that the problem was stupid users, and instead identified such problems as stupid software.

Inevitably, you get what you pay for. A computer with a price tag that goes firmly into four digits earns you the right to expect that things like sound or wifi will just work, with no arcane setup necessary.

I remember being amused when one Raspberry Pi enthusiast web page, supposedly giving clear instructions for wifi setup finished with “If this still hasn’t sorted out your wifi access, ask an adult.”

I’m 45. I have a PhD that involved a lot of computer programming. I’m no technophobe, but I’m damned if I can tell you how to get a Raspberry Pi working properly. I mean, really properly.

There are people who can do this kind of thing, of course: and good luck to them… Kudos to them, even, but there aren’t all that many of them, and (based on what I’ve seen of the output of the community) they aren’t generally very good at communicating, nor at designing user interfaces.

Getting Raspberry Pis working in a well-funded school in England where there’s a suitably skilled and enthusiastic teacher who’s prepared to put in the time to set up a school club in, say, robotics is one thing: getting them working (and keeping them working) in a school in Kenya that doesn’t have a water supply, never mind mains power… that’s the real test. And not just getting them working in a single school, but everywhere. That would be awesome.

But is that possible? Am I just being unrealistic? Maybe, but wouldn’t it be nice? I mean, how is it that there are organisations that can design computer chips that are more complex than the road network of the entire planet… but nobody has managed to deliver a computer that can actually be enjoyed by people everywhere on Earth?

The experiment begins again: I note that the Pi is now in its third incarnation, which sees the CPU improved to a 1.2 GHz, 64-bit processor… and wifi and bluetooth are now built in as standard, which ought to put an end to wifi woes of the kind I had with its predecessor. So I guess it’s time to spend another $35. (Actually £34.30 at Amazon: Raspberry Pis never quite seem to quite arrive at the quoted price point.)

I can use all the old bits and pieces that I collected for my earlier Pis: the low-power keyboard and mouse, the phone charger power supply, the old flat screen monitor, the microSD card that serves in place of a hard disk… it really won’t cost me any more than £34.30. But is that a bargain? My old Apple laptop – the retired one – cost around £1400, but I used it for ten or more hours a day, almost every day for five years.

What’s the carbon footprint for a computer? DEFRA’s Conversion Factors say office machinery including computers, in 2009 (when my old Mac was bought), worked out at 0.53 kg CO2e per pound spent. By that crude measure (no doubt disputed by Apple, who claim their products are greener than most) there’s 742 kg of greenhouse gases… but for a machine that had such a long life, the carbon embodied in its manufacture works out at a mere 40 g per hour of use, and any additional use of the ailing machine is free. If we ignore all the oddments like keyboard, mouse, screen and power supply on the grounds that users have spare ones knocking about, a new £34 Raspberry Pi weighs in at… call it 15 kg CO2e… and if I evaluate it for a grand total of perhaps 24 hours before I consign it to a drawer like its predecessors, it’s actually far less ‘green’ (625 g per hour of use) than the much more expensive Apple laptop.

But of course, I’m probably doing it wrong. Stupid user.

Fine words! I wonder where you stole ’em?

There’s just over a hundred articles on Capacify now, so perhaps I’m permitted a little bit of introspection. After all, where is all this heading?

In addition to using WordPress, I use Slideshare, Twitter, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, and the institutional repositories of three different universities. It’s quite a change of pace for a person that resisted having an online presence for years – and while I’m still very cautious about how much of my personal information is published (and Facebook still gives me the creeps) I think it’s good for my professional life to be visible.

“It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist,” says Austin Kleon, author of ‘Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered’. From what I’ve learned in conversation with students, they really do seem to believe this: several times I’ve been told: “I did a literature search, but there’s nothing.” Never, yet, have I found it to be true, but there’s another factor: nowadays there’s so much literature out there that anything not immediately available will be overlooked by all but the most diligent scholar.

And why does it matter? Surely anybody that’s too dumb or too slapdash to use a library properly doesn’t deserve access to information, right?

Wrong. Because those of us who conduct research operate in a “gift economy”.

Unlike the Western world, where a person might be judged by the car they drive, the clothes they wear, etc., in a gift economy your worth isn’t judged by the wealth that you hoard. Instead, you are defined by what you give away. If this sounds naïve or simplistic, perhaps you’re right: it was the kind of system practiced by certain Pacific islanders before they were introduced to capitalism… but it’s also the system by which an academic is judged.

How many publications do you have? In other words, how many things have you discovered or interpreted, and then shared with the world? An academic’s promotion (or next job application) hinges upon their demonstrated ability to share new and interesting things with the rest of humanity. A successful academic isn’t just one that has authored a lot of papers, of course, because a simple measure such as this would be defeated by the cunning author who reports the same thing fifteen different ways, or indeed by a person who simply generates high volumes of drivel. Instead, then, we get judged by citations: a measure of how many times our work has been acknowledged by others… and once again, your work being cited depends upon its being visible. Hence my efforts to build a ‘personal brand’, and make some contacts along the way. I haven’t actually been approached by a wannabe co-author yet, but I’m still hoping.

The funny thing is, even when you’re doing your best to give something away, it seems there are still people who manage to steal it.

It’s almost ten years since David Buxton and I wrote a paper about the use of agent-based simulation to explore the payback time for aero engines under a variety of business models. I remain interested in that aspect of the aerospace supply chain, and I continue to read articles about the topic to this day. That’s how I came to read an article in the Indian Streams Research Journal (Volume 4, Issue 7). My goodness, I thought, this sounds familiar. And then I thought, hold on a second: I remember drawing that figure… and in the end I downloaded the article and submitted it to Turnitin, the originality checking system that we and many other universities use.

With a similarity score of 94%, the result was incontrovertible, and the editor of the Indian Streams Research Journal agreed… eventually. At second request, the plagiarised article was removed from their website. (Although they never did publish a correction, as far as I know.)

TurnItIn similarity report

Extract from a similarity report on the ISRJ paper: the red sections indicate text plagiarised from a single source. Charles Caleb Colton said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, but I’m not so sure.

You have to wonder what ‘authors’ Farhan Akthar, Syed Amer Ali, Shiva Prasad Padigala and Bommidi Bhaskar of Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad thought they would achieve… although as one of my colleagues observed, “they’ll probably get a job on the strength of that, and end up designing airliners or something.”

Let’s hope not – for all our sakes. Meanwhile, in Europe…

BBC News: German Education Minister Annette Schavan forced to resign

Never a good idea: German Education Minister Annette Schavan was forced to resign after the University of Düsseldorf revoked her doctorate because of plagiarism. [BBC News]

The initial reaction of a person who falls victim to academic theft might be to seek to withhold their work, and hide it away. That’s a mistake, though: in fact, I believe that the best defence against having your work ripped off is to share it widely, as soon as possible. I appreciate that it’s a difficult balancing act: lecturers exist in large part to disseminate information, and yet providing too much information opens one to accusations of ‘spoon-feeding’. An education should be about learning how to find out, not simply about remembering what you were told. Also, as researchers, we exist to discover new knowledge, which is pointless if there’s no dissemination… yet we must be careful with the data of our collaborators. We give information freely to our students, but if a company expresses an interest in something that we do, we need to seek a much more formal arrangement.

It’s complicated.

I know, from too many occasions where I’ve had to learn a topic in order to stand in front of a class and speak about it, that the best way to learn something is to teach it: the best way to get really good at something is to pass it on. That’s why Southwest Airlines are well-known for welcoming visitors, and have never been defensive about how they pioneered the low-cost strategy: the more you pass something on, the better at it you become.

American author Annie Dillard would approve:

“… the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

For this reason, and for many other reasons, blogging here at Capacify continues to feel like the right thing to do. And, most of all… it’s fun. After over a hundred posts, I’m still enjoying it. So there.

And remember, kids…

The Credible Hulk always cites his sources

(Totally stolen without permission, from Twitter user @stephenjenkin)

Also, the title for today’s article was similarly “borrowed”… it’s Jonathan Swift.

A Book Report

What should have been a bit of light reading during the holidays turned out to be less recreational and more like my day job, when I selected ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ by John Ironmonger. I had no idea it would have so much to say about supply chain resilience.

Joe Haak is a city analyst, working for a department that specialises in short selling: profiting from the decline in a company’s share price. He leads a team developing a computer program that monitors the news media in order to predict the market consequences of reported events. It works remarkably well, allowing them to find many profitable ‘shorts’, but one of the bank’s partners demands that he use the software to discover something else:

How will civilisation end?

Over the course of several meetings with the doomsaying partner Lew Kaufmann, Joe learns that civilisation is surprisingly fragile… and that it all hinges upon effective supply chain management.

Have a look at this excerpt from the book:

“How do you feed a city of ten million people, Joe? How many lorry-loads of food do you need every day? How much fuel?’ He turned to the younger man. ‘How do you feed London? Who organises it all?”

“I don’t suppose anyone does.”

Lew Kaufmann was nodding. “Quite right. Nobody does. It works because of a hundred thousand supply chains. Because thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning, and the morning before, planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting, flour and sugar and cocoa and coffee and a great long list of foods and fuels and machine parts and devices. We know this, don’t we, Joe? We know this because that is what we do, you and I. We follow the supply chains, looking for weaknesses.”

“We do,” Joe said.

“Have you ever been to a mega-city, Joe?” Kaufmann turned away from the window and sank back into his chair. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you have. London is a mega-city now. Twelve million people, but we’re way down the list. There are twenty-five cities bigger than London now. Rio is bigger. Lagos is bigger. Tokyo has almost thirty-five million citizens. I once sat in a traffic jam in Jakarta trying to get to the airport. There are twenty-five million people in Jakarta, Joe. How many of them do you think keep a larder?”

“Not many, I should imagine.”

“No. I don’t suppose they do. There are half a billion people living in mega-cities now, and most of them live pretty hand to mouth. Even here in London. What happens, Joe, when the supply chains fail? What will happen when twenty million people in Guangzhou or Cairo or Tehran or Paris begin to starve?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Not many people do.” Kaufmann gave a long whistling sigh.

The troubling thing about this chain of reasoning is that I can’t actually find anything wrong with it.

In the book, the ‘perfect storm’, that disrupts our global supply chains and threatens to bring about a new dark age is a combination of two factors, a flu pandemic and a disruption in the oil supply. Kaufmann is particularly scathing about oil:

“It is the craziest thing in human history, Joe. We’ve built the greatest society that mankind has ever known – a global society. We communicate across continents, we think nothing of jumping on an airliner for a meeting in Zurich or Seattle or Shanghai. And yet all of this, everything we have created, rests upon a finite fluid resource that we’re busy burning away.”

It’s not just the expenditure of oil for jet fuel that bothers these men, modelling the end of the world: it’s the difficulties that agriculture faces, without oil. Farmers can’t grow food, they can’t harvest it, and whatever diminished quantity they manage to produce can’t be transported before it spoils.

Again, the logic is faultless. In fact the hardest thing to believe in the whole book is how sensible and cohesive the people in the story are. I suspect that elsewhere things will have been a lot uglier – but ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ isn’t about that grim struggle. It’s a very gentle, British take on the ‘prepper’ mindset.

An array of ‘prepper’ tools

A ‘prepper’ toolkit. (What, nothing for use against zombies?)

Nonetheless, we are assured that anarchy ensues.

“… the instinct for survival won’t recognise that the man people are mugging in the street for his last litre of fuel is a driver distributing food. No one will stop to ask if the woman they just robbed of her last loaf is an engineer in a power plant.”

Again, I can’t fault the logic. (I really have to write about the Tragedy of the Commons sometime…) Nothing in this world is worth any more than a person is prepared to pay for it, and what we are prepared to pay is dependent upon everything else still being in demand. I’ve seen farming areas where the principal crop is mustard: that’s fine while transport is working and trade can happen, but if trade is interrupted, you can’t exactly eat the mustard yourself, can you? (Well, not much of it…)

Mustard crop

Mustard. It’s what’s for dinner.

Economies of scale make money, but perhaps they’ve built a kind of fragility into 21st century supply chains, of a kind that we didn’t have to worry about years ago. Another threat, overshadowing that of running out of food, and even the global pandemic, is simply other people.

“Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) observed. Hungry people: desperate people. And what will you do when they come calling?

Kaufmann and family head for the Azores on a yacht, while Joe seeks refuge (apparently at random) in the fictional village of St Piran, Cornwall, where he uses his life savings (and his knowledge of what’s about to happen) to build up a secret stockpile of foodstuffs, while the modern world collapses slowly, but inexorably.

Joe’s store of food is enough to provide for the village for several months, and the villagers use an excavator to block the single road into the village… but where do twelve million Londoners go? We don’t learn their fate, since this is a character-driven book about the people living in a small Cornish fishing village, and as such it works well.

It isn’t a textbook on supply chain resilience. That’s just a happy accident… but it makes one wonder just how perilous the situation could be. Truth through fiction – and reference to Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) ‘Leviathan’, with its discourse on the social contract, and the role of the state in preventing anarchy.

“… by the time you finish reading there might be a few more tins of beans in your cupboard than there were when you started,” wrote one reviewer at GoodReads.

Businesses know all about safety stocks, and maybe it’s time for us to bring the same thinking home. That “few more tins of beans” needn’t be a financial burden on the household, if bought in bulk and rotated properly. Money might actually be saved…

Or, there’s the alternative. Choosing to believe that “thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning,” … every day, for the rest of your life.

A Cool Wall

Back in 2011, Peter Kinnell and I were developing a module in sustainable manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. Although we’ve both moved on to pastures new, they still run the module, and good luck to them: it’s an important topic.

Peter and I had plenty of basic sustainability concepts to throw into the mix: the triple bottom line, remanufacturing, legislation, greenwash, recyclability and so on, but we wanted to have a bit more fun with it. Was there some kind of group activity that could be a common theme throughout the eleven weeks of the module?

A game perhaps? We didn’t find anything on the Internet. Supply chain management has the Beer Distribution Game; manufacturing has (predictably enough) the Manufacturing Game; sales and marketing has (or had) Unilever’s ‘UniSim’ game[1]… but where is the ‘green game’?

We didn’t find one. I have since created something for young people that simulates the clash between economics and green goals at the political level, but at the time and as far as we could tell, there wasn’t a ‘green manufacturing game’.

So, as staff setting up an all-new module have to… we got lazy. Instead of a game with decisions to make each week, we went for something simpler, and created the ‘Sustainability Cool Wall’. If you’ve seen the BBC’s late, lamented Top Gear programme[2], you’ll be familiar with the Cool Wall: an imprecise (or at least highly subjective) linear scale upon which pictures of vehicles are placed, to indicate the desirability of each car.  For example, Skodas of all kinds were rated “seriously uncool”, BMWs were mostly judged “uncool”, the Mazda RX-8 was “cool” and the Jaguar XJR was “sub-zero”. (These are the opinions of motoring journalists, and not necessarily endorsed here at Capacify.)

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

The Sustainability Cool Wall ran from “cool” to “fool”, the latter in fiery letters that can be associated with climate change, if you like.

Cool scale

There were five subdivisions: future-proof, promising, better than nothing, misguided, and suicidal. We started the class off with a few examples, such as my rant about CFL bulbs, and then the students were invited to nominate items for the Wall during each session.

We weren’t able to use a physical wall, because we had to vacate the classroom as leave it as we had found it each week. Instead, we opted for an electronic version, maintained by the tutors. I hope one day to find a web-based service that will permit students to position images on the ‘board’ at any time… that would be neat.

Let’s have a look at some of the judgments that appeared on our Cool Wall – each successfully ‘sold’ to the group, to produce a consensus of opinion. We were impressed by the remanufacturing work being done by Brother Industries UK (two of their staff attended the class as guest speakers). We liked ‘Liter of Light, the low-cost ‘light pipe’ made from an old lemonade bottle containing water and a little bleach, as used in the Philippines. We were dubious about biofuels that replaced food crops, but we liked the news that Virgin Atlantic were experimenting with a biofuel made from the algal bloom on sewage. Other ‘cool’ items included a low-cost water filter, and the humble bicycle.

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

We were horrified by the Jiangling Landwind, the cheap 4×4 that had performed worse in crash test results than any vehicle had done for decades… and equally doubtful about Sheddable Shell, a brand of disposable polyethylene-polypropylene clothing used by (and discarded by) runners. We ridiculed Gillette when an inquiry from Peter was responded to with a classic piece of corporate ‘boilerplate’ text about how much they care for the environment – nothing but ‘Greenwash’, we decided. I don’t recall the reasons for one student’s loathing of the Cambridge to Ely guided bus scheme, and this is an important lesson if you ever want to run a Cool Wall of your own: you need to record the why as well as the what, if you intend to refer back to it later.

Could you have a ‘Supply Chain Cool Wall’? Well… maybe. I think any subject could be judged on a spectrum of ‘cool’ if it ends up looking at successes and failures, heroes and villains, desirable products and dross. I don’t believe the Cool Wall would work so well in a “block mode” setting (I teach mostly via intensive, weekend-long workshops nowadays) but where students come together for a few hours every week, the Cool Wall provides a good reason to reflect upon personal experiences or stories in the news, with a view to bringing something up in the next class.


[1] Last time I ran Unisim with students, it came on a 5¼” floppy disc and ran under DOS, so don’t hold your breath for this one. (But a reboot would be very much appreciated!)

[2] Apparently the BBC still plan to make the show, but without Clarkson et al… meh.

School: where sustainability begins at home

On March 20th, sustainability coach Anthony Day presented at the Education Show in Birmingham. His topic was sustainability in schools, with three main themes; the school as a sustainable business, the role of sustainability in the curriculum, and its emergence as a career choice for young people.

You can find a podcast of the talk here.

Mr Day had a lot of good advice for schools, mentioning bodies such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, WRAP, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – any of which might provide help with making a school ‘greener’, and saving money. He also mentioned Friends of the Earth’s “run on sun” campaign.

What most interested me, though, was his take on sustainability in the curriculum. “It puts a different dimension on the pupils’ understanding of their place in the world,” he said, “and how the world is changing.”

If we want to teach sustainability, we have to teach by example.

While Mr Day gave his presentation in Birmingham, I was in Malaysia running a workshop on sustainable supply chain strategy as part of our BSc in Supply Chain Management. I’m pleased to say that our partner (the Supply Chain Management Professional Centre, SCMPC) in Kuala Lumpur also believes that we should practice what we preach.

The centre has a long history in the training of supply chain professionals, but only relatively recently has the curriculum been expanded to include ‘green’ operations. Accrediting bodies and an increasing number of employers now want graduates to be able to get to grips with ‘green’ issues, and this is reflected in recent updates to the programme. As you might expect, we address the environmental impact of manufacturing, logistics and supply chain operations, but sustainability can be pursued at many different levels, and SCMPC shows that a business in a supply chain training role doesn’t need to present only the theory.

Anthony Day’s message to schools would be entirely familiar to the management at SCMPC. It’s about ‘doing the right thing’, sure enough… but pursuing sustainability is also good business sense, as I learned during my most recent visit. Changes began, as is often the case, with the installation of low energy lightbulbs – LED types compatible with existing fittings. (I approve; I never thought much of the compact fluorescent type). Modern LED bulbs are being installed throughout the centre, with priority given to areas where the lights are switched on for most of the day.

SCMPC class photo

Director Edward Ang, and some of his students

Perhaps a more significant example was that whenever possible, faulty equipment is repaired rather than replaced. Finding a business with the skills to repair digital projectors wasn’t easy, and it’s harder still to find this at a competitive price, when compared to simply replacing electronic items outright… but again, SCMPC shows that the skills on the curriculum aren’t there just for show; procurement prevailed, and a suitable deal was struck. For a training outfit that uses digital projectors all the time, the effort paid dividends – and it has resulted in less e-Waste being produced, of course. Using a common model throughout the centre has permitted cannibalisation – something we could all think about when tempted by the latest hardware, perhaps!

Polystyrene cups have been replaced with paper ones, with a clear environmental benefit… and a sign appeals for attendees to take only one cup. Office waste goes for recycling, too. While any one of these small steps won’t make a huge difference on its own, each moves things in the right direction, and shows evidence of intent. There’s nothing wrong with picking the low-hanging fruit first! Future plans include adding motion sensors to control the lighting and save additional energy. I asked about water-saving, but such a small quantity of water is used within the centre that this isn’t being pursued at present. (Water may be somewhat less of an issue in rainy Kuala Lumpur than elsewhere in the world: there’s no ‘one size fits all’ in sustainability.)

When a course begins, students are given an information pack, and these come in a small, re-usable carrier bag. These not only promote the centre, but in their redesigned form they now give top billing to sustainability. We might take issue with the whole ‘bag for life’ thing – the UK Environment Agency seems determined to dispel a few myths – but that’s another story.

SCMPC branded carrier bag

SCMPC branded carrier bag

Meanwhile, if you really want to ‘go green’ and have a bag for life, here’s a great example of ‘upcycling’ that you might consider… Sourced make bags by hand, from old lorry curtain material. The designers make use of the logos and lettering that the material displayed in its previous life, so every bag (or laptop case) is unique. Not only can you feel good about your recycled purchase, but you can look good, too.

Anthony Day doesn’t like the term “retail therapy”… but I wonder if he’d be prepared to make an exception in this instance?

Bag by Sourced

Before Sourced, old truck tarps never looked this good – and (gasp) it’s made in Britain!

As Idle as a Painted Ship

Over at ’The Disorder of Things’, guest blogger Charmaine Chua presented a fascinating piece of ethnographic research, detailing her travels as a passenger on a container ship. The researcher’s journey was from Los Angeles, USA to Taipei, Taiwan. At €100 per night, given that it takes around a month to make a one-way trip, this is never going to challenge business class air transport… but I have to admit that I’m envious. Just imagine how much writing you could get done in all those days of sea and sky! Above all, though, it’s a window on the fascinating and seldom-seen world of the merchant marine. Few jobs have changed as much as this one, where sailors once talked of shore leave in exotic destinations and now grind their way endlessly around the globe, on bigger ships with smaller crews…

Chua anonymised the vessel that transported her, and its crew, which is a good thing for a researcher to do when describing how the people she studied earn their livelihood. For the ship, she chose the fictional name ‘Ever Cthulhu’, which I have to admit grew on me as I read my way through the five-part series. There should be more ships named after Lovecraftian monsters.

The life of a modern-day seaman, as described, doesn’t appear to be an attractive choice. As Samuel Johnson once said, “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” It seems the largely Filipino crew concur as they liken a typical cycle of six months at sea to being incarcerated. I already knew that a shipboard life could be grim (I spent some time studying the lot of workers in the cruise industry last year…) but I think that life on a cargo vessel is possibly worse, because there’s less of a requirement to keep up appearances.

Of greatest interest to me was the description of the “traffic jams” and delays experienced at the west coast ports of Tacoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, with many ships waiting days to dock and then suffering through a lengthy process of unloading and loading. It appears that while bigger and bigger ships make sense from a purely economic viewpoint, what works on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. Even with a gargantuan effort to modernise ports in order to accommodate the new generation of megaships (because no port wants to find itself sidelined) the efforts to dredge channels deeper and raise cranes higher doesn’t guarantee success. The whole logistic system needs to keep pace, including the road and rail services… and something isn’t working.

Cargo ships at anchor

Cargo ships at anchor near Los Angeles [photo: Los Angeles Times]

“Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean.”

This little bit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (as you might expect, it’s from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner) gave me the title for today’s blog post. Anyway, back to Chua and her observations:

“Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2½ to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.”

As a person who likes to use simulation to investigate logistics problems, this is fascinating. I’m itching to construct some models, and investigate the bottlenecks in a system that is worsening as a result of ever-larger ships introducing increasingly lumpy arrival patterns. It’s a problem that might get still worse with the completion of a third set of locks on the Panama canal; present-day vessels taking that route are constrained to specifications that have remained unchanged since the canal opened a century ago, but the new construction will permit an increase from the present Panamax constraint of around 5,000 TEU to a new limit of perhaps 13,000 TEU. There is also work underway to construct another canal, cutting through Nicaragua… and there are plans afoot to expand the Suez canal as well.

Panamax ship


In Tacoma, when no dockworkers arrive to unload the Ever Cthulhu, Chua opines that “a quiet port is logistics’ nightmare”. More accurately perhaps, it’s the simultaneous arrival of 8,100 twenty-foot equivalent units at a single berth that is the nightmare. If everything was to be loaded onto trucks, you’d have a queue almost sixty-five kilometres long… but that isn’t to say that trucks are always the bottleneck. If anybody that’s reading wants to offer some data (or assistance, or funding!) for a piece of research by simulation, consider me interested.

Chua claims that a failure to shift cargo at the rate that port employers would like to achieve is down to problems of infrastructure, and that dockworkers are scapegoated. This is borne out by observers such as Bloomberg Business, who report:

“While most of the attention around the port crisis has focused on labor, the cargo bottlenecks predate the labor stalemate and will outlast a settlement … Backups began in August, about two months before the Pacific Maritime Association accused unionized dockworkers of deliberately slowing down cargo movement.”

It seems that nobody is terribly happy in the 21st century box-shifting industry, and that’s important. Along with a failure to handle all the goods now arriving, and the facts and figures detailing environmental concerns such as the toxicity of heavy fuel oil, the toxic nature of “sludge” and the disposal of grey water and food waste by offshore dumping, there’s a human cost being paid by those who perform lonely, often menial and sometimes dangerous jobs, with little or no job security. In the industry we depend upon for the transportation of 90% of the world’s freight, that’s something that needs to be understood.